LIFE IMITATES ART
I always thought it was one of the more absurd Star Trek episodes. Apparently, I was wrong.
“A Taste of Armageddon,” which aired during the original Star Trek’s first season, has a bizarre premise. Two planets have been engaged in a longstanding war that has been taking a tragic toll in claiming human lives. Yet, when an Enterprise landing party visits one of the warring planets, Eminiar VII, everything appears to be perfectly orderly and intact. One can see no visible signs whatsoever of the war. Here’s the rub: the people of Eminiar VII and its adversary, Vendicar, have determined that battles waged with bombs and bullets are too destructive to their planets’ environments and social infrastructures. So they agreed to fight their war exclusively through computer simulations. When a “hit” is registered, the people who would have otherwise died if the war had been fought conventionally are expected voluntarily to walk into a disintegration chamber and give up their lives in earnest. And this is the way the two planets have coexisted for more than 500 years.
Watching that episode as a kid, I remember being struck by the utter senselessness of the conduct. It seemed ridiculous that people would stroll calmly and resolutely to their deaths while the rest of their society went about their lives as if they weren’t even aware that a war was taking place. Eminiar VII, on the surface, was prosperous, civilized, and peaceful. Even the casualties accepted their fate with equanimity – clearly, they had bought in to the rationality of a computer-simulated war as a necessary evil when compared to the alternative. But for the viewer who was watching this drama play out on TV, it appeared to be nothing less than insane. And indeed, one of the reasons why “A Taste of Armageddon” is not generally viewed as one of the best Star Trek offerings is because its premise lacked the realism of some other episodes.
Well, that was one screenwriter’s dystopia. Now, let’s look at our own.
While it is true that America has hardly been at war for half a millennium, in two weeks, our troops will have finished their 11th year of fighting in Afghanistan – not exactly a brief sojourn. Here in Bethesda, Maryland, one of our nation’s more affluent suburbs, there are no visible signs of this conflict. In fact, there never has been. We don’t send our boys and girls off to fight. They go on to college, graduate school, and then to places like corporate law firms and medical practices. We understand that our nation is at war, but it doesn’t affect our day-to-day lives. Lord knows, we’re not expecting our enemies in Afghanistan to wreak destruction here at home. As far as our society is concerned, a small number of casualties will walk into potential disintegration chambers – otherwise known as planes en route to Afghanistan – and some will live whereas others will die. But they are the only ones who are at risk in this war. We Bethesda homeowners are not, and nor are our children.
Maybe one of the reasons that the Star Trek war seemed so absurd was that there was no part of Eminiar society that could escape it. Even in the capital city, you were potentially at risk. And yet, nobody seemed desperate to stop the conflict. Here in Bethesda, by contrast, we truly are out of harm’s way. We can effectively buy our way out of the disintegration chambers. Others, who need the money, are more than willing to fight in our stead, and our society thinks nothing of asking them to spend one tour of duty after another in the fields of battle. As in Eminiar, nobody is launching any bombs here in Bethesda. So honestly, for my hometown, this war could go on for another 500 years, and the only consequences to us would be an increase in our taxes or in our national debt. Yeah, it’s annoying – but it’s a whole lot better than risking our lives.
I bring up Bethesda, not only because I live here, but so do many lawmakers. Or they might live in some of the other affluent DC bedroom communities, which are similarly safe from the fighting abroad. Unfortunately, things aren’t so peaceful in less affluent parts of America. In those areas, young people do volunteer for war, primarily as a means to improve themselves economically. Some return intact and with greatly enhanced skills that they can apply in the job market. Others return, but with severe post-traumatic stress disorder. We personally have heard about soldiers with PTSD returning “safely” to America, only to die here in seemingly unrelated accidents. (You’ll never see them listed as casualties of war, but their parents will tell you an altogether different story.) And then there are those who never return – or who return, but without one or more appendages. With each passing year, their numbers mount. And yet … the war continues, seemingly interminably.
Honestly, we in Bethesda are the outliers. Sure, there are other affluent towns across the country in which none of us needs to be a casualty of war. But most American towns and cities have seen the angel of death come knocking. Still, as in Eminiar, nobody seems to be complaining. Our young men and women are being summoned to their disintegration chambers and rarely do we ever hear a whisper about why.
Why indeed? What are we accomplishing in Afghanistan? Why are we sending our people off to die or get maimed, year after year after year? The only time I recall this issue being raised in one of the political conventions this summer was when Clint Eastwood was talking to an empty chair. Honestly, that was the only time. The professional politicians in the Republican Party never questioned the wisdom behind continuing this war. Their standard bearer, Willard Mitt Romney, didn’t even bother to thank the troops. As for the Democratic Party, the one that used to stand for peace, their speakers were falling all over themselves to thank the troops for their service, but never once did any of the speakers feel obliged to explain the reason why these troops have to continue to risk their lives after 11 years of fighting in Afghanistan. I’m sure that if you asked the troops what they would prefer – life and safety, or a round of applause for walking into a potential disintegration chamber – they would opt for the former, don’t you think? And I say that not because I think soldiers are afraid to fight wars that need to be fought, but because I truly don’t believe that even the troops understand the purpose behind this war. This much is for sure – whoever does understand that purpose isn’t explaining it well to the American public.
Premature loss of life is tragic, whether you’re talking about the lives of TV characters or the actual lives of American soldiers (or innocent people killed abroad). But what is perhaps even more tragic is that Americans can live in a nation that has been at war for 11 years, find themselves unable to explain what is being accomplished by this war, and yet witness a Presidential campaign in which the wisdom of the war is an absolute non-issue. What does that say about the vitality of our democracy? Or about us generally? Are we as crazy as the population of Eminiar?
Personally, I think we may be crazier. In Eminiar, you see, the population truly thought that they were SAVING human lives and minimizing overall societal disruption by engaging in an orderly, computer-simulated war. For them, the alternative wasn’t peace, but out-and-out Armageddon. As it turned out, they were probably wrong. (Once Captain Kirk and the boys showed up -- after being pronounced “casualties” and asked to go to the disintegration chambers, which they obviously refused to do -- they were able to initiate peace talks between Eminiar and Vendicar, and as the episode ended, the talks between the planets were reportedly going well.) But at least you can vaguely understand their reasoning. By contrast, here in America, most of us are completely dumbfounded as to what it is we’re accomplishing by beginning year number 12 of the Afghanistan War. Do we really think we’re going to engage in successful nation building in Tora Bora? Do we really see Afghanistan’s future in terms of Jeffersonian Democracy? If not, what in God’s name is motivating us to destroy innocent life? And why doesn’t any leader in either of our political parties seem to care?
In the Democratic Convention, Bill Clinton did a great job of explaining the successes of the Obama Administration. But even he couldn’t explain what the hell we are still doing in Afghanistan. I guess we need a statesman even greater than Clinton, let alone Obama or Romney, to do that job. Maybe we need someone more like Captain Kirk.
Nah, he wouldn’t try to justify the war. He’d just say the same thing that he said at the very end of the Original Star Trek’s greatest episode, the Hugo Award winning “The City on the Edge of Forever.”
“Let’s get the hell out of here.”