Comparing Sport and War: Some Reflections on Anzac Day

Is there anything more irritating than comparisons between sport and warfare?


Probably, but they really annoy me.


In a society so infused with sport it is to be expected that sport be used as an interpretative framework to sense of other parts of society (politics for instance). This then creates the problem that we don’t engage with the military experience on its own terms; it gets mediated through the medium of sport. This is particularly true in Melbourne, which lacks the ADF presence that many other major Australian cities have (7 Brigade in Brisbane or Fleet Base East in Sydney for instance).


It should go without saying that at the coalface war and sport are almost completely different. Soldiers, sailors, airmen and airwomen are authorised and required to use force (often but not exclusively violence) to undertake operations to achieve political objectives set by government, often at risk of losing life or limb. Forty-two men lost their lives in the recent war in Afghanistan and many who served in the area of operations have returned with psychological afflictions. PTSD is common among young veterans and suicide is tragically prevalent.


By comparison, AFL footballers play a game. While they too are organised into a cohesive group in order to complete a mission, their context is to run around a usually well-manicured patch of grass for a designated period of time kicking and handballing a ball between themselves. While they face the risk of serious injury, they are protected by the umpires and the rules of the game. Within a game, players battle for the comparatively ephemeral distinction of winning or losing at almost no risk of loss of life. They run through crepe paper banners at the start of the match, wear funny coloured jumpers and sing funny songs when they win.


This is not to reduce football (and sport in general) to irrelevance – I love Australian rules football and I don’t mean to diminish the game, the skill required to play it well and the risks involved in taking the field. But my effort here is to contextualise it to its proper place within society. It is physical exertion, a distraction and entertainment; it is not the bloody and hard-edged business of the profession of arms.


However, despite the inanity of comparing sporting contest to warfare, there are some important links between the two, if one knows where to look and what questions to ask. Beyond the well-worn tales of ‘Bluey’ Truscott or Ron Barassi Senior (those who served in the two world wars at a time when the intersection of the military and civil society was at its most powerful), there are people such as McLeod Wood, brother of Bulldogs Premiership captain Easton Wood, who deployed twice to Afghanistan, and the current Brisbane Lions Women’s best and fairest, Kate Lutkins, who serves in the Australian Army Transport Corps. The women’s game in particular provides strong contemporary links with the ADF.


There are also similarities in the organisations. Both the AFL and the ADF are increasingly professional and benefit from the information revolution and the advent of new technologies. The link between the professionalism of the modern day Australian Defence Force and the Australian Football League was brought home to me reading Nick Richardson’s The Game of Their Lives, not so much for how it presented the First World War, but the picture it painted of Australian rules football in the era of the Great War. Having spent some time researching and writing about the Australian army in the war, the picture of an amateur organisation in the era years after Federation resonated with me.


Before the First World War the Australian Army was unrecognisable from the professional body that exists today. At that time, there were few full time soldiers, serving in administrative or instructional roles (with some as garrison artillery or in logistics or intelligence). The army, the main land force that was to defend Australia, was comprised of part-time soldiers. Initially, they were volunteers, who would meet throughout the year, drill, exercise on annual camps, and be ready to be called up if Australia was invaded. Later, once it was determined that the number of volunteers was insufficient to mount a successful defence of continental Australia, conscription was introduced for young men to serve in cadets and in the militia. Throughout this period those entrusted with the defence of Australia were primarily not full-time, professional soldiers.


This was the same with the Victorian Football League. Clubs could not provide their players with a permanent income and they lacked extensive football departments to develop tactics and gameplay and the health and fitness of the players. Obviously there were no television broadcasts, eliminating many of the financial and commercial pressures involved with that side of the game. The league was not a multi-million dollar corporation in the business of commercial expansion. Australian rules football was very much an amateur pastime.


Now, both the ADF and the AFL have developed into thoroughly professional organisations. The land defence of Australia is entrusted to full-time, volunteer soldiers. Similarly, AFL players are remunerated to an extent where they can rely on it to support them financially. In the army, pre-mission briefings don’t feature a Braveheart-style inspirational speech. Soldiers do not fight better because they’ve been given a rousing speech before a patrol; they fight better being well trained, with good equipment and accurate intelligence. Similarly, (to the best of my understanding) AFL coaches don’t give Any Given Sunday-style speeches to inspire players right before a game. Instead, they emphasise their systems and structures and the processes they develop forensically within the football departments to orchestrate, as much as they can, how their team goes about attempting to win games.


This is not to reduce the role of motivation and leadership to insignificance, both still play important roles in providing the kinetic energy within organisations to make this happen and to achieve set outcomes. But added to the personal factor are a vast number of technical elements indicative of organisations that are well resourced and professionally managed. Both a senior coach and a battlefield commander have various technological enablers, access to a dizzying array of information and a large support staff around them to assist in making decisions.


The point of this is to suggest that sport and war might not be as far off as I suggested at the start, albeit for different reasons that one might initially imagine. This was brought home to me when hearing interviews with soldiers on or about to deploy to contemporary conflicts. These aren’t the citizen soldiers of previous world wars, they are professionals trained to do a job. For modern infantrymen, they are trained to seek out and close with the enemy, to kill or capture him, to seize and hold ground, and to repel attack by day and night, regardless of season, weather or terrain. When asked how they feel about deploying, many said that they are like footballers, who might have prepared their whole careers without playing a game and now have the chance to run onto the field and do what they’ve been trained to do. In this regard, modern footballers and modern soldiers are not that dissimilar.


Finally, while it is important to reflect on the sacrifices made by previous generations, it’s also important to remember that there are thousands of contemporary veterans who’ve served with the ADF in its recent operations. Rather than just leveraging off older notions of remembrance from the citizen armies of the past by invoking stories of great-grandfathers and putting poppies on special ‘Anzac Day’ jumpers, I’d like to see the AFL and the wider footy community get around the young veterans of Australia’s recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Just as football supporters have moved with the times as the AFL irrevocably entered the twenty-first century, so too should the AFL’s remembrance embrace that which is current about the ADF and its people, giving them support and exposure, as well as making a real effort to understand the modern ADF to appreciate what it is our servicemen and women do in our name.


About William Westerman

Canberra-based historian. Author of 'Merger: The Fitzroy Lions and the Tragedy of 1996' Available here:


  1. Interesting the growth of interest in Anzac Day, and people’s ‘understanding’ of it. In my youth it was a solemn day, a day to remember the fallen. Hasn’t it changed ? In contemporary Australia it’s become a celebration more than a commemoration.

    I hear young people talking about the Anzac Day invasion being about defending democracy ?!? The militarisation of Australian history, focusing on our battlefield exploits is fine if it’s nuanced by explaining the causes of war(s), and the opposition to war.

    The last few years i’ve been involved in activities to remind us how divided Australian society became in WW1, the war Archbishop Mannix was famously remembered for describing it as it was : a trade war. It’s important we talk about this, recalling the two plebiscites where Australia voted no to conscription. Let’s remember WW2 was about defeating fascism, the political ideology that still appears with people like Senator Anning. Also remember the courage of those Australians who opposed, refused to fight in the undeclared war in Vietnam. Of course we need to discuss, recognise the frontier wars of the first Australians who sought to defend their lands from the European invaders.

    Lest We Forget,


Leave a Comment