Mazer Rackham says

“There is no teacher but the enemy. No one but the enemy will tell you what the enemy is going to do. No one but the enemy will ever teach you how to destroy and conquer. Only the enemy shows you where you are weak. Only the enemy shows you where he is strong. And the rules of the game are what you can do to him and what you can stop him from doing to you."

I am confused on this subject matter because Ender has to go through an entire training process, which Mazer is apparently saying is useless. What does this mean?

  • 10
    That's a general dilemma in training for the martial arts, swordfighting (SCA, etc), or even tank-combat - you want to train for the fight, but you don't want your students killing each other, so they can't fight exactly like real combat. Hence padded swords, "softer" moves in Aikido, etc. But... the U.S. Army has come up with a system that's extremely close, and the opponent doesn't pull any punches, with Army OPFOR training, which uses lasers to get kills.
    – John C
    Mar 17, 2021 at 13:48
  • 17
    Mazer sums it up pretty well in the passage you quoted, but I also just read it as a variation on the old adage that "No plan survives first contact with the enemy." In other words, all the preparation in the world can't substitute for actual in-the-trenches experience. Mar 17, 2021 at 14:20
  • 11
    meta spoiler: Mazer is hinting at who the teacher going forward is.
    – WernerCD
    Mar 17, 2021 at 15:52
  • 2
    @WernerCD that's the answer... this is clearly foreshadowing. Surprising that none of the answers have mentioned this.
    – LShaver
    Mar 17, 2021 at 22:00
  • 1
    "teachers" teach you knowledge, the enemy is out to kill you. Defeating an opponent when there are no stakes is not the same as battling the enemy that is really trying to kill you. Psychologically you know when someone will pull their punches, or not deliver a fatal blow. Firing at targets is nothing compared to an enemy firing back.
    – Issel
    Mar 18, 2021 at 7:17

3 Answers 3


Rackham is exaggerating a bit to make his point, but it boils down to this: Your allies will not think of everything they can do to destroy you because they do not want to destroy you. Your trainers will not think of everything your enemy will do because they are not your enemy.

Only your enemy will do everything they can think of to beat you. Only your enemy can decide how far they are willing to go, such as destroying an entire planet just to be able to destroy the fleet in orbit around it. Only your enemy will threaten to kill you and everything you love, pushing you to do everything you can and some things you thought you couldn't or wouldn't do to survive.

Training is worthwhile to learn how units or troops move, their capabilities, how to hold an entire battle in your mind so you can command all your forces in unison. But only your enemy will show you every single obstacle you have to overcome, only your enemy will force you to come up with whatever is necessary to win and survive. Only the enemy is your teacher, everyone else is just helping you learn what the enemy will teach you faster.

Ender would have eventually learned the skills he needed anyway just from battles with the enemy, but there are a few things that make training before enemy contact better.

  1. Training reduces the human casualties by creating a stronger starting point.
  2. Reduce the amount the enemy can learn from Ender by removing the rookie mistakes and easy-to-fix problems that untrained people have.
  3. Reduce the amount Ender had to learn from the enemy, allowing him to focus on the details more and learn better.
  • Based on what you and Binary Worrier said, I am guessing that you will eventually/inevitably learn it and that training is just a safer way to practice. @Mithoron said that the enemy is an inherent part of combat. I think that this means that all the stuff that Ender learned in Battleschool he would have eventually learned anyway because contact with the enemy (at least if you are trying to beat them) is a locked event. Am I correct?
    – user138026
    Mar 16, 2021 at 19:19
  • @GabeKessler Yes, Ender would have learned it all eventually as he fought the enemy. Battleschool was to minimize casualties on his side while he was learning, and to reduce the number of times the enemy would be able to learn how to beat him. It's like only taking tests to learn from a class, you'll see where you failed each time and get better but you want to minimize your failing grades so you study/practice.
    – Kadima
    Mar 16, 2021 at 19:30
  • 7
    There's also an element of muscle memory to it. When you practice scales on a musical instrument, it's not because somebody really wants to hear you play scales, it's to reduce the amount of conscious thought that manipulating the instrument takes. So it is with command. By the time Ender got to the point of "training" against the enemy, he didn't need to think about the mechanics, so to speak, of command. He could focus on the bigger-picture because he had all this practice under his belt.
    – Cadence
    Mar 16, 2021 at 23:05
  • 7
    "you will eventually/inevitably learn it"... or you will die.
    – Lee Mosher
    Mar 17, 2021 at 14:00
  • 5
    Maybe you could add a #4... as a spoiler: The literal teacher after the first few days is LITERALLY the enemy... it's the only thing missing from this (and other) answers. What makes a better teacher than that? It's the only teacher and Ender is learning from that teacher. Something I never considered as a MASSIVE hint from Mazer at the beginning of that part of "training".
    – WernerCD
    Mar 17, 2021 at 15:42

He's basically saying that there is no experience like the real thing. The Formics are ALIEN. Anything a human being might do/think/scheme against your plans is going to be of marginal use because they do not think like the alien. Therefor the only way to REALLY see how good you are is to fight an actual bugger. Or the next best thing, Mazer. But training against anyone acting like a normal human fleet isn't going to do you a whole lot of good.

Incidentally you see the same sort of problem in human warfare, where an enemy is trained to think and fight and react against people trained just like he is, only to come up woefully short in ways they couldn't even being to understand because the enemy did not think like they did. There are hundreds of examples in history, but my favorite is a Cold War NATO training exercise.

Basically they got a bunch of US/NATO officers together in a big warehouse with a miniature Fulda Gap in it. Picture a miniature wargame with a table the size of an aircraft hanger. For the Soviets, they gathered a few lower-ranking soviet experts as well as some civilian professor-types who studied the Soviet's historical and modern Warsaw Pact techniques. It was assumed that, between Warsaw Pact doctrine inhibiting/actively forbidding lower-ranking officers taking initiative and reacting to conditions beyond a basic set of parameters and inferior russian equipment, that NATO forces would win handily. What the NATO guys didn't know/realize is that although Soviet doctrine was tactically inferior to NATO doctrine, it was so easy to execute that the Soviets actually had the initiative over the NATO forces and easily won the engagement. I'll try to find a link to the article later, but it was fascinating. Essentially it would take NATO ages to plan for their "turn" because of the micromanaging NATO doctrine entailed, whereas the Soviets had such a simple decision tree that they were quickly able to funnel troops around strong points, into gaps, and eventually broke through and encircled the NATO forces. The NATO guys had only ever fought other NATO-trained forces, so they hadn't realized just how long all the micromanaging took and the advantage that gave an enemy because prior to this both sides were doing it.

Like the NATO guys, Ender had only ever trained against people trained to fight exactly like him. However he wasn't going to fight people exactly like him, and Mazer is using this statement to point out that fact.

TL/DR: Mazer is telling Ender Formic's aren't human, and the only way to learn to fight formics is to fight forces that actually ACT like Formics.

  • 4
    FWIW, when I was at a staff college in the mid 1990's, we got to sit down with a Russian officer who'd been in the Red Army, and get his critique on how we'd wargamed an engagement with a hypothetical, albeit doctrinal, Russian unit. Most of how we'd gamed it was summed up as "that's not how we do it, actually ..." Mar 17, 2021 at 12:00
  • Did you just use the B-word?
    – user253751
    Mar 17, 2021 at 13:46
  • "act like formics" or... that he's learning from enemies that aren't acting like formics because...
    – WernerCD
    Mar 17, 2021 at 15:50
  • @KorvinStarmast: Nice one. My dad is a retired Navy officer. We got out the wargames and I played the Russians and would usually beat him hands down in an even match. One of the early matches I had a quite inferior force but I outmaneuvered him and expended all my missiles with no return fire and sank so many US and NATO ships that he would have had to sink all mine to win; then on the last turn I trained my guns on the airbase that was on the map but completely not simulated yet just because I could.
    – Joshua
    Mar 18, 2021 at 3:39
  • @Joshua Naval warfare has been often characterized as "the battle of the first salvo" and that's why the Soviet Navy was so big on Surface to Surface missiles on the ships they built in the 70s and 80. (Gorshkov's big ship building program started in the 60's) Mar 18, 2021 at 12:38

There comes a point where you have to put training aside and fight.

The techniques you learned while training might come in helpful, but mostly what combat training comes down to is enough rote/muscle memory to stop you from freezing in battle and to stick with the guy beside you.

Command training trains you to develop situational awareness and command delegation.

The training Ender received focused on strategy, but mostly he didn't learn from Battleschool battles, he showed an ability to adapt and win at any cost, which is something that can't be taught.

Rackham is telling Ender that the time for training is past, now it's time to fight. The only way you can know how to defeat someone is in the actual fight.

"There is no teacher but the enemy" when training your sparring partner is "your enemy" without actual conflict you cannot practice the maneuvers you've studied, however that enemy, your sparring partner isn't trying to destroy you. They'll pull their punches and won't deliver a killing blow when you're down.

The key to his speach is the second statement

No one but the enemy will tell you what the enemy is going to do

No amount of study, no amount of book learning or practice will tell you what the enemy will do until the enemy is in a position where they have that choice to make.

It's also a very stirring and poetic way of saying "You're on your own kid".

  • 4
    A good complement to this answer is a pithy quote from a professional boxer named Mike Tyson - "Everybody has a plan until they get hit in the mouth" - which encapsulates the same point about 'training will take you to a certain point, and then you have to fight to get better'. Not sure you want to fold that in, but it would fit if you do. Mar 17, 2021 at 11:57
  • 3
    "it's a stirring and poetic way" its also a way of hinting at who the real teacher is going forward. There is no teacher but the enemy and it's time to learn...
    – WernerCD
    Mar 17, 2021 at 15:48

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