The Good Enemies
The enemy. They come in all shapes, sizes and configurations. They take many forms. They can be social rivals, business competitors, opposing sports teams, even political antagonists. However, there is perhaps no category of enemy more universally reviled than the commander of an opposing military fighting force, the individual on the opposing side whose goal it is to destroy the people and things you’re trying to protect.
Yet even in the midst of a life-or-death struggle, there are adversaries who not only gain the respect of the opposition, but actually come to be regarded by their supposed enemies with a surprising degree of admiration, if not outright affection. These are individuals who become ingratiated in the minds of their enemies because of their noteworthy personal style and flamboyance or because of their tactical brilliance and utter ferocity in battle or because of their perceived “humanity,” the notion that although they’re fighting on the “wrong side,” their basic elemental nature is good and kind, and they just happen to be on the other side because of circumstances beyond their control. Often, it is a combination of all these factors. Here are two of the most well-known:
Robert E. Lee
President Dwight D Eisenhower once revealed that Lee’s portrait was among those that hung in his oval office, proclaiming, “in my estimation, [Lee was] one of the supremely gifted men produced by our Nation. … selfless almost to a fault … noble as a leader and as a man … From deep conviction, I simply say this: a nation of men of Lee’s caliber would be unconquerable in spirit and soul.”
President Eisenhower’s take is typical of many opinions and responses concerning Lee’s character. Yet Lee was the commanding general of the Confederate army in our Civil War, a war fought mainly to prevent the secession of the Southern states from the Union, largely because of the dispute over slavery. In simplest terms, Lee commanded the forces that wanted to preserve slavery, arguably among the most inhumane and immoral injustices that any person can inflict upon another.
Nonetheless, Lee’s actual wartime actions are given a pass by most historians. He is remembered instead for his brilliance and skill as a military commander, his compassion towards the men under his command, the ethical manner in which he conducted his wartime operations, and most importantly, the fact that President Lincoln—recognizing that a North-South war was inevitable—had asked Lee a few days after the attack on Ft. Sumter in April 1861 to be his commander of the Northern (Union) Army.
Reportedly, Lee refused Lincoln’s request because of his loyalty to his native state of Virginia, which was obviously not going to be part of the Northern Union. Lee’s agreeable, distinguished personal qualities coupled with the popular notion that he almost fought for the “right side” have combined to produce a generally favorable retrospective view of Lee, despite his having led the opposition in an indefensibly immoral cause in a war of unprecedented cost. The population of the country was roughly 32 million during the Civil War and combined war deaths on both sides are estimated to be around 600,000, an incomprehensible 1.9% of the total population. Put in perspective, that casualty level would mean six million deaths today. Six million deaths. Yet Lee’s memory is lionized.
The dapper, sophisticated Field Marshal Erwin Rommel is best remembered as the “Desert Fox,” a nickname he earned for his brilliant achievements as the German commander of the Afrika Corps in the early stages of World War II. His aggressive and innovative tactics led to several German victories over British and American forces in the deserts of North Africa, despite the numerical and logistical superiority enjoyed by the Allies in both equipment and supplies. The North African campaign became known in some circles as the “War Without Hate,’ an acknowledgement of the courteous and respectful manner in which the antagonists regarded each other. In a later African engagement with Rommel, as American General George Patton gained the upper hand, he supposedly quipped, “Rommel, you magnificent bastard, I read your book!” in reference to a book on infantry tactics that Rommel had written some years prior.
Like many German officers, Rommel was not a member of the Nazi Party, but was instead a German military professional discharging his responsibility. This ‘not a Nazi’ factor is the emotional/intellectual “escape clause” on which admiration of German military personalities by Western military adversaries and historians is deemed acceptable.
By late 1943 — four years after the European conflict had begun — Rommel recognized that Germany was destined to lose the war and he agreed with several other senior German officers that Hitler needed to be overthrown so Germany could make peace with the Western allies under acceptable terms. An assassination attempt on Hitler was scheduled for July 20, 1944. Following Hitler’s death, these senior officers would contact the Americans and British and end the war.
Unfortunately, Hitler survived the attempt (a bomb planted in the country house where he was meeting with other officials) and Rommel’s role in the plot was uncovered. As punishment, he was “asked” to take a lethal dose of poison, but because of his hero status in the eyes of the German public, his cause of death was given as “illness” of an unspecified kind. The fact that Rommel was put to death as a result of his wanting to kill Hitler is cited by many as further evidence of the Desert Fox’s inherent humanity and unimpeachable quality of character.
Lee and Rommel are just two examples of enemies we admire. Certainly, the flamboyant, colorful German World War II flying ace Adolf Galland — his Messerschmitt Bf 109E fighter plane amusingly adorned with an American-styled Mickey Mouse cartoon painting —would also fall into that category. And in recent American politics, it has become something of popular lore to cite the after-hours drink that Republican President Ronald Reagan would sometimes share with his bitter arch-rival, Democratic Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neil.
Whether in battle, politics or some other human endeavor, the notion of a particularly formidable adversary — one who is often elevated to mythical, heroic status — holds an undeniable fascination for ardent followers of that given subject and it introduces the elements of kindness and humor where usually there is none.
© 2019 Steve Feinstein. All rights reserved.