This is the first of three posts on Battlestar Galactica, which resumes its second season on Sci-Fi tomorrow night. This first post deals with the question of civilian and military authority in BSG, while tomorrow’s post discusses the Cylons, and Saturday’s contains my general appraisal of the series.
Why devote an entire post to civil-military authority in BSG? In BSG humanity suffers near-complete devastation, to the tune of the annihilation of all but a residue of 50000. The Cylons, an alien race, threaten to destroy the remaining human. In the face of the disaster and threat, the surviving humans must decide on how to arrange their civil and political life with the hope both of escaping the Cylons and of maintaining some semblance of their old lives. As such, BSG presents an interesting thought experiment on the endurance of authority during a crisis, and particularly on the balance between civilian and military authority during a time of extreme military vulnerability.
The first BSG did not deal seriously with the question of authority in the Colonies or in the Fleet. The desire for peace on the part of President Adar, a kindly old man, led the Colonies to destruction. Adama tried to warn Adar by reminding him of the true nature of the Cylons
Surely, you don’t cling to your suspicions about the Cylons. They
asked for this armistice. They want peace.
Forgive me, Mr. President, but they hate humans with every fiber of
their existence. We love freedom. We love independence. To feel, to
question. To rebel against oppression. It’s an alien way of existing
they will never accept.
Adama’s argument in 1978 was designed for a post-Vietnam Cold War audience, one expected to be aware of the dangers of both the Soviet Union and of accomodationists and appeasers on our own side. It’s remarkable, though, how little the rhetoric needs to be adjusted for the War on Terror. It’s admirable that Ronald Moore avoids the temptation of giving Adama or Roslin a similar speech in the new BSG.
In a few other episodes of the first BSG a well-meaning civilian Council of Twelve attempts to disrupt Adama’s plans, usually by being excessively peaceful. At no point is there any genuine consideration of the importance of maintaining civilian control during a state of emergency. Glen Larson could be excused if he simply hadn’t thought about civil-military conflict in the first series, but this isn’t the case. Rather, his position is quite explicit; during war, civilians should stand aside and allow the military to make decisions. By interfering, civilians will only serve to mess things up.
This position is not surprising, given the post-Vietnam context. BSG, among other outlets, fell victim to and propagated the notion that civilian officials, rather than military officers, were the real culprits behind the defeat in Vietnam. Toughness, as evinced by Commander Adama, never fails. Weakness and appeasement, the province of civilians, never succeeds. The obvious conclusion of such thinking is that, in times of crisis, civilians ought to step aside and allow the military to do its job.
BSG 2003 radically alters this formula. There is no appeasement, and the only treason is unintentional. The military, with its attachment to advanced gadgets that fall easy prey to the Cylon attack, is just as culpable in the destruction of the colonies as civilians. In the wake of the attack, the new President (43rd in line of succession) asserts civilian power as quickly and forcefully as possible, dissuading Adama from carrying out a clearly suicidal counter-offensive against the Cylons. Over the course of the first season, Adama and Roslin come to an unstable set of compromises regarding their shared authority. The end of the season and the first half of the second season is about the shattering of those compromises and the assertion of legitimate authority by both sides.
Moreover, both the military and the civilian authority are internally plausible. One of my favorite episodes of Star Trek: TNG is “Chain of Command” which, incidentally, was also written by Ron Moore. Picard is captured in this episode, leaving the Enterprise crew to the tender mercies of another Starfleet Captain, one who has the audacity to expect them to actually behave like officers. The Enterprise crew does not react well. Galactica, on the other hand, feels like a military ship. Even the instances of lax control make sense; Galactica is an aging vessel on the verge of retirement, and discipline has clearly suffered. Nevertheless, a chain of command exists, and most everyone understands his or her place and acts accordingly. In “Fragged”, episode 2-3, a classic conflict between a senior NCO and an inexperienced junior officer develops, leading to a bad situation. Also, the sexual fraternization between crewmates, a hallmark of any television program focusing on the military, ends up producing truly disastrous results for Galactica.
The civilian political side is also taken seriously. The officers of Galactica (and the viewers) are not inclined to think of the politicians as professionals that can be relied upon, but rather as problems that need to be managed. President Roslin and her lieutenants, however, demonstrate deft touch in an extreme situation. The decision of the military to seize some civilian functions in the second season proves disastrous. After a particularly bad press conference, Commander Adama remarks “Remind me not to do that again,” to which Colonel Tigh replies “It always looked easy enough when Roslin did it.”
The first BSG was about the Cold War, and the model for the attack was akin to a Pearl Harbor attack gone bad. The model for the second BSG is obviously September 11, although with a much more powerful, ruthless, and competent opponent. In this context, and given the ease with which such a project could go bad, it is extremely impressive that Moore and company have managed to maintain such a balanced and complex portrait of authority in crisis. Even in the worst possible scenario, the Schmittian extreme does not take hold; at no point is the need for Decision so extreme as to shred the norms and rules that hold society together.