One of the world's most durable myths is that the Duke of Wellington said the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. He didn't and it wasn't. Although sport always has had a major role in the armed services, even Vince Lombardi never contended that some future military triumph might be forged on the flash-frozen field at Green Bay. Now there's just a chance that reality is overtaking legend. Someday the U.S. may win a victory that legitimately can be traced to the playing fields of Schofield Barracks, the venerable Army post that squats amid the pineapple fields of Oahu, Hawaii's capital island. Members of the 25th Infantry Division, the Army's ready reserve for the Pacific, are playing a game there that solves the dilemma of the peacetime military commander: how to keep troops battle-sharp when no battle appears imminent. The game is called combat football, and if it ever sweeps civilian America, a lot of orthopedists will be rich.
Most of the time the game attracts virtually no spectators, just a straggle of sideliners—coaches, medics, ambulance crews and next of kin. It is played on a slightly oversized football field—Schofield has five of them—and to the first-time onlooker it resembles a mixture of American football, basketball, soccer, rugby, Australian rules football, hockey (minus sticks), hurling (minus Irish), lacrosse (minus Indians) and the Civil War draft riots. There are 30 men on each side, and their primary assignment is to pass or kick one or both of two soccer balls into field hockey-style nets set on the opponents' goal line. Their secondary assignment is to keep the enemy from doing the same thing—by any means short of actionable felony. No fewer than 13 officials work each game, and they are supposed to discourage blindside blocking, necktie tackling, clipping, tripping, slugging, kicking an opponent instead of the ball, stomping, gouging and biting. One can only say that they try. The teams play two nonstop 20-minute halves, in which the only time-outs come when a player is so battered that he has to be carried off the field.
Obviously combat football is a game calling for maximum protection of the players—pads, helmets, braces, possibly armor. What each participant gets is a colored, sleeveless jersey, which he is allowed to wear over a T shirt, and bicycle shorts. He has a choice of footwear: sneakers, spikeless track shoes, or none. (Often Hawaiian and Samoan players prefer to go barefoot.) He can wear a hat or cap if he wants to.
Although there is nothing secret about the combat football programs, admission to Schofield is by invitation and the civilian populace of Hawaii has had only one significant glimpse of the new Army game (whatever else it may be, it certainly isn't the old Army game). This was an exhibition presented between the halves of a soporific World Football League encounter between the Hawaiians and the Southern California Sun. It not only awakened but galvanized the 13,000 spectators, and it ignited Honolulu journalists, who likened the game to "Attila and his Huns vs. Hannibal and his elephants" and to "two packs of wild, hungry dogs vying for two succulent legs of lamb tossed into their midst." A soldier trying to run with the ball was said to resemble "a man being chased by a dozen drug-crazed alligators." The warriors got an ovation when the display ended and, sad to say, the WFL teams were greeted by cries of "Bring back the Army!" when they resumed the official business of the night.
The Honolulu exhibition delighted most spectators but it troubled a few. A retired World War II colonel asked, "What does this kind of mob scene have to do with conditioning a combat unit? I think they've gone crazy at Schofield." The violence of the game upset a woman who has become inured to television slaughter and the rigors of professional football. "These people are just attacking everybody in sight," she said. "This is the kind of violence that leads to more violence. No wonder society is in bad shape." A doctor said, "You have to wonder how troops who play this so-called game will behave when they're off duty. I'd hate to meet them in a bar."
None of these misgivings disturb Major General Harry W. Brooks Jr., commander of the Tropic Lightning Division. The stadium exhibition was just a minor skirmish in a campaign that began a year ago. Throughout last spring no fewer than 63 combat football teams engaged in the 1975 division championship tournaments. Brooks brought the game to Hawaii from Korea, where it was invented by Republic of Korea troops standing guard north of Seoul and was enthusiastically adopted by the U.S. Second Infantry Division, stationed nearby.
"Where I go, combat football goes," the general says. He has codified the game, established its dimensions and rules. Moreover, he has defined its purpose, and has proved that it produces the desired results.
The general's aim in promoting this apparent carnage is 1) to sharpen his division to round-the-clock combat readiness and 2) to diminish racial and other tensions both within the division and between soldiers and the local community. Brooks has reason to be interested in both goals, the first as a professional soldier, the second because he is one of two black division commanders in the Army.
The game is the proof of the pudding—the proof of combat efficiency—not the pudding itself. "I run a very heavy training schedule here," General Brooks says. "Very heavy." The day begins with every combat soldier, enlisted man or officer, running three miles—rain, shine or hangover. Brooks is out there with them. "I try to run with a different outfit every day," the general says. "Once a week I go through a full day of infantry training, moving from unit to unit. I try to pick the nastiest, rainiest, most miserable day to do it. I think it helps to let the troops know the Old Man's getting wet and muddy, too. Once a month each company has live ammunition training—the troops attack a complex bunker formation. Nobody is shooting back, but if they make mistakes they may very well shoot each other. Blank cartridges don't work because there is no penalty for sloppiness."
On days when units do not have combat football games scheduled, there is arduous physical training—calisthenics, pushball and more running—and a choice of many other sports for after-hours recreation. At 47, Brooks does not play combat football, but he encourages the officers in his command to participate. (Officers who are "encouraged" to take part in an Army activity are likely to do so.) "The outfit that won the division championship last year," Brooks says, "had the commander, the first sergeant and all the platoon leaders in the lineup.