Saturday, October 01, 2005

Through A Glass, Darkly

Through A Glass, Darkly

Like many people, I really enjoyed the Battlestar Galactica summer "season finale." I'm not alone in arguing that this is the best show on television (and certainly one of two that I actually bother to watch, the other being Lost).

One of the reasons it is so good is its willingness to explore the complexity of issues, as well as the writing team's consistent ability to raise the stakes to the highest possible levels.

In this episode, the Galactica discovers the battlestar Pegasus, commanded by Admiral Cain (in one of the show's frequent nods to classic Sci-Fi, Cain is portrayed by cult fave Michelle Forbes).

The story works on several levels, but the most interesting is also its most controversial. The episode reveals that the ruthless Cain has authorized the gang rape of a Cylon prisoner as an "interrogation tactic." She then sends her interrogator over to the Galactica to do the same to the Cylon Sharon Valeri, who just saved the Galactica from a Cylon virus in the previous episode (and is with child).

The father of the child, pilot Helo, and her former lover, Chief Tirol, rush to her defense and end up killing the rapist before he can carry out his task. They are arrested, taken back to the Pegasus, and condemned to be executed by Admiral Cain.

This is the last straw for Commander Adama, who launches his fighters and bluntly tells his superior officer that he's coming for his men. The cliffhanger ends with the the two fighter wings about the clash.

The storyline is relatively simple; its brilliance lies in the density of resonances within the narrative, as well as the way in which it eludes easy characterization. The audience is meant to feel outrage at Cain's behavior. Yet at the same time, earlier in the series, Adama has allowed the torture of other (albeit male) Cylon prisoners. And remember, the same Cylon model that Cain has tortured is also the Cylon model who in the show's pilot miniseries A) engineered the death of 99.99% of the human race, and B) killed an innocent baby with her bare hands.

Cain's behavior is clearly wrong, but it sheds an unpleasant light on our heroes' earlier behavior (as well as our own in the real world...military tribunals and lack of due process are crimes regardless of whether they take place in our world or a fictional one).

Furthermore, the contrasting reactions of the crews of the two battlestars (the Pegasus crew approves and even seems to relish Cain's policy of rapine) illustrates the different sides of war. The same pressures can drive both the highest and lowest forms of behavior.

The great historian Stephen Ambrose once commented that in the spring of 1945, the most terrifying thing in the world was 12-man platoon of teenaged soldiers. If those teenagers were German, Russian, or Japanese, the platoon meant rape, killing, and wanton destruction.

In fact, this description isn't limited to World War 2. Throughout history, raping, looting, and pillaging, have been an integral part of war, especially after long sieges.

However, as Ambrose points out, this wasn't the case if the platoon was made up of Americans. Those soldiers meant, in Ambrose's memorable words, "Candy, C-rations, cigarettes, and freedom."

There will always be those who claim that the ends justify the means, that the bad guys deserve what they get, and that bad things happen during wartime. But that isn't the American way. Or at least it hasn't been.

I generally don't like to talk about anything that can be remotely construed as politics. To paraphrase Michael Jordan, both Democrats and Republicans buy shoes. But thinking about these issues really crystallized in my mind what I thought about the war in Iraq.

It's clear that the war there is costly, both in terms of dollars and lives. It seems quite likely that the US was led into the war by faulty or even fraudulent intelligence. Yet anyone who believes that Iraq was better off under Saddam Hussein's bloody regime needs their head examined. The U.S. military is doing its best to live up to Ambrose's words, and considering the circumstances, it is doing a pretty good job.

Where the U.S. is failing is in its policymakers' willingness to skirt or outright flout U.S. and international law when it comes to its treatment of prisoners. As Phil Zimbardo showed, it doesn't take much to take normal individual and turn them into brutal jailers. While some of the blame has to fall on the individual soldiers, the primary fault lies with the policymakers who decide from afar, like Cain, that our enemies don't deserve humane treatment, and that the ends justify the means.

Like all good science fiction, Battlestar Galactica holds up a mirror to our society. Sometimes, we don't like what we see.

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