This past semester, my colleagues and I taught a conflict 101 class to undergraduates. We took them from the Cold War to Yemen, talking about the different approaches to conflict each modern situation prompted.
Today, it dawned on me that each conflict might have a corresponding board game. If you want to avoid getting murdered, folks spent time figuring out which game they were in.
it’s a bit like the film “Stranger Than Fiction.” Have you seen it? A Will Ferrell and Dustin Hoffman movie in which Ferrell is a character in someone’s novel and Hoffman, a literary expert, tries to help him figure out what genre he’s in. Is Ferrell in a romantic comedy? a tragedy? They couldn’t figure out what he should do or his chances for survival were until they knew his genre. Not too unlike what the world is trying to figure out regarding the Middle East.
So let’s see how this works for global conflict. Colonialism was pretty much the game of Risk. Prior to the 20th Century people were pretty much running around claiming territories.
World Wars I and II were conducted mostly like Battleship..Calculated moves to sink the each others military.
Then I think the Cold War period was more like the game of Chess. Game theory, Rational Choice theory, and negotiation theories were developed to try to help us figure out what the Russians would do. We came up with Tit-for-Tat and other approaches. And while they may have been limited, we didn’t blow each other– and the world– up. So that’s positive.
After the Cold War, instead of the world peace we had hoped, there were ethnic conflicts. I think the 1990s were a bit more like the Chinese Checkers. We start to realize there are not just big “States” there are lots of little parties all interconnected. You cannot move forward without one another. Lots of different groups, previously silenced by the Cold War and now finding their voices, crashing into and and bludgeoning each other.
So I think military strategists around the world are trying to figure out what game we are in now. If we knew the game we think we’d know how to win. I’m not sure either, but it reminds me of Hungry, Hungry Hippos — a game that had no strategy, it made lots of noise while players just clamored to grab all the marbles.
Samantha Power, United States Ambassador to the United Nations, will not let anyone in her office use the word “tragedy” or the phrase “tragic events.”
Her reasoning is really salient for this blog on the Language of Conflict. Why has Ambassador Power banned the word? She says that it suggests we have no agency over what happened.
We say, “Oh, what happened is so terrible. It’s a tragedy.” We release a sympathetic sigh, shake our head, and then continue munching our salad.
We believe we cannot do anything about tragedies…we are as powerless as Oedipus was not to kill his father and sleep with his mother…as powerless as Romeo & Juliet were to interrupt their fate. Oh the whole situation was “star crossed.”
If the event is described versus labelled we may be able to see more opportunities to influence — if not what happened — at least what happens next.
For example saying, “It’s such tragedy what’s happening in Syria” is quite different than saying “there are millions of displaced people unable to return home because there is a war in Syria that no one has gone in and interrupted.”
As you move about today and this week, pay attention to the use of the word tragedy…
How do you feel when you hear it?
Do you feel a safe distance away?
Who do you think may benefit from us using this word?
Who is protected from your engagement?
What is the cost?
I like Power’s position on the word. Tragedy’s belong on the stage and in novels.
People have asked me for the transcript of my graduation speech. Below the video below, you will now see the transcript as well. The speech is only a little over three minutes long.
Thanks for all your support and for letting me share with you some of what hundreds of hours with Holocaust survivors during the past five years has taught me.
Before coming to George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution (S-CAR), I lived in France worked in advertising and pursued a master’s degree in International Affairs at the American University of Paris. I wrote my thesis on the French National Railway’s role in the WWII transport of deportees to death camps and the contemporary conflict in the United States over whether the company had done enough to make amends.
After graduation, I wanted more and only S-CAR specialized in both post-conflict studies and what the field calls narrative. Narrative approaches to conflict consider how the stories we tell about conflicts impacts how our conflicts unfold.
So, I boxed up my apartment in Paris and moved to Arlington.
The problem was, I had not been admitted to the doctoral program.
I had not even applied.
Thank goodness the school eventually admitted me. I had no plan B.
SCAR over-delivered, teaching me new ways to think about conflict and introducing me to astonishing group of colleagues and faculty. I wrote a dissertation about those French trains and now the dissertation is becoming a widely accessible book.
It was the 80 Holocaust survivors interviewed for my dissertation who taught me how to live. I want to share two of these lessons today.
What the survivors taught me is that no small act is too little and that no action of compassion is ever too late.
Two brief stories demonstrate this.
Rosette Goldstein, who I saw again last month in Florida, recalls the first day she had to wear the yellow star to school.
A star that marked her Judaism and served as the beginning of the physical separation of the Jews from the Non-Jews throughout Europe.
Just 8 years old, Rosette recalls the ridicule from her classmates.
She also recalls the words of her teacher, who risked her job when she stood up before the whole class and said,
“Stop this! These children are our friends. Our country has gone mad, but we will not.”
Her words have never left Rosette.
It is never too little.
It was Daniel – who I just saw in Paris two weeks ago, with whom I learned the second lesson:
it is never too late.
During my many meetings with Daniel, I learned that he felt largely estranged from the brother with whom he survived first Auschwitz and then a series of death marches to Austria.
Just 12 and 14 at the time, the boys had been rounded up together, deported together and imprisoned together.
They have consecutive tattoos on their forarms.
Through a series of events – which I am now writing about in my book – they found themselves separated after the war—only coming together briefly, but never living together again.
Now 85 and 87, the brothers rarely saw each other.
“My brother didn’t come when I had my heart surgery” Daniel laments.
“I was a burden to him during the war,” Daniel says. ‘I think that’s why he doesn’t want to see me,”
Samuel explains the reason for their estrangement differently.
Once Daniel converted to Catholicism and had six children, Samuel says, “I pulled back to give him space.”
Hearing these explanations separately – I helped them start a new dialogue with one another.
The war took their parents but it does not need to rob them of each other.
We have been at this for over two years now.
On April 30 of this year, we all met in Strasbourg on the French-German border.
And They began a new chapter of their relationship.
“Your story’s not over,” I told Daniel after his reunion with Samuel.
“You’re right,” he said “The story is not over.”
Two days later Daniel called me to say we performed a “petit miracle” – a small miracle.
His brother was transformed and so was his wife.
Now they just miss their sister who refused to come to the reunion or speak about the war.
So, I sent her the pictures just to say we were thinking of her.
This week she responded, inviting me to her house. She is ready to speak. I will now work on uniting the three of them.
When watching the news, we can feel like we’re trying to stare down a Tsunami. The conflict and pain seems endless.
We likely will not stop much of it.
But what we do choose to do – no matter how small or how late matters…