Prince Harry’s “chess pieces:” a metaphor for our times?
The totalitarian code treats people as objects.
The following passage about Prince Harry’s deployment in Afghanistan in his Memoir Spare attracted much well-justified criticism. The ghost writer, with Harry as his Muse, writes,
“Most soldiers can’t tell you precisely how much death is on their ledger. In battle conditions, there’s often a great deal of indiscriminate firing. But in the age of Apaches and laptops, everything I did in the course of two combat tours was recorded, time-stamped. I could always say precisely how many enemy combatants I’d killed. And I felt it vital never to shy away from that number. Among the many things I learned in the Army, accountability was near the top of the list. So, my number: Twenty-five. It wasn’t a number that gave me any satisfaction. But neither was it a number that made me feel ashamed. Naturally, I’d have preferred not to have that number on my military CV, on my mind, but by the same token I’d have preferred to live in a world in which there was no Taliban, a world without war. Even for an occasional practitioner of magical thinking like me, however, some realities just can’t be changed. “While in the heat and fog of combat, I didn’t think of those twenty-five as people. You can’t kill people if you think of them as people. You can’t really harm people if you think of them as people. They were chess pieces removed from the board, Bads taken away before they could kill Goods. I’d been trained to “other-ize” them, trained well. On some level I recognized this learned detachment as problematic. But I also saw it as an unavoidable part of soldiering.”
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Harry, The Duke of Sussex, Prince. Spare (p. 217). Random House of Canada. Kindle Edition.
Those positively disposed toward Prince Harry might say that his feeling that it was “vital never to shy away” from acknowledging the number of soldiers that he has killed is helpful in turning war from a glorified “euphemism” into a reality that needs to be acknowledged for what it is: the killing of people.
At the same time, what stands out in Harry’s description is the metaphor of enemy combatants as tokens in a game: “chess pieces removed from a board.” It is hard to imagine a reality in which a soldier who cares about the humanity of enemy soldiers would choose to refer to them as objects in an elimination game. No amount of self-righteous self reflection can put enough lipstick on this dehumanizing metaphor.
Harry’s chess-pieces metaphor and his “kill count” come across as the amoral bragging of a child playing a video game. His discourse is in violation of long-standing military ethics. I grew up in Israel, where military discourse abounds, and I do not recall hearing any references to “kill counts”—or anything along the lines of boasting about killing people. Glorified rhetoric around war generally focuses on defence and self-sacrifice; it does not glorify the killing of enemy combatants and does not describe any death on any side lightly. The website of the Israel Defence Force (IDF) states, “The IDF and its soldiers are obligated to preserve human dignity. All human beings are of inherent value regardless of race, faith, nationality, gender or status.” Around the world, opinions and emotions about the IDF vary (mine are generally positive), but regardless of real-world challenges, it is crucial to persistently teach soldiers that the preservation of human dignity is a paramount value. When the value of preserving human dignity is drilled into people’s heads, the results, however imperfect and hypocritical, are preferable to those who would occur if we officially legitimized a discourse of humans as objects.
To make it officially acceptable to metaphorize humans as objects is to embrace a totalitarian discourse: we are superior, and other people are objects.
In the context of learning about the Holocaust, one of the most devastating moments for me was coming across a reference that the Nazis referred to dead bodies coming our of gas chambers or other killing scenarios and “needing” to be burnt, as “figuren” or “schmattes.”
“Schmattes” is a Yiddish word that I have heard many times from people in my parents’ and grandparents’ generation. It means “a rag; a ragged or shabby garmet,” as in “these clothes are schmattes; I am throwing them out.” It is shocking to hear a murdered human beings being referred to with the same term that a Jewish grandma might use to describe under-valued clothing items to be discarded (Phoebe Gilman’s book Something from Nothing might spring to mind as an antidote to the discarding of schmattes).
In an article about Holocaust art on the Yad Vashem website, Franziska Reiniger provides commentary about one of the paintings that is depicted in the link below, which brings to “life” the other Nazi metaphor, figuren:
“The artist Daniele Karsenty-Schiller visualizes a concentration camp in her painting A la gloire Nazi. The painting almost feels like a scene from a circus. Nothings seems real, everything seems surreal. The Nazis are depicted as animals with faces such as wolves, bears, and birds, and the inmates are painted as skeletons wearing striped pajamas while playing in an orchestra or working. The inmates are painted as if dead, without any human expression on their skeletal faces. They are only inhuman corpses playing in a big play. Only after their deaths do they regain their humanness and individual bodies and flesh.
This painting is a testimony and a proof of the horrors of the concentration camp. At the same time it is abstract and surreal and it depicts what no photograph can depict. It shows us the artist’s interpretation of the experience and her emotions. Nazis sometimes referred to their victims as Figuren – simply figures, dolls or pieces in a chess game – thus inhuman. The artist illustrates this process of the Figuren as part of the dehumanization process of the Nazis‘ death machinery in a shocking and absurd way.”
The totalitarian code inherent in figuren, schmattes or chess pieces stands in contrast not only to present-day military codes of ethics but also to the ancient heroic code. In the Iliad, Homer invokes the Muse by recalling the human cost of Achilles’s military prowess:
“Rage—Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feasts for the dogs and birds,. . .”
The Iliad (Penguin Classics). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
While the image of dead humans as food for dogs and birds is dehumanizing, Homer takes care to qualify that these were the remains of “sturdy souls” and “great fighters.” Other translations refer to the “souls of heroes,” the “strong souls of heroes” or the “souls of mighty chiefs.” Despite the abundance of killings, the Iliad is not a totalitarian epic. The enemy is deeply humanized, and Hector, the Trojan Prince, as well as other Trojan characters, is described as just as great and just as human as Achilles and the Greek heroes. The epics are brutal, but they are dignified. They make human beings and human emotion seem worthy and great—and this is why we still read them today. In contrast, a “superior race” that turns human beings into objects does not produce literature that will last through the ages.
The humanity of those who die in war—or are murdered in gas chambers—their individual potential, their broken relationships, their shattered world, must never be forgotten.
Humanizing the enemy is something that Homer does powerfully when he describes Hector bidding farewell to his family before going off to battle. But Harry fails to do it. Clearly, humanizing people is not as important as self-promotion and monetary gain—and not only to Harry but in many other contexts within our culture.
Treating people as “figuren,” as chess pieces to be removed from a game, is too often normalized in our world. For how else can we explain putting people on unpaid leave or firing them for not taking the COVID vaccine when the entire organization was working online?
We love to think about ourselves as virtuous, and yet repeatedly we fool ourselves into believing that we deserve our status and rights while other people deserve their precarious outcomes. We do not admit that we are quite happy with feudalism—as long as we are the masters and not the serfs. The fact that we feel at home with metamorphosed forms of feudalism helps to provides an explanation for so much of the passivity that we see again and again in the the face of injustice and precarious outcomes.
As a result of hypocrisy, we are moving farther away from the heroic code and are increasingly embracing the totalitarian code—at the heart of which is belief in the virtue and superiority of the self and in the inferiority and object-like status of “the other.”
As mortal beings, we are all self interested. We all have not only a natural right but also a natural duty to ourselves and to those who depend on us to pursue self-interest. However, honest people pursue their self-interest overtly and decently, with the hope to make a positive contribution to others, and while taking care to not violate the humanity of others.
What differentiates moral behavior from immortal behavior is thus not the presence or the absence of self-interest. The distinction is that moral people pursue their self-interest while also making a positive contribution or at least minimizing the harm to other people, while immoral behavior is often characterized by the relentless pursuit of self-interest at all costs. And some of the most harmful cases occur when that relentless pursuit of power, self-interest and career outcomes wears the mask of fairness and the quest for justice: please understand that this is in the interests of the common good.
If we do not make a sincere effort to adhere to intuitive principles of fairness and duty, we will be seeing a world with many “figuren” who will be carelessly moved around and subjected to arbitrary and precarious outcomes in order to make room for the only thing that matter: ME, my interests, my convenience and my desires. Our desire to enjoy the convenience of working from home, for example, is more important than truth about the COVID vaccines,
Prince Harry’s self-righteous whining is poetry for our times. By describing dead enemy combatants as chess pieces, Harry normalized a quasi-totalitarian figure of speech that is disrespectful to these fighters and their loved ones. In doing so, he has also given us a metaphor and a warning for our times—a reminder to take care that our selfishness does not pave the way to even greater tyranny. Totalitarianisms is a phenomenon that knows how to metamorphose itself in order to take advantage of whatever weaknesses in a given culture may be exploited. If we do not take care to pursue self-interest with honesty, integrity and a spirit of service, we might find ourselves in a reality in which our civil liberties have turned into “schmattes.”
Or Perhaps F. Scott Fitzgerald said it best when he described the elite of the time in The Great Gatsby: “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that held them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”
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