Veterans of WWII will tell you about him in hushed tones of admiration: Erwin Rommel, the Nazi general nicknamed the Desert Fox, was a gentleman and a deadly warrior. He famously refused to obey many of Hitler’s most evil orders and was involved in the plot to assassinate him.
But these facts were not known until after the war, and yet, he was widely admired during the war. Winston Churchill was almost censured for calling him a “daring and skillful opponent.”
Go through a catalogue of wars before WWII, and the phenomenon of the “worthy opponent” will recur. The “Red Baron,” Robert E. Lee, Santa Anna, and Geronimo are all instantly recognizable names.
All of them demonstrated otherworldly skill and adhered to a code of honor.
The ancient Romans held Hannibal, who nearly destroyed Rome and brought a huge army to its gates, in high regard and made statues of him and minted coins with his face on them. Hannibal’s marching of elephants over the Alps, as well as his devious strategy during the Battle of Cannae, became legendary even in his own lifetime.
This phenomenon seems to have dried up, in war and in politics. John F. Kennedy and Barry Goldwater, political opposites, so respected each other that they planned on campaigning for president together, staging a series of substantive debates. Is that even imaginable today?
The desire for peace and reconciliation is a fundamental aspect of this phenomenon. The hatred of the enemy is not pure: at least one of them is commendable. A certain wishful thinking will often be found in the description of the worthy opponent; had they chosen differently or been born somewhere else, the war never would have happened.
Even deeper, a better attitude toward competition is embedded in this worldview. If the first rule of combat is to never underestimate your opponent, then admiring the skill and honor of one of them is living that rule.
“Never hate your enemies. It affects your judgment.” – Michael Corleone, the Godfather
The wars of the second half of the 20th century were devoid of enemies that the public romanticized. Some commanders in Vietnam admired General Vo Nguyen Giap, but the general public never heard of him.
There are examples in fiction, like the obsession with the Joker as a character, and mafia movies in general. It is interesting to note that the old western movie trope of a gallant hero taking on an honorable outlaw has morphed into deep explorations of the outlaws themselves.
We’ve fought several wars – in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq (twice), Afghanistan, and other middle eastern countries – over the past 75 years, and not one worthy opponent emerges from these conflicts.
Even our political rhetoric demonstrates a change in attitude towards competition. Political debates are conducted in echo chambers and the other side is denigrated as evil and insane. Their arguments are straw-dogged into illegitimate cartoons.
The Desert Fox seems to be the last honorable enemy the United States has had. Have our enemies changed, or have we?
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