Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Restraint By Choice

“Proportionality and the letter of the law,” Gen. McChrystal observed last July, “will allow you to do a lot, but you will be operationally ineffective as a result.” cited here
 When reading this about Afghanistan, my first thought was about an argument I had with some fellow frisbee players the other night about Olympic hockey--that the Canadian and American women were so much better than the other teams that they ran up the score.  I argued for restraint, as winning is sufficient and that they actually risk the future of women's hockey at the O-games if they embarrass other teams too badly.  My fellow ultimate players argued that competing less is an insult and that the rules, including scoring differentials shaping rankings, make running up the score fair game. 

So, when a US army general argues that following the law may undermine the mission and engaging in restraint might lead to better outcomes, I find myself wondering if he would get the spirit of the game in ultimate.  Or sportsmanship more generally.  Yes, in football, relative rankings are shaped by how big the margins are, but decency suggests limits.  And, yes, the Patriots have been known to run up the score in football. 

Sports, like war, is a dynamic, interactive process, so behavior produces responses.  Killing civilians by accident undermines the mission, so taking short-term risks to encourage better long-term outcomes makes sense.  And the same is true in sports, I would argue.  Shooting at the goalie instead of trying to get the puck in the goal makes sense when the score is eight-zero.  To argue that the rules allow for more or that scoring differential matters, one look at the tourney suggests that none of that really matters.  And, just as importantly, even if it does matter to a degree, don't our values count the most when they expose us to a bit of risk?

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