At the beginning of Ender’s Game, Ender Wiggin faces a difficult choice. He’s bullied by a schoolboy named Stilson, and one afternoon, Stilson pushes Ender, and Ender decides that he has no choice except to fight back. Ender gains the upper hand in the fight, and knocks Stilson to the ground. Ender realizes that he can either walk away and expect to face Stilson tomorrow, or kick him while he’s down, effectively winning all the “future fights.” Ender makes a decision that few have the stomach for: in order to protect himself, he kicks Stilson while he’s already down, inadvertently killing him. It is this act of calculated violence that ultimately wins Ender a place in Battle School.
Ender’s attack on Stilson is thus both defensive and preemptive: he didn’t want to fight Stilson, but when he does, he doesn’t show Stilson the mercy that most people would. We might ask, then, if it’s ever right to attack an enemy before the enemy has struck first—or if it’s only morally acceptable to defend oneself from one’s opponents. As the book goes on, Card poses a far more challenging version of this question: is it morally justifiable to attack an entire species (the Buggers) that’s known to be dangerous to human beings, even if the species shows no signs of wanting to fight again?
For most of his time at the Battle School, Ender doesn’t have the willpower to attack his opponents preemptively—his innate sense of right and wrong tells him that he has to wait to fight back. In the virtual reality game he plays with the Giant, however, Ender ultimately decides to “think outside the box” and attack the Giant. This only happens after dozens of rounds in which the Giant kills and eats him, though—Ender doesn’t consider the Giant a threat until it’s overwhelmingly obvious that the Giant leaves him no other way to survive. A more disturbing example of Ender’s defensive instincts comes when Ender learns that Bonzo Madrid wants to kill him. Ender avoids Bonzo for as long as he can, finally fighting him in a shower when Bonzo corners him. Ender hits Bonzo defensively, then finishes the fight to ensure (preemptively) that Bonzo will never hurt him again. Ender is devastated by his own actions—he can’t handle the guilt of a preemptive attack, even when there’s good evidence that he’d be dead if he had waited any longer to act.
By the time Ender arrives at Command School, he’s come to understand that the Bugger War itself is a problem of preemptive strategy. He learns that the Buggers have shown no signs of wanting to hurt human beings since their first invasion—there’s a decent chance that they want nothing more to do with Ender’s species. But Colonel Hyrum Graff argues that this simply isn’t good enough: humans must attack the Buggers preemptively to guarantee victory. Ender can’t entirely agree with Graff’s point of view, even when his new teacher, Mazer Rackham, tries to teach him to attack his opponents before he even knows that they’re opponents. It becomes clear that Ender, a moral person, could never choose to preemptively murder an entire species. It’s for this reason that Mazer and Graff lie to Ender about his computer games, not telling him that he’s killed the Buggers until it’s too late for him to change his mind. Previously, we had assumed that Graff’s answer to the question of preemptive genocide was an enthusiastic “yes”—but Card shows us that even Graff doesn’t have the willpower to kill so indiscriminately. This is why he gets Ender to kill for him, and gives Ender the alibi of not knowing that his computer games were real.
In the end, Ender’s Game suggests that the answer to the question of preemptive offense isn’t “yes” or “no”—it’s simply too enormous a question for any human being (even a hardened soldier like Graff, let alone a child like Ender) to answer. Furthermore, Card suggests that the question itself is a false dichotomy. Ender realizes that the challenge of the Buggers isn’t “kill or be killed” (just as the Giant’s challenge wasn’t really “drink this potion or drink the other one”), but rather, “kill or understand.” Although Ender realizes his mistake too late, he gets a second chance, and resolves to devote the rest of his life to understanding Bugger society and repopulating the Bugger species.
Morality and Survival ThemeTracker
Morality and Survival Quotes in Ender’s Game
“So what do we do? Surround him with enemies all the time?”
“If we have to.”
“I thought you said you liked this kid.”
“If the Buggers get him, they’ll make me look like his favorite uncle.”
“All right. We’re saving the world, after all. Take him.”
Dad pointed out that the war wouldn’t go away just because you hid Bugger masks and wouldn’t let your kids play with make-believe laser guns. Better to play the war games, and have a better chance of surviving when the Buggers came again.
“Tell me why you kept kicking him. You had already won.”
“Knocking him down won the first fight. I wanted to win all the next ones, too, right then, so they’d leave me alone.”
He hadn’t meant to kill the Giant. This was supposed to be a game. Not a choice between his own grisly death and an even worse murder. I’m a murderer, even when I play. Peter would be proud of me.
“There is no war, and they’re just screwing around with us.”
“Because as long as people are afraid of the Buggers, the IF can stay in power.”
He caught her wrist in his hand. His grip was very strong, even though his hands were smaller than hers and his own arms were slender and tight. For a moment he looked dangerous; then he relaxed. “Oh, yes,” he said. “You used to tickle me.”
“I surprised you once, Ender Wiggin, Why didn’t you destroy me immediately afterward? Just because I looked peaceful? You turned your back on me. Stupid. You have learned nothing. You have never had a teacher.”
Forget it, Mazer. I don’t care if I pass your test, I don’t care if I follow your rules, if you can cheat, so can I. I won’t let you beat me unfairly—I’ll beat you unfairly first.
In that final battle in Battle School, he had won by ignoring the enemy, ignoring his own losses; he had moved against the enemy’s gate.
And the enemy’s gate was down.
“We got the judges to agree that the prosecution had to prove beyond doubt that Ender would have won the war without the training we gave him. After then it was simple. The exigencies of war.”
“Anyway, Graff, it was a great relief to us. I know we quarreled, and I know the prosecution used tapes of our conversation against you. But by then I knew that you were right, and I offered to testify for you.”