When my Kristen was small and first started playing youth soccer with a competitive local league, probably U6, she loved the game and even though her team never won. The team may have been Wendy’s Wildcats, I still sometimes drink my coffee from the mug with her picture on one side and the team photograph on the other. All her friends were playing. At long last the day and game did come when the Wildcats won, and I well remember her exhilaration as we drove home after, “I never knew how good it feels to win!!”
Of course it did, and of course it does. I know how it feels to win. But mainly I know and remember how it feels to lose, how terribly it hurts to lose. Losing once long ago made my decisions for me more than once later into my life. Nothing in life is so “it’s just a game” that it doesn’t hurt to lose. Someone said, and it’s been repeated until it was so trite that we probably quit saying it, “Winning isn’t the main thing, it’s the Only thing.” If your team loses, it doesn’t matter whether the score is 27-2 or 42-13 or 37-32, losing is painful, demoralizing. The wide scores are humiliating, but the close scores, or the stunning, crushing last second upsets, can hurt the most; remembering October 24 at Bobby Dodd, Atlanta against Georgia Tech.
Americans seemed conditioned and accustomed to win, losing not part of our national identity or destiny. The hurt of losing can last long, decades, generations, and can determine who and what we are. In all our history, until the disgrace of Vietnam, we lost only one war: Union soldiers right here in our land, on our soil, pulling down our flag, the humiliation, anger, bitterness and hatred was more than just lingering during and throughout my growing up years. For perspective, that Civil War was no farther ago when I was a little boy than WW2 is now, when many remember and may still hate. Few and fewer are living today who fought and remember the front lines, but many of us knew the daily newspapers and weekly newsreels and propaganda and atrocities. I remember the glow of flame over the horizon of the Gulf of Mexico one dark night as we drove home from Pensacola. I remember worrying about my father serving in the Maritime Service in 1943 and 1944, in a tanker somewhere in the same Gulf imperiled by German U-boats. And the Blue Stars in the front windows of relatives, friends and neighbors all over town, and Gold. Winning can be national even as losing is personal and heartbreaking: few Gold Star mothers celebrated with the rest of us on VE day and VJ day.
The national humiliation of American helicopters evacuating our last troops and terrified Vietnamese to U.S. Navy warships offshore. Losing is worse than “it's a bitch, ain’t it.” It hurts, and may hurt grievously, and the hurt may never go away.
During the Cold War, both sides, East and we West, developed a foreign policy of Mutual Assured Destruction, everybody called it “MAD” and it was. Fingers were on buttons, ready to ignite the eschaton if the other side scratched or blinked. It was an insanity in which we were fully prepared to bring down the human race in order to keep the other side from winning, in order not to lose. I wonder what historians in Third World countries and the Southern Hemisphere will say about that era, or whether they will ever realize how close they came to walking The Road with Cormac McCarthy and the rest of us.
We are still there. Or there again, though more subtly and sinisterly but no less evil, wickedly. But something about us has changed, is changing. A generation have been voted in and taken charge who do not remember nationally about winning, that winning isn’t the main thing, it’s the only thing. Floundering, foundering, we don’t know what to do. We think it’s only a game. We have grown timid, reluctant, hesitant. In time, losing will cost us dearly. This may even be the last game we play.