There was once an animated online series that I watched as a child, that bore a few similarities to Ender’s Game (such as being set in a science-fiction genre, with human soldiers fighting aliens in a tried-and-true narrative trope), that had a quote which I found incredibly memorable, and found myself recalling while I was reading Ender’s Game this time around:
“Tell me, who is more deserving of your hate? The man who makes the gun, the man who fires the gun, or the gun?”
In Orson Scott Card’s most famous work, Ender Wiggins is humanity’s best weapon against an impending alien threat threatening mankind’s existence, and who is trained and compelled to use any and all means necessary to achieve victory in his battle simulations. Ender is a gun of the finest model and craftsmanship, molded and refined by Colonel Graff and the International Fleet’s competitive Battle School, and used and made to apply his skills against a disguised actual threat by Mazer Rackham.
So who is truly accountable for Ender’s actions? Is Ender right to accept total blame?
It is true that Ender is directly responsible for the deaths of nearly an entire fleets’ worth of human lives, as well as that of an entire alien race – save one. Is it forgivable to claim ignorance upon such a revelation? Ender doesn’t think so, and bears this monumental burden upon his shoulders willingly, as the tragic hero he is. His military genius only undercuts the gravity of his sins. The manner in which he carelessly sacrifices ships’ worth of lives to not just win the game, but to do so in such a conscientiously ruthless manner in his greatest “act” of rebellion against his makers, and the subsequent genocide of a species he never truly understood, is as horrific as it is heartbreaking. Even if Ender only believed he was only playing a game, this does not justify or negate the consequences of his actions, and in this way Ender can never truly be absolved of his crimes, had the story ended there.
And yet it is Colonel Graff that saw his potential and recruited him, giving Ender only the illusion of choice at every turn that Ender hesitates at or wants to reverse from. The only freedom Ender attains during his training is within the simulation, where he can exercise his creative strategic mind and organize his toons. In this sense, Ender’s agency and control is bred and refined for the simple purpose of destroying an enemy, and it is these strings that he is tied to by the man who ultimately shapes and directs this child weapon. And the deception employed most directly by Mazer Rackham to convince him that Ender was facing him as an opponent rather than the actual alien armada is just as appalling and reprehensible. Systems and states will always find ways to justify their policies and decisions as “necessity”, ascribing it to this very general and ambiguous rationale, accepting credit for its success and pinning it on a scapegoat for its failure. No one wants to take the gun when it goes off in the wrong direction.
Ender is in many ways, despite the veil of science fiction and simulation, a true child soldier. Bred to conduct warfare, and used to take lives. And ultimately, he is used and discarded by Graff and Rackham just like all child soldiers are by their warlord abusers, and that institution they find themselves trapped in, once they have achieved their results. An intertext I would suggest is A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah, the memoir of a child soldier who explores the before and after of such a defining and horrific human experience, as well as the possibility of rehabilitation and reparation. It would be interesting to analyze the depth of awareness by children in both texts, and how knowing affects one’s actions and experiences when one is broken down and rebuilt as a weapon for some greater cause.
That is not to say the International Fleet did not provide Ender passage or accommodations post-victory, so that he can return to the home, the one he so “heroically” saved. And yet it is unsurprising that Ender has no desire to reintegrate into human society – how bleak a realization it must be, that he committed the ultimate unknowing sacrifice in order to save a planet that had plunged into a war with itself during his crusade, and even worse, that should he return to Earth, he would spend his days with Peter and other politicians who will try to use him for their own goals. I am incredibly sympathetic to Ender’s character as someone who has only been seen as and used as a tool rather than a person and a child. In a lifetime of being used, only his sister Valentine views him as a real person, and perhaps that is the key reason he was able to come back and find renewed purpose in life. A system of dehumanization and exploitation, or rather the internalized mind that accepts it, can only be undone through simple, genuine compassion and empathy, to understand another in terms of who they are, rather than what they are. In a world of increasingly interconnected systems and roles, where everyone fulfills a function, it is important to keep in mind the humanity behind policies, and when there are transgressions against it.
There are never easy answers, and if answers are shown, they are never provided by the greater system, but must be actively sought out. In the end, Ender seeks redemption by taking the last unborn Hive Queen off into deep space to become the speaker for the dead, and provide a voice on behalf of the alien race he had all-but-exterminated. Perhaps Card is also of the mind that there are certain actions that one cannot take back, and the only hope one has after being repentant about atrocities committed is to dedicate the rest of one’s life to making a positive difference to those one’s wronged.
In this way, Card can be read in a more optimistic light, that it is possible for one to pay back for one’s actions. But the debt is large indeed, and that the cost of genocide is likely a lifetime of servitude to this better cause. Ender’s Game suggests that one’s lived experience is most meaningful when it is devoted to something greater than oneself, and that in one way or another, you will always be understood as a means for this cause. The difference lies in whether or not you have the luxury of choice about what you sacrifice yourself for, and your own internal rationalization of why you play this game, and how you understand yourself when you do so.