We are unable to display your institutional affiliation without JavaScript turned on.
Browse Book and Journal Content on Project MUSE
OR

View HTML

Download PDF

On War and on the Enemy

From: CR: The New Centennial Review
Volume 9, Number 2, Fall 2009
pp. 195-219 | 10.1353/ncr.0.0070

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

The first methodological hypothesis that governs this essay is that, to talk about "the enemy" and the intellectual "images" it produces, one must first understand the link that binds war, in its relation with politics, to the figure of the enemy. Indeed, variations in the form of the one correspond to mutations in the representations of the other. As such, this essay will offer a summary of the epochal articulations that have been used to frame this topic.

The second hypothesis is that, while the category of "enemy" certainly has to do with individual and collective self-identity—that is to say, with the Us—the enemy is nonetheless never fully alien: it is never the bearer of a dissimilarity so radical that, through its mere existence, it could strengthen the identity of the Us from the outside. The enemy is instead, and more often, the pole of a relation, although a hostile one: if, to produce a fully formed Us, we need an enemy to exclude, this means that we cannot do without the enemy, that the enemy is somehow constitutive of our own identity, that it is therefore always internal to the Us. The friend bears the enemy inside, not outside of itself. The enemy is bound up with our identity, not only because it makes it be, but also because it has the potential to make it not be: the enemy not only determines our own identity, but also threatens it from within. The enemy is not then radically dissimilar to the Us. Rather, even though it brings subtle and deadly differences into the Us, it is similar to the Us to the point of being disquieting and anguishing. The enemy is, in short, not only feindlich but also unheimlich. The disturbing implication of this relationship between friend and enemy—the one being internal to the other—is that peace is potentially infiltrated by war, and that war and peace, even if so apparently distant from one other, in reality have a secret relation that always poses the risk of collapsing them into indistinction.

Émile Benveniste's etymological research (in his 1969 Le Vocabulaire des institutions indo-européennes) showed that hostis (a term that is stronger and semantically more complex than advena and peregrinus) is originally "the stranger within us." Later on, the strengthening of internal political identity privatizes the stranger as "host" (hospes) and publicizes and exteriorizes it as "enemy" (hostis). It is not by chance that, in The Persians, Aeschylus makes Atossa, Dario's widower and Xerxes's mother, say that Asia and Hellas (two women in a fight with each other whom Xerxes, who appeared to Atossa in a dream, wanted to yoke to his cart), even if so different from each other (Asia docile, Europa untamed), were sisters born from the same parents (2009, 185).

Precisely like war and politics, the enemy thus has a function that is ambiguous, even ungraspable. These notions may seem intuitively easy to define and to conceptualize, but the moment one scrutinizes them more closely, they reveal themselves to be changing and elusive. In the following notes, it will not be difficult to realize how rare are the periods when, with great effort and artifice, politics succeeds in thinking and realizing the distinction between war and peace, friend and enemy, the similar and the dissimilar. Much more frequently, these distinctions are experienced as a confusion that is more or less open, plain, and bloody.

The images of the enemy change depending on the degree to which it is clearly "confined" outside of the Us. Speaking schematically, when the enemy is external, it is in some ways representable, but when it is internal, it tends to be unrepresentable—a shadow, a phantom. In this case, because of obvious compensative and defensive processes, the enemy is actually hyper represented. Once it is drawn out of its dangerous and unbearable ambiguity, the enemy is then imagined (and described) with great expressive power: the more we perceive the enemy to be similar to ourselves, the more forcefully we attempt to differentiate it from ourselves. Indeed, because the enemy is so often rendered more (or less) than human, because it so often...