In 2001, I was introduced to the book Ender's Game by my then supervisor as a leadership tool. I had no idea how the work would provide an interesting parallel to some of the more important geopolitical events to occur only a few years later. While it might seem strange to some that a Science Fiction book like Ender’s Game would be offered as instruction in leadership, many other organizations, Universities and even, according to Wikipedia, the Marine Corps’ University in Quantico, Virginia also use the tome to teach about effective leadership. If you think you might read the book, be forewarned that there are plot-spoiling facts about the book in the third paragraph of this article and beyond.
There are many interesting ideas put forward in the book and it speaks to readers in different ways. I remember that when I first finished the book, I felt an overwhelming sadness about the bullying in the book and about how in general the children in it were treated. So much for learning about leadership! It took a second and third read to pay more close attention to the leadership concepts in the book. Another important idea of the book is the idea of an ultra-violent preemption. Not surprisingly, the author, Orson Scott Card, is a Bush supporter and a fan of what we did in Iraq.
To be sure, two of the three main violent actions by the book’s protagonist, Andrew “Ender” Wiggin, are not completely pre-emptive. Ender is confronted on two separate occasions by groups of boys bigger and stronger than himself who are getting ready to hit and hurt him. Ender turns the tables on his attackers and completely destroys them. Neither Ender nor the reader realize it until the end of the book, but in fact, Ender has killed the main antagonists in each situation. Through his book, Card tells us that Ender attacks with such brutality because he believes that with people like those who are attacking him, it is the only way to prevent them from ever trying to hurt him again. Those situations are close enough to the idea of pre-emptive violence to fit my thesis and the third situation, one where Ender completely wipes out an alien species who hasn’t attacked in decades because it is believed they might attack again, is spot on with the Bush doctrine of preemption and our actions in Iraq.
In fact, Enders actions with respect to the ‘Buggers’ which is the name of the alien species, is surprisingly close to the Iraq war in another troubling aspect. We learn after Ender wipes them out that the Buggers were not going to attack again, much like we learned after we invaded and occupied them that Iraq did not have Weapons of Mass Destruction and thus posed no threat to us or our allies in the region. Both situations also offered alternatives where the unnecessary destruction could have been easily avoided. While not stated in the book, one could envision that earth’s defenses could have been built up instead of sending ships to attack the alien species, and with regards to Iraq, if the Bush administration had paid attention to the UN Weapons inspectors reports of March 7, 2003 that indicated no WMD had been found in over four months of inspections of each of the suspected sites, the Iraq war could have been avoided as well. In fact, my belief is that not stopping the headlong rush to war after seeing the UN Weapons Inspector’s reports of March 7, 2003 is grounds for war crimes and crimes against humanity charges.
Several articles have been written and are available for reading on the web about the morality of the book with respect to its violent encounters. My personal favorite is “Creating the Innocent Killer” by John Kessel. Kessel addresses what it seems is Card’s opinion with situations like those Ender faced and that is that with regard to ascertaining the morality of an action, intention is all that matters, not the end result. While I do not completely agree with his thesis, Kessel does a good job of critiquing this philosophy.
The disagreement I have with the Kessel piece is that we as a society do place a strong emphasis on intent when judging crimes. Even the most serious issue of taking someone else’s life is treated differently depending on what is perceived to be the intent of the life-taker. If someone planned the life-taking in advance, we call it first degree murder and if found guilty, the perpetrator can get life imprisonment or even the death penalty. On the other end of the spectrum, if it is believed the life-taker was wholly acting in self defense, they get no punishment at all and depending on perceived intent there are several degrees of punishments in between those two extremes that can result in minimal, moderate or large amounts of jail time.The minor disagreement aside, the Kessel piece and others like it are very important. Iraq is a sad example of what can happen when pre-emption and intent are seen as justifying reasons for war and murder. Decisions about when it is necessary to go to war and whether to take a life in self defense (to say nothing about semi-related topics like abortion, mercy killings and assisted suicides) are likely to be pondered and argued about for the foreseeable future of our species. In some cases there are no easy answers but the outcome of difficult situations and good philosophy like Kessel’s might help us get to some of those answers. I think the fiasco of the Iraq war closes the book on the morality of pre-emptive war forever.