Back in the USSR?

Sitting down to read Ender’s Game for this week was a pleasant return to my childhood. It had been nearly eleven years since I last read the book, and I was fascinated by what I remembered and picked up on as a child and what stood out to me this time around. In some ways I think this also helped me see these characters as children: as a ten-year-old reading about children my age I did not see anything in their actions, particularly under the extreme stress they experienced, that required any massive suspension of disbelief, so then returning as an adult I brought with me those prior affirmations of the age of these characters.

That being said, while I remember being focused on the social relationships of the children before, altogether not too dissimilar from the schoolyard alliances, enemies, and bullies I could see in my own life, this time around I was struck by the influence of political situations of the 70s and 80s on the book.

On page 126 Peter argues, “When the bugger wars are over, all that power will vanish, because it’s all built on fear of the buggers. And suddenly we’ll look around and discover that all the old alliances are gone, dead and gone, except one, the Warsaw Pact.” I’ve always found it fascinating what a dystopia reveals about the fears of the society that it comes from, and I see something similar in Ender’s Game. Yes, it was revised in the 90s to reflect some changes in history, but there’s no rewriting or removing the Red Scare mentality that pervades all the Earth-level  politics in the novel. In some ways I wonder if this picture of Earth that Card gives us is indeed rather bleak. The only thing keeping Earth from dissolving into its own factions seems to be its uniting goal to assure the survival of the human race, but once that is no longer a concern, the natural progression is for the world to fall into chaos and power-struggles. It’s not terribly difficult to justify the preemptive strike on the buggers in the extenuating circumstances of complete lack of communication abilities and the understanding that a preemptive strike is the only way to save humanity against the thousand-to-one odds of the buggers. If it’s us or them, us always wins.

But then how do you determine extenuating circumstances? In the Cold War tensions, nuclear disaster was absolutely an us or them scenario. I feel less comfortable justifying this not only through the 20/20 lens of history but also because methods of communication were not out of the picture. Certainly, as many of us learned in Intro to International Politics, communication does not prevent a war. Countries and factions have incentives to misrepresent their situation and by the same token have reason to distrust their adversary, so I cannot argue against the fact that many people under Cold War tensions would have considered themselves to be in extenuating circumstances, with the only barrier to preemptive strike being the threat of mutually assured destruction.

Returning to my earlier confusion regarding Card’s stance in support of preemptive striking while showing in the end that the buggers meant no harm and even felt deep grief for what they had caused, I wonder if Card means to make the point that, even if this is the case, there’s no way the humans could have known that. It really does become a prisoner’s dilemma, where self-defense is the dominant strategy in the absence of collusion.

That being said, I can’t extrapolate this situation to any modern conflicts in which the US could be justified in a preemptive strike. The presence of information and communication channels, at least for me, throws preemptive striking out the proverbial window in terms of justifiability. But this isn’t an old matter. Preemptive striking remains within the realm of strategic possibility. Professor Brown, I know I shared this in my reading list proposal, but in case anyone else is scrolling through these, this joke petition for a preemptive nuclear strike against Russia highlights this rather salient matter. Certainly (and thankfully), the average beachgoer in my lovely hometown (imagine how proud I must be) isn’t making US foreign policy decisions, and this petition is a prank along the lines of similar ones that show you can get people to sign or agree to just about anything on paper, but the appeal of a preemptive strike against a threat, be it real or perceived, is strong. Pressure and extenuating circumstances can be argued in a range of cases, and justifying extreme action on such a basis is a slippery slope to systematically dehumanizing an enemy in a paranoia to maintain power and safety of a group rather than working towards prosperity of the world as a whole.  Ender’s Game is visibly a product of its time, but it has not lost its relevance to our world order today.

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