“The Surreys Played the Game”

[Warning. Rant ahead.]

Brooding about Jonathan’s post reminded me of something. I had a friend in law school who was younger than me, a GenX type. Very smart and funny in an ironic way. In the run-up to the ’92 election I was registering to vote, and I asked him if he had registered, and he said to me, in an almost contemptuous drawl “dude, you vote? Why?” My head almost exploded. I poked him in the chest with my finger and I got right in his face “Why? Why? Because better men than you and me bled and died so we could vote, that’s why!” He remained cool, “dude, OK, chill, chill.” But I think I got through a little.

And I brooded some more on this comment from Jonathan: “because on the margin our system can live or die depending on how carefully the voters vote, and they are more likely to take voting seriously if intellectuals don’t denigrate it as an activity.” The thing I take away from his description of all these supposedly smart people is that they live in an academic or intellectual cocoon. They have lost touch with the basic values of living in a country like this. They don’t understand that democracy is a gift they have neither earned nor deserve. They live in a world of safety and abstraction. They have lost touch with the fact that our system of democracy can live on or die because of what we do or don’t do. And the smart guys all too often despise the ordinary motives of ordinary people, ordinary citizens whose conduct and sacrifices they disdain, but which makes their cozy little nest-world possible.

I have a lot more respect for the Repubican lawyers I know who are volunteering to be poll watchers, who are going into Democratic areas where fraud is suspected to happen, into possibly hostile situations. (I can’t do it this year.) They are willing to “dirty their hands” to preserve the integrity of the process, to keep this country from turning into a banana republic, one voting precinct at a time.

And this simmering line of thought made me remember an event from way back which epitomized the utter stupidity, both intellectual and moral, of the supposedly smart people. It must have been in the Winter of 1985. I was a resident assistant at a dorm. I was talking to somebody, and it being me, I was talking about a war. And I mentioned the episode at the Battle of the Somme, which I vaguely recalled reading about, where a British officer kicked a soccer ball toward the German trench line to get his men out of the trenches.

And as I told this story in my accustomed loud, obnoxious and animated fashion which has made me countless friends and enemies over the years, this guy turns around over the back of a couch, and lays on us his unsolicited two cents worth. In the most absolutely perfect University of Chicago world-weary drawl, he said something I will never, ever forget because it is the epitome of everything I hate about the academic and intellectual world. This superannuated grad student and university administrator says to me “invariably … when we examine these …stories … we find them to be apocryphal.” I was left sputtering. And because I could not come up with a cite for the story offhand, he turned around with that sort of half-nauseated, half-disdainful look that is usual facial composition of such people when they have scored a point. He had won a Hyde Park style cocktail party victory, bravo to him. I remember also very clearly he had a very nice and pretty wife with red hair and pale skin and some freckles, and she smiled at me with an apologetic look. And I remember feeling humiliated, which is the ultimate purpose of far too many comments spoken at the University of Chicago, to humiliate someone, especially in public.

But I got my spirit back in a few minutes. I thought along these lines: “You poor, stupid, soulless bastard. You don’t believe that BRAVERY is even possible? BRAVERY is ‘always apocryphal’? It never even happens? What in the fuck kind of world do you think this is? What do you think people, human beings, even are for God’s sake? How do you think anything decent or good or worth having has ever been built or preserved or defended in this world?” (I also uncharitably thought a little later at that party, hey, a guy with such an arid and lifeless worldview might just get his wife stolen from him, she seems a little bored and she might like a guy who had more spit and vinegar, and I think I’m maybe getting a little bit of a responsive vibe here, and anyway it would serve him right … . To the long term good of my immortal soul, I didn’t pursue that evil line of thought.)

In the world depicted in Jonathan’s post, these kind of people predominate, people with academic credentials who live in a bubble and have lost touch with life as it is really lived and the stakes for which the game of life is played. They may be book-smart, and they can be pretty darn smug about it, but people who are primarily intellectuals, especially academic intellectuals, are not usually suited to be the leaders of a free society. And they should not be treated like they are.

The epilogue? Some years later I read Martin Middlebrook’s brilliant book, First Day on the Somme. It confirmed the story, setting forth in detail the episode of the soccer balls.

This site contains much of the story. One excerpt:

Another company commander was Capt. W. P. Nevill of the 8th East Surreys. Nevill was a young officer who liked to stand on the fire-step each evening and shout insults at the Germans. His men were to be in the first wave of the assault near Montauban and he was concerned as to how they would behave, for they have never taken part in an attack before.

While he was on leave, Nevill bought four footballs, one for each of his platoons. Back in the trenches, he offered a prize to the first platoon to kick its football up to the German trenches on the day of the attack. One platoon painted the following inscription on its ball:

The Great European Cup
The Final
East Surreys v Bavarians
Kick Off at Zero

In the 8th East Surreys, Capt. Nevill’s four platoons, each with a football, competed for their company commander’s prize. Nevill himself kicked off. ‘As the gun-fire died away I saw an infantryman climb onto the parapet into No Man’s Land, beckoning others to follow. As he did so he kicked off a football; a good kick, the ball rose and traveled well towards the German line. That seemed to be the signal to advance.’ (Pte L.S. Price, 8th Royal Sussex)

Ordinary people put in an absolutely novel and terrifying situation, civilians put in uniform. Told that their country needed them, the East Surreys tried to do what they were ordered to do. As it happened, they’d been ordered to do the impossible. The only model of leadership that young officer had was the sports he’d played as a student. So, he treated fighting the Germans as a soccer match.

A good kick. The ball rose and traveled well towards the German line.

Captain Neville was killed in the attack.

Not apocryphal.

Courage is real. Sometimes unwise or misguided or cynically abused by those in authority. Sometimes in the service of a good cause, sometimes of a bad one. But courage is a reality and a factor in history, sometimes the motive force of history, sometimes the decisve factor at the moment of decisions when the fate of nations is decided.

Other virtues are real too. Civic spirit. Voting because it is a civic duty, even a “civic sacrament”, out of patriotism and belief in democracy because democracy is good. Civic spirit, patriotism, is another basic factor in the world. It is an unsophisticated thing. And it is the bedrock of legitimacy and stability and endurance of America or any free society.

Democracy was bought with the blood of patriots and preserved by countless sacrifices we will never see or hear about.

It is easy to disdain amidst the little plastic cups of white wine and Ritz crackers.

I’m voting.

I’ll save my disdain for other things.

That site also mentions this: “One of the footballs is in the National Army Museum and another in the Queen’s Regiment Museum, Howe Barracks, Canterbury.”

Some day I’ll make a pilgrimage to see one of those footballs.

God rest the sould of Capt. Neville and the East Surreys who never came home.

God bless America.

14 thoughts on ““The Surreys Played the Game””

  1. Your rant made me feel good–getting it off your chest gave words that help us, words we need. Thanks.

    And I’ll second the “civic sacrament”: our duty to that grand idea that respects and protects our common rights seems, at least to these relatively secular eyes, sacred.

    E. B. White’s brief note describes another reality – “Democracy” – (from The New Yorker of 1943: “Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half the people are right more than half of the time. It is the feeling of privacy in the votng booth, the feeling of communion in the libraries, the feeling of vitality everywhere.”

    Your story reminds us that if we begin to define ourselves by an aloof superiority, by a dead cynicism, we lost the core sense of democracy – that we can trust our fellow man – and next, we lose vitality.

    Digression: And in terms of the truth and energy, maybe I should just be grateful for what The New Yorker does occasionally, did in the past. Once, in its warm portraits of eccentrics it blended a dry but not cynical New York wit with a buoyant sense of the rich diversity in America. Maybe, it will again. Then those of us who find cynicism a poor approach to life but also love irony, will find it witty (alive) again.

  2. Oh the other hand, it seems just as well that people who think like your disdainful classmate don’t bother to vote.

    The vote is more than a sacrament. It is a tiny slice of the power that can preserve our liberties or destroy them. It is a small influence on the guns that can be used to defend honest people or to despoil them, depending on how sensibly and honorably those who control the guns use their share of power.

    If those without sense or honor disdain to exercise (badly) their share of power, it is all the better for the rest of us.

  3. Such a shame that the “bravery” of your Republican attorney friends is to support our corrupt, big government administration. Did our war dead really die to pass the latest tax bill, laden with payouts to administration supporters?
    The fraud is in Washington, NOW, not an apocryphal loss of votes due to alleged fraud.
    It is critically important to vote to rid this country of the Lyndon Johnson clone in office now!

  4. Lubman, read. “to support our corrupt, big government administration”. No. Wrong. To prevent election fraud. Preventing election fraud is about preserving the process, not just this administration, though I hope it does both.

  5. Yes, that was the famous — or, from the point of view of the British officers, infamous — “Christmas Truce” of 1914. It’s also described in Paul Fussell’s “The Great War and Modern Memory”.

    Anyway, you might save a small spot in the back of your mind for those non-Republicans who understand the sacrifices that were made to secure the privilege of voting. It so happens that I know a few such people.

    And incidentally, I’ve had several Republicans tell me that they won’t be voting this year, as a “protest” against GWB’s fiscal policies, with which they do not agree. It seems neither party has a monopoly on arrogance and stupidity.

    Rock on, Lex.


  6. Max, thanks. Yeah, that site I link to mentions Fussell talking about the soccer balls. That may be where I first heard about it.

    I did not say in this post that only Republicans try to preserve the integrity of the system or have made sacrifices to to keep it going. That would be factually incorrect and I hate to be factually incorrect. I too know plenty of honorable Democrats, living and dead. I wish there were more of them. I wish they ran their party again.

    For me, this was a relatively non-partisan post. Especially since my partisan vitriol is at its quadrennial peak.

    It was aimed mostly at a particular species of stupidity, which is found mostly in academic settings, which denigrates ordinary motives and virtues from an undeserved posture of superiority.

    In fact, the specific stupidity Jonathan mentioned, “I’m so morally and intellectually superior I look down on voting” is a posture adopted by the tiny minority of libertarian-type academics, possibly as a survival mechanism. That guy I described and the thousands like him are, I’m sure, voting for Kerry and have Kerry bumper stickers on their Volvos, and have contempt for anybody who’d dream of doing anything other than vote for Kerry. Such people don’t disdain voting, they just disdain the idea that anyone who disagrees with them has any human worth.

    There may be Democrats volunteering to go in places where they have good reason to be certain there will be Republican vote fraud. I haven’t heard about it, but I wouldn’t deny that it is possible. I don’t get any notices of such activities, from Lefty organizations or from the Democrat party itself, for good reason.

    If you find out about such an instance, send me a link and I will post it on this blog. I’d seriously like to hear about it.

    There are certainly some people who are switching from their 2000 position. A lot of conservatives are not happy with Bush about a lot of things, including me. Still, I know of no high profile GOP defectors, but there are several noteworthy Democrats who are switching sides.

    But as always it is a question of who would be worse. Against a guy like Kerry, whom I loathe, there is no contest.

  7. Well, I suppose it’s foolhardy to mention Andrew Sullivan’s name among the ‘Boyz, but suffice it to say that the blogosphere is full of righties who won’t be voting for GWB this year. You could look it up, as they say.

    In any case, I’ll leave politics to you pros to sort out — let me know when you’ve finally posted that full review of the new Muffs album.



  8. I don’t dispute lots of people are switching from how they voted in 2000. I think there is a fair amount of back-and-forth.

    Sullivan is a single issue guy. Which is fine if you are up-front about it. I stopped reading him because I decided I didn’t trust him. He slants his coverage of everything based on how he thinks it will impact the so-called gay marriage issue. That’s how it looks to me, anyway, so I gave up on him. Others may differ, in which case I say, read and enjoy.

    What I want to know is: Where are the Democrats expecting Republican vote fraud at polling places? I’d love to know that. I can tell you that GOPers are expecting it in Philadelphia and Milwaukee and no doubt lots of other places, including parts of Florida. Any Republican in a battleground should call the GOP and ask what you can do to help on election day. It is going to be ugly, I predict.

    Short version of the Muffs review:

    It is like the Muffs have turned a corner with this truly excellent record. It is a comeback record, an example of perseverance and musical integrity, something which defies the odds. We so rarely see anything like this, where a band comes storming back after disappearing, better than ever.

    The Muffs are achieving a mature kind of greatness and quality and professionalism which most rock musicians never even come close to achieving, or even dream is possible.

    I’ll shamelessly recycle that verbiage if I ever write the whole thing.

    Short verion: Go buy it.

  9. MLE:

    I think you’re mixing up two different events. In the Christmas Truce, British and German troops played soccer with each other peacefully between the trenches and no one was killed. In the incident described in this post, British officers used soccer balls as a morale-boosting tool in an attack in which many of them were killed. Not the same thing at all, though both involved soccer balls, trenches, and WW I.

  10. Almost all my friends are democrat, like myself, and half are voting for Bush, like myself.

    If Kerry wins, it will be due to an excellent vote-making machine in place in large democratic voting districts. Not vote-getting. Vote-making. As in by fiat. That’s realpolitik.

  11. Buntley, that’s how things feel here in MI. I don’t think I knew anyone who voted for Bush (besides myself) back in 2000. Many of my friends voted for Gore, this year a lot of them will vote Bush or maybe stay home. The unions and power holders in Detroit and Wayne Co might not let that play out though.

    I don’t see Kerry drawing voters like Gore, I see Bush getting more support than last time, and possibly a good chunk of Gore voters voting for Bush.

  12. In Michigan the problem is going to be over absentee ballots, a record number of which have been requested this cycle. It’s telling that the people being called and falsely told they’ve missed the Nov. 1 request deadline are all in Democratic townships/counties that the State GOP might not have second guessed otherwise.

    …” [Michigan Secretary of State] Land said there have been some reports of calls made to Ann Arbor and southern Wayne County residents by people identifying themselves as members of the state bureau of elections or local clerk’s offices. They are telling residents the deadline to apply for an absent voter ballot has passed and are asking that completed ballots be sent to the wrong place. “…


    To give an idea of the scope of the problem… in W. Bloomfield township, Oakland Co. there’s 47,000+ registered voters. Around 33,000 voted in 2000, when Gore won 19,016 vs. Bush 14,233. Gore won Oakland Co., the second largest in the State (over a million residents), by around 10,000 votes.

    There have been 12,000 absentee ballot requests so far in 2004 for W. Bloomfield alone… A rich city that typically has OVER a 60% turnout without counting ANY of its absentee ballots, now has 25% of its voters absent??? Naaaa.

    Aaron, if you live in Wayne, Washtinaw, Macomb, Oakland, Genesee, or Ingham County and want to vote for Bush you should avoid the Democrat machine polling sites, especially if you registered as other than a Democrat.

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