When I was in the scouts in the mid-1970’s we went on camp, as scout troops do. This particular summer, we’d more or less finished pitching our tents when we discovered that the troop nearest to us on the camping ground was German. There was a real ‘edge’ to that. Though Britain was in the ‘Common Market’, WWII still loomed pretty large. Sunday afternoon often featured a war film: what we knew about Germans, we’d learned from those. Part of the reason that Basil Fawty’s German routine was so funny (”Don’t mention the war! I mentioned it once, but I think I got away with it!”) is that it was so true for the times.
For the 1980’s, the enemies came in the shape of the USSR, tanks poised to sweep across Eastern Europe, missiles pointed in our direction, bombers perpetually on the runways ready for take-off. There was real paranoia about the nuclear threat. They were out to get us.
Then the USSR went away.
It died as a threat almost overnight. And a new enemy was on the horizon. Islam.
And it was out to get us too.
Two things fascinate me about all this. The first is the question I began with. Do we need enemies? The way in which we have been able to shift without effort from one enemy to the next suggests to me that we might. It is almost as if something in our collective psyche must have an ‘other’ over and against which it can define itself. We gain identity from being ‘not them’.
Second, it is interesting that enemies and allies are able to change places so easily. We fought against the Germans with the Russians. We fought the Russians with what we would call now Muslim extremists. (And not just in Afghanistan. Anyone else remember when the horrid Chechen terrorists were thought of as brave freedom fighters?) And in all of that time we’ve fought alongside our perpetual friends, the Americans — except in Ireland, where obviously the British were bloodthirsty imperialist aggressors. It was those nice men of the Marxist Provisional IRA who were the freedom fighters.
I’m not sure where I’m going with this - just thinking aloud.