My teenage son, Mac, shot me. Twice, on the same day. I felt pride. And pain.
Together with about 60 other guys, Mac and I were playing an "Airsoft" war game in a wooded Army Reserve training camp in Tolland, a tiny town in western Massachusetts. Airsoft is like paintball, except that the gas- or electric-powered guns shoot not balls of paint but plastic BBs—at such high velocities that they can break teeth and stick in skin. Eye protection is required, mouth guards recommended. Airsofters shoot with replicas of military firearms, wear authentic camouflage fatigues and other combat gear, organize into companies with chains of command, and perform maneuvers with hand signals—the whole nine yards.
Jolly, a gigantic guy in camouflage pants, fleece vest and combat boots, ran the Tolland game. The first time we met I asked, "Are you Jolly?" "Some days," he replied. He stood beside a battered white Jeep with knobby tires and a "Barack Obama" bumper sticker. The sticker surprised me, because I'd guessed Jolly was, shall we say, politically conservative. I thought, "Can't judge a book, etcetera." Then I realized that the sticker read, "Waterboard Barack Obama". Mac had pleaded with me not to reveal my peacenik views, but I couldn't resist. I told Jolly that I'd voted for Obama. He glared at me. I added that his bumper sticker was funny. He smiled.
Jolly took our money, processed our liability releases and, before letting us head out, reviewed the rules. If you're hit, anywhere, you have to yell, "Hit!" and drape a red rag over your head, so your enemies know you're dead and don't keep shooting you. You then have to go to a designated area to be dead for at least 10 minutes. "We will forgive you for pedophilia," Jolly warned, "before we forgive you for not calling your hits."
In our game we reenacted, sort of, the infamous 1993 "Black Hawk Down" incident in Somalia, in which 18 American soldiers died. (A 2001 film about the incident opens with a black screen bearing the quote, attributed to Plato, "Only the dead have seen the end of war." Actually, George Santayana uttered this aphorism as a bitter rebuke to hopes that World War I would be "the war to end all wars.") I played a Somali militiaman, or "terrorist," which is what the Army Rangers on the other side called us. The Rangers rolled through the woods in jeeps, and we tried to kill them without getting killed. I was killed, that is, struck by BBs, a half dozen times—twice by Mac, who is a crack shot. Because we terrorists were short-handed I didn't have to go to the dead zone, and I only had to stay dead for five minutes.
I was wearing a bright green vest that I'd hoped would provide camouflage, but didn't. Mac told me later that when his teammates were trying to spot Somalis in the woods they often said that they could see only "the guy in the green vest." That probably explained why I was killed so often. One other time, I think I shot a Ranger, but I couldn't be sure because my goggles kept fogging up.
My climactic moment came when a half dozen Rangers filed past a bush in which I lay hidden. Adrenaline surging, I jumped up with a wild cry and yanked the trigger of my automatic M5. Nothing. I'd left my safety on. I stood dumbly as hundreds of BBs rained off me. "Hit," I mumbled, hand raised. Fortunately, Mac wasn't in the group I attempted to ambush. He would have been mortified.
Why am I telling you all this? First, I just wanted to give you a glimpse of the weird, wacky world of Airsoft. I also wanted to ponder whether games like this reduce the probability of real war and other forms of violence by providing a healthy outlet for male aggression.
Nobel laureate, biologist and Nazi Konrad Lorenz proposed as much in his 1966 book On Aggression. Strongly influenced by Freud, Lorenz described aggression as an "instinct" or "drive" that builds up unless it is periodically "discharged." Lorenz argued that "the main function of sports today lies in the cathartic discharge of the aggressive urge." In particular, the Olympics and other international contests provide "an outlet for the collective militant enthusiasm of nations."
So does the Airsoft culture support Lorenz's theory? It depends on what population you're looking at. Airsoft war games began in Japan more than 30 years ago before spreading to the U.S. and Europe. Since World War II, Japan has had a pacifist constitution and has outlawed gun ownership. Some Airsofters I met in Tolland speculated that Japanese guys love Airsoft because it gives them a chance to play war, which is banned. Japan, in other words, provides tentative evidence for Lorenz's view of sports as healthily cathartic.
But the situation is quite different when you look at the U.S. Many American Airsofters, including some I met in Tolland, were or are soldiers. My group's commander—a mild-mannered guy about 30 years old—was an Army veteran who'd done tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. Lots of other players were vets, too. After serving in real wars these men come home and play war for fun. This behavior does not support Lorenz's catharsis theory.
Nor do cross-cultural surveys by anthropologists. In a much-cited 1973 study of 20 warlike and peaceful societies, the anthropologist Richard Sipes found that competitive sports were positively correlated with warfare. Men in warlike societies, such as the Aztecs and Plains Indians, were more likely to engage in rough contact sports. Sipes had a hard time finding peaceful societies, but those he found tended not to play rough. Sipes concluded that "where we find warlike behavior we typically find combative sports, and where war is relatively rare combative sports tend to be absent."
Sipes later reported that the popularity of contact sports such as boxing, hockey and football rises when nations are at war and declines in times of peace. Researchers have also found a positive correlation between war and other forms of violence, notably homicide. One 1984 study of 110 nations found that homicide rates rose immediately after wars during the 20th century; rates were higher in victorious than in defeated nations. After reviewing these and other studies, the social psychologist Gordon Russell concluded in his 2008 book Aggression in the Sports World (Oxford 2008), "Even on a global scale, evidence of populations experiencing a cathartic venting through their wartime violence did not materialize."
These findings bolster my long-standing conviction that the theory of therapeutic catharsis—which dates back to Aristotle and was a cornerstone of Freudian psychoanalysis—is wrong. If anything, expressing aggression, anger, fear, hatred—whether with a psychotherapist, spouse, friend, office-mate, neighbor, stranger—makes you more aggressive, angry, fearful, hateful, not less.
That doesn't mean that the inverse of Lorenz's catharsis theory is true, and that playing competitive sports makes people more murderous or warlike. The link between sports—or violent video games, films and television shows, for that matter, which the psychologist Jonathan Freedman examines in Media Violence and Its Effect on Aggression (University of Toronto Press, 2002)—and lethal violence is at best correlational, and only weakly so, rather than causal. I play in a pond-hockey league with a bunch of guys and a few girls, ranging from under 20 to over 70. I've never killed anyone, and I'm pretty sure none of my hockey buddies has either.
Just one more Airsoft story, which Mac told me. In 2008 thousands of Airsofters from all over the world convened on Berget, Sweden, for a six-day battle. At one point a Russian team allegedly attempted to carry out "simulated torture," including waterboarding, on captured Americans. One of the Americans objected with real, not simulated, punches of his Russian captors. Everyone agreed later it was all a misunderstanding. No one was seriously injured, let alone killed.
Someday, perhaps, all wars will be this harmless.
Photo by John Horgan of Mac Horgan [right] and friend dressed for Airsoft warfare