No, I'm not about to talk about the Marines or the Special Forces getting tougher so they can better fight the Taliban in Afghanistan -- though, come to think of it, the American generals might learn something by studying the story of Lawrence of Arabia. (In the May, 2009 New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell notes that Lawrence led his Bedouins over 600 miles in summer heat while the Turks stayed fixed in their garrison. He quotes Lawrence: "Our largest available resources were the tribesmen, quite unused to formal warfare, whose assets are movement, endurance, individual intelligence, knowledge of country...." In the end, the tribesmen killed or captured 1,200 Turks while losing only two men of their own. In this context, Gladwell quotes the 15th-century French general Maurice de Saxe, who famously said that the art of war is about legs, not arms. And, writes Gladwell, "Lawrence's troops were all legs.")
But I'm not talking about our troops, I'm talking about you. And, maybe even more so, about your overweight neighbor or co-worker, and about the 200 million Americans who are paying huge amounts of taxes to support our military, but who aren't taking good care of themselves. We runners just may have enough experience with physical and mental fitness and self-discipline to help educate our familes, friends, and communities in ways that would not only save many lives but help save the country itself, from its sleepwalk toward the Pied-Piper's cliff.
The purpose of the Defense Department is to protect us from threats to our "national security". But what are the greatest threats to our security? If you look at the federal government's policies and budgets for the past half-century, you'd think Defense was all about the danger of attacks on the homeland -- the threats of Communism in Southeast Asia (Vietnam), the Soviet menace worldwide, and those infamous "weapons of mass destruction" in Iraq. And, oh yes, the terrorists and Osama bin Ladin. Almost forgot about him, what with all the distractions of Iraq and Afghanistan. But believe it or not, there are other threats now that are vastly bigger than those.
I'm not at all opposed to maintaining a strong military defense, even though I grew up in a Quaker family and was a great admirer of Jesus, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandella, and other advocates of nonviolence. But the enormity of the U.S. defense budget is hugely out of proportion to its role in a healthy civil society. A recent Doonsbury cartoon puts this in perspective far better than I can. A reporter is being interviewed by an alien from another planet, who wants to know what we Americans "are like as a people":
Reporter: "Well, let's look at two sets of facts. Nine years ago, we were attacked. 3,000 people died. In response, we started two long, bloody wars and built a vast Homeland Security apparatus -- all at a cost of trillions! Now, consider this. During those same nine years, 270,000 Americans were killed by gunfire at home. Our response? We weakened our gun laws."
Alien From Another Planet: Whrrrr! Fail. "Cannot comprehend . . . ."
I won't give you the last line, because I don't want to steal any thunder from the strip's author, Gary Trudeau, who I think is the greatest cartoonist ever. But you get the point.
So, what does this have to do with distance running? Hold on.
Around the same week I saw that cartoon, I also saw a TV commercial from a public-interest group, pointing out that cigarette smoking kills more Americans than terrorism and murder, car crashes, drugs, and alcoholism put together. And to that still-abbreviated list of threats to our homeland, add heart disease, stroke, cancer, Alzheimer's, and all those other dread diseases you've entered charity 5ks or walks to help combat. And, friends, we haven't even brought up the subject of climate change, the future impacts of which (on coastal cities, global food production, fresh water supplies, and the rise of new epidemics) could make Katrina look like just another bad day. In other words, the greatest threats to our security, by an enormous margin, are not in the deserts of the Middle East or North Africa, but right here in our own back yards.
What we runners and other endurance athletes (bicyclists, hikers, cross-country skiers, mountain climbers, et al.) have going for us is a knowledge of physical and mental discipline that, if shared with more of our underexercised fellow citizens of the world, can do more for our longevity, health, quality of life and, yes -- security -- than a pumped-up military budget ever could or will.
I don't mean that we all need to be endurance athletes to have that kind of security. But humans, by nature, need regular aerobic exercise. By nature, we need lean diets, not loaded up with sugar, salt, fat, and chemicals. And, by nature, we need to have closer connection, from our feet to our lungs, hearts, and brains, to the natural world with which we co-evolved and on which we are entirely dependent for life.
In the recent political battle over the U.S. budget, both parties have taken cowardly positions -- urging cuts in funding for education, health, the environment, and other life-protecting programs that do more for national security than foreign wars have done since 1945 or, probably, will ever do again. The pols urge these cuts while pretending to be caught in a terrible dilemma, and seeming not to notice that the largest part of the U.S. budget is Defense. Yet, the way to end that political sham-battle is simple: If the politicians had the guts to be the leaders they pretend to be, they could cut the military by 20 or 30 percent and have enough funds to do everything the country needs to get strong again--rebuild decaying infrastructure, invest in clean energy that doesn't depend on sucking up to Middle Eastern dictators, make sure everyone has access to food, water, health care, and employment, and eliminate both the national debt and the deficit. And, still have a military as big as those of the next 10-biggest militaries in the world combined! But of course, the politicians don't want to be accused of being "weak on military defense." Instead, they evidently don't mind being weak on real defense.
There's a strong connection between the endurance and patience of individuals (what we learn as long-distance runners) and the long-run sustainability of our society. For instance, consider the national debt. We know that if we sprint, without pacing ourselves, we build up oxygen debt and hit the wall in 2 to 3 minutes max. If we learn the secrets of efficiency, we can run for hours. Those facts aren't the policies of a government or the rules of a sport. They are the laws of nature. After 3 million years of human evolution, we are suddenly in peril, not from terrorism, but from disconnection with what really keeps us alive. It's late in the day, but maybe there's still time to re-learn what our ancient, far-wandering hunter-gatherer ancestors long understood.