On playing history semitough

A defensive linebacker for the Oakland Raiders named Jack Tatum has written a book titled "They Call Me Assassin." "I like to believe that my best hits border on felonious assault," he declares, and refers to tackling an opponent as "wasting" him. If his man goes down, good. If he can't get up, better.

Tatum is by no means representative of all pro football players, but he is not exactly an anomaly in a sport whose favorite word these days seems to be "intimidation." Nor can he be that much of an oddity to the sports world at large when even tennis players speak of psyching up for a match by learning to hate the man across the net.

Nor are these athletes, brimming with hypercompetitiveness, necessarily alien to the rest of civilized society.

"The fact is that men are very dangerous to each other," Philip Hallie charged in a little study he called "The Paradox of Cruelty."

In a quietly impassioned essay in the New Republic (Jan. 19) Paul Fussell surveys men's violence to brother men on the ultimate playing field: war. He quotes from Jean Larteguy's new book, "The Face of War: Reflections on Men and Combat." What does war do to the body? "All the horrors of the world," Larteguy responds. What does war do to the mind? "War likes to simplify things," Larteguy observes. "She paralyzes the spirit of investigation."

Patiently, like so many before him, Fussell points out that war makes the ordinary men in other uniforms a collective demon, The Enemy, in order that the ordinary men in our uniforms may feel justified in killing them.

He rehearses the usual ways wars have been rationalized, in the name of "honor" or as acts of "defense," so that even bombing raids become "protective reaction strikes."

But now, Fussell concludes, we have seen through the mass mesmerism, all the little self-inflaming tricks we play upon ourselves. We remember the horror. We know there has to be an alternative. Since Vietnam we are different -- permanently changed. "Having soldiered once," he writes in summary, "a generation will not readily consent to do it again."

Meanwhile, in the press that surrounds him on the newsstand -- in the very pages of his own magazine -- the headlines are heating up. President Carter -- with Korea and Hungary and Vietnam forgotten -- has pronounced the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to be the most serious threat to peace since World War II. There is much talk of testing American "resolve." White House leaks to the press have suggested that military opposition is the only American choice if Soviet troops should continue on into Pakistan, and the speculation has been allowed that the combat would turn nuclear.

Of the other presidential candidates, only John Anderson, Republican Representative from Illinois, has declared himself "appalled" by what he regards as a "rising tide of hysteria." John Connally continues to accuse the administration of "weakness and appeasement" and to call for occupation of airfields in the Sinai Desert and a blockade of Iran -- and Cuba too while we're at it.

A brief decade and a half ago China, our new ally, was perceived as The Enemy , ready to topple all the dominoes in southeastern Asia if somebody would not stop her.And now, after a few years of respite to bury the soldiers of the last war and to swear that never again would an American boy shed blood in a military adventure thousands of miles from home, we seem not unready to be at it again.

This is not to argue, of course, that history's perils are never there. But one must marvel at the speed and frequency with which men revert to their classic response -- that we are a peace-loving people, but this particular provocation is so outrageous we have no option but to resort to force, one more time.

The philosopher George Santayana, addressing the veterans of World War I in an essay titled "Tipperary," lacked Fussell's optimism. "You suppose that this war has been a criminal blunder and an exceptional horror," he wrote. "You imagine that before long reason will prevail." Santayana feared the world would always be a long way from Tipperary because of what he assumed to be "human nature."

Is there a Tatum syndrome? Is there something exasperated and violent in men that drives them not ungladly to the expedient of force? Standing eyeball to eyeball until the other guy blinks. Playing history semitough -- as a contact sport. Becoming "very dangerous to each other."

Every generation, with every "crisis," has a new opportunity to give a new answer.

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