(Spoiler warning: This post contains minor spoilers for Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game.)
In my second to last post on Ender’s Game, I described how Ender Wiggins, the novel's eponymous hero, is the paragon of intelligence--specifically, I described his ability to see beyond accepted paradigms. But it is his second intelligence trait that makes him a superior leader, his empathy. His greatest gift, it is also his curse.
From the beginning to the end, Ender tries to understand those around him. People are puzzles to him, like the math equations he does in his head. Ender asks himself what motivates Bonzo Madrid to lead so poorly, he questions Colonel Graff on why he leads the way he does, and he wonders why his brother Peter hates him. He knows the most important thing he can understand is people.
Or should I say Ender tries to understand intelligent beings, including Earth's alien enemies, the buggers. When he plays “Buggers and Astronauts” with his brother Peter before leaving for Battle School, Ender imagines himself as a Bugger. He tries to feel what they feel, asking himself what they think, morally reversing himself into their position. At school, he watches every video he can about the Buggers. The first time an adult honestly answers his questions, Ender asks about the Buggers.
This empathy is tragically problematic. “In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him. I think it’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them the way they love themselves,” Ender says.
For Ender, this moment always precedes the destruction of the enemy, because by understanding the enemy, you know how to defeat them.
Think about the military and COIN warfare. How much about the Middle East, Sunni and Shiite sects of Islam, the history of Iraq and Afghanistan, did we not know prior to the invasions? How wide is the gulf that separates our cultures? To win counter-insurgency warfare, you have to understand your enemy. When you do understand your enemy, killing innocents and torture becomes unacceptable, because in some way you love them. You don't have to condone the actions of insurgents, but you must understand them.
This gulf of misunderstanding applies to the Islamic world as well. Have they tried to understand us? Have they looked at the world through our eyes? Polling shows that Arabs who have been to America, or met Americans, have a much more likely chance of giving us a high approval rating.
This is a beautiful problem, the problem of empathy, because the solution to it is peace. When we must understand the enemy to defeat him this understanding inevitably creates peace. At the end of Ender’s game, when Ender can finally communicate with the Hive Queen, they come to a peace; they finally understand each other.
I have to disagree with Ender on one point. Killing your enemy is tactically easier when you understand him, but emotionally harder. Unfortunately, the reverse is also true. When your enemy is horribly stereotyped and viewed as inhuman, emotionally it is much easier to kill him.