What is an Enemy?

What is an Enemy? December 17, 2020

We toss the word around. We know it when we see it. But what exactly is an “enemy”? What does it mean to classify someone or something as an enemy?

Because we assume a lot about our own narratives, it is easy to think of an enemy as “the bad guy”. After all, we have to be the good guy. So an enemy is anyone who is trying to get in our way…which is bad.

The problem is that even bad guys think this way. So how do you know if you are really the hero or a delusional bad guy? Churchill was Hitler’s enemy, for example, although certainly not a bad guy.

The importance of this is that we define our enemies in terms of good and bad, right and wrong, always assuming we are in the right. Which is, for obvious reasons, pretty dangerous. So if the moral designation between two entities is murkier than we like to acknowledge, where does that leave us in terms of defining an enemy?



I looked up the actual definition of an enemy and was very surprised to see words like “hate” in the definition. After all, The Bible encourages us to love our enemies. Is it talking nonsense? Is hate a part of what is required to have an enemy?

I don’t think so. I think it is very possible to have an enemy you admire and respect.

All of this is on my mind because I recently watched a WW2 documentary and was fascinated by the way the American soldiers talked about their German counterparts. “In different circumstances, we could have been friends”. “They had a job to do and so did we”. Stuff like that. Hardly the language of hate.

Although there had to have been some obvious repulsion for Germany and what they were fighting for, these American soldiers were seeing something surprising in their enemy – humanity.


It is All About Vision

I believe the official definitions are dripping in too much cultural bias. The word enemy itself means someone with a vision that contradicts your own. Two spouses can become enemies if they have differing visions of what the marriage should be. Co-workers can become enemies if they have competing visions for the output of the company. Two baseball teams are enemies because they have very different ideas of who should win the World Series. That latter example is fascinating because a Yankee player (who views The Boston Red Sox as an enemy) can be traded to Boston the very next year, have a change of heart, and suddenly view the Yankees as the enemy. Nothing has changed except the player’s perspective on success, his vision.

Having an enemy seems to necessitate conflict. At the very least, competition. It is not just two different visions that make an enemy; it is two contradictory ones. The vision of the Axis powers was incompatible with the vision of The Allies. Yoda and Darth Vader have visions that won’t allow them to avoid one another.



What I think is powerful about this discussion is the idea that our enemies do not lose their humanity. That was what was so shocking to the American soldiers in the documentary I saw. The German soldiers were tragically misguided and hypnotized by evil, but they were still humans. Vader was consumed by his anger and pride, but deep down was a deeply hurting human being.

I think we do ourselves a real disservice when we think of our enemies solely as monsters. Faceless, fire-breathing dragons who deserve an impartial stake in the chest. There are plenty, like Bonhoeffer, who sought to assassinate Hitler but still struggled with the humanity of it all. We are so afraid acknowledging humanity in our enemy, let alone loving them, is some sort of allowance for their visions. It does not have to be. Those American soldiers were not letting up just because they felt a certain empathy with the young Germans across from them.

The way we view our enemies is more about who we are than who they are. How we define an enemy informs how we view good and evil in our world, our lives, and the lives of others. It informs how we pursue conflict and reconciliation. It transforms us and our enemies.

After all, the greatest way to neutralize an enemy is not always to eradicate them. The best way is often to bring them into your vision (assuming you really are right) or find a way pursue to two visions that do not necessitate contradiction.

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