A Mighty PawnSteven Lieberman
“What is the most powerful piece?”
This was a question my father asked me when I was a boy. I had discovered a chess set in our den closet and was anxious to learn to play. I could not have been much older than seven or eight, and the chess pieces were each like little treasures. The game seemed mysterious, and I wanted to learn.
My father first explained how each piece had certain movement constraints. Remembering each one was difficult for me, but I persevered. During our fifth or sixth game, my father asked me a question, ostensibly, to test my burgeoning knowledge, “What is the most powerful piece?”
My answer was accidentally more philosophical than literal.
“The one that prevents your opponent from attacking.”
Evidently, I have always been obsessed with deterrent strategies. Even as an eight-year-old boy, I could see the value in using a force multiplier to alter the behavior of a stronger, more experienced opponent.
Bumper stickers, internet memes, and old guys holding court in gun stores and ranges have pontificated that, “God made man, then he made woman… Smith and Wesson made them equal.”
Jocular sexism notwithstanding, there is some merit to this statement. The presence of a firearm can cause an aggressor to pause. The presence of a well-trained individual who has developed mastery of skill-at-arms, that can fundamentally change the strategy of an aggressor, and the presence of well-trained individuals (plural) who have developed mastery of skill-at-arms… well… that can alter the course of nations.
The idea that the firearm has become an equalizer is fascinating in and of itself. Most firearms have triggers that range from three to twelve pounds. It does not take an inordinate amount of strength to make a firearm function as intended. Shooters as young as six are able to compete and hold their own with shooters who are 35. With the exception of muscular degradation in the octogenarians among us, there do not seem to be any upper age limits either.
In our past, brute force was only tempered by an opponent who exhibited superior intellect, and had a better understanding of tactics than his foe. Traditionally, as we inched further from the ooze and closer to something resembling civilization, this reliance on brute force succumbed to the control of the intellect, so much so that the intelligencia of many societies learned the skills necessary to co-opt those who were blessed with physical prowess and combative superiority to do their own bidding. The philosopher-kings called the shots… the knuckle draggers would keep the hoi polloi in their place.
Then along came Sam Colt (and Smith and Wesson, Gaston Glock, et. al). A weapon system now existed that could, with training, create a balancing between the tyrant and subject. One of the first things that many nations did was seek to ban their populace from owning or bearing arms. In Italy, to be found with a weapon was a death sentence. Other nation-states had similar draconian prohibitions. This was not to keep the population safe… it was to ensure the population was subservient. An equalized population can quickly become dismissive of those in power… and when a population dismisses its rulers, the guillotine usually comes on the scene next.
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Nation-state rulers have not only been concerned about their own citizens threatening the status quo through the bearing of arms; they have been concerned about the citizens of their potential enemies bearing arms as well.
The United States made it illegal to arm Native Americans. General Sheridan infamously stated, “the only good Indian is a dead Indian”. If the tribes had access to arms, the government concluded, they may not be as amenable to genocide as they would be if they were unarmed.
There is a yarn (factually unproven, but illustrative nonetheless) that during WWII the Japanese purposefully decided not to invade the United States mainland after Pearl Harbor for fear that the U.S. population, who was armed, would devastate the Japanese in an asymmetric war of attrition.
Whether a Japanese general or admiral actually stated this sentiment remains to be proven. Still, had the Empire of Japan sought to annex the western United States, the toll in Japanese blood could have been far greater than what they ultimately experienced at the hands of Douglas MacArthur.
Make no mistake. As we shift from a regional War on Terrorism to Great Power Competition as a prevailing military doctrine, our emerging enemies are testing both our fortitude, as well as our defensive capabilities. To all tyrants… globally… from the petit tyran in local government, to the self-appointed expert in Washington… to the abusive spouse… the common thug… or the enemy from overseas waiting patiently for a time to strike… an armed population gives pause.
What is the most powerful chess piece? Sometimes it is a single pawn that prevents a queen from moving against an asset.