On any given day, if you were to click over to the Crossfit ‘mainsite’, the chances are you will find a reference to the military in the daily entry. Today, on February 25th, the blog prescribes a ‘Hero workout’ named ‘Zimmermann‘ named after U.S. Marine Corps First Lieutenant James R. Zimmerman, who died in action in Afghanistan. (The ‘Hero’ workouts are almost invariably named after men; recently, one of them, ‘White’, was named after a woman, U.S. Army First Lieutenant Ashley White, who, like Zimmermann, died in action in Afghanistan.) The ‘mainsite’ often features photographs of members of the military working out at US bases all over the world, service members frequently write in the comments space, and occasionally articles with a military or national security orientation are linked to on the blog; Crossfit affiliate gyms all over the country offer discounts to the military; the annual fund-raising event Fight Gone Bad raises money for wounded servicemen; and many affiliates celebrate Memorial Day by performing the ‘Murph’ Hero workout (named after Navy Lieutenant Michael Murphy, killed in action in Afghanistan).
There is, it appears, something of the military in Crossfit’s genes. (This is partially explained by the fact that service members were among the first to adopt Crossfit training routines and that much military physical training already incorporated aspects of the Crossfit training methodology.)
So, is Crossfit ‘militaristic’, ‘pro-war’, ‘jingoistic’, ‘right-wing’, ‘cheerleaders for US imperialism and expansionism’, or whatever else? The answer, like that to any interesting question, is complicated. The flavor of the ‘mainsite’–moreso in the past–often seemed to indicate a facile ‘yes’ answer to those questions. (When I was first directed to the ‘mainsite’ by a Crossfitting friend, he warned me to ‘stay away from their frightening right-wing politics’; when I got to the site, I found an article by Charles Krauthammer just below the daily workout entry.)
But as Crossfit’s popularity has grown, and as the demographic associated with Crossfit has diversified from a core population made up of servicemen, law-enforcers and firemen–the three groups that until recently, were the only ones to receive membership discounts; my affiliate now offers discounts to teachers–the ‘orientation’, such as it is, of Crossfit, has become more ambiguous. Crossfit doesn’t just mean Air Force crewmen working out in hangars; it also means Berkeley grads sprinting on beaches in North California; it doesn’t only conjure up images of crewcut privates working out in remote mountain outposts, but also those of post-natal soccer moms discussing paleo recipes (and perhaps even skinny-jean clad hipsters riding gearless bikes to the daily WOD).
The Crossfit world is made up of thousands of affiliates each with its own particular flavor, style, demographic, geographic location, and culture. And many of those who Crossfit now don’t like wars in general, they don’t like the wars the US wages, they think the best way to ‘support our boys over there’ is to bring them right back home so that they don’t get killed in action (and stop killing others), to stop spending money on drones or stealth bombers, and to spend it on public schools, infrastructure, and basic scientific research instead. Their membership, enthusiastic participation, and responses to Crossfit’s connections with the military complicate any easy answers to those questions.
Many Crossfitters disdain the political implications of a workout regime: ‘I workout, move the weight, sweat the work, and I’m done. I stay away from the politics.’ This apolitical response works most of the time. But at times like Fight Gone Bad, or at the Memorial Day ‘commemorations’, as one performs ‘Murph’, it is hard not to have to face up to the question of what affiliation with, or participation in, a perhaps-militaristic culture might entail for one’s own political commitments. (This complication is especially enhanced by that all-too-common exhortation, ‘Even if you don’t support US foreign policy, you should be behind the brave servicemen and women, out there, doing their jobs’).
I cannot–and will not–attempt an answer for anyone else that Crossfits. (I do hope that by writing this post, I can raise questions for any Crossfitter to consider. ) All I can do is offer a few thoughts about my personally complicated implication in all of this.
I’m a naturalized US citizen, I have marched in anti-war marches, I find the culture of masculine violence veneration obnoxious. But, I also write books on military aviation history; more particularly, air wars in the Indian subcontinent; members of my family–my father and my brother–have served in the military (the Indian Air Force); my father fought in two wars–the 1965 and 1971 wars with Pakistan–and picked up a gallantry medal. Some of my most enjoyable childhood memories are those of watching jets–afterburners on–take off; some of my most pleasurable adult experiences have been of interviewing war veterans for my books.
Pro-military? Anti-military? For the ‘boys’? Or against them? Comfortable with Crossfit’s connections with the military, or not?
The answer, I think, is a mishmash of many competing impulses. The comfort-seeking apolitical part of me disdains a conceptual connection between a workout regime and a political orientation; another part, the one that thinks ‘the personal is political’, is made uncomfortable by my association with a ‘culture’ or ‘institution’ that is so passionately pro-military and perhaps militaristic. These responses are made ambiguous by my personal identification with members of the military; I find myself striking up conversations about service life with servicemen quite easily; I think of myself as a ‘military brat’ and find empathy with the children of service members. And somehow, I still cannot bring myself to think that when I do a ‘Hero’ workout I am honoring the memory of the fallen. To do that, it seems to me that I should work to ensure no more children are ever orphaned by war, that no more families ever have to confront the sight of a funeral casket. My father, someone that actually fought in a war, as opposed to those who merely cheer for it from the sidelines, described it as ’90 percent boredom, 10 percent confusion’; he refused to glamorize war and disdained the telling of tall war tales; he urged me to think about careers other than that of a fighter pilot; and by making sure I read more than just war comics, made me think about the politics that makes war possible.
The sum total of these competing impulses is ultimately determined, as it is for most people, by their own personal connections with Crossfit culture. I don’t ‘do Crossfit’; rather I work out with a group of folks that I can best describe as my friends, at a highly particular, specific location: Crossfit South Brooklyn. This, for me, isn’t Crossfit so much as it is ‘The House That David Built.’ It might utilize Crossfit training methodology but its deployment is uniquely personal and idiosyncratic. If there is an ideology on display here, it is that of working hard, and accepting as much diversity–in fitness yes, but in every other dimension as well–as possible. Fitting in here is easy just because the space accommodates so many in all their variety.
When I interviewed veterans for my books, to a man, they said their most important motivation in any display of courage was invariably personal; they fought not so much for flag or country but for the men, their friends, who worked with and alongside them; quite simply, they didn’t want to let them down. In my participation in Crossfit ‘culture’ a decidedly less martial variant holds true; I work out with my friends in a space that is accepting of my political stance, and in the end that is all that seems to matter. Last year, I dedicated my ‘Murph’ to my father and my brother. And even though I do not think performing a ‘Hero’ workout will honor the memory of the fallen as much as working to end wars will, if performing it helps someone think about war and its cost, then I’m all for it. In the end, it’s perhaps best to find– within this particular space–my personal orientation to the questions it raises and to answer them in my own way. What that way is, is something I’m still figuring out as I move on. (That is, when I’m not performing a workout or recovering from one; at those times, my mind is fixated, almost exclusively, on the demands my body is making on me!)
I remain, as always, deeply curious about what other Crossfitters think about the questions raised in this post, and would love to engage with their answers to it.