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I am a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. When talking about the people opposing us, I have always referred to them as the "enemy." Now, as I get a little older, and a little more aware (specifically, as I became a determinist), I have lost any hostility I feel towards them, and I feel that calling them the "enemy" demonizes them in a way I no longer wish to do. So, I was hoping there was some neutral term applied to enemy combatants, even if it's historical or in another language. I think opponent comes close, but it's not quite there. I was hoping there was a word like "interlocutor" meant for combatants of war.

I have checked the OED (paywall, I think, I get it through my library), and the words I think that come closest are two obsolete words "contrary" and "adverse." (obviously those words are still in use today, just not in the noun sense of a contrary or adverse being someone who opposes you). Does anyone else have any better matches?

One note, some may suggest I call them by the name they go by, such as the Taliban. The problem is that the Taliban is one of dozens of different groups of fighters and we rarely knew who belonged to which. So, I was hoping for a neutral term I could apply to all of them.

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    While not completely neutral, foe might be a reasonable substitute. It's a bit less freighted, I think
    – Jim Mack
    Jul 2, 2023 at 22:09
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    You used the word fighter; combatant is a synonym. Adversary? What do feel is not quite right about opponent? Jul 2, 2023 at 22:29
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    I think the grammatically apt version of your adverse would be adversary. Try looking that one up. Jul 2, 2023 at 23:37
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    As for how "enemy" demonizes people, imagine you are having a debate with someone, and you call them your "enemy". Don't you believe that sets up an unduly hostile conversation? I do. And, I believe Afghans hearing me calling the enemy combatants "enemies" would take this rather negatively. Jul 3, 2023 at 20:28
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    lol at a self described determinist choosing to use a different word
    – eps
    Jul 4, 2023 at 15:55

14 Answers 14

1

As I was saying in a comment I would suggest Counterparty. It's different from Counterpart as suggested in another example because it has slightly different connotations in daily usage. It does denote another group of people who are taking an opposing side and not just a single person. It's not explicitly hostile either. It's simply a group who exists by necessity due to a position being taken.

It also has french roots in countre part.

mid-15c., countre part "duplicate of a legal document," from French contrepartie, from contre "facing, opposite" (see contra (prep., adv.)) + partie "copy of a person or thing," originally fem. past participle of partir "to divide" (see party (n.)).

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    Counterparty means "the other person or institution entering into a financial contract or transaction". It's not an appropriate word here. Jul 4, 2023 at 12:42
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    Did you not look up the definition of counterparty? Jul 4, 2023 at 13:12
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    @SetofTheseus: It's the only sense of the word I can find in any dictionary, and the only way the word is used in the first 10 pages of Google search results for counterparty. "Sorry, but my referent isn't a dictionary" - what is your referent, then? It must be incredibly obscure, and probably a typo. Jul 4, 2023 at 15:52
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    @JimmyG.: If people need to get past the OED's hundred-dollar subscription paywall to access a single obsolete definition that sort of agrees with your usage, they're not going to find it. You're basically making up your own definitions at that point, as far as intelligibility goes. Jul 5, 2023 at 2:47
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    IMHO this should not be the chosen answer. As user2357112 stated that this was not really a combat/war related term. It just does not fit the meaning of the former enemy of war. Jul 5, 2023 at 12:06
56

If you referred to the various groups as adversaries, you would imply nothing of the unity or justice of their causes; simply that their aims were opposed to your own, in a particular contest, conflict, or debate.

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    Air Force general Curtis LeMay supposedly said, "The Soviets are our adversaries; our enemy is the Navy."
    – user888379
    Jul 3, 2023 at 12:27
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    There are multiple options here and I upvoted more than one, but I think this is by far the best Jul 5, 2023 at 17:29
  • JFK in most of his speeches systemally used "adversary".
    – John Cowan
    Nov 9, 2023 at 7:41
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I would say, "opponent" as it sounds less combative.

a person who is on an opposing side in a game, contest, controversy, or the like; adversary.
[Dictionary.com]

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    Opponent is someone you oppose: I don't think this is as neutral as the OP wishes.
    – Greybeard
    Jul 2, 2023 at 22:52
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    @Greybeard oppose has multiple meanings. It can mean to disagree with someone but also literally to be on the other (opposite) side. For example if someone sits opposite of me at a table that person literally opposes me. This says nothing about how I feel about that person. But yeah, the ambiguity doesn't make the neutrality clear.
    – Ivo
    Jul 3, 2023 at 6:46
  • @greybeard but you are opposing them, you just don't feel they are morally wrong, just on the other side. Exactly how you would feel in a game Jul 3, 2023 at 10:21
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    OP did literally ask “When talking about the people opposing us…”. Jul 3, 2023 at 13:26
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    This was my first thought as well. @Greybeard Do you usually feel hostility towards the other player(s) in a game?
    – Barmar
    Jul 3, 2023 at 14:54
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It's not a single word, but it is very neutral. You could just call them the other side.

Collins definition nr 14 for side says:

COUNTABLE NOUN B2 The different sides in a war, argument, or negotiation are the groups of people who are opposing each other.

  • Both sides appealed for a new ceasefire.

Here are some examples of such a use:

In view of the fact that the Secretary General has again made an appeal for a unilateral cease fire, which he has repeatedly said would be applied only if the other side did not fire on United States forces... (House of Commons Debates, Official Report, Canada. Parliament. House of Commons · 1967)

At our request they had agreed to maintain the truce - provided that the other side did not fire first- and the bombing pause so long as Mr Kosygin and I were meeting. (A Personal Record: The Labour Government, 1964-1970, Sir Harold Wilson, 1971)

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    A good single word for "the other side" would be counterparty. Jul 3, 2023 at 12:52
  • @SetofTheseus True, but still "counter" does have something opposing. I think "the other side" is as neutral as you can get...
    – fev
    Jul 3, 2023 at 12:59
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    @fev I don't know if I fully agree. As a "counterpart" is simply someone who would mirror my same functions in another company. The counter isn't really meant to mean "aggression towards each other" but a mirroring of function. The etymology of the word is that it comes from this type of meaning. Duplication. countre (french) Jul 3, 2023 at 13:11
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    @SetofTheseus you should do your own answer with counterparty. I will accept that answer. Jul 3, 2023 at 20:29
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    Uh, yeah but no. Did you look up counterparty in the dictionary? Jul 3, 2023 at 21:01
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After reflecting on this a bit — your identification as a determinist and the term opponent not being neutral enough — I will offer:

counterpart
a person or thing holding a position or performing a function that corresponds to that of another person or thing in another place.
“the minister held talks with his French counterpart”
Source: Oxford Languages via Google

You and your “enemies” are all in it together — doing the same things for the same reasons.

Think of it as expanding the idiom brothers in arms (same side) to counterparts in arms (same war).

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    "Counterpart" may be a bit too neutral. It doesn't express opposition at all.
    – NotThatGuy
    Jul 3, 2023 at 15:42
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    Definitely non-combative, though. Jul 3, 2023 at 16:48
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    @NotThatGuy — The prefix counter- very much carries the sense of opposition: From the OED: counter-, prefix 2. g. (a) Forming the opposite member or constituent of anything that has naturally two opposite parts, as COUNTERBALANCE n., COUNTERFOIL n., COUNTERPART n., COUNTERPOISE n., COUNTERSTOCK n., COUNTERTALLY n., etc... Jul 3, 2023 at 20:55
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    Counterpart suggests cooperation between the parties, so this would not fit. Jul 4, 2023 at 17:53
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    No, there is no sense of cooperation involved in the word. Jul 4, 2023 at 20:02
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The adversaries - Collins Concise English Dictionary.

Or the opposition - the same source.

"I was in the British army against the adversaries/opposition for several years".

5

antagonists is another approximate synonym for "opponents", "adversaries", more neutral than 'enemies'.

from Dictionary.com,

a person who is opposed to, struggles against, or competes with another; opponent; adversary.

5

A bit tongue-in-cheek but they were the Home Team

A team which is playing on its own ground

https://www.collinsdictionary.com/us/dictionary/english/home-team


It is sincerely admirable that you are reflecting on yourself and are clearing up your lexicon but if you're re-telling a story then you refer to them by how you knew them in relation to the justification of your actions. As long as you omit slurs then your words/actions will maintain respect.

Simply put, they were the enemy. You wouldn't swap that out with "defendants" unless you wish to demonize your own self. A less harsh connotation is opponent or opposition just as it is an accepted term in game and sports contests.

Don't beat yourself up too much, enemy is fairly neutral as it is. To me it doesn't convey hostility you feel but rather precautions you take when engaging with them. There are plenty of enemy politicians who still shake hands.

3

I would like to suggest the word “rival”:

From the Merriam-Webster definition:

a: one of two or more striving to reach or obtain something that only one can possess

b: one striving for competitive advantage

The benefit of this term is that “rivals" are generally considered “equals” which, I believe, confers the dignity that you are looking to achieve.

It also maintains the competitive nature of battle within the word itself, so as to minimize the need for extra words like one might need with other options:

  1. I came face-to-face with our rivals.
  2. (Instead of) I came face-to-face with:
    • our equals on the battlefield.
    • our counterparts on the other side.
    • our peers from the native forces.

If you don’t mind using a few extra words when necessary, then I believe “equal” and “peer” might also work nicely for your purposes - as well as “counterpart” and “the other side”, as @Tinfoil-Hat and @fev have already suggested, respectively.

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  • There is a difference between competition and direct violence. "rivals" compete for some zero-sum resource or simply prestige, but don't necessarily take any direct action to hurt each other (and it may be frowned upon — "foul", "unfair competition" etc.). If you beat my world record, the only way I'm hurt is I'm now 2nd place. In war OTOH, inflicting damage is a central part of the objectives. Jul 4, 2023 at 20:26
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Opposing forces? "Oppose" is a relatively non-volatile word, I feel, but it definitely conveys the necessary information to anyone hearing or reading it, regarding where everybody "stands" in the disagreement/battle/war. I haven't noticed it being an especially triggering word for anyone.

Adversary may also be fitting for your situation, but I feel it has a tad bit more sharpness to it!

Cambridge gives:

an enemy: He saw her as his main adversary within the company.

This may seem a bit odd, but I was just doing a little studying on the Law of Polarity, and obviously duality...this is so close to that subject, but I can't quite "pull anything out of the ha"currently! Perhaps you may be inspired by reading a bit about the Law of Polarity, just a thought!! Have a good one!

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    Jul 3, 2023 at 7:17
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Opposition

In as much as combat is a continuation of politics by physical means.

The forces poosing you and your mission are your opposition.

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One term that has not been mentioned is beligerent(s):

: waging war

specifically : belonging to or recognized as a state at war and protected by and subject to the laws of war

This has a negative connotation in some circumstances (mostly when functioning as an adjective) but is the neutral and internationally accepted term when referring to the nations or other militant groups engaged in warfare.

Pros of this term:

  • Refers to all combative parties (e.g. both the USA and Afghanistan are both beligerents in that war)
  • Internationally recognized
  • Neutral connotation

Cons:

  • Potential for this to be conflated with the more recent colloquial definition of "inclined to or exhibiting assertiveness, hostility, or combativeness" and therefore misconstrued
  • The older definition is fossilized as a legal one, so using it may come across as somewhat academic and non-colloquial.
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Challenger can work well to give a chivalrous tone to the enemy, whereby the provocation and the fight are viewed through physical, sporting perspective rather than one of justice. You can also say battlefield contestant and contesting/challenging party.

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"interlocutor". I'd justify the suggestion on the following grounds: You're negotiating over territory on behalf of your Nation state. Sure, not in the way we'd usually think about for business negotiations, but at the start of any business negotiation it's not clear if both parties are genuinely working towards the same goal.

https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/interlocutor

Personally, it also conjures the idea of animals locking horns and competing for a mate, but they aren't enemies in the moral sense, just adversaries.

-Edited to clarify post feedback.

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    The linked definition is "someone who is involved in a conversation and who is representing someone else" doesn't necessarily suggest an opponent or enemy. Jul 3, 2023 at 13:09
  • "interlocutor" doesn't suggest antagonism to me at all ...
    – Ben Bolker
    Jul 3, 2023 at 23:11
  • This would almost sound like a facetious or even patronizing euphemism. It's almost like calling yourself and your enemy combatants "diplomats" or "negotiators".
    – PC Luddite
    Jul 6, 2023 at 8:12

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