The answer is in both the selection of those subjects and in the approach that Star Trek takes to them. The science fiction distance and the dramatic concentration combine to get at certain essences of deeply felt events that focus universal issues.
The urgency of these issues was part of the tumultuous period of 1966-69. Some believe we are entering another period of turmoil, of conflicts that raise basic questions and test ideals. These stories may speak urgently again.
I’ve taken some care in these Trek50 posts to suggest a living historical perspective of those times, and especially the experiences that both the creators of these stories and their audiences brought to them.
But in all the intervening years they have been discussed and debated in light of contemporary events and concerns. Not everyone makes the same conclusions, or even sees the same questions, when they talk about these stories. (Although viewers with different ideologies or perspectives also often select different episodes as the more characteristic.)
There are some episodes however that have emerged as most central. They express aspects of the soul of Star Trek most dramatically and directly, though not exclusively. Much of the Star Trek “vision” is cumulative, expressed also in other series in the saga.
But those later expressions would not exist without the groundbreaking episodes of the original Star Trek series, particularly in this 50th anniversary first season. Though the subjects of the stories remain relevant, resonant and important, they had their greatest impact when they were first aired (and shortly afterwards, in early 1970s syndication, when the Vietnam war was still going on and the country was in turmoil about it.)
It was because they addressed those active concerns in ways that audiences understood, even in the less than obvious languages of science fiction, allegory and metaphor, that Star Trek began to be legendary.
For many in Star Trek’s first audience, this was a topic that changed the course of lives, and for some it was literally a matter of life and death. But the Cold War and the threat of nuclear holocaust was concurrently present throughout these years, beginning earlier and lasting much longer.
While Vietnam was seldom the subject of movies and television shows, the subject of nuclear war had emerged from the radiation monster movies of the 1950s through the satirical Dr. Strangelove and the lyrical apocalypse of On the Beach to more direct portrayals.
These—and the third season “Day of the Dove”—would be regarded as anti-war in the 60s. But Star Trek explored other sides of the question, particularly in the second season episodes “A Private Little War” and arguably “Omega Glory.”
Other stories could be added to these lists, such as “The Return of the Archons,” with its suggestion of the tyranny of social conformity that many in the 60s saw as a prime source of support for the Vietnam War (which in this sense relates it to "A Taste of Armageddon,") or even the contrasting societal visions of “Mirror, Mirror.”
In this post I'll look in detail at one such episode: "A Taste of Armageddon."
What follows is a revision of a post I did on it several years ago. But because the original post makes some slightly different points, it remains in the index.
This first season episode "A Taste of Armageddon" is one of the more complete Star Trek treatments of issues related to the Vietnam War--the kind of issues and especially a point of view that no other TV show or feature film dared to dramatize.
First, the story:
Enterprise hails are finally answered with Code 710, meaning that under no circumstances is the ship to approach the planet. Ambassador Fox insists they ignore it. “It’s their planet,” Captain Kirk says, but Fox orders him to proceed. (The vaguely stated reason is that thousands of lives have been lost in the vicinity and the Federation needs reliable relations in the system.)
The people of Eminiar, who tend to accessorize their futuristically form-fitting body suits with colorful draped fabric, are shown with the trappings of a highly civilized society. This is especially true of the leader of their Council, Anan 7 (David Opatoshu), with his goatee, cultured language, and pants with legs of different colors.
Their conversation is interrupted by an attack. Though they hear nothing, Kirk asks why the Eminiarians don’t take shelter. “There is no shelter,” they are told.
A room with computers and a large display opens up and there is much activity, Mea is horrified that there has been a hit in the city, but the landing party can’t detect any falling bombs, etc. Kirk contacts the Enterprise and Scotty reports all is quiet on the planet. But at the computers, Anan and a military aide note a hit ---“just as it happened, 50 years ago.”
“Computers, Captain,” Spock realizes. “They fight their wars by computers, totally.”
“Of course,” Anan says.
“Computers don’t kill people,” Kirk exclaims.
“Their deaths have been registered. Of course they have 24 hours to report to our disintegration machines,” Anan says calmly. “You must understand, Captain, we have been at war for 500 years. Under ordinary conditions, no civilization could withstand that. But we have reached a solution.”
Spock suggests the attack was theoretical, but Anan insists, “Oh no, quite real. An attack is mathematically launched… I lost my wife in the last attack. Our civilization lives, but people die. Our culture goes on.”
“We have a high consciousness of duty, Captain.”
“There is a certain scientific logic about it,” Spock observes.
“I’m glad you approve,” Anan says.
“I do not approve,” Spock corrects him. “I understand.”
So at this point in the story the build-up--the mystery of what’s really going on—is over. Now the question is what is Kirk going to do about it.
Now we have the basic theme: the abstract nature of a war, but with real consequences in death, if not destruction. Part of that theme is what is does to individuals, to individuality and individual rights. This element has been prepared for with the people of Eminiar having names but also numbers. And though the Trek reference books spell the leader’s name “Anan,” in the show it sounds like it’s being pronounced “Anon,” as in “anonymous.”
She means this, as Anan does: they are quite sure that any rational, intelligent and civilized being would come to this same conclusion. They are sure of it.
Kirk isn’t. “No, I don’t see that at all.”
“It’s been our way for 500 years.”
Meanwhile, Anan is exhibiting one of his extra little talents, the ability to mime Captain Kirk’s voice (perhaps assisted by an unseen “voice duplicator.”) As Kirk, he orders the crew down for shore leave, but the always skeptical Scotty doesn’t buy it. A computer analysis confirms the deception.
Out in the corridor they observe people going into a disintegration chamber. Kirk destroys it. He says he is “throwing a monkey wrench in the machinery.”
While Kirk tells Mea “we’re going to try to stop the killing,” Anan confesses he is at a loss how to proceed, when the call comes through from Fox (who is played by Gene Lyons; if I’m not mistaken, he voiced a lot of commercials. I seem to remember some for cigarettes.) Anan invites Fox down, intending to attack when the Enterprise screens are down. But Scotty refuses Fox’s order to lower them.
Anan is having a quiet drink alone when Kirk approaches from behind him. Anan reveals another talent—he greets Kirk by name without seeing him. “My first impression of you was correct,” Anan says, on Kirk’s approach, weapon in hand. “You are a barbarian. Don’t look so incredulous, Captain. Of course you are---we all are! A killer first, a builder second. A hunter, a warrior, and let’s be honest, a murderer. That is our joint heritage, is it not?”
“We’re a little less cold-blooded about it than you are,” Kirk says. Then adds: “You don’t seem to realize the risk you’re taking. We don’t make war with computers and herd people into suicide stations. We make the real thing. I could destroy this planet.” Kirk says he can do it alone.
Anan mocks him. “I had no idea you were so formidable.”
In the meantime, Spock has rigged the Eminiarian communicator to talk to the Enterprise. He orders Scotty to take the ship to a safe distance, and tells the young ensign to “prevent this young lady [Mea] from immolating herself.”
Fox has meanwhile beamed down (if something changed about the shields, I didn’t catch it), was captured and is being marched to a “suicide station,” when Spock rescues him, and destroys another chamber. Fox tells him that Kirk is being held in the council room. Spock tells Fox that normal diplomacy is not going to work here. Fox says, “I’ve never been a soldier, but I learn quickly.”
Anan and Kirk in the council room are having another thematic dialogue. If the Enteprise crew doesn’t beam down and give themselves up, Anan pleads, “You will be responsible for an escalation that will destroy everything. Millions of people horribly killed, complete destruction of the culture here, and yes, the culture on Vendikar. Disaster, disease, starvation—horrible, lingering death, pain and anguish!”
Kirk has been playing the wily Ulysses all along, never more so than in this scene.
“That seems to frighten you,” he retorts, in a cool, calm voice.
“It would frighten any sane man!” Anan exclaims, as if Kirk still doesn’t get it.
“You’re quite right,” is all Kirk says.
Anan is so convinced he’s right, he continues to try to get Kirk to comprehend the obvious. “And you understand, Captain, we have done away with all that. Now you are threatening to bring it down on us again. Are those 500 people of yours more important than the hundreds of millions of people on E and Vendikar? What kind of monster are you?”
“I had hoped I’d spoken only figuratively,” Anan says, pronouncing every syllable.
“Oh, no, you were quite accurate. I plan to prove it to you.”
Ana turns away, and orders that a channel to the Enterprise be opened. “You give me no choice, Captain,” he turns back to Kirk. “We are not bandits. You force us to act as bandits.”
But once Scotty answers, Kirk shouts an order—General Order 24 in two hours.
With Kirk restrained, Anan tells Scotty, he has 30 minutes or the Captain and the Ambassador and landing party will be killed until crew transport begins. He turns to Kirk.
“I mean it, Captain.”
“All it means is I won’t be around for the destruction.” He explains that General Order 24 is to destroy the planet. Anan is aghast. It would mean the deaths of hundreds of millions of people. And then word comes in that Vendicar is complaining that they aren’t keeping up with their casualties.
Anan is again fixated on their war. If Vendikar decides they are violating the treaty, it will certainly mean real war. “I can’t stop it—escalation is automatic!” Anan cries. “You can stop it!”
“Stop it?” Kirk says, this time with attitude. “I’m counting on it.”
The clock is ticking, and the climax is at hand when the landing crew reclaims their communicators and phasers, and Spock begins figuring out how the Emimiar computers work. Anan watches them, still in disbelief. How can Kirk not understand what he is doing? But he does understand, and explains.
“Death, destruction, disease, horror---that’s what war is all about, Anan,” Kirk says. “That’s what makes it a thing to be avoided. You’ve made it neat and painless. So neat and painless, you’ve had no reason to stop it. And you had it for 500 years. Since it seems to be the only way I can save my crew and my ship” (though by now, this doesn’t seem to be true anymore) “I’m going to end it for you, one way or another.”
“Do you realize what you’ve done?” Anan says.
“Yes, I do,” Kirk replies. “I’ve given you back the horrors of war. The Vendikar will assume you’ve broken your agreement, and that you’re preparing to wage real war with real weapons. They will want to do the same. Only the next attack they launch will do more than just count up numbers on a computer. They’ll destroy your cities, devastate your planet. You, of course, will want to retaliate. If I were you, I would start making bombs. Yes, Anan, you have a real war on your hands. You can either wage it with real weapons, or you might consider an alternative. Put an end to it. Make peace.”
“There can be no peace,” Anan answers. “Don’t you see, we’ve admitted it to ourselves! We’re a killer species, it’s instinctive. It’s the same with you.”
Anan acknowledges there might be a chance. There is a direct communications link that hasn’t been used in centuries. Ambassador Fox offers his assistance. Kirk cancels General Order 24, and after some repartee on the bridge (during which Captain Kirk points out that had the war been real fewer people would have died, and it would have been over long ago), the Enterprise warps to its next mission.
"A Taste of Armageddon" has become one of the signature stories of Star Trek. These stories speak to us fifty years later, on their own merits. But the context in which they were created deepens our insight and experience. This historical context and Star Trek's response to it are part of the soul of Star Trek.
This script is full of this war’s vocabulary. “Escalation” was a relatively new term, widely used for the first time concerning Vietnam. Even Spock’s apparently offhand comment about Mea not “immolating” herself suggests the Buddhist monks in Saigon immolating themselves in protest of the war. And Kirk’s phrase, “throwing a monkey wrench into the machinery” was a metaphor used by young dissidents in the U.S. and Europe, sometimes applied to the “war machine,” sometimes to the larger mechanisms that support war and injustice. The line about the people of Eminiar VII having a sense of duty, and walking into suicide machines, reflects the Vietnam era debate about patriotism versus refusing to participate in the war.
But in its emphasis on total war, the script also speaks to the continuing threat of thermonuclear war. Because missiles could be on their way to their targets before definitely detected, and possibly could destroy the enemy’s bomb-tipped missiles before they could be fired, there was increasing talk of putting computers in control.
This script weds the computerized warfare idea from nuclear war scenarios (the very idea of “scenarios”, projections and using computers to study the future came from attempts to predict nuclear war casualties and effects) with a particular aspect of the Vietnam war: its visibility, yet its abstraction.
In 1967, there were daily body counts reported on the evening news, night after night. The dead were categorized as American, South Vietnamese, and Viet Cong/North Vietnamese. The American casualties were the most accurate, and the enemy casualties the most obviously inflated.
But the war was far away, and Americans were largely unaffected. No bombs fell in American cities, no buildings were destroyed. In 1967 the largest draft calls of the war were still ahead, and not so many families were directly affected by the war as eventually would be. Americans were otherwise pretty prosperous. Until early 1967, they weren’t even feeling an extra tax bite to pay for the war. It was still pretty abstract.
In some ways, Vietnam was an anomaly. It was “the television war,” seen every night on newscasts. The U.S. still honored the rights of news media to cover a war (which they’d done in World War II) so those images were seen every day, eventually dominating the news.
But in 1967, that kind of coverage was just beginning. The war was big news, but the news always ended with the body count. It could seem as if soldiers far away walked unseen into disintegration chambers, so that life could go on as usual in the U.S.
The story for “A Taste of Armaggedon” was written by Robert Hamner, but the script was largely Gene Coon’s. He’d recently become Star Trek’s producer, with Gene Roddenberry now as Executive Producer. Coon worked on stories and scripts within the universe Roddenberry created, and told the stories that defined Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek for all time.
Star Trek’s approach to war itself helped to define what Star Trek has always meant since. There was not always, strictly speaking, an anti-war message or theme, yet the very strongly articulated point of view in this story was and is essential to Star Trek, and its unique approach to conflict and war.
Gene Roddenberry also served in the Pacific, going on bombing raids as a pilot in B-17s, without fighter escort, under fire from the ground and from enemy planes. He saw military bureaucracy and the stupidity of some commanders cost the lives of men he knew.
Their beliefs about war came from experiencing and knowing war, as well as considering the alternatives. If they had wanted to write “gritty” war stories, they could have done so from their experience of the real thing, not from watching war movies or imagining how it works. But at least in Star Trek, they chose to make this statement about the essential issues.
And that is a major point of this episode: experiencing the reality of war is the best deterrent to war. This is also the message of other anti-war novels and poems from World War I (All Quiet on the Western Front being among the most eloquent) and before. But of course, these authors didn't mean people had to experience war in order to try to prevent future wars. They didn't write of the horrors of war so that people would start new wars. We can experience those horrors by reading their words, or inhabiting their images.
In this episode, Gene Coon is saying very clearly that the violence and madness of war is very different from anything abstract that can be said about why it is fought. It becomes its own evidence and argument.
There is another value in contention. The leaders of Eminar value the continuity of their culture over the lives of individuals. They are amazed that the Enterprise people can’t see the wisdom of this. By some premises, it is logical, even scientific. There’s a sense that tradition is preserved, and that artistic and intellectual advances continue---perhaps even evolutionary ones.
But the graphic images of the television war, along with the reporting from Vietnam in magazines and books, brought the reality of war---and the feelings generated by imagining that reality—into the public debate. This led to a different kind of logic---more like Mr. Spock’s than Anan 7’s---that destroying countries in order to save them was illogical, and morally wrong.
It's interesting that the strongest argument for the Eminar system isn't stressed in the story: that given the carnage of war, the painless method of being disintegrated is more merciful. Yet this only exposes the absurdity of a "bloodless" war in which individuals die ostensibly for their society, based on mistaken beliefs it has become unthinkable to question. This also relates to attitudes towards the Vietnam War especially in the 60s.
Since the 1960s and 70s, the abstraction of real war has only become more pronounced. Fewer families have loved ones in the armed services. More killing is done by remote control. There is less television coverage of actual warfare. During the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, images have been carefully managed. No flag-draped coffins or body bags are permitted to be shown, and few images of civilians wounded or killed. Much of the imagery we’ve seen is of computer-guided bombs, and computer simulations. War as most Americans experience it has become a computer game. For most people, war has become abstract.
Another point to touch on briefly: Star Trek often champions the individual, very important when dealing with sweeping changes or differences in how societies are organized.
One choice of individual citizens was deciding whether their country's war was legitimate. Many people felt even questioning the Vietnam War was unpatriotic, that we had to support and trust our leaders, that they knew things we didn't.
Beyond the points made in this episode, there is something else to consider about the continuity on Eminiar VII. That means of waging war preserved not only the culture but the power structure. Perhaps Anan faced voters irate about the bad math the computer used in its attacks and defense, but it’s unlikely. The people with real power were secure in an abstract war.
The most famous element of this episode is Kirk’s line “We’re killers—but we’re not going to kill today.” It’s a bit reminiscent of the Alcoholics Anonymous approach of controlling addictions one day at a time (though “twelve-step programs” didn’t become common knowledge until the 1980s, AA has been widely active since the 1940s.) It’s also a bit reminiscent of the time Traveller in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, who when he realizes the Morlocks are helpless, drops his weapon and controls his frenzy of killing. “I struck them no more.”
But the essence of his statement is choice. By exercising choice, even once (“today”), it suggests that choice is possible. Becoming conscious is part of choice: conscious not only of possibility and capability, but of what drives you in your choices. Consciousness itself becomes an important drive: the will to understand your unconscious drives and expressions, and the will to make conscious decisions.
Anan’s argument is an old one, yet it comes in a contemporary guise. Anan talks about the “instinct” to kill; today we might talk about this in terms of genes, or natural selection. But it amounts to the same argument, which is both based on a false premise of human nature, and on a false and defeatist sense of human capability.
Although Kirk agrees with Anan’s premise, that we are killers “with the blood of a million savage years,” he didn’t need to, because in a meaningful way, it’s a false premise.
First of all, we’ve been becoming human for more like two million years. It is of course true that humans, like every other living species, live directly or indirectly from the death of other life. Like most creatures, we kill to live. (Even vegetarians do.)
But we ought to be careful about what we assume or extrapolate. We can look at animals, and see how they hunt and savagely kill. We can look at our history of organized slaughter of other animals and of each other in warfare. And we can devise theories about how all this must be so: it’s in our genes. Survival of the fittest. Every human---every individual and his genes--for himself.
But it’s all pretty oversimplified. Humans, like many other animal species, live by killing but also by cooperation. Individuals in social species don’t survive without each other, and humans are the primate species most dependent on each other to survive. This simple fact flummoxes a great deal of otherwise scientific theory.
We basically extrapolate the origins of our “instincts” and what they mean in terms of behavior from historical time: from our few thousand years of so-called civilization. We certainly have instincts, and our survival often does depend on knowing friend from foe. But how that plays out may have much more to do with our particular civilizations, religions, technologies, and particularly our power structures than with our genes or instincts.
Instincts--and genes--operate correctly when they switch on in correct contexts. But they often are summoned falsely, in inappropriate contexts. And as our lives and relationships with the world and each other get more complex, the inappropriate release of behavior motivated by "instinct" or the unconscious becomes more common, and more of a deadly problem.
For the roots of war are often not the killing instinct but other human failings, like fear, greed, arrogance and others, together with instruments of deception and manipulation. The motives of warmakers may be hidden, but such leaders get people to go along with them by pushing psychological buttons.
We need to become more conscious of what those buttons are and how they are pushed, and how our unconscious can trick us into believing we’re acting rationally when we’re not. We do that individually, and we do that together (and speaking of primitives and killers, it’s in Indigenous and tribal societies we find the deepest traditions and commitment to talking through problems until a peaceful solution is reached.) We also need to be a little smarter about the people we follow, and whose interests are served when they push our buttons.
A couple of other Star Trek episodes speak to these issues, such as "Errand of Mercy" and "Day of the Dove." Hopefully we'll look at those in future posts.