I’m often asked whether-or-not America is still producing future generations of the right sort of men. Not just good men – a man is either good or bad – but tough, clear-headed, un-emasculated, young male leaders capable of standing up to future threats against this nation. After all, as Dr. Walid Phares concludes in his book, Future Jihad, what most Americans “may not want to accept is that the pre-9/11 peace is not coming back soon, and may not come back at all.”
Worse: the future foot-soldiers in the enemy camp are physically, mentally, and emotionally prepared albeit misguided young men (and a handful of women) who have no qualms about sacrificing themselves for the cause of our destruction. And despite awkward attempts at gender-norming in our own camp, young American males will no doubt be the members of our own society looked-to to stem the tide. The nation will continue to look to men – not women – because most Americans still believe most men are better equipped physically, physiologically, and psychologically for the kind of work required to thwart terrorism (U.S. Army studies over the past 15 years reveal the vast majority of women – civilian and military – have no desire to fight anyway.). Some argue it’s a difference in how we are wired. Others say it’s how we are socially groomed. Arguments aside: when the wolf is at the door, we still want the strongest, most aggressive person with the biggest stick.
Moreover, women are currently barred from serving in infantry and special operations units, and for good reason beyond the aforementioned obvious. “Good men protect and defend women in the face of a physical threat,” writes National Review’s Washington editor Kate O’Bierne in Women Who Make the World Worse. “If men in uniform are going to be sex blind when it comes to protecting their comrades, American mothers will have to get to work instructing their sons that it’s okay to hit girls.”
That ain’t going to happen.
So let’s face it, it’s still up to young men to protect us, as well as other young men who will lead them. So what about those young men? Are we – in the land of excess and deliberately dumbed-down masculinity – still turning good boys into great men who can counter the incalculable numbers of boys in other parts of the world who are simultaneously being transformed into terrorists?
The proof, I’ve discovered, can be found in almost any middle or high school gym or stadium on weeknights during wrestling or football season.
There you will find boys like my 14-year-old nephew, William Maxwell Fowler, who are not succumbing to American excess, instant gratification, materialism, and politically correct gender-norming.
Max, a newly titled state wrestling champion, and other boys like him can’t follow those things and expect to compete successfully. In their world, it’s all about patience, persistence, aggressiveness, sacrifice, honor, morality, and respect for superiors and those weaker than themselves. It’s also about the unique surge of euphoria found only in single and team combat, and a willing acceptance of blood and tears, regular features of full-contact sports. Finally, it’s about the seemingly contradictory experiences of primal pleasure and suffering, an odd mix known only to men.
Though it may seem egocentric, it is a world void of selfishness and even the vanity often evident in so-called sports like body-building (Yes, I’ll probably take some hits for that one). Wrestlers, football players, and other full-contact athletes of course, lift weights, run, and do other physical conditioning exercises. But they do it not for looks or sex appeal (though that’s certainly a collateral benefit): Instead, it’s all about performance, competing to win, vanquishing the opponent, and bringing the entire team with them.
Let’s take wrestling for example: Wrestling is a pure single-combat sport requiring more than just the physically fit athlete: It requires the whole man.
“Wrestling is both an individual and a team sport, requiring individual accountability,” says Ted Monroe, coach of the Lugoff-Elgin (S.C.) Middle School Leopards (Max’s team). “You’ve got to sacrifice. You’ve got to make weight [eating less and spitting a lot]. You’ve got to develop the physical and psychological tools to win. You’ve got to experience failure and pain.”
Hot heads need not apply.
“Raw aggression doesn’t work,” says former wrestler Gene Retske, who remembers going into a challenge-match hoping to earn a spot on his high school’s varsity team. “I went into the match like a mad man, literally foaming at the mouth. Seconds later, as I was ‘counting the lights [pinned on his back],’ I realized I hadn’t used my brain. Wrestling requires speed and balance. The moves are complex and subtle. Decisions are made in a heartbeat. It requires a cool, almost detached professionalism, self-confidence, and understanding of one’s strengths and weaknesses.”
Monroe agrees, adding, “It takes a special man with heart and a cool head to want to wrestle in the first place.”
I remember those same kinds of special men with stout hearts and cool heads when I was leading a rifle-squad in Uncle Sam’s Marine Corps. The Corps has always attracted such men – former high school and college athletes who thrive on competition and the developmental run-up to the contest – who proved to be best men, the finest leaders of Marines, and ultimately the most courageous. They were courageous – not because they were without fear – but because they learned on the wrestling mat and on the gridiron how to function instinctively and press forward despite the fear and the pain.
“I wasn’t a Marine, but all the Marines I’ve ever known seem to have those qualities,” says Retske. “Rambo-rage doesn’t work.”
Those same kinds of young men volunteer for Army Ranger and Special Forces training, Air Force special tactics teams, and Navy SEALs.
“We’re looking for young men with heart more than anything else,” says U.S. Navy Captain Drew Bisset, a retired SEAL officer who currently oversees a special pre-SEAL academy for SEAL hopefuls. “We can teach them the skills, but heart and head are critical coming into the program.”
Bisset’s SEAL candidates, and other men like them, don’t join the military to wear flashy uniforms, get money for college, and serve in support units. They enlist with contracts guaranteeing them service in combat-arms units, and they are motivated by adventure, a deeply rooted sense of patriotism, and a tempered desire to fight for their country.
Such men are critical for our nation’s defense. For while American kids like Max are studying hard and practicing harder; their teenage Islamist counterparts are learning to fire Kalashnikovs and detonate explosives, all the while being fed a steady diet of ‘death to the infidels!’
In the end, the American boys will win. The reasoning is simple: Participation in organized sports is on the rise. Full-contact sports like wrestling, football, even boxing (though the latter is not nearly as prevalent as it once was) builds character. And character prevails in ballgames, boardrooms, and on the battlefield.
“The gridiron is like the real world,” says Chuck Walsh, a former semi-pro baseball player and current scouting analyst for the University of South Carolina’s head football coach Steve Spurrier. “A team comprised of undisciplined athletes is a team that will splinter when times get tough, and undisciplined players will lay blame everywhere but with themselves.”
Walsh adds, “Every good team of good men comes in with a plan to outsmart, out hustle, and ultimately win each battle. They must think and react quickly but also with patience when time permits.”
These are concepts Americans often take for granted, yet they are not as widely grasped in other cultures.
For instance, U.S. commanders training the new Iraqi army and police forces often cite the bravery and aggressiveness of Iraqi troops under fire. The Iraqis’ shortcomings, however, are in their frequent overreaction to a given piece of intelligence. Instead of waiting, being patient, and letting the intelligence “develop,” the Iraqis are often too eager to attack with the information at hand.
The heart is there, but the head needs to cool. He who fights at the first crack of glass, loses.
Those are things American men know coming into the game, because those are the things they develop as American boys playing sports.
Of course, there will be the cynics who point to the greed and immorality that often seem to run rampant throughout the ranks of professional athletes. Sure, but that’s the pros: It’s all about money; and money corrupts almost anything. And unfortunately there are the easily corruptible social misfits who play among the ranks of gentlemen in pro sports.
But that has nothing at all to do with amateur athletics in their pure, uncorrupted form. And make no mistake; the male amateur athlete is the proverbial ace in the hole in any of America’s future conflicts.
In the 19th Century, Britain’s famed Duke of Wellington, Sir Arthur Wellesley, purportedly said, “The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.”
In the tradition of the “Iron Duke,” I would add that the 21st-century battles for Kandahar and Fallujah were won on wrestling mats and football fields in small towns all over America.