By the time Pearl S. Buck published “The Enemy” in 1942, the United States had officially been at war with Japan for nearly a year, she had won a Pulitzer Prize for her novel The Good Earth and had become the first (and for more than a half a century, the only) American woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Buck’s Nobel Prize was primarily the result of what the nominating committee deemed her “rich and genuine epic description of Chinese peasant life.” Indeed, Buck is so associated with novels about Chinese life that many are surprised to discover she was an American citizen born in West Virginia.
While “The Enemy” is another solid addition to a body of work overwhelmingly comprised of depictions of Asian characters, it is also notable for not being about Chinese people or its culture. What makes the story one of her most powerful—if not her absolutely most powerful—work of short fiction is that the story could just as easily have been set in China. Or Korea. Or India. Or Germany. Or England. Or America.
Although written during a specific time about a specific state of international affairs (World War II), the title itself is not specific. Buck was not just a successful author, but also a tireless activist for multi-culturalism who did much to bring about the acceptance of multi-racial adoptions in America. As a result, the deeply committed racists and nationalists who are the protagonists of the story are presented as “the enemy” only in relation to their counterparts in America. Likewise, the American soldier in the story could without any meaningful change in the wording, be flipped 180-degrees to become an injured Japanese soldier who washed ashore on a Hawaii beach and was treated by a white doctor and his wife.
Unlike her stories and novels about China, “The Enemy” is not about a particular culture, ethnic group or nationality. In fact, the whole point of the story is that is not “about” nationalist racism in Japan. Buck made her very successful career out of revealing a foreign culture to an eager American audience. (The Good Earth had already sold two million copies by the time she wrote this story.) What Buck did in “The Enemy” not even a year after Pearl Harbor was bombed by Japanese pilots skirted the treacherously thin ice of being deemed unpatriotic because the whole point of the story is that it could just as easily be told using any two countries. The story could have been about a German doctor and a British soldier. during World War I Or a French doctor and an Algerian sailor at the height of the French occupation of North Africa. Or, for that matter, about a Confederate doctor and a Union army soldier during the Civil War.
Time and place and ethnicity are as distinctly unimportant to the theme of “The Enemy” as the fact that Buck—notably famous for writing about Chinese people—is here writing about Japanese people. Except that she is not writing about Japanese people; not really. She is writing about the real enemy: deeply bigoted and blindly prejudiced citizens so consumed by their nationalist patriotism that everybody who is not a countryman (and many who are) is deemed inferior at birth.