On Enemies, Invisible or Otherwise

There is a moment early in Tolstoy's War and Peace when the Russian soldiers and their French opponents are in a holding pattern, awaiting word to fight, and Tolstoy describes the scene thusly: "in the center, where the envoys had passed that morning, the lines came so close that the men could see each other's faces and talk to each other. Besides the soldiers who occupied the line at that place, many of the curious stood on both sides and gazed, laughing, at their strange and foreign-looking enemies." This reality of warfare has fascinated me since I was a student and first learned of the informal, even friendly, camaraderie that would develop across "enemy" lines during the U.S. Civil War. Still, it was somehow jarring to see it show up in Tolstoy's classic.


It made sense that boy-soldiers who previously might have helped each other's families in a barn-raising or harvest would swap stories during the seemingly interminable downtime of war. They were, ultimately, on the same side, right? Until this reading, I did not know that Russians commonly spoke French, so I was unprepared for the potential of these common moments, and thus was hit by this bitter moment of clarity:

Peals of such healthy and merry guffawing came from among the soldiers that it crossed the line and involuntarily infected the French, after which it seemed they ought quickly to unload their guns, blow up their munitions, and all quickly go back home. But the guns remained loaded, the loopholes in the houses and fortifications looked out just as menacingly, and the unlimbered cannon remained turned against each other just as before. (Vol. I, Part Two, Ch. XV)

This passage concludes the chapter, and in the next, the battle unexpectedly begins, catching the Russian army off guard. Later in the action, young Rostov is injured and confused when he sees men running toward him and asks, "What men are these? Can they be Frenchmen? He looked at the approaching Frenchmen and, though a moment before he had been galloping only in order to meet these Frenchmen and cut them to pieces, their closeness now seemed so terrible to him that he could not believe his eyes" (I,2,XIX). What men are these? When he asks that, he's really asking himself, can they be trusted? Are they my enemies? In the confusion of battle, it would seem incredibly important to be able to identify your enemy.


Later, in Vol. I, Part Three, this issue of enemy identification gets more complicated as the onset of battle is obscured by a thick fog, ". . . so thick that, though day was breaking, one could not see ten paces ahead. Bushes looked like enormous trees, level places like cliffs and slopes. Everywhere, on all sides, one might run into an enemy invisible ten paces away" (I,3,XIV). The Russian soldiers are quite literally blindly-confident, and the battle does not go well for them. Of course, the fog here is a metaphor for the poor leadership and misguided decision-making (especially in contrast to the military genius of Napoleon), but I can't help but wonder about a different contrast.


The men who laughed with their enemy across the line did not enter battle with the same confidence that this blind mass of soldiers did. They knew their enemy, had laughed with them and knew exactly where they both stood. As a result, they wished they did not have to fight. Without this knowledge, the fogged-in soldiers could assume the very worst about their opponents: that they were weak, depleted, ill-prepared, small-minded, in retreat, terrified, and poorly led. And they went in to battle joyfully, without reservation. And, it is important to note - they were soundly defeated.


Increasingly, I believe, we find this unseeing mindset in modern warfare. We no longer line up and face one another on a field of battle. We conduct covert operations and fly under the radar and encrypt communications and do everything in our power to not be seen or heard or understood. This is important; it is a matter of national defense. But we equally do not want to see our enemy. If the enemy is invisible to us, foreign, unpredictable, different in color and culture, tongue and temperament, then we can go in to battle with the confidence of Tolstoy's fog-blinded Russians.


To admit the humanity of our enemy: perhaps the greatest threat to warfare and perhaps our greatest responsibility. But what if our enemy is not human? What if it is a virus? Then can we call it invisible and employ our strongest language of warfare and nationalism against it? I understand the idea of unifying against a common enemy, but in the end, I'm left with Tolstoy, asking: but why? In the case of a virus, the more we can understand it, the better able we are to respond to it and move forward. There is no winning. There is no defeat of this opponent. You don't eradicate a disease; you merely work toward the best possible future understanding its reality.


The same is true in U.S. politics. The more we talk about winning and losing, the more we frame things in the context of competition and taking sides, the less likely we are to achieve some common future. If, instead, we embrace the shared humanity of those we disagree with, if we share a meal and a laugh across the lines, it becomes impossible to see them as an other to be defeated. We can, instead, see them as partners working on a shared tomorrow. Is this even possible anymore? I'm not sure, but as I told a friend this morning, I still hope.


As an antidote to, well, everything, we have been rewatching The West Wing. Every episode thus far has had odd moments of prescience, bizarre resonances that make the cultural dissonances even more interesting and more delightful (ex: the mention of a $700 DVD player or the image of a flip phone with retractable antenna - both left my teenagers cackling with glee and disbelief). Last night, we watched as the Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman told the President:

We talk about enemies more than we used to.

He wasn't even sure why that mattered, why he was saying it to the President. But he knew he didn't like it. And I couldn't agree more.


The best books spark the best conversations! If you have thoughts to share, please feel free to email me at sarabethwest52@gmail.com. I promise a reply.

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