There’s a big difference between playing checkers and playing chess.
In a game of checkers each piece is equal to and has the same moves as every other piece until a piece reaches the end of the board where it can begin moving in reverse.
Chess is a little more complicated and each of the six different pieces have different movement capabilities. Each of these types of moves can open up more possibilities, or perils, for you or your opponent.
A successful checkers strategy focuses on recognizing and taking advantage of opportunities. A good chess player is always weighing the consequences of a given move or series of moves.
These are good ideas to ponder while considering any interaction between people, groups of people, or nations. Different people or groups of people with different histories, cultures or languages will express or interpret ideas differently in a given situation and, on that basis, will establish different goals for themselves and different strategies for obtaining them.
We can see this idea readily at play in the relationship between the United States and Iran. Here in America we are currently considering the possibility of going to war with Iran. Iranians, on the other hand, believe that they have been in conflict with the U.S. almost since that country, with its present borders, was established in the wake of WWII.
Iran has been on a war footing with us for decades whereas we are tired of war in the Middle East and have listened to our last two presidents promise to end it. We can relate this fundamental difference in understanding in chess terms like this: Iran has the white pieces and gets to make the first move.
The next step in a chess game is to control the center of the board — usually by occupying it with pawns and at least one knight or bishop. Iran has the advantage here as this thing will probably be played on their home field. Now, once you get into a war it’s a really good idea to have already planned a way to get out of it. This is a skill set that we haven’t done a good job of developing since the 1940s so I’ll jump in and help you with this one.
It’s pretty easy — all you have to do is ask yourself, or your elected leaders — what is our definition of “victory?” Go ahead and try it out with your friends or co-workers for practice. I guarantee you will get every answer from “Bomb them back into the Stone Age!” to “Destroy Iran’s ability to support terrorist networks.” to “I don’t want to pay $3 for a gallon of gas!”
It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that you are getting multiple answers. Iran has one goal — get the United States out of the Middle East.
In chess you have one objective — to position your pieces so that the other guy can’t move his king. This is known as “checkmate” and that word is derived, interestingly enough, from the Persian phrase “shah mat” which means “The king is dead.”
To win at chess you have to focus on this one objective. Taking the other guy’s pieces just for the heck of it is a distraction from this goal. It works pretty good in checkers but chess is a different animal.
Another important thing in chess is the ability to gauge your opponent’s skill level. Based on known defense expenditures, geography, regional politics and force size, I don’t believe that Iran has the kind of pattycake army that Iraq had. And remember, it took us two tries to checkmate the Iraqi military.
Finally, a good chess player reads his opponent’s moves in an attempt to divine his strategy. We are living in a political environment where critical intelligence about our enemies has been tragically misinterpreted on occasion and sometimes shoved by the wayside in favor of political gain.
This happened prior to 9/11 — the event which started this whole sad cycle — and we have a sitting president who routinely disparages the intelligence community for telling him things that he doesn’t want to hear.
I am not here to debate the merits of acting against Iran and, if pressed, would concede that Iran and its proxies are one of the chief threats to world peace.
I am also not saying that Americans, in their approach to war, are inherently stupid — a little short-sighted, maybe, but not flat-out dumb. I am just saying that given our recent history on the battlefield (both military and political ones) we should brush up on our chess game and really think about things before we act.
Remembering the lessons of history and actually learning from them are as different as checkers and chess.