A worthy enemy. An adversary with virtue, even valor. How strange such a concept seems to us now, in these times punctuated by the cry of the carnival-barker.
Enemy simply stems from a Latin term meaning “unfriendly” ; foe, from Old English roots, is connected to an Old High German term meaning “at war.” Hostile stems from the Latin “hostis,” or enemy, which also means stranger and, oddly enough, guest.
An enemy, then, is simply the Other: the stranger, the foreigner, the out-rider and the outlaw, dwellers in waste and fen, dwellers in forest and hedge. They have their own interests and not that of the tribe.
But rules — dharma, rta, firinne — dictate how one deals with these strangers, according to different types. There is the noble enemy, the foreign king or “legitimate” soldier who fights according to accepted rules of engagement. Agreements even today ostensibly keep the Tribe from torturing these noble enemies, since torture and abuse fall outside the rules of engagement. If they’re not followed to the letter …. Well, notice that I use the word “ostensibly.”
In warrior cultures, there is the sense of a worthy adversary — one who is like oneself but in the employ of the Other side. For warriors, whose allegiance changes with power structures and even the prospect of gold, the changing of sides doesn’t necessarily impart or negate one’s worth.
In Celtic myth, consider the old friends and current enemies CuChulainn and Ferdiad. The tribes dictate the enmity, but they fight fairly — in accordance with the rules — and CuChulainn honors his foe in death.
Contrast this with Achilles’ defilement of Hector’s body in the Iliad. Achilles is considered insane for his actions, perceived as shameful. His reason? Rage over the loss of his lover, although the Greeks wouldn’t have acted any differently if given the opportunity; killing a warrior on the Other side falls squarely within the rules of engagement. Typically, warriors will give the enemy time at the end of a battle to bury or burn their dead, at least if the old accounts are to be believed.
Dragging an enemy warrior’s body behind a chariot may be seen as dishonorable, but raping their women or killing their children is not. In the Iliad, the Greeks smash the head of Hector’s infant son, for example. The Trojan women are raped and sold into slavery.
Which leads us into the second type of enemies, which I’ll simply call collateral. Those are the peasants, the commoners, the women and children. Their death and suffering may be tangentially addressed in the rules of engagement, but aren’t considered of prime importance. And so, warriors slay the innocent who are in the way out of confusion, expediency or blood lust — whether you’re talking about modern soldiers or ancient armies. The enemy’s women are almost universally raped and the peasants have their goods stolen. On the plus side, we don’t sell people into slavery anymore in the way of the ancients. Collateral enemies end up as chattel, slaves or meat; warriors don’t identify with them to any great degree, although they undoubtedly have mothers, sisters and friends who would fall into this type back home.
The last form of enemy isn’t quite an enemy at all; those are the slaves, named after my ancestors because so many of them ended up in Viking chains. The Norse term is thrall and the Celtic mog. Slaves are people, yes, but commodities first; they cannot be part of the Tribe and so their actions and motivations are discounted. There is a certain consciousness, however mild, concerning war’s impact on collateral; slaves merit no thought at all. They are considered no more dangerous than a draft animal —
— except when they’re not. Slave uprisings provoke the utmost brutality from the conquering culture because they are decidedly unworthy enemies. The rules of engagement don’t apply. As historian Robert Ferguson puts it in The Vikings: “…no credit at all must be given to the slave as the killer of a free man. The rigidity of the codification was complete: in Egils Saga a slave who dares to treat a free man as an equal by challenging him to a fight is killed while bending to tie his shoelaces. Codes of honourable behaviour simply did not apply between the free and the enslaved.” Consider the fate of Spartacus and his cohorts.
Worthiness in an enemy, then, is based on class or caste. Warriors/soldiers/combatants recognize their own, the backbone of the rules of engagement. Third- and fourth-function groups of people merit no more thought than, say, cattle or a house.
The inspiration from this, in a tangential way, is Osama bin Laden. Was he a worthy adversary or a rebellious slave? A solemn burial at sea — or at least the claim thereof — would seem to indicate that he was viewed as a noble enemy. The cries of the people to show his death photos or even drag his body through the street would indicate otherwise.
He was an enemy and therefore his death or capture was a necessary act, at least in terms of security and protection. But classifications aren’t so simple. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.
This is the dark side of virtue, particularly virtue as defined by warriors and war. We need a set of virtues outside of the Dumezilian second function — a virtue born of the collateral, who are simply People, the producers, the continuance of life, humanity as a whole outside the artificial boundaries of warrior-driven nationalism.
Otherwise, virtue is just an excuse to keep upping the body count.