Rock Paper Scissors: The Deadly Vocabulary of Fighting


Read in Japanese (日本語 )

By Akio Matsumura

In childhood we played the game Rock-Paper-Scissors.  Rock wins over Scissors, Paper wins over Rock, and Scissors wins over Paper. There is no single absolute power among three partners. The outcome always depends on the opponent’s tactic.

This game also plays out in democratic governance. Government executives have power over their people because they execute the law.  The legislative body has the power over the government executives because they produce the law and appropriate the budget.  And people have power over the legislature because they elect them.

Now let’s put it an individual perspective, specifically my personal case.

One disadvantage I have is that I speak poor English, and zero Spanish, French, (or  Chinese or Hindi, whose speakers total 37 percent of the world’s population). I do have the advantage, however, of meeting so many eminent people in the hundred countries I have visited.  Not speaking all of these languages has come in handy: I have a keen eye for understanding intentions and unspoken expressions.   It has helped me grasp the total picture rather than become weighed down on an analytical level.  I read a situation as if it were poetry, not prose.  However, when I debate the difficult issues with my country men in Japanese, each word, each paragraph and the precise meaning of expressions interrupt me from understanding the true intention of my opponents.  I find myself missing the total picture of our debate.  We must have both perspectives to balance our overall viewpoint; for without the trees, we wouldn’t have the woods!  One view complements and balances the other.

I believe strongly in democracy. (Demos: People and Kratos: Power). Government derives its power from the people through laws that guarantee our freedom of speech, freedom of religion and freedom of the press. And democracy does not escape the rule of Rock-Paper-Scissors, thankfully, but the ties can become dangerously tenuous during an election year.

US politicians have their hands full dealing with the issues that will define November’s midterm elections.  The two wars and the national debt occupy the majority of the political space.  But rising unemployment, immigration, national energy policy, education policy, social security, health insurance, and state deficits continue to crowd the agenda.  Each item hampers many lives and it’s difficult to give any one of them priority.  However, we must distinguish between war and the others.

All social and economic issues are replaceable, renewable, and restored in the long run.  But war takes a different toll. The loss of loved ones, the demoralized lives of young people, the respect of nations, and the destruction of national monuments that make up a shared history are not replaceable.  These are immeasurable in an economic sense.

The US Constitution states that Congress shall have the power to declare War.  Who, then, determins whether Congress allows our country to enter down such a path?

We do, of course, to some degree.  Voters hold Congress accountable—but mostly for social and economic issues.  The wars the US are fighting now hardly rile up the American people.  Only about 1 percent of Americans are in the military—add families and friends and the number grows, but not yet to any election-swaying amount.

Here lies my great concern.  People now are not holding Congress responsible for waging America’s wars.  And without this check, politicians can say what they like—use strong rhetoric as they’d like, and mold opinion as they like—to get elected.

This strong rhetoric—let us call it the “vocabulary of fighting”—is more damaging than one might think, in the age of the 24 hour news cycle and instant media.  Look at Terry Jones:  Who would think that a tiny community pastor in Florida threatening to burn the Koran could generate such strong reactions from President Obama, Secretary Gates, and General Petraeus and fully attract the international media?  For one event to spread so widely would have been impossible during a war in the 20th century.

Let’s think back to the game of Rock-Paper-Scissors. I am deeply puzzled trying to understand what would motivate America’s people to take back their check on Congress’ war powers.  Some of my eminent friends have mentioned to me that a 5 percent War Tax might be a tool to force voters to consider war more cautiously. But where are the leaders to create such a tax?

Fighting words have caused the escalation of wars and unintended consequences throughout history.  This time won’t be any different. And it is of course very difficult to later dam a worsening situation.

We should understand, at the very least, that the vocabulary of fighting in the 21st century is the most powerful weapon to provoke the opponents, and—on the other side of the coin—the vocabulary of perception building is the most powerful tool to achieve our positive goals.  Otherwise, politicians talk only at the price of young soldiers.

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