Ask a veteran of WWII, they 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, in a debate in the British Parliament following a major defeat, described him as a “daring and skillful opponent.” Churchill was almost censured for praising an enemy during wartime.
Go through a catalogue of wars before WWII, and the phenomenon of the “worthy opponent” will recur. They are typically admired for a combination of skill and a sense of fair play. The “Red Baron,” Robert E. Lee, Santa Anna, and Geronimo are just a few names that come to mind.
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.
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 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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