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That expressions or examples of integrity seem so rare is something we should consider deeply. (Photo: SB Nation/Channel 7)

Beyond Winning and Losing

Robert C. Koehler

It’s the smallest thing in the world. Does the tennis ball land inside the line or outside? But somehow, as I watched this 60-second YouTube clip of an Australian tennis match last January, and heard an explosion of joyous approval surge from the crowd, I could feel the planet shift.

Or at least it seemed that way for an instant.

In the clip, a tennis player named Jack Sock tells his opponent, Lleyton Hewitt, whose serve has just been declared out, that he should challenge the call. A little humorous disbelief bounces around the court, but eventually Hewitt says, “Sure, I’ll challenge it.” A judge reviews the tape and declares that the serve was in . . . and the crowd lets loose an enormous cheer.

I felt like I could hear the stunned amazement in it. Hurray for integrity! Hurray for . . . what? It was different from the usual hoots and hollers of “our guy wins” or the polite acknowledgement of “nice play.”

Hurray for integrity?

What I heard was a deep, collective awareness — however fleeting — that something matters more than winning. Usually such “awareness” comes wrapped in cynicism, because in dumbed-down America winning is everything. Just listen to the current news about the presidential race. It’s all Trump whoppers and the latest poll numbers. Or else it’s about defeating ISIS.

Sports, politics, war — whatever. Winning is everything. Last week I wrote about an attempt by Richard Nixon, back in 1969, to win the Vietnam War by implementing “a strategy of premeditated madness”: an attempt to scare the Soviets into capitulating in the Paris Peace Talks out of a belief that the American president was crazy enough to launch a nuclear war. Nuclear-armed B-52 bombers actually began flying across the Pacific Ocean, headed toward the eastern coast of the Soviet Union.

The ploy didn’t work, nor, thank God, did it backfire. But it occurred to me, as I wrestled, almost 50 years later, with the potential consequences of this bit of nuclear gamesmanship, that it was “a small-minded, desperate grasp for victory, not peace,” and ever since I’ve been trying to understand the nature of this distinction. Players, even (or maybe especially) at the level of geopolitics, are so enamored of “winning” that they will wager not simply human lives but humanity’s future to grab their small, temporary victory. This is because, in such a mindset, the difference between winning and losing is the difference between all and nothing.

Why have we not transcended this way of thinking? Its shortcomings are painfully apparent.

“Remember the 2003 invasion of Iraq?” asks Giles Fraser, writing last November in The Guardian. “It took only a few weeks for U.S. soldiers to reach Baghdad. Remember how they celebrated, tearing down statues of Saddam Hussein and forcing people who ran the country from office. That was the easy bit. The war began on 19 March and by 1 May the famous ‘mission accomplished’ banner was unfurled on the USS Abraham Lincoln.”

Yeah, remember? We won! How about a big cheer for W in his padded flight suit? He gave America a nice fat victory to celebrate, with the help of an awesome shock-and-awe bombing campaign.

“Mission accomplished?” Fraser continues. “That’s the myth that needs busting. Even today, what remains of Iraq is a basketcase of blood and war and a school of festering hatred. A similar story could be told about Libya. In other words, retaliation is not a strategy for peace. And without a strategy for peace, we will continue forever on this deathly merry-go-round.”

And a strategy for peace is not the same thing as a strategy for winning. The governments of the First World, whether convened by George Bush or Barack Obama, have a highly evolved strategy for winning, from drones and cluster bombs and standing armies to nuclear weapons and a willingness, or at least a faux-willingness, to use them. Part of the strategy is also a continual global prowl for enemies — those we can relegate to the receiving end of our extraordinary weaponry. Winning requires, first of all, dehumanizing the loser — and the loser’s neighbors, and his children.

“We wouldn’t bomb the suburbs of Brussels to eliminate the ISIS cells stationed there,” Fraser writes. “So why bomb Syrian towns when there are so many innocent people living there too?”

And here, perhaps, is the place where any vision of peace has to start. What’s sacred is all human and planetary life, not merely a selective portion of it (Brussels, say, but not Aleppo).

As a journalist, I put much of the onus on the media, which so often seems clueless about how to report the sort of news that’s larger than superficial victory or defeat. It’s far more able to report who won the tennis match than to analyze and celebrate a triumphant act of sportsmanship. It’s far more able to report the pending invasion of Iraq — a quick win for America’s coming up, folks — than to see the obvious: Everyone is about to lose.

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Robert C. Koehler

Robert C. Koehler

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His book, "Courage Grows Strong at the Wound" (2016). Contact him or visit his website at

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