Cheap Shot: Notes on Donald Rumsfeld and the Game of Squash

Benjamin Strong


You cannot impress a woman—in my younger and more vulnerable years, I have tried—by telling her that you play squash. It is after all the only sport that shares its name with a gourd. And it is, ordinarily, among the obscurest of athletic pursuits. Invented in English prep schools in the mid-nineteenth century, using sawed-off racquets then called bats, squash has never completely transcended its imperial origins; and it has endured, in America at least, largely because of those elite universities, clubs, and rarified Wasp enclaves that still host regulation indoor courts. Popularly speaking, squash is, as a Chicago Tribune reporter last year described it, “the other white-collar sport.” Ping-pong has more street cred.

Then came the announcement by reporter David S. Cloud in last Sunday’s New York Times that squash’s most notorious amateur practitioner is Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who is currently mending from a September 5 procedure on the rotator cuff in his left shoulder, torn as a result of his daily regimen of play. “He was under a lot of discomfort,” the Pentagon’s press secretary told Reuters after the surgery, adopting the tenor of a White House staffer relating a wipeout during a mountain bike sortie around the Crawford Ranch. As usual, the Times is late to the story (oddly, Cloud doesn’t mention the operation that has sidelined Rummy) but goes for broke with his obviously fertile material.

In some ways, squash offers a window into Mr. Rumsfeld’s complicated psyche, revealing much about his stubborn competitiveness and seemingly limitless stamina. Pentagon officials and employees say Mr. Rumsfeld’s play closely resembles the way he runs the Defense Department, where he has spent six years trying to break the accepted modes of operating.

It is not especially surprising that the Sunday Times, where blithe observation passes as a codified métier, would treat Rummy’s jones for an antiquated game—he injured himself—as a political revelation. Still, it’s worth recalling, as Cloud does not, the last occasion on which the secretary’s devotion to squash made the news. In November 2004, when public outrage forced Rumsfeld to begin personally signing condolence letters to the families of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan (he had been relying on an automated machine), a Washington Post article mentioned a father who “bitterly commented that he thought it was a shame that the SecDef could keep his squash schedule but not find the time to sign his dead son’s letter.”

Whether or not he realized it, that aggrieved father had gone to the heart of the matter. In tennis, the entire arm, from the shoulder down, affects the direction and force of a swing, whereas in squash, the wrist is the hub of a good shot. War may be hell, but inscribing your full name to a form letter 3,000 times (and counting)—that has the potential to do serious violence to your squash game. Rumsfeld, remember, was under a lot of discomfort.

Of course, as Cloud notes, the ex-Princeton wrestler favors power over finesse—which helps explain why he tore the cuff in his shoulder rather than the one in his wrist. “The most telling detail in the [Times] piece,” wrote Michael Agger Monday in a canny essay for Slate, “is that Rumsfeld plays ‘hardball’ squash,” an obsolete American variant also known as squash tennis. The last official “hardball” tournament took place ten years ago, and American players now favor the international “softball” style, which rewards foot speed, creative shot selection, and a chess-like prescience for an opponent’s response. Rumsfeld, however, is more comfortable with unreconstructed brawn. He most frequently scores, according to those who have played with him, using a “deadly drop shot.” Overpowering a weaker opponent is an admirably simple strategy, one easily translated to the foosball or air hockey table—or, presumably, to the battlefield, which is the inevitable subtext of Cloud’s article.

“Muscle is not power in squash,” wrote Hashim Khan, the five-foot-four, one-hundred-and-twelve pound Pakistani champion who, along with other members of his freakishly talented family, dominated the sport from the 1950s through the 1980s. What Khan meant is that in (softball) squash the smallest player can use his legs and wits to defeat a physically stronger opponent. In my ten years playing the sport, I have seen this maxim affirmed repeatedly, watched arrogant men with rangy NBA physiques drag their gangly limbs across the court as women half their size blankly toy with them from the center T. In squash, David pummels Goliath.

But after we have counted the ironies, and after we have pondered that Rumsfeld’s preference for the hardball format certainly matches the nuance-deficient frame of mind that took America to war in Iraq, it’s not clear that anything useful about Rumsfeld’s thinking can be gleaned from studying his squash game. As Agger observes, “the squash/war metaphor goes slightly wrong: While Rumsfeld’s military strategy was sold as revolutionary, his squash game is an anachronism.”

What’s strange is why the American media continues to belatedly seek, in the most pointless manner, answers it ought to know already. On Monday, the day after Cloud’s squash exclusive, the Los Angeles Times reported that anonymous Army officials say the Iraq war cannot continue for much longer without a 41 percent increase in funding or, failing that, a substantial withdrawal of the troops presently deployed. The Army’s chief of staff has withheld the 2008 budget past the August 15 deadline in protest over the Pentagon’s refusal to confront these realities. It’s a shocking and unprecedented move. And then again, it isn’t anything more than this week’s example that blind strength also has its limits off the court.

*Image Note:
Page 1: Dean Martin/Newspix