SPOILERS FOR STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS and IRON MAN 3
“War is coming, and who’s gonna lead us? You?? If I’m not in charge, our entire way of life is decimated! So, you want me off this ship? You better kill me.”
—Admiral Marcus, Star Trek Into Darkness
“Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it? You? You, Lt. Weinburg? I have a greater responsibility than you could possibly fathom. . . my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives.”
—Colonel Nathan Jessup, A Few Good Men
In the most recent addition to the Star Trek franchise, we find out at about the movie’s half-way mark that Admiral Marcus, head of Star Fleet, has sent the Enterprise on a suicide mission, aimed at triggering a war with the Klingon empire. Arguing that war with the Klingons is inevitable, he has been building a fleet of warships in secret. He’s willing to sacrifice Kirk and his entire crew in order to make that war happen.
We find out further that Admiral Marcus has been using a genius/super-soldier war-criminal from Earth’s history to develop these weapons. Both his use of Khan and his sacrifice of the Enterprise are motivated by a single idea: civilization can only be saved by uncivilized men and uncivilized means. The Federation, without economic need or martial strife, will be helpless to stop the war-like Klingons, without men who live “grotesque and incomprehensible lives.” Luckily, Kirk and Company arrive just in time to show that the right amount of technology, pluck and derring-do can solve any problem.
Who’s going to do it?
Who is going to defend civilization against the forces that seek to destroy it? And what kind of people do they need to be in order to accomplish that mission? Moves like Star Trek, Iron Man and The Dark Knight wrestle with the same question that has plagued the entire War on Terror: Must a civilized society use uncivilized means to protect itself? The debates on torture, wiretapping and targeted killing all have this question at their root. Of course, the debate is even older than the War on Terror: A Few Good Men came out in 1992 and asked the same question—can we defend ourselves without resorting to barbarism and lawlessness? Like Admiral Marcus, Colonel Jessup is willing to break the rules of his society because he believes doing so is how to “defend a country.” You’re goddamned right that Colonel Jessup ordered the Code Red, and he’d do it again.
From a purely political stance, Hollywood has a long history of discomfort with military power and the use of military force. In Into Darkness, Scotty protests that Starfleet Officers are “explorers, not soldiers.” Throughout the Iron Man franchise, Tony Stark’s villains have been an assortment of military weapons builders, and he takes every opportunity to condemn the manufacture of more advanced weaponry. He even takes Nick Fury to task for building the “Phase II” weapons based on Tesseract technology. At least overtly, the message is clear—weapons are bad, and the people who build them should be condemned.
Unfortunately, Hollywood Blockbusters like Into Darkness have a problem when dealing with these issues. As Matt Wrather, the WORLD’S FOREMOST EXPERT on François Truffaut likes to remind us, “There is no thing such as an anti-war movie.” Explosions, violence and mayhem put butts into seats—the line between condemnation of violence and glorification of violence is razor thin. There’s an inherent tension in movies that that have an explicit message of “War is bad”, and an implicit message that “War is RAD: Buy our toys!”
So when Scotty protests that Star Fleet isn’t a military organization, it’s hard not to notice that Into Darkness takes a TV show about explorers and turns it into a two-hour movie about soldiers. Tony Stark condemns Nick Fury, despite spending all of his available time building weapons of his own. In multiple movies, Tony Stark protests that someone else is building dangerous weapons that could fall into the wrong hands—right before strapping on a suit of armor and shooting people in the face with it (usually with alcohol on his breath).
Blockbusters try their best to wrestle with these complicated issues of security v. dignity, the needs of the many versus the needs of the few. But in the end, they also need to sell some movie tickets. So how does the Hollywood Blockbuster resolve these issues? In Into Darkness, Spock blows it up with some torpedoes (and then punching it in the face). In Iron Man 3, Tony Stark uses a few dozen suits of Iron Man armor to beat down the bad guys. In The Avengers, we don’t need the Phase II weapons because we have well, The Avengers.
Who is going to defend civilization? Ultimately, the answer is an unsatisfying one. Hollywood rejects that idea that only moral monsters can save the world, and replaces it with the idea that only angels can save it. We don’t need to sacrifice our morals—we have superheroes! The solution to a bad guy with a gun is a just really smart, strong, good looking moral paragon with a gun. As long as your motives are pure, having a gun is just fine—problem solved!
Because only our hero is moral enough and responsible enough to use power effectively, anyone else (villain or no) must be wrong. Unfortunately, this insistence on absolutely purity leads to movies that “throw the baby out with the bath water.” While the threat in Into Darkness is almost entirely created by Admiral Marcus’ bungling and militaristic over-reach, it’s not that the Klingon threat isn’t out there. Clearly sending your own ship on a suicide mission to start an interstellar war is wrong—but that’s not to say that having a few warships around to defend the Federation is a bad idea.
In The Avengers those Phase II weapons would have been really handy if, you know, an alien army decided to invade New York City one day. Come to think of it, a platoon of soldiers in Iron Man suits would have come in really handy fighting said alien army. In Iron Man 3, Pepper Potts rejects research into the Extremis project—solely because it COULD have military applications. Just to be clear, she refuses to do research into a serum that regrows missing limbs and probably has all sorts of other amazing medical uses, just out of a puritanical fear of anything that could be misused.
Instead, the solution is institutions that work. There’s nothing wrong with a Starfleet with an increased military capacity—the problem is when you put it in the hands of a megalomaniac without any civilian oversight. Checks and balances, civilian oversight and the democratic process are ultimately the only effective way of ensuring that neither the monsters at our door or nor the monsters in our midst destroy our society. We can’t count on finding the perfect specimens of humanity and getting them to save society for us—entertaining as their stories may be.
>>As long as your motives are pure, having a gun is just fine—problem solved!
So… Hollywood is saying that the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun? :)
One thing always bugs me when that speech in “A Few Good Men” is brought up. Colonel Jessup was making it in *1992*. The Cold War was over. Gitmo was still an obscure point of trivia. Jessup, while making an intriguing argument in the generalized debate over saftey verses security, is talking out his ass to Tom Cruise in that specific instance. Those men on walls with guns are defending against the awe-inspiring might of the ’92 Cuban Army, whose Soviet patron had just bitten the dust. Colonel Jessup is no hard man making hard choices. He’s a tinpot tyrant who uses phantoms to justify his personal exercises in brutality.
In 1992 the Cold War was over, but in most of the decades preceding it, the Cold War was over-inflated. If Col. Jessup had made the same argument in 1960 or 1970, it would have been based on the boogeyman of exaggerated estimates of Soviet firepower.
And the argument of/for tinpot tyrants or fascism doesn’t work that much better even if we were facing a credible, imminent threat. Should we throw away our values (rule of law, humane treatment of prisoners, due process) in order to save some of our other values? I guess Jessup and some people would say yes. But some of them always have said yes, based on the same weak rationalizations, and always will.
The movie was made in 1992. It was based on Aaron Sorkin’s play from 1989, which was set in 1986 based on an event that took place at that time.
According to IMDb, the film is set in September of 1992, but if true, this is an error on the part of the filmmakers, and it should really be viewed as taking place in ’86.
I concur about the ambivalent message of STID, but while the film and Iron Man 3 raise interesting questions about the relationship of terrorism and militarism, by now these issues have together become so ingrained in US culture that any film which aspires to be a blockbuster has difficulty not pulling its most hard-hitting punches… After all, STID was immediately followed with the following statement: “THIS FILM IS DEDICATED TO OUR POST-9/11 VETERANS WITH GRATITUDE FOR THEIR INSPIRED SERVICE ABROAD
AND CONTINUED LEADERSHIP AT HOME.” However, I suppose one could argue that this same ambivalence thoroughly pervaded ST:TOS as well, with Kirk version 1.0 famously playing at both cultural and scientific exploration and “cowboy diplomacy.”
(I did find Iron Man’s combination of imagery from both Taliban and homegrown American Militia-style militancy in the character of the Mandarin though rather provocatory, but I haven’t seen anybody really take on a critique of that on yet.)
Anyway, a couple of interesting, related articles are. http://movies.yahoo.com/blogs/movie-talk/9-11-looms-large-over-star-trek-darkness-211915647.html and http://www.motherjones.com/mixed-media/2013/05/star-trek-into-darkness-jj-abrams-iraq-war-veterans
The problem with the final conclusion of this piece is that democracy is still an imperfect system run by self-interested agents and institutions making it prone to be the bad guy itself unless accountability is present AND actually working as it was designed to. The Bourne movie series takes place in a stylized representation of our world where America is a liberal democracy with independent media and civilian oversight, but the “moral monsters” have subverted accountability and continue to work in the shadows. It is implied that in the universe of those movies that without the actions of a few paragons (Jason Bourne, Pam Landy, and Simon Ross in particular) the illegal activities of the US Government would have continued in perpetuity despite their inherent lack of democracy.
Moving back to Star Trek into Darkness, I interpreted the entire movie as saying that the Enterprise took a direct stand against all of Starfleet when it refused to comply with Admiral Marcus’ orders. Admiral Marcus gained dictatorial levels of authority within Starfleet DESPITE the democracy inherent in Starfleet, which leads to the argument that the “moral paragons” were necessary to either sound the alarm or stop the threat to democracy themselves. If the circumstances were different then Marcus could have used Starfleet’s “democratic institutions” against the Enterprise instead of opting to try and kill them because he was in charge (which brings up thoughts about the allegations about the IRS targeting right wing nonprofits under a liberal administration). Finally, although I have only seen the 2 newest Star Trek movies, the opening scene of Into Darkness where Starfleet’s goal is purely observational and based on nonintervention in addition to one of the characters outright saying something to the effect of “Starfleet is not a military organization” leads me to believe this is a major difference between Into Darkness and the Avengers/A Few Good Men. SHIELD and the US military deal primarily with the use of military force while I assumed that militarizing Starfleet on some level goes against its governing charter. If militarizing star fleet really does go against the goals of the group (I really don’t know if it does in this universe) then in order for democracy, institutions, and accountability to work there would need to be some public discourse on the merits of increasing starfleet’s military presence. Actually that discourse should happen regardless of Starfleet’s overriding ideology.
Good thought provoking read btw
This question does not only harken back to War on Terror. I see this as the question of a trauma derived by WW2, an issue resolved in an entirely unsatisfactory way by the collapse of the Soviet Union.
World War II was, arguably, won at Stalingrad. Had not the (megalomaniac) Operation Barbarossa ground the German army to dust at the shores of the Volga, D-day could not have happened at that time, like that. The overstretch and Soviet defeat of the Wehrmacht was fundamental in terms of both real assets (ie. tanks, guns, and soldiers) and morale.
The Eastern front was by leaps and bounds the most deadly part of the war, to both civilians and soldiers (although Hiroshima and Nagasaki sort of messes up that storyline – for now, I’ll just assert that that theatre and that stage of the war was fundamentally different with respect to its consequences for stopping the war).
So, our sin is this: the Soviets were not exactly following good, democratic practice when ordering soldiers into the killing fields. They were in fact running up lines of NKVD agents behind their own lines, routinely shooting soldier who tried to fall back. They stole food from starving peasants. They ordered troop movements destined to doom both soldiers and POWs to death. They barely fed their POWs. They used slave labour to build war infrastructure. They also stole intellectual property from foreign powers (just kidding, You Would Not Steal a Fighter Jet).
Now, while shooting deserters is quite common, it is definitely not the same as shooting anyone who fall back. In the extreme conditions of street-level warfare in Stalingrad, military commands were death sentences for many. At so many levels, military commanders disregarded human life, civilian and military, except in one sense: defeating the Germans.
So, Soviet soldiers were coerced into fighting a war in ways that would be utterly unethical and outright impossible to impose on citizens of democratic countries. And the civilian population was not treated very well by the Red Army, either. The paradox is obviously this: This extreme level of totalitarian coercion and disregard for human life essentially saved the democratic freedoms of Western Europe.
In the final stages, real democratic armies assisted the Russians in defeating the Germans, yes. But that – assistance – is also the proper way to put it. The American government understood this from fairly early on in the war, and supplied the Soviet war machine with fuel, trucks, and cash. Only in the end game did the Western democratic armies really play any important, strategic role in the European theatre of WW2.
In the Cold War, the Paradox was submerged behind the continued fight against totalitarianism, now in the guise of the previous ally. But this never resolved it.
We are forced to admit that re-running the scenario with a Western style democratic Russia, we would not have been able to take the necessary steps to stop Nazi Germany. But at the same time, we advocate the very system of liberal democracy that renders us virtually defenceless against its enemies.
Today, we rely on the absolute majority of military power to rest in NATO hands. The construction of the American military juggernaut attests to this: still, USA spends the majority of the world’s military dollars, all by itself. We are essentially preaching for institutions, but still paying upkeep for the largest stick the world has ever seen behind our back.
This scheme only works as long as we also say we are willing to use the guns. Would we burn Dresden again? Hiroshima? Maybe not. But torture terrorists? Sure. We rely on it being done, while we tout the great freedoms of our countries: the guarantee of not being tortured or drone-killed ourselves, and the guarantee of being allowed to criticize our government for doing it to Other Peoples.
The solution in Europe has been a utterly heroic reading of WW2 history. The great battles, the Eastern front and the pacific theatre are told only in passing, while the emphasis is on the Battle of Britain, nazism as ideology and the Holocaust, the tiny resistance movements and their heroic actions, the ideological resistance (illegal papers), and very detailed assessments of D-day and the final months of the war.
In my mind, at least, this “school version” of history left me dumbfounded on why the Germans ever believed they could win the war. After all, we were all resisting them ideologically, and basically just needed to land a few thousand American troops to root out the evil. Why didn’t we just do that immediately?
A few million Other People had to die first. We tend to overlook that, so we can redress the story as Democracy’s triumph over Nazism.
Recommended reading is Timothy Snyder’s powerful book “Bloodlands”.
“We are forced to admit that re-running the scenario with a Western style democratic Russia, we would not have been able to take the necessary steps to stop Nazi Germany. But at the same time, we advocate the very system of liberal democracy that renders us virtually defenceless against its enemies.”
That sounds like an overstatement. Nazis might have completed their invasion without totalitarian tactics from Russia, but it doesn’t mean they necessarily would have held the territory after an invasion. Compare with the US sweeping into Bagdad or pushing the Taliban out of Afghanistan. Those invasions were accomplished within months, but how long can the occupations hold? Under other conditions, the Nazis might have “won” the invasion of Russia but gradually lost the occupation.
In some ways it’s just a matter of degrees. Nazis didn’t capture the whole territory of Russia, but they captured and controlled parts of it for a time. Under other conditions, they might have captured more of it, but how long would they have had the resources to maintain an occupation of Russia? Hitler obviously didn’t need the support of German citizens to keep pursuing the war, but even a totalitarian dictator would have to deal with some resistance at home and within the military when pursuing a long occupation across a broad empire.
This is a very different situation, but the Pentagon developed some kind of report about how much they’d have to lower troop levels in Vietnam if they had to increase the National Guard in the US to deal with protests or riots. That wasn’t a measure of whether Nixon could get re-elected, it was all about whether a drawn-out, unpopular war would create enough protest to require troops putting them down at home, at what point it would undermine the war. Hitler surely would have had more Kent States to discourage protests by Germans, but he probably would have had more assassination plots against him by his own generals, or more officers getting fragged by soldiers.
We are forced to admit that re-running the scenario with a Western style democratic Russia, we would not have been able to take the necessary steps to stop Nazi Germany
The problem with that scenario is that it assumes everything up to Stalingrad would have played out the same way if the USSR had a democratic government and that seems unlikely.
A democratic Russia (probably) wouldn’t have agreed to the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact which would have severely limited Hitler’s ability to dominate continental Europe. Indeed, without the Nazi-Soviet Alliance Hitler probably would not have been able to conquer France (it certainly would have taken him longer than 6 weeks) and would have left Germany effectively boxed in.
Yeah, and by the way, that “redressing” is basically rehashed by every heroic military movie since then, paradigmatically of course by Independence Day.
Great read! I’m reminded of Nick Fury’s decision to let the Avengers scatter to the four winds at the end of the movie, to the horror of his shadowy commanding officers. Quite understandably, they want the Avengers operating within some kind of SYSTEM. Nick Fury, despite being the head of Shield, seems to have little confidence in Shield as an institution (with good cause – they nearly destroy New York). It seems like he would rather keep that power in the hands of his loose canon superheroes, because he trusts them as people.
You didn’t bring up Batman, but he’s a great edge case for this. Do we want police officers dangling suspects off of buildings to get evidence from them, or kidnapping them from sovereign nations? No we don’t. But we’re fine with BATMAN doing it, because Batman has a moral compass that we trust. I’d love to see a Batman story where we does something we’re uncomfortable with, like allow innocent people to get hurt while chasing a bigger fish. We were (maybe) supposed to feel that unease when he builds the phone scanning machine in The Dark Knight, but honestly it seemed like only a die-hard civil libertarian was going to object to that being used to catch the Joker. It wasn’t like Batman was decided to let people die or anything – but how interesting would that have been? A superhero who doesn’t always have an unerring moral compass.
You didn’t bring up Batman, but he’s a great edge case for this. Do we want police officers dangling suspects off of buildings to get evidence from them, or kidnapping them from sovereign nations? No we don’t. But we’re fine with BATMAN doing it, because Batman has a moral compass that we trust.
Batman (at least the Nolan version) is certainly the best example for this sort of debate though I think you oversimplify the message a bit.
One of the most interesting things about the TDK trilogy is that after 7 and half hours of screen time it still isn’t clear whether or not Gotham is actually better off because of Batman. Sure he is the protagonist of the series and he trying to do what he thinks is right, but it is his actions that unleash the Joker and Bane on the city. And sure he stops the League of Shadows in the first film, but what if instead of spending 7 years wondering the globe aimlessly Bruce Wayne had finished the work his parents started and really pumped money back into the city (instead of letting other people turn his company into a weapons manufacturer) and/or run for office to try and cleanup the corruption? Maybe then the LoS would have decided the city didn’t need to be destroyed.
Not really sure what my point is exactly, just something to think about.
You make a very good point about Batman possibly being the cause, rather than the solution, of most of Gotham’s problems, and I feel like this is also something present in the comics (I say ‘feel’ because I have trouble remembering).
If you think about it, it seems like the Nolan movies tried to address this point by mentioning that the LoS were the ones disrupting Gotham’s economy in the first place, thus being the city’s “original sin”. One consequence of this revelation is that it absolves Batman of part of his guilt: Gotham was already under “super-villain attack” before he started, so running for office or maintaining a strong economy may have seemed to him like futile ideas.
On the other hand, the revelation creates a fundamental question that the movies never really address: why choose Gotham in the first place? IIRC they go on about Rome and Carthage, but does this really make sense? I would be interested in the LoS leadership’s analysis that places Gotham City before, let’s say, Mumbai, Mexico City, Los Angeles, Singapore and Buenos Aires in terms of similarity to the ancient city-states that “needed” to be destroyed by them.
(BTW I’m not saying that any of these great cities is “worse” than Gotham or its real-life counterparts of NYC and Chicago – I was just trying to come up with sprawling, heterogeneous metropolises)
Interesting thoughts. One other thing I will add is that TDK trilogy also showed the futility of Batman’s more extreme methods. Dropping Maroni off the balcony accomplished nothing and by bringing Lau back all Batman did was deliver him directly to the Joker. Also, while Mathew didn’t mention it, I’ll also point out that when Batman tries to beat a confession out of the Joker it results in the dreaded “false information” and Rachel Dawes’ death.
But an Axis “win scenario” for the Russian conflict was never to own Russia. It was to neutralize the threat of a powerful competitor and renegotiate the national and political lines of Europe from a position of German supremacy. Very similar to Japan’s goal in the Pacific.
There’s no Scenerio where “you’d all be speaking German now if it wasn’t for…”
Stalin was the only one ambitious to have the plan “We’ll grind you back to the dark ages… and since that’s where WE rule, we’re going to own your countries too!”
It’s never expressed as Marcus specific intent but it seems like he’s thinking it’s possible to decimate the Klingon home world and take over their airspace (spacespace?)
It’s hard to say, as it’s overall something of a mishmash of worries from different eras. Marcus’s talk has the vibe of a Cold War “final throwdown” where we should accept getting our hair mussed for the sake of slaying the Soviet bear, but the rest of his plan draws heavily from the War On Terror (drones, assassinations, detention, illegal raids). The attempt to have the Enterprise destroyed is also 9/11 truther-esq, if you go for some of the criticism of Bob Orci that’s sprung up. I’m undecided on that bit.
One thing that struck me was that Marcus’s whole plan is focused on the Klingons, when you’d think that, given Nero’s ethnicity and genocidal crimes, Starfleet would be eyeballing the Romulan Empire. I can see some Iraq War parallels there, with one attack being used as an excuse to execute unrelated long-term ambitions, although again it’s not a perfect match-up. Neither the Klingons nor the Romulans are pushovers or humbled foes, they’re Great Powers in their own right.
Nero was a time traveler from the future who explicitly stated he didn’t represent the Klingon Empire and I don’t think Marcus ever invoked his name during the movie so I’m not sure that is a fair analogy.
As Batman has been referenced, and I’m a Batfangirl, let me point out also that another instance where Batman/Bruce Wayne demonstrates his self-appointed authority is with the energy core that gets turned into a bomb in TDKR– recall, he puts an end to the program that could provide limitless clean energy to the masses immediately when he learns it could be turned into a weapon, just like how Pepper refuses to fund research that could lead to supersoldiers. The… irony… of both is that what the protagonists fear is exactly what ends up happening.
Let me push that the question of whether Batman is good or bad for Gothom gets directly addressed in myriad Batman comics. Take The Dark Knight Returns, for example. There are multiple instances where television shows broadcast debates between “pro” and “anti” Batman people- the argument for the latter is always along the lines of “he creates his opponents, so he’s making things worse.” Indeed, a number of the members of Batman’s rogues gallery flat-out tell him to his face that he’s, at last tangentially, to blame for their committing their crimes in the first place.
Back to Star Trek, though. I took Scotty’s protestations as a channeling of the expected reactions from fans to the hypermilitarization of Starfleet at the hands of Marcus- or at least, think it’s possible to view him as such. A big complaint I’ve heard from fellow Trek fans has been that this movie is even less of a Star Trek film than the first one, in that there isn’t nearly as much exploration (the word Scotty uses, might I add), either physical or philosophical, in these Abrams movies; instead, they’re “just” good action movies. Because the message is pretty ham-handedly delivered in both, that rogues acting on their own accord are bad and only the Good Guys can handle power, and there isn’t really much room left for debate within the movies about this (or much else).
I do think this movie alludes to overall hypocratic practices on the part of Starfleet, though. I first find it hard to believe that Marcus was as independent in his actions as seems to be agreed upon above, both in the comments and in the article. If he had an entire underground development center, there had to be a crapton of other Starfleet officers and commanders that knew what he was up to- there’s no way a lone admiral could have that many Starfleet people working under him and what they were doing not get out to other Starfleet members somehow. So along the way, some high-ups had to either directly sanction his operations, or they deliberately turned the other cheek when they got wind of what he was doing. Not good.
Also, the freezing of Kahn and his crew. Sure, they have basically a no-death-penalty policy, but there’s very little difference between forcing someone into a frozen comatose state and actually killing them. We can get into debates about what Starfleet could do with them, since yeah, they’re basically superhumans, but locking them in solitary confinement or something is more of a life than being frozen- at least that way they’re, you know, breathing. And why not try rehabilitation? Freezing them (again) is an easy-out for Starfleet, and I find it ethically troubling. Yet this is never even presented as questionable within this movie (whereas I feel like if something like this happened in TNG or mayhap Voyager or something, it would have been brought up rather directly- hell, it’s been a while since I saw all of TNG but I could see that as the main topic in at least one episode, if it never actually was).
So to bring it back, just the two things I’ve brought up would have been more fleshed out in older Star Trek stuff, whereas Abrams’s movies are fairly light on the philosophizing and questioning in favor of action and camera angles (and entirely unnecessary shots of female characters in their underroos)*. I guess you could say the “spirit” of Star Trek is getting left behind.
Oh, one final thing. If Kahn’s blood has such vast healing capabilities, would that of his crew, as well? And if so, did anyone think to take a lot of samples to manufacture a universal (pun not intended) for disease? They could cure, like, everything if they mass produced that stuff somehow.
*I just had to throw that in there, given the pretty sexist justifications Abrams has for that scene.