Balancing Acts

How About a Nice Game of Chess?

by Tom Beutel tom b

By the time you read this article, it is likely that the United States and a coalition of other nations will have begun a military response to the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime in Syria. According to White House spokesman Jay Carney on August 27, “There must be a response. We cannot allow this kind of violation of an international norm with all the attending and great consequences to go unanswered.”

Carney has a valid point. We all – national leaders, world citizens, churches and peacemakers of all faiths – should speak and act against the use of these weapons. We might say the same for all lethal weapons, certainly biological and nuclear weapons as well as chemical.

According to National Geographic, chemical warfare and biological are not a new. In 256 AD “an army from the Sasanian Persian Empire … attacking the Roman-controlled city, placed braziers and bellows in their gallery, and when the Romans broke through, added the chemicals and pumped choking clouds into the Roman tunnel.” In 1346 Tartars “ordered corpses to be placed in catapults and lobbed into the city in the hope that the intolerable stench would kill everyone inside” and in 1763, during the French and Indian Wars, a British general “wondered in a letter, ‘Could it not be contrived to send smallpox among those disaffected tribes of Indians?'” World War I saw significant use of chemical weapons by both sides and was dubbed “the chemists’ war.”

And, according to reports by the BBC, The Guardian,  and others, the US and coalition troops used both napalm and white phosphorus as weapons in the Iraq War. (See  and

The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) “outlaws the production, stockpiling, and use of chemical weapons.” Violations are violations of international law. The United States has signed and ratified the convention as well as the 1925 Geneva Protocol “for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare.” Syria is a signatory of the Geneva Protocol, but not of the CWC.

According to CNN, chemical weapons’ deaths in Syria range from approximately 350 to 1300, while the overall death toll is over 100,000 as of late August. In addition, it is estimated that approximately two million Syrian refugees have fled to neighboring countries including Jordan, Turkey, Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq. ( )

While the use of chemical weapons is particularly offensive and violates international agreements such as the Geneva Protocol and the Chemical Weapons Convention, it is clear that the use of these weapons is not the most serious problem in the Syrian Civil War. Which brings us, finally, to the title of this column which is a line from the 1983 movie War Games.

War Games follows the exploits of a teenage hacker, David Lightman, who “unwittingly accesses WOPR, a United States military supercomputer programmed to predict possible outcomes of nuclear war. Lightman gets WOPR to run a nuclear war simulation, originally believing it to be a computer game. The simulation causes a national nuclear missile scare and nearly starts World War III.” ( ).

Probably the most remembered line from the movie is uttered by the computer. As it tries one scenario after another searching for a “win” in the “game” of Global Thermonuclear War it finally concludes by saying, “Strange game. The only winning move is not to play. How about a nice game of chess?”

War, indeed, is a strange game, and it is not a game that can be won – by anyone. It has been pointed out that at best only half of those involved in war “win” since one side “wins” and the other “loses.” And, with the destruction, loss of life, and economic cost, even the winners are losers. WOPR is right when it concludes that, when it comes to war, the only winning move is not to play.

This means not escalating the war in Syria by sending weapons or making military strikes in retaliation for the alleged use of chemical weapons. It means seeking alternatives wherever they can be found – with the Russians or the Chinese, the rebels or the Assad government, the Arab League or the EU. If we are concerned about the loss of life and the displacement of the Syrian people, then we must pull out all the stops to secure a meaningful cease fire and, ultimately, an end to the conflict.

It is hard to know what we, as individuals, can do; especially given the state of  conflict. Perhaps is is not coincidental that we celebrated the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and the march on Washington on August 28. Speakers commemorating the event focused on the fundamental change which came about due to the simple actions of ordinary people – “seamstresses, and steelworkers, students and teachers, maids and porters.”  (President Barak Obama, August 28, 2013) Rather than wringing their hands wondering “What can I do?” they went to Washington to seek change.

They believed that they could effect change, and they did. We, too can alter the path of the war in Syria, by

  • Praying for wisdom for leaders on all sides of the conflict and for our nation’s leaders as they consider what to do in the face of escalating violence.
  • Contacting government leaders to encourage them to seriously seek a peaceful resolution to the war, rather than contributing to the conflict. One way to do this is to join OxFam in sending a message to Secretary of  State Kerry to pursue peace, not war:
  • Joining with local and national peace    organizations in calling for and contributing to peace efforts. For example, take part with Mennonite Central Committee in advocating for peace in Syria:
  • Using contacts on social media to encourage others to become involved in  advocating for peace in Syria.

These are some of the things we can all do. You can, no doubt, think of others. Like those “ordinary people” seeking peace and justice 50 years ago with the March on Washington, let’s join together to change the situation. Or, perhaps, how about a nice game of chess?


2 thoughts on “Balancing Acts

  1. I have worked with several Native American tribes and know that the USA military did use blankets with Small Pox to destroy villages, and read in the book prepared for MWC Paraguay meetings about the spread of Small Pox by the military in Paraguay in the 1930s. It was not only proposed, but actually used.
    Sincerely in Christ,
    Richard Hirschler

  2. Pingback: Balancing acts: Syria | Peace Church Philippines

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