Know Your Enemy


Getting to grips with the real enemy. Published by Sphere Books 1968. Cover illustration by Russell Fitzgerald.

A great deal of military training is based on developing a clear understanding of where your enemy is located, what weapons they have at their disposal…and also who precisely they are.  If you have to defend yourself, or even take the battle to the enemy, your position is considerably weakened without this basic information.

But the nature of warfare changes, and can certainly be expected to continue to do so in future.  A straightforward conflict between the United Federation of Planets and the Klingon Empire, drawn up in neat battle lines, may have been the natural assumption when Star Trek first appeared on our screens in the 1960s, but the opposition in a future war may be far less clearly defined in reality.

The science fiction author Samuel R Delany expressed this in his Fall of the Towers trilogy, beginning with Captives of the Flame in 1963, later rewritten as Out of the Dead City.  In a world some centuries after what appears to have been a nuclear holocaust, a nation survives in an area bounded by a deadly radiation barrier.  But there is an enemy beyond that barrier which attacks its aircraft and seems to threaten its very existence.  War is inevitable, but who exactly is the enemy?

One of the characters in the story expresses concern about the chance of any real success, focusing on the need for the military to avoid “destroying themselves, eating themselves up in a war with a nameless enemy, something so powerful that if there were any consideration of real fighting, we could be destroyed with a thought.”  In fact, it’s hardly surprising that an enemy you cannot see, and cannot understand, becomes a potentially overwhelming foe in one’s imagination.

Indeed, an enemy you never see – until it’s too late – is a particularly frightening concept, and one that’s all too familiar within living memory to those who have been involved in conflicts such as the Vietnam War.  In his 1981 analysis Vietnam: The Ten Thousand Day War, Michael Maclear emphasised the extreme danger of the guerrilla tactics adopted by the Viet Cong.  They knew how the American forces operated and never stayed to fight unless trapped.  They would “recede and advance, biding their time while the patrols searched and searched.”

It applies to any who have fought against armed opposition which is somehow a part of the very environment around them, from Northern Ireland to Iraq.  An on-going potentially lethal threat from an unseen, powerful and possibly unavoidable menace is disturbing at a deep level.  For the same reason, it has featured strongly in the images of imagined extraterrestrial hostility which have been around in reports of unidentified flying objects since at least the early days of the Cold War.

Some may doubt the reality of such a threat in practice, whilst never denying the impact it can have on people’s thinking.  Provided an enemy remains in the shadows and is only occasionally revealed through a hostile act, it ensures that everyone is kept on the alert – and reliant on those in positions to protect them.  Talking of such military protectors, the hero of Delany’s novel points out that “you don’t even know what the enemy is.  They wouldn’t let you know even if they knew themselves.”

The extreme was envisaged in George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 – Oceania is threatened by Eurasia (or Eastasia), as demonstrated by intermittent acts of terror and persistent reports from distant battlefields.  But does the threat really exist?  Perhaps even the Inner Party doesn’t know the truth, but maintaining the perceived threat undoubtedly helps to keep it in power.

As far as nation states are concerned, sometimes you could indeed be your own worst enemy

Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

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