Sunday, August 12, 2007

Militarism and Peace in the Star Trek Universe

Part 3 of J. William Snyder Jr.'s article, "Star Trek: A Phenomenon and Social Statement on the 1960s."
Of all the social issues that Star Trek alludes to or addresses, the one it seems to spend the most time on is the ethics of war and peace. Star Trek ran during the escalation period of the Vietnam war, a time when relations among the superpowers were tense. It takes numerous opportunities to make comments and address war and peace issues, overall criticising use of force or the threat of it to achieve policy. Star Trek sets up and develops throughout the series striking parallels between the United Federation of Planets and the "West", and the Klingon Empire and the Romulan Star Empire as the "East". The series also have episodes that do not involve either of the Federation's enemies, but still make forceful comments on the evils of militarism.

The United Federation of Planets, the governing body in Star Trek with the Enterprise belonging to its military service Starfleet, is a product of the second season of Star Trek - prior to this the governing body of Star Trek is a united Earth government. Terry Worland in his article "Captain Kirk: Cold Warrior" offers and enlightening discussion of the relationship between the Federation and its adversaries. During the first season, the Enterprise has a few isolated skirmishes with both enemies, but as soon as the Federation is introduced, conflict between them takes on an ideological flavor in the episodes (Wortland 110). "It became clear that the Federation controlled a definite sphere of influence and a vital interest [that was being] continually challenged and threatened" (110). Moreover, Wortland believes that the Federation is not another United Nations, a rather weak organization with limited tools for achieving policy, but rather resembles the "free world" being defended by Starfleet, representative of NATO and the United States (110). "If the Federation represents America and the Western alliance, consider that during the time of Star Trek's production the U.S. government was seeking to challenge two principal adversaries in the Third World, especially in Vietnam" (112). According to David Gerrold, just as America was supposed to be the policeman for the world, Star Trek is the policeman for the galaxy, all at a time when it was being questioned whether or not America should play that role (Gerrold 156). Starfleet's originally scientific mission becomes one to "spread truth, justice, and the American Way to the far corners of the universe" (156) as well as to defend the Federation against its cancerous adversaries.

Just as the Federation comes to represent the "West" of 20th century earth, The Klingons seemingly come to represent America's staunchest adversary- the Soviet Union. William Blake Tyrell in his essay "Star Trek as Myth and Television as Mythmaker" compares the Klingons and the Romulans to the Indian tribes the U.S. fought in the western part of the country. The Klingons are the "Magua- sly, perfidious, and fallen" while the Romulans are the "Chingachgook, the noble warrior ever outside the white man's world" (Tyrell 712). However, I believe that given the time period in which Star Trek ran on NBC that examination of both the Klingons and the Romulans in terms of 1960's superpower relations provides a better interpretation of these two forces.) The Klingons are a race of warriors from a part of the galaxy contiguous to Federation territory. They are thoroughly rotten creatures capable of such brutality and violent conquest as to make Josef Stalin in the Soviet Union seem like a mere street corner bully. "Think of the Mongol Hordes with spaceships and ray guns. To the Klingons, Genghis Khan was a phony and Attila the Hun was a fairy. And Hitler was only a beginner" (Gerrold 22). They seem to live by the maxim that "rules are made to be broken by shrewdness, deceit, or power" (qtd in Tyrell 712). The Klingons are ruthless, planet-conquerers who use violent means to colonize "third- worlds". Kor, the Klingon commander "Errand of Mercy" (airdate 3/23/67), establishes Klingon rule on Organia with an iron-hand, issuing orders banning public gatherings of more than two people and a whole host of other repressive measures. Klingons are also creatures of duty and fatality- the hope of every Klingon is to die in battle. During the episode "Day of the Dove (airdate 11/1/68), Kang, the Klingon commander of a small force holding part of the Enterprise, responds to Kirk's threat to kill his wife with a fatalistic statement that she knows the costs of final victory and is willing to pay with her life in order to further the greater glory of the empire. According to Worland, the Federation is locked in a "Cold War" with the Klingon Empire over the colonization of "third worlds", and moreover, the Federation is committed to stopping the spread of "Klingonism" at all costs (Worland 110). Indeed, the Federation does conflict with the Federation over developing planets in the episodes "The Trouble with Tribles" (airdate 12/29/67) and "Friday's Child" (airdate 12/1/67).

However, one episode of Star Trek including a battle with the Klingons over a developing planet that makes a seemingly direct comment on the Vietnam War is "A Private Little War" (airdate 2/22/68). In this episode, Kirk, Spock, and McCoy beam down to a planet in the Organian-imposed neutral zone where Kirk was once stationed. They find the Hillpeople and the Villagers engaged in a war, and oddly enough, the Villagers have flintlock rifles- weapons they could not have possibly developed in Kirk's absence. Kirk suspects the Klingons of supplying the Villagers with their relatively advanced weaponry, but he needs absolute proof. After obtaining that proof, and a few flintlocks to boot, Kirk returns to the Hillpeople's camp to arm them with the exact same weaponry. He justifies his action to Dr. McCoy by referring to the "20th century brush wars on the Asian continent" and noting that the only way to deal with the situation then was to maintain the balance of power between the two opposing sides. Kirk feels that he must do the same thing now as was done them in order to fight the Klingons. But by the end of the story, Kirk realizes that he has opened a Pandora's box by arming the Hillpeople and does not arm them anymore than he has. Oddly enough, this episode was broadcast during the Tet offensive, the bloody two month long attack by the Viet Cong on every major city in the Republic of Vietnam, including Saigon. This is widely acknowledged as the turing point of the Vietnam War as far as American public opinion. In this episode, "[Kirk] adopts the rhetoric of five presidential administrations in describing the causes of a civil war and the rationale for American/Federation involvement" (Wortand 114). Here, the Hillpeople come to represent the South Vietnamese as the U.S. government would have liked the public to view them- peaceful, unaggressive, and good-natured. Likewise, the Villagers come to represent the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong who readily take aid from the Klingons/Soviet Union. However, Wortland believes that Star Trek stopped just short of making a strong comment on the war. Instead, he feels the episode is ambivalent, wavering between a pro and anti war stance (Wortland 113). Because of this, both sides probably labeled it as either "treasonous" or "sharp criticism [of the war]" (Wortland 114). Either way, it seems that this episode was lucky to make it on the air given this very touchy subject.

The Klingons are not the only adversaries the Federation face. On the other side of Federation space lay the Romulan Star Empire. The Romulans are not seen very much during the course of the series. Apparently, the humans and the Romulans fought a major interplanetary war to a stand-off, then negociated a treaty calling for the establishment of a neutral zone that entrance into by either side constituted an act of war. The Romulans are creatures of pure duty, more so than the Klingons. In "Balance of Terror" (airdate 12/15/66), an episode during which the Enterprise and a Romulan warship engage in a battle, the commander's final act is to destroy his disabled ship to avoid the disgrace of capture. Comparatively, the Romulans are a regional power, but also one not to be taken lightly; allied with the Klingon Empire, they copy Klingon warship design in "The Enterprise Incident" (airdate 9/27/68) (Wortland 112). The Romulans were not as repulsive as the Klingons were, but they were much smarter than their Klingon counterparts (Gerrold 23). They are also not completely despised as the Klingons are, principally because they and Mr. Spock have the same distant ancestors (Wortland 111).

The episode "The Enterprise Incident" involves an act of blatant espionage by the Federation on the Romulan Star Empire. The episode opens by Captain Kirk, in a seemingly insane state of mind, orders the Enterprise across the neutral zone and into Romulan space only to be captured. While aboard one of the Romulan ships, Spock "kills" Captain Kirk with the Vulcan Death Grip (there is no such thing, but the Romulans do not know that!) after Kirk accuses him of selling him and the rest of the ship out. Back on the Enterprise, Kirk is given plastic surgery so that he looks like a Romulan. Then the true nature of the mission is revealed: the Enterprise is to obtain the Romulan cloaking device, a device the Federation considers a major threat to its security. They steal one of the devices and escape safely back to Federation space. It is widely known that Dorothy (D.C.) Fontana wrote this episode in response to the capture of the U.S. spy ship Pueblo in 1968. The vessel was allegedly spying for the U.S. in North Korean waters when it was captured. The captain was then told to sign a confession of spying or risk losing his crew. According to Wortland, the original plot was an exact parallel of the Pueblo incident, putting Captain Kirk in the same position as the captain of the Pueblo. But, intense pressure demanded that the episode be rewritten as to remove and doubt that the spying was justified (Wortland 113). "In fact, the way Star Trek told it, we were justified because our side was right and theirs wasn't" (Gerrold 159). Indeed, the episode could have served as a dramatic stage for television to make an argument about whether the U.S. was right in spying in this manner (it was widely believed that the government was lying about the position of the Pueblo when it was captured, but like other aspects of the show, Star Trek neglected this opportunity as well.

Finally, one episode that does not include either the Klingons or the Romulans makes a comment on the Vietnam War and on war in general. "A Taste of Armageddon", the Enterprise encounters a planet that is at war with one of its neighbors, but seems to be a thriving civilization not affected by the carnage of war. Kirk discovers that many generations before, the two planets agreed to continue their war, but to reduce it to computer simulated attacks and requiring the "casualties" to report for disintegration. Kirk destroys their computer (an abrogation of the treaty signed between the two planets) so that they will finally realize that the carnage, brutality, and horrific death of war makes it something to be avoided. David Gerrold compares the counting of casualties and requiring those people to submit to disintegration to the statistics coming out of Vietnam on troop strenth and body counts of the enemy (often believed to be greately underestimated) (Gerrold 156). War, when reduced to mere numbers, becomes painless and unobjectionable. Star Trek's moral here is to object to that reformulation of war. Indeed, the leaders of the planet finally agree and open talks with their enemy to put an end to their war once and for all.

Plainly, Star Trek does attempt to address war and peace issues, largely along the lines of present day earth's East/West conflict. However, it could have made much stronger statements, but it chose not to for various reasons. Americans themselves were beginning to be unsure about the morality of their country's actions. It is quite possible that this is why Star Trek refuses to take a stronger stance regarding warfare.

*Original article published here. Permission granted for academic purposes. Please visit J. William Synder's website here.
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