The Powerful Bond of Being Ex-Enemies

Twenty years from now, could veterans of Afghanistan be trading war stories over friendly dinners with ex-Taliban fighters? It sound inconceivable, but then, it always is—when the war is still on. Yet ex-soldiers in past wars have felt a bond with fellow-fighters, which they don't share with non-veterans. That feeling of solidarity can and does extend even to those who fought on the other side. Case in point: These Bosnian war veterans, Croats and Muslims, who recently gave up some of their pension money to support ethnic Serb veterans.

After 2004, the men were all soldiers in the same Army, the combined Muslim-Croat-Serb force that was created after the wars of ex-Yugoslavia. But before then they had fought each other in Bosnia's bloody ethnic wars. In fact, the Serbs aren't getting their pensions because the Serb state-within-a-state in Bosnia-Herzogovina refuses to abide by the federal government's decision. The small payments involved aren't going to support the Serb vets, but the symbolism is powerful.

This story, out of one recent and bloody conflict, is hardly unique. Years after the heat of war is past, ex-enemies often come together to trade their respects and talk with one another about what they experienced. It has happened after the American Civil war, after World War II in Europe and in the Pacific, and after the Vietnam War, to name a few examples. I'm not referring here to anodyne rhetoric of politicians touting alliances that have been made for cool reasons of statecraft among former enemies. I'm talking about the experience of men who worked hard to kill each other in the past, now reliving their experiences with one another—experiences that alienated them a little, or a lot, from the people they fought for.

In his autobiography the late Bishop Paul Moore recalls that separation from non-veterans that he felt after World War II ended: "The world we were entering did not seem real," he writes. "If I saw a Marine at a bar, I still would leave my friends, rush over, and shoot the breeze. It was like meeting another American when traveling in the Gobi Desert." It's striking that this feeling of solidarity with other veterans can be felt even across the boundaries that marked the two sides. "It was like we were old platoon buddies," says one American vet in this 2010 story about his meeting ex-Viet Cong fighters. "Although we fought on different sides, what we did was the same. Our fear was the same. Our hopes were the same. Our worries were the same.''

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