As an unabashed, nail-biting Oakland Raiders fanatic who sits in the nose-bleed seats and who just bought my grandson pajamas and a dishware set emblazoned with the team’s infamous pirate logo, I still must admit that there is something unsettling about this year’s whirlwind of playoff and bowl games.

Isn’t there something perverse about a nation completely engrossed in football while the drumbeats of war, a deadlier game, beat persistently yet quietly in the background?

While the symbols of patriotism are everywhere–from the ubiquitous military recruitment ads to the stars and stripes affixed to referee uniforms at the Orange Bowl–television news anchors chirp about the latest troop movements and “incidents” in the “no-fly” zone. And for many Americans huddled around the tube in midwinter, knocking off Saddam Hussein is an easy sell, offering as it does a cheap thrill demanding less sacrifice than that needed to acquire playoff tickets–and less angst over the outcome.

However, the viewing public doesn’t seem to understand that what is being planned by our President is not Gulf War II–a swift punch in the mouth to our old ally Hussein–but rather a multiyear occupation by the United States of an independent, powerful and modern Muslim nation rife with ethnic tension.

If people think the invasion of Iraq is something that can fit neatly in the slot between the Super Bowl and spring training, they ought to read Monday’s New York Times report that the “final plans for administering and democratizing Iraq…amount to the most ambitious American effort to administer a country since the occupations of Japan and Germany at the end of World War II.”

The Times Sunday magazine cover story was even more explicit: “The American Empire: Get Used to It,” challenged the headline. History tells us that wars of empire are wars without end, as nationalism is a force that never can be truly suppressed–just ask the relatives of those killed in the latest suicide bomb attack in Tel Aviv how well Palestinian dreams of statehood are being managed.

Is the United States ready to be fully responsible for the future of Iraq’s stateless Kurds and its repressed Shiite population? Some US-based corporations will make out like bandits in a post-occupation Iraq, as a Western power again attempts to bring enlightenment to the region while ripping off its oil. However, US taxpayers and soldiers and, most of all, Iraqi women and children will ultimately suffer the consequences.

It seems clear that if Americans were to devote the same seriousness of thought to the consequences of invading Iraq that they have to evaluating the pros and cons of the controversial computerized ranking system of college football teams, we would not be on the road to “preemptive” war on the other side of the world.

Sports–with its stats, video replay and expert commentators–are discussed with a blend of logic and fact that we don’t get but should demand in discussions about Iraq. But the war debaters on talk radio and cable news shows manage to meld the mindless partisanship of fans with constant obfuscation, macho posturing and a rattling of credentials all designed to intimidate war skeptics.

Meanwhile, like a character in Alice’s Wonderland, the President insists facts that challenge the Administration’s position don’t matter. That UN inspectors have found nothing alarming during uninhibited visits to more than 200 suspected Iraqi weapons sites is simply spun by the White House as another example of Iraq lying. Never mind that polls show the majority of Americans want proof Iraq has weapons that actually threaten us before they will support war. Once the troops land, patriotism will trump our common sense.

With no draft and a completely dominant military, many Americans have come to view war as something akin to the dark twin of the Olympics: an international test of strength accompanied by big opening-night fireworks over the host city.

Despite the rampant use of war metaphors in sports, however, war is no game. The whistles are not blown in time, there are no penalties for unnecessary roughness and those risking their lives are never paid the big bucks.

Unfortunately, for those of us sitting safely in the good seats, it can be a heck of a show–just like the Roman circus.