Can’t live with them, can’t live without them: ‘the enemy’ as object of controversy in contemporary Western wars

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OLSSON Christian
DOI: 10.1080/23337486.2019.1622261
Routledge - Taylor & Francis Online
Critical Military Studies




An authenticated document published in 2008 by Wikileaks and entitled ‘NATO in Afghanistan: master narrative’ implicitly makes clear that the ‘enemy’ should never be recognized as an enemy of NATO by its personnel. This is the point of departure of this article, dealing with the different and partly incompatible uses of the notion of the enemy by (in particular) politicians and the military in contemporary Western conflicts. In this paper I do not give an a priori meaning to the signifier ‘enemy’. I am here interested in the consequences of the loss of previously institutionalized and official definitions of the enemy and the resulting relative avoidance of the term in contemporary wars. At the same time I show how this loss of meaning allows for the cohabitation of widely divergent usages of the term by distinct state-professionals (politicians, diplomats, military leaders, international lawyers…). These uses are at the same time logically incompatible but pragmatically complementary. I hence highlight that the absence of a clear understanding of what enmity implies has become an asset in contemporary unrecognized ‘asymmetric wars’. This confusion around the word ‘enemy’ enables these actors to speak different languages to different people and to engage in ‘wars against enemies’ while presenting them as ‘police operations against criminals’.