America and Baseball in Afghanistan

Matt Yglesias recently compared Afghanistan to an ESPN Zone:

A better analogy might be that it’s the ESPN Zone of empires, someplace where from time to time a lot of people feel tempted to go, but when you get there it turns out to be not so great. But it’s surprisingly expensive to stay! Having gone out of your way to get there in the first place, you’re perhaps initially reluctant to just admit that it’s not worthwhile. But you can’t stay forever.

But doesn’t the war effort also remind you of any number of struggling baseball franchises that dump millions and millions into free agents, but are really just piling misguided resources onto a fundamentally flawed foundation that will surely collapse at any moment, leaving the whole venture futile? Kevin Malone? Bill Bavasi? Obama? Biden? Anyone?

One of the very first posts I wrote here prescribed a healthy mid-market approach to managing the economic collapse. Basically I said we can learn a lot from Mark Shapiro and the Cleveland Indians. This was back in March before the season really got going, and before the blog had really found its voice. This time, I don’t have answers.

I don’t have a prescription for our problems in Afghanistan. It sounds trite to even say we can’t just Moneyball our way out of a major foreign policy debacle. So instead of using baseball as a way to make a political point or explain an inexplicable war, I’ll use the war and baseball to do some thinking on American identity and policy. This stuff’s been on my mind lately.

A friend of mine is an Arabic linguist in the Army National Guard. He spent a year in Afghanistan (where the first language is not Arabic but Pashto), and brought up an interesting point about the conflict: the very presence of American troops on the ground there polarizes the country in altogether new ways. Afghans that live near bases tend to Americanize; eight year old kids who were born after the invasion are fluent in English. Afghans that don’t live near bases tend to have grown less and less appreciative of our current foreign policy

Mostly, Afghans want to be left alone. Those who live outside the red white and blue halo of our military outposts know America by its machine gun fire and bomb flashes and the destruction left in the wake of slow-moving, bulky metallic vehicles. Justifiably, these Afghans don’t like this America and they don’t like this America trampling on their culture, trying to instill its own values where they aren’t particularly wanted.

This creates a divide among the people of Afghanistan. An even stronger American presence over there will invariably lead to a rapid Westernization for parts of the country. This is simply what happens when ideas and people rub against each other for long periods of time. As some parts of Afghanistan Westernize and other parts push back against this process, and against American occupation, the country’s fractured sense of national unity will only find itself in even greater peril. The fault lines will be tested and the strains will be exacerbated.

There is a very real possibility that we stay in Afghanistan for ten, twenty, fifty, one hundred more years. As the Obama Administration’s Afghan surge begins to materialize, it’s looking less and less likely that we go the George F. Will route and just cut our losses (Billy Beane! Fire Sale!). America, it seems, will try with all its might to halt the gravitational momentum of history and create a unified and democratic Afghanistan. In this context, I think it’s fair to start talking about baseball over there.

It was inevitable that Afghan children would play baseball. The game is too symbolic, too ripe for media affection, too damn American to not share. In 2002, the Christian Science Monitor wrote what is, to this day, the definitive Afghanistan Baseball Puff Piece:

“Baseball is here to show them the American way, to show them that we’re not here for any other reason than to help out,” says Sgt. Jay Smith, of the US special forces. “We’re not against [Afghans], we’re not against Islam. We can be here together, Afghans and Americans.”

In what is perhaps a historical first, certainly since the fall of the anti-American Taliban regime, children are playing organized baseball in Afghanistan, to the tune of “Take me Out to the Ballgame,” which blares from speakers on a beige psychological-operations Humvee.

In the seven years since that story was published, Afghan Baseball has not quite taken off. But what if we’re talking another seven or fourteen years? Children are products of their surroundings. If their surroundings are US military bases, then Afghan children will grow up comfortable with not just the English language and the presence of heavy artillery, but the best and worst of American culture. This means McDonald’s and Angelina Jolie and it also means baseball.

There is a precedent: Little League has been played by the children of expats in Saudi Arabia since 1954. As more troops and private contractors pour into Afghanistan, the creation of a real official Little League is more than possible. Their parents would not understand, but Afghan kids growing up in the shadows of military bases would know Hanley Ramirez, Joe Mauer, and Tim Lincecum. They would know double plays and the infield fly rule. Afghanistan would face off against Little Rock in Williamsport on ABC. Is it really that far-fetched?

The better question is whether or not this is a good thing. Baseball is not just any other sport in the American identity. Its merits as a game are secondary in importance to its status as cultural touchstone. We as Americans take great pride in the fact that baseball has taken off in East Asia and Latin America. We don’t care who wins the World Baseball Classic, because its very existence is strokes our ego. We tend to think that those who embrace our national pastime are embracing the nation itself – its values, its history, its citizenry.

Baseball in Afghanistan would be more than just a foreign country starting to play a new sport, but how so? It would probably be seen as a victory. Pundits would hail the dawn of baseball as the dawn of a new era in Afghanistan – the proof of a successful foreign policy, the justification of our actions post 9/11. But let’s not be foolish. Even in the confines of this thought exercise, it would be silly to claim that every country who has embraced baseball has embraced American democracy. Japan was baseball-crazed long before it attacked Pearl Harbor. Cuba is still quite baseball crazed.

Baseball in Afghanistan could be looked at as bizarre manifestation of everything that has happened between our two countries since September 11, 2001. It would encapsulate all the rights and all the wrongs of an extended war. It would be the export of something truly American, as American as things get. But it would be the fossil of a failure. It would be completely, entirely inconsequential.

Can’t you hear Glenn Beck now? “Those Afghans couldn’t handle democracy. But at least we gave ‘em baseball didn’t we?”

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5 Responses to America and Baseball in Afghanistan

  1. Reeves says:

    Is that Don Zimmer and Yogi Berra in Kunduz?

  2. Tough questions, you’re posing here. part of me, like you said, would love to export baseball to Afghanistan. I love baseball; I derive so much pleasure from it, that I would love to see a part of the world that has suffered for a long time, embrace it and enjoy it. Don’t the Afghanis deserve the same joy I do?

    But then there is that other side. The strip mall-going, fanny pack-wearing, Big Mac-eating, gas-guzzling, People magazine-reading, culture exporting America that could and may trample all other cultures. And I would hate that. Who knows what we have lost as a world, with America taking over almost all other cultures around the world, with Lee jeans in India, Britney Spears posters in Iraq and McDonald’s in Red Square? It is a small world after all.

  3. Alex says:

    Paul, why do you think that American culture has taken a hold in so many places?

    “Pundits would hail the dawn of baseball as the dawn of a new era in Afghanistan – the proof of a successful foreign policy, the justification of our actions post 9/11.” – I agree with that for sure.

    Also that is being way too kind to Glenn Beck.

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