Time was when I knew the racists were the lunch-counter owners who refused to serve blacks, the warmongers were the generals who planned wars and ordered the killing of innocent people, and the polluters were the industrialists whose factories fouled the air, water, and land. I was a good guy, boycotting, marching, and sitting-in to protest the actions of the bad guys.

But now, no matter how much I protest, an honest look at myself and my relationship with the rest of the world reveals ways that I, too, am part of the problem. I notice that on initial contact I’m more suspicious of Mexicans than of whites. I see that I’m addicted to a standard of living maintained at the expense of poor people around the world and perpetuated through military force. And I realize that my consumption of resources and creation of waste contribute to the pollution problem. The line that separates me from the bad guys is blurred.

When I was working to stop the Vietnam War, I felt uneasy seeing people in military uniform. I remember thinking, “How could that guy be so dumb as to have gotten into that uniform? How could he be so acquiescent, so credulous as to have fallen for the government’s story on Vietnam?” I’d get furious when I imagined the horrible things he’d probably done in the war.

Several years after the end of the war, a small group of Vietnam veterans wanted to hold a retreat at our farm. I consented, though I was ambivalent about hosting them. That weekend, I listened to a dozen men and women who had served in Vietnam and returned home only to face ostracism for their involvement in the war. They were struggling to come to terms with their experiences.

They spoke of some of the awful things they’d done and seen, as well as some things they were proud of. They told why they had enlisted in the army or cooperated with the draft: their love of the United States, their eagerness to serve, their wish to be brave and heroic. They felt their noble motives had been betrayed, leaving them with little confidence in their own judgment. Some questioned their manhood or womanhood, even their basic humanity. They wondered whether they had been a positive or negative force overall, and what their buddies’ sacrifices meant. Disarmed by their anguish, I could no longer view them simply as perpetrators of evil.

How had I come to view military people as my enemies? Did vilifying soldiers get me off the hook and allow me to divorce myself from responsibility for what my country was doing in Vietnam? Did my own anger and righteousness keep me from seeing the situation’s full complexity? How had my limited view affected my work against the war?

When my youngest sister and her husband, a career military man, visited me several years ago, I was again challenged to see the human being within the soldier. I learned that as a farm boy in Utah he’d been recruited to be a sniper.

One night toward the end of their visit, we got to talking about his work. Though he had also been trained as a medical corpsman, he could be called on at any time to work as a sniper. He couldn’t tell me much about this part of his career — he’d been sworn to secrecy — and I’m not sure he would have wanted to tell me even if he could. But he did say that a sniper’s work involved going abroad, “bumping off” a leader, and disappearing into a crowd.

When you’re given an order, he said, you’re not supposed to think about it. You feel alone and helpless. Rather than take on the army — and maybe the whole country — by himself, he chose not to consider the possibility that certain orders shouldn’t be carried out.

I could see how isolation could make it seem impossible to follow one’s moral standards and disobey an order. I leaned toward him and said, “If you’re ever ordered to do something that you know you shouldn’t do, call me immediately and I’ll find a way to help. I know a lot of people would support your stand. You’re not alone.” He and my sister looked at each other, and their eyes filled with tears.

How do we learn whom to hate and fear? In my short lifetime, the national enemies of the United States have changed several times. Our World War II foes, the Japanese and the Germans, have become our allies. The Soviets were our enemy for many years after that. The North Vietnamese, Cubans, and Chinese have done their stints. So many countries incur our national wrath — how do we choose among them?

As individuals, do we choose our enemies based on cues from national leaders? From schoolteachers and religious leaders? From newspapers and TV? Do we learn to hate and fear our parents’ enemies as part of our family identity? Or those of our culture, subculture, or peer group?

Whose economic and political interests does our enemy mentality serve?

At a conference on the Holocaust and genocide, I met someone who showed me that it is not necessary to hate our opponents, even under the most extreme circumstances. While sitting in the hotel lobby after a session on the Holocaust, I struck up a conversation with a woman named Helen Waterford. When I learned she was a Jewish survivor of Auschwitz, I expressed my anger at the Nazis.

“You know,” she said, “I don’t hate the Nazis.”

I was taken aback. How could anyone who had lived through a concentration camp not hate the Nazis?

Then I learned that Helen does public speaking with a former leader of the Hitler Youth movement: they talk about how terrible fascism is as viewed from both sides. Fascinated, I arranged to spend more time with Helen and learn how she came to associate with this man.

In 1980, Helen read an intriguing newspaper article in which a man named Alfons Heck described his experiences growing up in Nazi Germany. When he was a young boy in Catholic school, the priest would come in every morning and say, “Heil Hitler,” and then, “Good morning,” and finally, “In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” In Heck’s mind, Hitler came before God. At ten he volunteered for the Hitler Youth, and he loved it. When he was sixteen, in 1944, Heck learned for the first time that the Nazis were systematically killing the Jews. He thought, “This can’t be true.” But gradually he came to understand that he had served a mass murderer.

Heck’s frankness impressed Helen, and she wanted to meet him. She found him soft-spoken, intelligent, and pleasant. Helen had already been speaking publicly about her experiences during the Holocaust, and she asked Heck to share the podium with her at an upcoming engagement before a group of four hundred schoolteachers. She and Heck took turns telling their stories of the Nazi period.

Helen told of leaving Frankfurt in 1934 at age twenty-five. She and her husband, an accountant who had lost his job when the Nazis came to power, escaped to Holland. There they worked with the underground Resistance, and Helen gave birth to a daughter. In 1940 the Nazis invaded Holland. In 1942 Helen and her husband went into hiding, but two years later they were discovered and sent to Auschwitz. Their daughter was hidden by friends in the Resistance. Helen’s husband died in the concentration camp.

Heck and Waterford’s joint presentation went well, and they decided to continue working as a team. Once, at an assembly of eight hundred high-school students, Heck was asked, “If you had been ordered to shoot some Jews, maybe Mrs. Waterford, would you have shot them?” Heck swallowed and said, “Yes. I obeyed orders. I would have.” Afterward he apologized to Helen, saying he hadn’t wanted to upset her. But she told him, “I’m glad you answered the way you did. Otherwise, I would have never again believed a word you said.”

Heck is often faced with the “once a Nazi, always a Nazi” attitude. “You may give a good speech,” people will say to him, “but I don’t buy any of it. Once you’ve believed something, you don’t throw it away.” Again and again he patiently explains that it took years before he could accept the fact that he’d been brought up believing falsehoods. Heck is also harassed by neo-Nazis, who call him in the middle of the night with threats: “We haven’t gotten you yet, but we’ll kill you, traitor.”

How did Helen feel about the Nazis in Auschwitz? “I disliked them. I cannot say that I wished I could kick them to death — I never did. I guess that I am just not a vengeful person.” She is often denounced by Jews for not wanting revenge. “It’s impossible that you don’t hate,” people tell her.

I have tried to understand what has enabled Helen to remain so objective and to avoid blaming individual Germans for the Holocaust, for her suffering, for her husband’s death. I have found a clue in her passionate study of history.

For many people, the only explanation of the Holocaust is that it was the creation of a madman. But Helen thinks such an analysis only serves to shield people from the thought that it could happen to them. An appraisal of Hitler’s mental health, she says, is less important than an examination of the historical forces at work and the ways Hitler was able to manipulate them.

“As soon as the war was over,” Helen told me, “I began to read about what had happened since 1933, when my world had closed. I read and read. How did fascism develop? What was the role of Britain, Hungary, Yugoslavia, the United States, France? How could it be possible that the Holocaust really happened? What is the first step, the second step? What are people searching for when they join fanatical movements? I guess I will be asking these questions until my last days.”

Those of us working for social change tend to view our adversaries as unreliable, suspect, and generally of lower moral character. Saul Alinsky, a brilliant community organizer, explained the rationale for such polarization this way:

One acts decisively only in the conviction that all the angels are on one side and all the devils are on the other. A leader may struggle toward a decision and weigh the merits and demerits of a situation which is 52 percent positive and 48 percent negative, but once the decision is reached he must assume that his cause is 100 percent positive and the opposition 100 percent negative.

But demonizing one’s adversaries has great costs. It tacitly accepts and helps perpetuate our dangerous enemy mentality.

Instead of focusing on the 52-percent “devil” in my adversary, I choose to look at the other 48 percent, to start from the premise that, within each adversary, I have an ally. That ally may be silent, faltering, or hidden from view. That ally may only be the person’s sense of ambivalence about morally questionable parts of his or her job. Such doubts rarely have a chance to flower in the social context to which the person is accountable. My ability to be their ally also suffers from such pressures.

In 1970, while the Vietnam War was still going on, I spent the summer with a group of activists in Long Beach, California, organizing against a napalm factory there. It was a small factory that mixed the chemicals and put the napalm in canisters. An accidental explosion a few months earlier had spewed hunks of napalm gel onto nearby homes and lawns. The incident had, in a real sense, brought the war home. It spurred local residents who opposed the war to recognize their community’s connection with one of the war’s most despicable elements. At their request, we worked with and strengthened their local group. Together we presented a slide show and tour of the local military-industrial complex to community leaders, and we picketed the napalm factory. We also met with the president of the conglomerate that owned the factory.

We spent three weeks preparing for this meeting — studying the company’s holdings and financial picture and investigating whether there were any lawsuits filed against the president or his corporation. And we found out as much as we could about the president’s personal life: his family, his church, his country club, his hobbies. We studied his photograph, thinking of the people who loved him and the people he loved, trying to get a sense of his worldview and the context to which he was accountable.

We also talked a lot about how angry we were at him for the part he played in killing and maiming children in Vietnam. But though our anger fueled our determination, we decided that venting it at him would make him defensive and reduce our effectiveness.

By the time three of us met with the president, he was not a stranger to us. Without blaming him personally or attacking his corporation, we asked him to think about the consequences of his company’s operations, to close the plant, and to not bid for the contract when it came up for renewal that year. We told him we knew where his corporation was vulnerable (it owned a chain of motels that could be boycotted) and said we intended to continue working to force his company out of the business of burning people. We also discussed the company’s other war-related contracts, because changing just a small part of his corporation’s function was not enough; we wanted to raise the issue of economic dependence on munitions and war.

Above all, we wanted him to see us as real people not so different from himself. If we had seemed like flaming radicals, he would likely have dismissed our concerns. We assumed he was already carrying doubts within himself, and we saw our role as giving voice to those doubts. Our goal was to introduce ourselves and our perspective into his context, so he would remember us and consider our position when making decisions.

When the contract came up for renewal two months later, his company did not bid for it.

Working for social change without relying on the enemy mentality raises some practical difficulties. For example, what do we do with all the anger that we’re accustomed to unleashing against an enemy? Is it possible to hate actions and policies without hating the people who implement them? Does empathizing with those whose actions we oppose create a dissonance that undermines our determination?

I don’t delude myself into believing that everything will work out for the best if we just make friends with our adversaries. I recognize that certain military strategists make decisions that raise the risks for us all. I know that some police officers rough up demonstrators when arresting them. Treating our adversaries as potential allies need not entail acceptance of their actions. Our challenge is to call forth the humanity within each adversary, to find a path between cynicism and naiveté.

“Us and Them” is excerpted from Fran Peavey’s Heart Politics, written with Myra Levy and Charles Varon. It is reprinted by permission of New Society Publishers, 4527 Springfield Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19143, (800) 333-9093. © 1986 by the Capp Street Foundation.

— Ed.