Moderatrix’ note: If you have not read Orson Scot Card’s Sci-Fi novel, Ender’s Game, (and why not?), this post is not for you. You man want to consider skipping it, as it will contain spoilers about key characters and plot elements.
If you don’t mind that sort of thing, Party On, Wayne.
I approached Ender’s Game not knowing what to expect, which was a good thing. I seldom venture out of my genre of fantasy reading, and I like my fiction in certain confines. I appreciate a good space opera from time to time, but they are few and far between, and usually have to be recommended by a trusted friend. “Trusted” here reads as “someone who has recommended a book to me that I have finished”. Even a good Star Wars novel must come with a stamp of approval. There are just too many to be going all willy-nilly in the book section.
I liked it. I really enjoyed it. I enjoyed it from a Sci-Fi appreciation perspective, viewing it with a startling awe of how accurate Card’s prediction of future possibilities were. His concepts of using video game technology are not so distant today, and the idea of a whole military school devoted to using such things is not far-fetched. I was taken aback by the idea of military super-genius children driven to a place so cold that all that mattered in life were the war games played in a school for future leaders, but the idea, in my mind, was not so out of this world that I couldn’t see a universe under threat resorting to such measures.
I added my military perspective to my reading of Ender’s Game, and for anyone who is a military person who read this novel prior to their career, I would encourage you to re-visit it now, after your training has changed your understanding of where you stand in the world and how things are done for your own good when you don’t fully realize it (much the same way I encourage you to pick up Catch-22). If, for some chance, some Very Important military person (or even a middle peep) is reading this, I reach out and say that Ender’s Game helped me appreciate rank and structure as it should be just a smidgen more.
Emphasis on “should” is important.
In my line of work there is a lack of understanding, appreciation, and even compassion for the military and its members. Our rights, needs, and causes are not championed the way that others are, even when those causes overlap and intersect with those of others in the social justice sphere. I think this has a lot to do with the perception of the military over the last decade and more. We are viewed as harbingers of destruction and violence, and rarely as we are meant to be: defenders of peace. I think that deep down some people think that we deserve the mistreatment we receive. That is probably because we haven’t been directed as ethically as we probably could have been. The flip side to this is that we are viewed as a monolith by many; the military is a huge machine that thinks and moves as a hive-mind, I think many believe. I think that we are viewed as a structure that has given up our rights, for whatever reason.
I used to call myself a pacifist, even during my enlistment, and have only recently realized that I grossly over-extended the definition of that term. I believe in seeking peaceful ends whenever necessary and not using violent force against those weaker than you for the sake of dominating someone who doesn’t threaten your life. I won’t object to the use of force to preserve your safety. I learned that one the hard way Once Upon A Time.
But Ender’s Game demonstrates, beautifully, my thoughts on military power, even only as one element of a brilliantly put-together novel.
Colonel Graff, a character than I don’t believe is supposed to be sympathetic — or perhaps that was my own perception of him — was somewhat endearing to me. I saw his actions in a light that was understandable through the lessons that I was taught in boot camp. The tearing down of certain personality traits, the intention of making a person feel isolated, the almost brutal way that training makes an individual dependent on themselves and no one else while at the same time making them fully in need of a team to accomplish their goals. These things and more are necessary in order to protect the lives of people who can’t see the broader picture from outside the frame; people who can’t know what is at stake for their own protection. Even if it pained Graff to inflict pain upon Ender the way that he did and allowed, he knew the sacrifices that had to be made in the name of what he believed to be the Greater Good. These things are seldom pretty, and I think often those of us who don’t see the bigger picture of decision making lack the perspective of how horrible and difficult those decisions are. The dramatic effect of inflicting these things on a child make it all the more shocking, and Card, I think, was brilliant in this choice.
I understand that military Chains-of-Command see and know things that civilians never will. They learn and know things that will never be seen nor heard by people lower than certain levels of security, and they will forever be the subject of hatred for it. In a perfect world they must use this to protect lives, and the people below them must answer orders without question. The training process that Ender undergoes at Battle School, and later at Command School, while far more extreme than anything I’ve encountered, demonstrates what we who have taken training and military pledges know: Whatever is necessary is what we will do to protect those we swore to serve.
In a perfect world we would need no military, because there would be no war. Perhaps we could all sit down to tea and work things out nicely and wear pretty hats. I like hats and look good in them.
But Ender’s Game expresses a theme that deep down we know to be true: Standing military forces are necessary. We must be willing to defend ourselves, or we risk going the way of The Naked Empire (and I promise never to use a Terry Goodkind reference in a way that indicates he might have been on to something ever again, mmm’kay?) from that eponymous segment of The Sword of Truth series.
Graff explains this best on page 253 of the edition I was reading, when Ender asked him, quite simply, why it was they fought the buggers. Graff’s answer is equally simple: They attacked first. They were provoked into fighting when a peaceable solution failed. They were provoked, and had to defend themselves. He said:
“Ender, believe me, there’s a century of discussion on this very subject. Nobody knows the answer. When it comes down to it, though, the real decision is inevitable: If one of us has to be destroyed, let’s make damn sure we’re the ones alive at the end. Our genes won’t let us decide any other way. Nature can’t evolve a species that hasn’t a will to survive. Individuals might be bred to sacrifice themselves, (254) but the race as a whole can never decide to cease to exist.”
I believe that people have an innate sense to defend themselves, and rightly so. If we don’t do so, then the first person strong enough to overpower and destroy us will, and we deserve to have it happen. Who else should? Along that line, if we can help someone who is being bullied, we should as well, for the right reasons, but that is another post. If we are unwilling to defend ourselves we deserve the fate handed to us by the dominating force.
This isn’t to say that military powers should run unchecked. Quite the contrary. We have a responsibility to ensure that our militaries are being engaged in just causes, and I have said this before. Even Ender, in the end, could not bring himself to wipe out the buggers completely, even as they worked, it seemed, to wipe out humans. Ender had compassion and a knowledge of what was right, and decimating a whole species to annihilation was not just. As he became the Speaker for the Dead, he did what I hold to be central to self-preservation: finding a peaceful solution if possible so that you can live with yourself when doing what must be done.
Military politics are so complex and layered, and difficult to discuss in progressive circles. I know that it can be charged and difficult. It is also tinged with a bit of personal when I consider the life-toll that I know of. It is understandable that it is. I don’t know if there is a great Karmic balance sheet the Universe uses, but I hope there is, and I hope that it really does try to set it even. I hope it is beyond what I have lived and seen.
I don’t know if Orson Scott Card intended to reach out and facilitate a sympathetic view of the military and the tough choices made by people who must decide who the sacrificial lambs are going to be, or the sacrifices made by those who volunteer. But, aside from being a guy who obviously had an affinity for the Atari, I think he gets many things right, and makes a case for the consideration that the military may not be a giant monolith at which to aim ire.