The most important rule in chess is associated with the only word that chess reliably contributes to everyone’s vocabulary – checkmate. A player wins if the other player’s king is threatened and escape is impossible.
Chess metaphors are understandably often used in discussions of war. But the rules of chess and war are very different – especially that checkmate rule. In war, even if there is a king to threaten, threatening him may not mean victory. Killing him might just lead to his replacement; trashing his country might draw in its friends; destroying his army and slaughtering his people might leave behind ideas that will bring new recruits to his cause.
Leaders play a role in choosing what objectives will be required for victory, and by choosing wisely, they can help bring victory into sight if not into grasp. But leaders don’t control these objectives fully. Some objectives may be unavoidable, and not a matter of choice. Other objectives might change during the course of the war, sometimes beyond a leader’s control or even outside of his awareness. And, God knows, leaders can choose objectives unwisely. With everything reduced to black and white, with only 64 squares to consider, and with the opponent’s king in plain view, checkmate looks easily obtainable compared with victory in war – whatever victory means.
But that doesn’t stop people, or presidents, from thinking that the checkmate rule, or something like it, applies in war as it does in chess. President Bush routinely behaved as though war had a checkmate rule. Almost eight years ago, he declared a worldwide “war on terror.”
The precise objectives in this war and even the precise opponents were unknown and unknowable at the time, and remain so in large part. But even without any way of defining victory, the United States has continued to spend money and lives in the name of this war, and America’s military and even society has been retooled to fight it. It is as though throwing people and money into this “war” and casting other defense priorities and civil liberties aside were themselves the criteria for victory.
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