Feeling Lost? Maybe You Need An Enemy

The Return From Inkerman (Wikimedia Commons)

What happens when you bomb a city?

Well, for one thing, you might expect morale to drop.

Yet, during bombings of Germany during World War II, something unexpected happened. Many lives were lost, but the populace did not react as expected.

In Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, Sebastian Junger writes:

“Fully a third of the German population was subjected to bombardment, and around one million people were killed or wounded. American analysts based in England monitored the effects of the bombing to see if any cracks began to appear in the German resolve, and to their surprise found exactly the opposite: the more the Allies bombed, the more defiant the German population became. Industrial production actually rose in Germany during the war. And the cities with the highest morale were the ones — like Dresden — that were bombed the hardest.

There seems to be something about adversity that brings people together.

“Adversity often leads people to depend more on one another, and that closeness can produce a kind of nostalgia for the hard times that even civilians are susceptible to.”

War is horrible. We do not wish it on ourselves or our loved ones, and we should not wish it on others. But still, one has to ask a question.

If adversity brings communities and countries together, then does part of us need an enemy in order to feel whole?

The Enemies We Create

In Inventing the Enemy, bestselling novelist, philosopher, and all-around polymath Umberto Eco jokingly comments on the cause of his country’s troubles:

“…I have come to the conclusion that one of Italy’s misfortunes over the past sixty years has been the absence of real enemies. … See what happened in the United States when the Evil Empire vanished and the great Soviet enemy faded away. The United States was in danger of losing its identity until bin Laden, in gratitude for the benefits he received when he was fighting against the Soviet Union, proffered his merciful hand and gave Bush the opportunity to create new enemies, strengthening feelings of national identity as well as his own power.”

Much like our own identities, which only take shape when we compare and contrast with others, does a culture or a country need an “other” to figure out what it is?

Umberto Eco thinks so:

“Having an enemy is important not only to define our identity but also to provide us with an obstacle against which to measure our system of values and, in seeking to overcome it, to demonstrate our own worth. So when there is no enemy, we have to invent one.

Notice the word here. Invent.

Those we make enemies out of are, in the end, still people. Deep down, they suffer from many of the same fears and worries. If we take the time to see the world as they do, it becomes a whole lot harder to hate them.

What is an enemy but clouds, dust, mirrors and smoke?

“[Saint Augustine] condemned pagans because, unlike the Christians, they attended circuses, theaters, and amphitheaters, and celebrated orgiastic feasts. …the people who become our enemies often are not those who directly threaten us … but those whom someone has an interest in portraying as a true threat even when they aren’t. Rather than a real threat … the difference itself becomes a symbol of what we find threatening.”

When bad things happen, nobody wants to take “it’s complicated” as an answer. It doesn’t feel good to blame the abstract for my problems, so I latch on the something physical instead — oftentimes, a person.

No job? Blame the immigrants. Financial crisis? Blame the rich. We humans like to cherry pick, to have ONE cause that explains why bad things happen, and if that ONE cause happens to have small eyes, black hair and is good at math, well, all the better.


Antisemitism, which some call “the longest hatred” has been around for thousands of years.

Eco mentions how the Roman historian Tacitus, who used mere differences as a way to make the Jews seem inferior:

“See what Tacitus has to say about the Jews: ‘All things that are sacred for us are profane for them, and what is impure for us is lawful for them’ (which brings to mind how the English dismiss the French as frog eaters or how the Germans condemn the Italians for excessive use of garlic). The Jews are ‘strange’ because they abstain from eating pork, do not put yeast in bread, rest on the seventh day, marry only among themselves, are circumcised … bury their dead, and do not venerate our caesars.”

Well, Tell Me The Good News

Perhaps Eco is right — I do not know. Perhaps we do need some “other” in order to know who we are. And perhaps, without knowing who we are, we are lost.

But even if he is, there’s some good news. We can always make an enemy out of something non-human too.

“The figure of the enemy cannot be abolished from the processes of civilization. The need is second nature even to a mild man of peace. In his case the image of the enemy is simply shifted from a human object to a natural or social force that in some way threatens us and has to be defeated, whether it be capitalistic exploitation, environmental pollution, or third-world hunger.”

Even the peace-loving Buddhists, if you think about it, have an enemy. Their cause? To devote the every free moment they have on this Earth to stamping out a common enemy — suffering.

For the Buddhists, the enemy is suffering. For others, the enemy is climate change or world hunger or the business next door. For the immortalists, the enemy is death itself.

Thoughts on How to Live

Now, how does this idea help us think about how to live?

Well, if you do find yourself lost in life, drifting from action to action without a sense of purpose, perhaps what you need to find something (not someone, I hope) to fight. In a way, I write to fight against ignorance and those who tell us there is only one way to see the world or only one right way to live.

But there’s a risk too.

This enemy I am fighting — the enemies we all fight — could they, like our neighbors of different colors, classes and backgrounds, simply be fake enemies that we’ve “invented” to satisfy our own needs?

However scary it is, we should also pause and ask ourselves, “Does this enemy that I fight truly exist? And, if not, then what is it that I’ve been doing this all for?”

Want more? Join over 20,000 readers getting The Open Circle, a free weekly (marketing-free) dose of mind-expanding ideas. Plus, I’ll send you 200+ pages from my private notebooks. Get it here.