Nine days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the US, President George W. Bush launched an international military campaign. During a televised address to a joint session of the US Congress he said, “Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated”.
Almost 10 years after Bush’s speech, the war – since re-branded by the administration of President Obama as the rather less gung-ho Overseas Contingency Operation– is regarded by many as justifying unilateral preventive war, human rights abuses and other violations of international law.
But whatever its purpose or even its name, the war on terror has given rise to many stories, many of them tragic, and some of them sinister.
And, perhaps surprisingly, some of them interwoven with the game of squash.
Squash at the Pentagon
The Pentagon, located in Arlington County, Virginia is the headquarters of the US Department of Defense. On September 11th, 2001 – 60 years to the day after the building’s ground-breaking ceremony was held – hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 was deliberately crashed into the western side of the Pentagon, killing 189 people, including 5 hijackers, 59 others aboard the plane, and 125 working in the building.
When it was originally built in the 1940s, The Pentagon’s sports complex included eight hardball squash courts. When new facilities were built in 2002, one hardball court was kept for use by those Pentagon employees who still played the version of squash that was most popular in the US until the mid-1990s. Since that time, the hardball game has largely died out with, most US squash enthusiasts now playing the international softball game.
But, in 2002, one of The Pentagon’s remaining hardball squash players was someone who was to play a major role in the war on terror. The US Secretary of State, Donald Rumsfeld.
Squash and the Invasion of Iraq
Rumsfeld took up squash in the 1980s when he was a business executive working in the pharmaceutical industry. As a former wrestler at Princeton University and a tennis enthusiast, Rumsfeld was obviously no stranger to sporting competition. But taking up such a physically and mentally demanding game as squash in his 50s could be seen as providing a unique insight into his complex psyche.
In fact, during his time at The Pentagon, officials and employees were said to have described Rumsfeld’s approach to playing squash as closely resembling the way he attempting to run the Defense Department – where he was trying to gain acceptance for breaking the accepted norms of military operation.
Rumsfeld himself later suggested that his ideas about transforming the military into a smaller, more agile force, like the one he pushed for in invading Iraq, were influenced by his squash playing. In a 2005 interview with the military writer Thomas P. M. Barnett, he said, gesturing towards his squash partner Lawrence Di Rita, “I play squash with him. When I passed him with a shot, and it’s a well-played hard shot, I saw speed kills. And it does. If you can do something very fast you can get your job done and save a lot of lives.”
Rumsfeld’s enthusiasm for speed was reflected in his irritation with the US’s contingency plan in the event of a war with Iraq. For him, the plan required too many troops and supplies and would take far too long to execute. It was, he declared, the “product of old thinking and the embodiment of everything that was wrong with the military.”
Rumsfeld subsequently won his argument with the US military, the 2003 invasion going ahead with a force of 200,000 rather than the 500,000 proposed in the original contingency plan.
Donald Rumsfeld and Fair Play
Two years after the invasion, Donald Rumsfeld acknowledged that his almost daily squash matches had helped preserve his “sanity’’ at a time when he and the Bush administration were coming under increasing political attack for their handling of the deteriorating situation in the country.
A year later, Rumsfeld’s own deteriorating relationship with the US military was to play a part in the emergence of allegations of him cheating at squash. “He hits the ball well, but he doesn’t play by the rules,” said Chris Zimmerman, a devoted squash player working in The Pentagon’s office of program analysis and evaluation and is sometimes in the Pentagon athletic complex when Mr. Rumsfeld is on the court.
Mr. Zimmerman has never actually played his boss. But he says he has noticed that Mr. Rumsfeld, 74, often wins points because, after hitting a shot, he does not get out of the way so his opponent has a chance to return the ball, a practice known in squash as “clearing.”
“When you try a shot and miss, he’ll say, ‘You don’t have that shot,’ ” said Lawrence Di Rita, a close aide who used to played against Rumsfeld regularly. Di Rita, a former US Naval Academy squash player more than 25 years younger than Rumsfeld, said that he’d won his share of games and had never gone easy on his boss. By tradition, the loser would post the score on Rumsfeld’s office door, so his staff would know when he’d beaten Di Rita or his other main partner, his military assistant, Vice Admiral James G. Stavridis, who was also on the Naval Academy squash team.
Di Rita conceded that Rumsfeld rarely offered or asked for lets – requests to replay points when one player feels that they have been obstructed by the other.
Whatever the truth in the cheating allegations, Rumsfeld’s tenure as Secretary of State came to an end when he resigned his position in late 2006. In an unprecedented move in modern US history, eight retired generals and admirals had called for his resignation in what was called the Generals Revolt, accusing him of “abysmal” military planning and a lack of strategic competence.
Rumsfeld’s squash matches at The Pentagon were at an end.
In an article for The New York Times, Michael Aggar wrote:
“While Rumsfeld’s military strategy was sold as revolutionary, his squash game was 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.”
In Part 2 of “Squash and the War on Terror”, the story moves to Munich where a chance encounter with a squash coach leads to a squash playing President, the sinister ghost planes, and a surprising connection to the Arab Spring.
For a detailed description of Donald Rumsfeld’s squash game, read David S. Cloud’s New York Times article “Rumsfeld Also Plays Hardball on Squash Courts.”
In his article in The Slate, “Does Donald Rumsfeld Cheat at Squash?”, Michael Agger entertainingly explores the squash / war metaphor.
Many thanks to them both.