Squash hasn’t received this much attention since 2001, when Vicky Botwright threatened to play at the British Open in a thong. For those of you who missed it, the New York Times ran an article on Sunday titled “Rumsfeld Also Plays Hardball on the Squash Courts” below the fold on A1. The writer, David S. Cloud, draws parallels between Rumsfeld’s squash game and his “ideas about transforming the military into a smaller, more agile force.” Somewhat incredibly, Mr. Cloud also found a few people to talk trash about Rumsfeld’s game. The implication, never stated, is that the secretary of defense cheats.
The premise of the article—that one’s squash game reveals one’s character—may seem silly, but there is a literary precedent for this approach. Consider the following squash description from Ian McEwan’s Saturday:
It’s at moments like these in a game that the essentials of his character are exposed: narrow, ineffectual, stupid—and morally so. The game becomes an extended metaphor of character defect. Every error he makes is so profoundly, so irritatingly typical of himself, instantly familiar, like a signature, like a tissue scar or some deformation in a private place. As intimate and self-evident as the feel of his tongue in his mouth. Only he can go wrong in quite this way, and only he deserves to lose in just this manner. As the points fall he draws his energy from a darkening pool of fury.
Rumsfeld hunkered down in the Pentagon squash court in a “darkening pool of fury” sounds about right. But can his squash game really be compared to how he prosecuted the war in Iraq? And, more important, does he cheat?
The main accusation against Rumsfeld is that he doesn’t “clear” for his opponent. Squash is played in close quarters—a combination of fencing and boxing. A player must give his opponent an opportunity to hit a shot by moving out of the way. Even so, it’s a common tactic not to clear quickly so as to effectively stall your opponent. The article relates that Rumsfeld has a deadly drop shot—a shot that would be rendered even more deadly if he subtly (or not so subtly) blocked your path to the ball. And here’s the rub: Amateur squash has no referees, so it’s up to the person who was hindered to call a “let,” to essentially say: “I would have gotten that shot if you had given me a fair chance … jerk.”
The article describes how Rumsfeld likes to play his afternoon game with younger underlings. Are you going to call the boss out in that situation? Not if you want to be flying around in Air Force Two. While Rumsfeld may not be technically cheating, he’s using his authority to unfair advantage. (The French actually made a whole movie about this exact same tense scenario.) My guess is that if Rumsfeld were a “civilian” squash player, no one would want to go near him.
The Iraq parallels are more involved. According to the article, squash taught Rumsfeld that “speed kills,” and that, “If you can do something very fast you can get your job done and save a lot of lives.” This is all very suggestive of Rumsfeld’s strategy to send U.S. forces on a quick lightning-strike at Baghdad, but it’s actually a misreading of the secretary of defense’s game. The most telling detail in the piece is that Rumsfeld plays “hardball” squash, a version that rewards smash shots and that has virtually died out in America. These days, everyone plays “softball” squash, an international version that generally favors patience and fitness over shot-making.
Here’s where the squash/war metaphor goes slightly wrong: While Rumsfeld’s military strategy was sold as revolutionary, his squash game is an anachronism. To put it crudely, hardball squash is mostly played by a bunch of old white guys who don’t want to adapt to the new style. Rumsfeld is one of them. In a further parallel, the last time Americans dominated squash championships was in the hardball era. Once the sport changed to softball, the Europeans and—gasp!—the Pakistanis took over. So you might say that Rumsfeld plays the most patriotic version of squash, that he indulges in a nostalgic relic of American might.