Friday, June 7, 2013

Part II: Political Faith

Speaking of political faith. Once More… and Siege... treat faith in heroes and governments in the same non-judgmental way as DS9 treats spiritual faith. They show how real people apply these faiths to their lives and struggles. The writers have Worf sum up this view at the beginning of Once More…:

“The only real questions is whether you believe in the legend of Davy Crocket or not. If you do, then there should be no doubt in your mind that he died a hero’s death. If you do not, then he was just a man, and it does not matter how he died.”


This is dramatized at the end of the episode when Kor sacrifices himself against a Gem’Hydar fleet. Was he squashed like a bug instantly, or did he die in a blaze of glory that turned the fleet around? Worf and the other Klingons will never know. What they choose to believe about Kor will depend on their faith in his legend, or lack of faith. The larger point is that if you are going to have faith in a hero, the facts don’t matter so much.

The Siege of AR-558 is the very next episode that aired. Despite being a “War is Hell” episode, it does not challenge blind faith in heroes or governments as misguided. It says something far more complex and useful. Siege says that blind faith in heroes and governments, especially in time of war, has its useful purposes for those caught up in the War.

A Starfleet unit has been holding a captured Dominion communications relay for five months. They’ve been living in caves, picked off by attacks and invisible mines. The point of their sacrifice is to keep the relay so that one day it might be used to eavesdrop on Dominion communications. The writers’ purposefully made the object of their mission ho-hum. AR-558 is not part of some ingenious plot to cripple the Founders. The place doesn’t have a glorious name. In the end, it might not even work. But no one in the episode challenges the wisdom of the orders to hold the relay. They have faith in the people who gave the orders. They believe that their sacrifice might make some small difference in the outcome of the war, that it might decrease the number of names of the oft-mentioned casualty reports (which bookend this and other episodes).

Nog is the faithful character in this episode, challenged by Quark, who doesn’t share his nephew’s faith in Starfleet or its officers. Quark says, “This isn’t the Starfleet you know.”

Nog: “Sure it is. It’s just that these people have been through a lot. They’ve been hold up here a long time. Seen two-thirds of their unit killed. But they haven’t surrendered. Do you know why? Because they are heroes.”

Quark argues with the facts of the situation. He says that Humans, “are a wonderful, friendly people as long as their bellies are full and their holosuites are working.” But if put into a dangerous, deprived environment without “food, sleep, sonic showers… those same friendly, intelligent, wonderful people will become as nasty and as violent as the most bloodthirsty Klingon.”

Nog doesn’t accept the truth of this statement. The officers who have been on this asteroid for five months, who Dr. Bashir diagnosed with PTSD and a host of other mental and psychological stresses, are more than weak and fragile humans to Nog. They are heroes. He chooses to believe this for the same reason Sisko and the others choose to have faith in their orders—it is the only way to get their job done without going insane or deserting.

At the end of the episode, Worf comforts Sisko with this Klingonism: “This was a great victory, one worthy of story and song.” This echoes what he said about Crocket (who has plenty of stories and songs about him), but the difference is striking. You can choose to worship Crocket, or even Kor, as a hero. Whether you do or don’t is a personal choice with little effect on your day-to-day life. But the officers in Siege have no choice but to cherish their battle as a great victory, even thought AR-558 can’t be easily put into verse. If AR-588 is a pointless sacrifice, then the entire war is—and no one in Starfleet believes that. While this episode, and many others, rightly teach that war is hell, none of the episodes take the view that fighting this particular war is a mistake. It must be done. And since we are going to fight, suffer and die, we had better armor our minds and hearts with faith in the rightness and glory of the task.

3 comments:

  1. [Part 1 of 2]

    Very thoughtful writing. I found it through Trekweb.com, enjoyed reading it. I'm a 45 year old Trek fan, grew up with TOS but I value DS9 because it, like TOS, found interesting ways to question Utopia.

    I think it's possible to view "The Siege of AR-558" in a much darker light than your review. The Starfleet unit stationed there before the arrival of Sisko and company may not openly, explicitly question the wisdom of their orders to hold the AR-558. But drama takes place between the lines and beneath the surface. The men and women of AR-558 are definitely reaching the limits of their endurance, and perhaps their obedience, when Sisko's contingent arrives. The character named Vargas is openly bitter about being left on the planet long past Starfleet's official 90-day limit for serving on the front lines. His vociferous desire to "get off this rock" is not consistent with someone who has armored his mind and heart to have faith in the rightness and glory of the cause. The rest of Vargas' comrades who've endured five months of fighting express similar views.

    In the end, of course, they stay and fight. All of the Starfleet characters, from DS9 and otherwise, speak with their choices as well as their words, and none of them abandon the battle. In fiction, choices made by characters are important.

    But so are the costs of those choices. By the end of the episode, more of the AR-558 veterans who preceded Sisko's people on the planet are dead. Including Kellin, who had become close to Ezri. And Nog has lost his leg. At the end of the episode, when Worf remarks that it was a glorious victory, Sisko says only: It cost enough. He doesn't say it was a pointless sacrifice, but he doesn't say anything that expresses faith in his superiors. When he says that the names on the casualty lists are more than just names, he doesn't mean: they died for a cause. He means: they were individual human beings, and they are the cost.

    To me, it is impossible to reconcile this cost with en episode intended to show that we must "armor our minds and hearts with faith in the rightness and glory of the cause." This episode is not a defense of blind faith in leaders. It is a testament to the power of men and women to endure, when they have no control over where there leaders have put them. This is an entirely different thing.

    [End part 1, continued next post]

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  2. [Part 2 of 2]

    The only characters in the episode who talk in positive terms about heroism are Worf and Nog. Worf is left to spout slogans about glory that sound hollow amidst the bloodshed and the exhaustion of his Starfleet fellows. Nog loses his leg. An episode that wanted to vindicate the views of Nog and Worf would not have made those choices.

    Everybody else just wants to get the job done, or get the hell home, and the contrast with Worf and Nog's Victorian rhetoric about heroism is jarring. Aside from Worf and Nog, nowhere in the episode is there any choice made by any character, or any line of dialogue, that expresses the sentiment of support for Federation leaders and their wisdom.

    To me, the proper takeaway from the episode is: it doesn't matter what the cause is, or who the leaders are, the suffering is equally horrific. And the cause may be just, but the suffering does not go away. No amount of Klingon platitudes about glory and heroism and song can remedy this truth.

    In the end, even this isn't enough to make the episode a genuinely useful commentary on the nature of war or humanity's response to it. The script tries, within the constraints of the Trek universe and narrative style. Nog loses his leg, good people die, or suffer the mental and physical scars that Bashir refers to when he tells Sisko that the garrison of AR-558 needs to be withdrawn if their health is to be salvaged. All of this serves only to foster abstract philosophical discussion among Star Trek fans.

    That discussion, I would submit, is worthless, because it bears no relationship whatsoever to the real world subject only hinted at feebly by the episode, which is the true human cost of war.

    A friend of mine is a combat veteran of the 1989 U.S. war in Panama. On one occasion in that war, he snuck up behind a Panamanian soldier in the dark and cut open the man's throat with a machete. On another, he guided a missile into a trench full of Panamanian Defense Force personnel and burned them alive. I don't know if he heard them screaming or not. But my friend wakes up screaming and sweating most nights, to this day. An episode about imaginary space soldiers fighting a bloodless special effects war has nothing to say to him.

    At the medical school where I used to work, our medical students would do rotations in the local veterans hospital. Combat veterans of every U.S. conflict since World War II were treated there. Some have missing limbs, or brain damage that makes them drooling vegetables, or they can't stop pissing and shitting all over themselves from mutilated, shredded nerves and organs, or the blood-boiling stress of what they lived through has made them drink themselves into a puking stupor for decade after decade, or the irrational towering anger they brought back from fields full of torsos and intestines has made them smash their wife or kid in the teeth with a baseball bat.

    Many of them fervently believe in the cause for which they fought. Which is understandable, and is their due. But there is nothing meaningful or relevant about their belief, and their fate, to be found in something so bloodless and artificial as a television show. That's why it's called a "show." It refers only to itself, and beyond that signifies nothing. Except to its devoted community of worshippers, who look for meaning about war and much else not in actual history or human experience but in electronic one hour morality lessons from a world of sound stages and CGI.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you for the thoughtful and passionate response. After two years of on an off blogging you are the first to leave a comment.

      But I am confused about where you are coming from. You are not so much critiquing this particular episode, or my essay on it, so much as you are judging the the entire role of art in human affairs. You seem to suggest that because the representation of the real world in a "show" is a pale shadow of the actual world then the show has no purpose. Since you are a fan of classic Trek and DS9 I presume you don't really intend to go that far.

      You are 100% correct that there is no overt patriotism in the episode. But nor is there cynicism or nihilism, which usually are part of "War is hell" shows and movies. Worf does spout hollow slogans, but my point is that Sisko doesn't disagree with him. Nog is more heartfelt. And Quark isnt wrong in what he says to them about humans being bloodthirsty killers underneath their uniforms. Remember that in the battle, Quark kills a GemHyar (this may be the only time he intentionally killed anybody the entire series).

      I think all the characters involved (except maybe Vargas) would do it all over again the same way. Because of duty, and the stakes of the war. In fact, other than Quark on occasion, the only characters in the series who ever suggest that the costs of the war for the Federation are too great are Bashir's troop of genetically engineered savants, and they are roundly told to shut up and mind their own business by all the regulars.

      The real message from this episode is that war is usually a complex human catastrophe that defies black and white labels. The writers tried to to show the human cost of the war but because of the type of war they had written they couldn't suggest that the admirals planning it and the captains waging it are wrong. One of those captains is the hero of the show.

      Would you rather they have written a show about a galactic war that was all heroes and damsels in distress, and glory and honor without the ugly stuff? Or would you rather them to have written a show like VOY and ENT where they try very hard to say nothing at all.

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