Monday, March 13, 2006

This has become one of the signal stories of Star Trek. If you had 15 episodes, maybe even 10, from all of Star Trek to introduce someone to what Star Trek means, this could very well be included. Gene Coon was producing and writing by this time, and not only were issued joined with sharper writing, but the characters were becoming clearly defined, especially Captain Kirk. The repartee between Kirk and Spock, and Spock and McCoy, was also becoming better and more defining.

But more than producers and writers defined Star Trek stories. We understand these episodes in our context, but our understanding increases when we consider the context in which they were created.

A Taste of Armageddon first aired on February 23, 1967. There were some 338,000 American troops in Vietnam. Close to 7,000 Americans had died in the war so far, with some 40,000 injured. The largest air battle of the war occurred over North Vietnam in January. Extensive damage to North Vietnam from American bombing, including civilian deaths, was documented.

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 led to many films of accidental warfare caused by screw-ups in command-and-control mechanisms, like Fail-Safe (1964) and Dr. Strangelove (1964). Or all-powerful supercomputers launching a war that humans couldn’t stop (War Games in 1983) or simply holding humankind hostage by controlling nuclear weapons (Colossus: The Forbin Project in 1970, directed by Trek director Joseph Sargent.)

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. As the war went on, the images became more graphic. Bombs fell, napalm flared, soldiers and civilians died onscreen. The TV showed a Vietnam prisoner being suddenly shot, and American soldiers setting fire to a village with cigarette lighters, and the villagers running away, screaming. There were pictures of the wounded in pain, and pictures of body bags, and flag-draped coffins. It was all so real, and yet it was all a TV show. It was all very strange.

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.

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