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Bill Simmons, "The Secret" and War is War

(To read the entire "War is War” series, please click here.)

After Christmas, my new bride and I finally got to go to for Hawaii (thank you Mr. and Mrs. Sigafoos again) for our honeymoon (a six month delay due to a PCS and a deployment to Iraq). While on our honeymoon, my wife and I turned off our cell phones and email, and we set about relaxing.1

To pass the time, I tried to devour Bill Simmons’ The Book of Basketball (TBOB), a War and Peace-sized tome on the country’s third most popular sport.

Since I was going to read the whole book and spend a week ignoring the website, Eric C demanded at least one On Violence post had to come from TBOB. (It should also be mentioned Eric C gave me TBOB as a Christmas present. And he already read some of it.). At first, I didn’t think I could do it. Yeah, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson had a ferocious rivalry in the 80s, but they never actually fought a war.

After reading a good chunk of it, then hopping on a boat to go snorkeling, I kept thinking about Simmons’ central principle of basketball, “The Secret”. Revealed to Simmons at a topless pool in Las Vegas by Isaiah Thomas, “the secret about basketball is that it isn’t about basketball”.

What does that mean? Thomas doesn’t clarify in a succinct way, but the point is that one or two great players don’t make winners in the NBA. Teams win games. Great teams win championships. The best teams win multiple championships. It isn’t about basketball, it’s about teams. Great players are great teammates.

So, as I stood on a prow of a catamaran doing my best Leo in Titanic impersonation, I dwelled on this. Why did it feel like “The Secret” had something to do with war. Then it hit me.

"The Secret" about war is that it isn’t about war.

Yep, a succinct way to sum up all my arguments against “war-is-war”-iors. They think war is about the fighting, the killing, and the warfare. War includes those things, but it isn’t those things. War is the socio-cultural boundaries we fight within and the generations we come from, the political ramifications of our decisions, and the motivations of men, women, soldiers, politicians and civilians on each side. It is about the economics that promote and discourage war. War includes warfare, but warfare isn’t war.

War is so much more.2

This is why historians (justifiably) have moved away from studying the conduct of war. The old histories describing tactics and strategy in specific battles just aren’t as important historically. The history of World War I written nowadays mentions the tragic trench warfare, but much more scholarship has covered the disastrous series of entangling alliances that led to war. In fact, the days after Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated might be the most studied days in history. The most important and interesting aspects of the great war--the political causes and effects of any given war--aren’t the warfare.

Take this quote I found in the Military Review’s issue on ethics, “Conflict and war are human problems. They cannot be overcome by technical leverage or wholesale slaughter. In short, conflict defies simplistic solutions...” Yep, war includes fighting and wholesale slaughter, but that doesn’t define war.

“The Secret” about war is that it isn’t about war.3

Footnotes:
1. In honor of Bill Simmons, this is the first and last post we are going to use footnotes. If you can’t tell, this post is an excuse to brag about a kick ass honeymoon in Hawaii.

2. I think there are really two uses for “The Secret” and the military. The first is the reality about war this post is about. The second applies the same way as in basketball, thinking about what makes a great team. Do we have the ability to make great teams, or do we just analyze great individuals? I don’t know for sure, but I suspect the Army isn’t good at forming teams, it is too hard in a industrial personnel system.

3. I will acknowledge that I am not touching hugely new ground here, compared to my past “war is war” posts. But I loved this way of describing war, it just made so much sense, exactly like Isaiah Thomas’ vague summation of “The Secret” tells you nothing but makes so much sense. That is war.

six comments

Yeah, i get tired of the History channel and Military channels twenty four hour dissection of battle and wars. The beginning, the ending, and the technological innovations are the most interesting things about war.


What makes a great team? It’s everybody knowing their place. Much like professional bicycle or car racing… often times it’s the teamate of the star who is told he cannot win the race, rather he must block others from overtaking the star.

You make some interesting points regarding WWI. There were many issues bubbling under the surface that caused the major powers to plunge their peoples and empires into conflict. I would say that tactics are important still as are the reasons why one side thought they had the advantage though.


I have to say, for me, Isaiah Thomas’ secret has the same problem of vagueness that plagues the statement, “War is war.” Basketball isn’t really about basketball… Ok. And? It’s left to interpretation what basketball’s really about. Without further explaination, the statement lacks meaning and impact. It sounds like a basketball player trying to make his sport seem deeper and more meaningful than studies being paid millions so people can watch the play.


We can say sales isn’t about “selling” it’s about relationships. Does that get us any closer to an answer as to what “sales” is about?


At the very least, showing that defining war is as easy as “death, destruction, killing” probably is a start.

@ harrison – Good point.


MP, I see your point, but it does show the similarity between War is War and vagueness.

The Sales analogy is perfect too. A lot of things can help sales—great products, more time for customers, time management—but it is relationships.