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Love Thy Enemy: Ender's Game and Empathy

(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.

seven comments

I believe that people in the Middle East (especially in the more metropolitan parts) understand us much better than we understand them, especially with the export of American culture that seems to be the trademark of globalization. Even many rural shacks made of mud in Iraq will have satellite dishes on them to get news, entertainment, and information. American films, music, cuisine, literature, and even some American press is known of and distributed throughout the middle east as it is throughout the rest of the world. I wish I still had a picture I took of a McDonalds in Doha, complete with the menu in Arabic.

Now as an outsider looking in, I think its fair to say most people in the US not only don´t understand whats going on in the Middle East, but what is going on in the rest of the world as well (and may have just passing knowledge of whats going on in other parts of their own nation). In other nations that don´t think the entire world revolves around them they often speak more than one language, its embarrassed me as an American only being able to speak two languages (only English at first) when I´ve met tons of people here who speak 4 or 5.

I wonder how many Americans can point to Afghanistan on a map today? Many more today than 10 years ago certainly, but still probably a minority. Most people don´t have the time or concern to be as well informed as say you or I. For the average American to be able to understand the wide varieties of cultures, languages, tribes, history, and ethnic groups in the middle east is a hard task.

As far as the US military is concerned though, they have started to use anthropologists (much to the chagrin of other anthropologists who feel this is an abuse of their expertise) to perform “culture mapping” to help understand what is going on in certain areas of operation.

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/05/world/..

Of course they can never have enough interpreters, but with a “culture map” they have a little bit better idea of the local culture, and whether its more advantageous to apply leverage, to help, or to cut deals. Its some of the best kind of intelligence the military can get, although I don´t know if the understanding of the culture is sinking in deep enough for most military personnel to develop trustworthy relationships with the local population or not.


Chris, greta comment, some thoughts. First, I’ve read about anthropoligsts before, and i think it is a great first step.

Second, you mention something that I’ve thought a lot about, particularly when the Daily Show went to Iran and interviewed people.

Other countries do understand America better, because our media is so omnipresent. American films just do better than a lot of other countries cinemas. This means they’ll have a better grasp on New york, George Bush and Apple computers.

I would bet, however, that other countries don’t know much about other countries. quiz a random Iraqi on, say, Chile, and he’ll know as much as you or I, maybe less.

Basically, I think Americans are stupid. But I think Iraqi’s, Chileans, British people, et al are stupid. Basically people are stupid.

(which is another way of saying, no one is stupid, we’re all just people. americans included.)


I´ll give you that, most people don´t have much of an interest in countries that they have nothing to do with, and to someone in Iraq, what is going on in Chile is of very little interest or immediate concern.

What worries me though is that America has a vested interest in the middle east for a variety of reasons. First off because they have other Americans there on their behalf in two countries, are saber rattling with Iran, and doing covert secret squirrel stuff in Pakistan as well as many other countries in the region. Americans live in fear of residents of a region they don´t understand, have things being done there in their name, and many haven´t looked deeper into the issues.

Second, the US is dependent on this region to sustain their way of life. Oil from the middle east keeps the dollars purchasing power high, gas prices low, and energy abundant.

To sum it up, the US has a vested interest in what is going on in the Middle East, but are still ignorant to its inner workings.

As far as the Anthropologists go, I can fully understand why some people are displeased about it. It is a good step to understanding your enemy, you will get no argument from me there, however when you look at the history of Anthropology you will understand right away why they don´t want to get involved in an armed conflict. Anthropology has been historically used to help people understand “the natives” in areas that were ripe to colonize and missionize. When they assist the US military they are stepping out of their role as impartial observers by putting their science into practical use for the US military to do with it as they please, for better or for worse.


Eric C and Chris C you guys had a great discussion. Its a tough discussion but one we need to have. Eric C goes a little far when he says Americans and everyone else are stupid, but he is trying to make a point.

From a military intelligence perspective, this is something we don’t do nearly well enough. We don’t ask, how does the enemy think? Its an important question from all angles.


@ Chris – See, I just don’t think Americans are stupider than other peoples, but that said you are totally right in that America should care more, because we affect so many other countries.

On the oil thing, that’s why I support America becoming energy independent, but of course that is just a pipe dream.

Lastly, on anthropologists, I think the discipline has come a long way from its early days. I just wish we could promote understanding, and not have to promote colonization, which i hate.


Yes I´m going off on a tangent.

I´m not promoting a snotty European view of American´s I´ve had to deal with and that I hate which is that we Americans as a people dumb. I don´t think its a question of intelligence, the education system here in Germany has illustrated pretty clearly to me gaps in the US education system that I think need to be addressed. For example someone who graduates with an Abitur at 18 is expected to be proficient in three languages German, English, and a third language of their choice, and when I mean proficient I mean actually proficient, not the kind of Spanish most people graduate Highschool with. Students start learning hard math and science here much earlier than they do in the US.

Media is also different here, and normal media here focuses more on foreign affairs I guess because its a smaller country, and you get actually reporting beyond a 10 second sound byte when you switch on the TV and watch the news.

I don´t know the quality of education most Iraqi´s or Afghanis get exactly, when they´re lucky enough to be able to go to school. I´ve met some Oxford educated Iraqis who were forced to join the Ba´ath party under Saddam in order to get their education though.

Of course Energy independence is a good and possibly realizable goal, but lets face it, it isn´t going to happen overnight, it would be a decades long process, and in the mean time the world will be dependent on middle eastern oil.


I’m pretty sure this website is all about tangents Chris! Feel free to go off on them.

What I’d say about media is that it comes down to choices. In America, there are good choices (NPR, PBS, New Yorker) and bad choices (All three 24 hour cable news channels). I just think too many Americans choose poorly, or not at all.

That said, British papers, outside of the top two, are both gossipy and pornographic.

There are tons of educated Iraqi’s and Saudi’s and even Afghani’s. And if Afghanistan had access to what we had access to, I have no doubt they would accomplish just as much.

Finally, I would have rather seen an energy independence bill this yearr than health care.