Philosophy Weekend: Because War is a Form of Language

It’s because words are such effective tools of communication that we sometimes fail to realize how often we communicate without them. A conversation is sometimes a physical exchange. These conversations carry meaning that can only exist in the physical realm.

We signify to each other with words, with gestures, with emotional expressions. We also signify with commitments, with actions, and when this occurs (as it constantly does in our everyday lives) we are able to see that logical meaning is itself a physical thing. We can’t say what we want to say without putting our bodies into it.

For example: my wife and I go to a wedding of a friend of hers who we haven’t seen in a while. We both like the bride and groom a lot, and we used to enjoy hanging out with them, but tonight we barely get to talk to the marrying couple because they are so busy running around being the bride and groom. Still, we are glad we came to the wedding, because we are able to express something to the couple by being there. They know that we are there because we want to celebrate their marriage, and this recognition (which might not take place till weeks later when they see their wedding photos) amounts to a happy conversation that could not have been carried out if we were not there. We could have sent a card, and the card could have had many more words on it than we had a chance to speak. But the card would have expressed not more meaning but less than we expressed by being there.

A game of poker provides another example of a form of communication that requires physical investment. This is the most basic rule of poker: your money does the talking. Let’s say you’re holding a pair of kings before the flop and somebody bets $20 and two others call. You decide that you’d like to take down the pot before the flop with an all-in bet, since you’re pretty sure your kings have everyone beat right now, even though they might not hold up at the river. So you go all-in. By shoving your chips you are communicating loudly and clearly.

But you could not possibly have communicated what you just communicated without committing all your chips. It’s important to note that, when the others fold (as you hope they will), they are not communicating back. When each player folds, that player is ending their part of the conversation. When they all fold, this conversation is over. The next conversation begins when the next hand is dealt.

So we sometimes communicate our friendship with our bodies, and we sometimes communicate our self-confidence with our money. But here’s a darker aspect to the same idea, which occurred to me during the past week as I watched the depressing news from Israel and Palestine. Hamas is firing rockets at Israel from the Gaza Strip, and Israel is firing bigger weapons back. It’s a horrible situation all around, and everybody is asking “why can’t they just stop?”

The sad answer is, they can’t stop because they are in the middle of a conversation that both sides feel compelled to have. By firing rockets at Israel, Hamas is saying “we don’t accept Israel’s right to exist, and we refuse to back down even though we lack enough military strength to defeat them in open battle.” Once we look closely at Hamas’s actions, it becomes clear that the only possible purpose of their rocket attacks is to make this statement. There is no strategic purpose; they are simply gesturing. Just as a poker player can’t say “I have a monster hand here, you better all fold” without backing it up with a bet, Hamas believe that they can’t say “we don’t accept Israel’s right to exist” without backing it up with armed attacks.

Of course, Israel is also using weapons as communication when it returns the attacks with much greater force. There’s been a whole lot of communication going on between Hamas and Israel in the past few days.

But here’s the terrible irony of the situation: Israel and Hamas refuse to talk to each other. Hamas won’t talk to Israel because doing so would seem to amount to a recognition of Israel’s right to exist. Israel won’t talk to Hamas because it won’t negotiate with terrorists. So both countries are pretending not to talk to each other. All the while, they’re communicating back and forth with weapons that have no purpose other than signification.

I recently had a long argument with a few friends about whether or not Israel should agree to begin peace talks with Hamas. These pro-Israeli friends of mine seem to believe that that Israel can achieve something greater by refusing to talk with Hamas, though I can’t imagine how they think this strategy can possibly succeed.

I have other friends who generally advocate the pro-Palestinian side, and similarly believe that Hamas should not agree to peace talks. It’s also impossible for me to understand how they think this strategy will succeed.

I think we’re all asking the wrong questions. Both Israel and Hamas are pretending to refuse to talk to each other, while in fact they’re communicating in the worst possible way. Maybe it will help to acknowledge that what needs to be expressed simply needs to be expressed. If the words can’t be found, the physical actions will carry the meaning instead. Our challenge is to find the words.

This is why I will always advocate for peace talks between any enemies, no matter how much bitter hatred exists between them. This conversation is already taking place, because war is a form of language. If we refuse to allow the necessary communications to be expressed in words, they will be expressed with weapons.

We should never doubt that peace talks can be crucially important, even when they appear likely to be hopeless. It doesn’t matter if we have no hope; we need to have the peace talks anyway. Like a poker player who decides to fold a hand, what we need is not the beginning of a good conversation. What we desparately need is the end of a bad conversation that has already been going on way too long.

2 Responses

  1. I like this idea you’ve
    I like this idea you’ve opened up, Levi. When talk fails, not being listened to, will bring frustration to the party initiating the talk which turns into anger which is still not listened to and then – boom… the rockets speak for the unheard.

    I found it interesting that the rockets shot off by Hamas killed no one and presumably did little to no damage to property. Was that because those who shot the rockets were lousy at finding targets … or were they still attempting a dialog … to be listened to? Israel ‘heard’ the rockets but did they ‘listen’ to the underlying message?

    Conversely, did not Hamas not hear Israel’s demands not to continue sending rockets into their lands? We know the answer – Israel used bigger and more deadly demands to stop Hamas and their repeated acts against them… and go back doing what they’ve always done. Sadly, this time I don’t see that happening.

    So what you are (or may be) suggesting is both parties are ignoring each other? I can fell he frustration Hamas (Palestinians) feel at being a third-rate Nation living in the most densely populated area in the world, cut off from their next door neighbor who, in comparison, has a wonderful life… right there next door to them!

    It’s easy to feel and even understand why this ongoing negative attitude from the Palestinians (and the Hamas gang) would lead up to this challenge to Israel to at least LOOK over your borders, SEE how ‘we’ are forced to live on our own lands, UNDERSTAND our frustration with the daily disrespect ‘we’ are being shown and then you DEMAND something MORE from us..??? They honestly FEEL they have no options left but to add to the frustration Israel is experiencing even if it means Palestinians, women, children, babies and the old and disabled, these people will die just to be listened to.

    Maybe I’m way off track, but after seeing and hearing about these two peoples, two DIFFERENT peoples due to the radically different ways the two live daily, you are correct, Levi… was is the final dialog Palestine/Hamas has when they see their own people living a life that in comparison to Israel is equal to the slums that we here in the U.S. see in most every large city… the difference being there are many sides attempting to hear and even listen to their concerns that helps defuse many a volatile situation from erupting into another Watts.

    What is there to talk about AGAIN that hasn’t bee said before to either party? And will it be LISTENED to or merely heard?

  2. Roof bombing with mortars
    Roof bombing with mortars shell by Israeli military over civilian buildings before air strikes seems really a way to “talk”, communicating to civilians to leave the area before the attack.

    With the perspective of Game Theory (a “weapon” we can add to our toolbox), this situation can be modeled as the iterative prisoner’s dilemma. As this is not a zero-sum game (one player can lose more that the other is winning: for example if there is an action of war and both sides suffer casualties without altering the equilibrium), in the long term peace will be the only win-win scenario, and war is the worst, where everyone lose. And in this case both players are informed (not blind to the other player action), so why they don’t talk and agree for peace?

    Because in a dialogue, you need to be willing to change at least a little bit of your ideas in order to achieve anything. Otherwise it is not a dialogue, it is just a monologue.

    The stated goal of Hamas is the destruction of the state of Israel, and the Israeli defense minister just some days ago stated that [Israel will] “Do whatever it takes to destroy the Hamas organization”. I am afraid that no dialogue is possible with those starting points. I am afraid the communication done by Hamas rockets and Israel attacks is just a sum of two monologues, shouted in the wind, as everyone scream “I am the strongest” and no one wants to listen. No one has the trust required by “win-win” peace solution predicted by game theory: Hamas violated the last cease-fire, launching again rockets just four hours after the truce began.

    How is possible a dialogue without trust and respect between the interlocutors?

    I am really afraid we need a change in the interlocutors (Hamas and the current Israeli politicians), or at least in their stated goals, to make room for any peace talk. Otherwise just outside influences, or even worse attrition from war (casualties), will bring us out from this sick prisoner’s dilemma.

    (here you can find an explanation of iterated prisoner’s dilemma applied to this situation )

    @mtmynd: the fact that some building in Palestine have been destroied by Hamas rockets in my opinion can be an indication of the inaccurate aim of those weapons, and explain the small casualty count on Israel, in addition to the Israeli anti-missile system. I would be glad to be mistaken.

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