This war is a war of machines; or so, at least, the experts insist. And for once events seem to confirm their opinion. It was doubtless the superiority of the German war machine that made possible all the German victories, both the bloody ones and the earlier, bloodless ones. The Poles, the Dutch, the Belgians, and the French were defeated because they didn’t have weapons equal to those of the Germans. So we have been saying all along. And from the time it was generally conceded that we too had to be prepared, there has been talk of nothing but machines of war—the building of which seemed to be preparedness enough.
It isn’t enough, of course.
The English say, “Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.” The sentiment is valid in this war too—and in any war. Wars are always waged with men as well as weapons. Men must have a certain minimum fitness, or the finest bombing planes and tanks won’t help.
It is strange that the United States of all countries should have forgotten this. For in the first World War the American troops demonstrated the importance of their athletic training for practical warfare. Half of the men in the famous 69th Regiment were New York public-school athletes. Nearly a hundred thousand—98,785 to be exact—of the volunteers from New York had participated in the activities of the Public School Athletic League. During the war itself, American Y. M. C. A. instructors helped direct the athletic training of soldiers here and in France. These instructors fostered sports that would improve the alertness, skill, initiative, and efficiency of their men. It was soon discovered that sports did more than stimulate fitness and morale; they improved the technique of the troops. It was found, for instance, that boxers could handle bayonets skillfully and that baseball players could throw hand grenades with deadly aim.
Only after the draft act of 1940 was passed was it recalled that human fitness is a decisive factor in building a defense machine, and that sports are a decisive factor in acquiring fitness. Ironically enough, promoters of professional sports were the first who publicly connected sports and defense. They didn’t begin propaganda for sports as an integral part of the defense program. They simply voiced their fears. They were afraid that their highly paid and highly profitable boxers, baseball players, and football players might be drafted.
However, things began to happen. The War Department ordered a million dollars’ worth of sports equipment and set aside $2,800,000 for sports activities in general. Gene Tunney was called upon by the navy to coordinate physical education. Dr. W. M. Lewis, president of Lafayette College, made a speech urging colleges and universities to make their sports facilities available to men of draft age. There were other speeches and suggestions. D. Benedetto, president of the Amateur Athletic Union, advocated doubling the sports activities organized and controlled by the A. A. U. as “the democratic answer to the dictators’ athletic program.” While Mr. Benedetto’s recommendation is by no means the whole answer, he is undoubtedly on safe ground in asserting that the dictators have a program that calls for counteractivity.
Let’s look for a moment at the athletic programs of the dictators.
It wasn’t Hitler who started using sports as a preparation for war in Germany. It was most probably General Ludendorff. In October, 1914, a proclamation was read in all German public schools, ordering that five minutes of each recess period be devoted to running practice. The General Staff had decided that one of the reasons for the defeat on the Marne had been the inability of the German soldier to retreat fast enough. German schoolboys now had seven hours of gymnastics weekly, instead of two, as before. In 1915 the Juggendkompanien, or youth squads, were, founded, with compulsory participation for every boy over sixteen. The boys received military training camouflaged under the terms of a secret decree that said, “Care must be taken that these exercises appear athletic in character.”