The Cost of War, TOS: S1E23 “A Taste of Armageddon”

Technology has a tendency to sanitize our experience of the world… and distance us.  We celebrate machines taking the grunt of our back-breaking physical labor, or completing a hazardous task in place of a human, but when is it more prudent to have a closer relationship with one’s task?  Even the art of war has not escaped efficient modernization.  Throughout the twenty-first century, we have realized the ability to vaporize millions of people with a single detonation, and then we went on to suffer a tense and theoretical Cold War. Which war was better?  “The latter of course!” say the citizens of Eminiar VII.  They prefer to wage this tense, theoretical war against the planet Vendikar, and have done so for hundreds of years with no end in sight.

On their diplomatic mission to establish a relationship with the people of Eminiar VII, the Enterprise crew receive a full education on their futuristic concept of ‘war’.  Despite receiving a code 7-10 to abort their mission, the captain proceeds forward, seeing no sign of conflict or cause for concern.  Instead of a war-torn dystopia, Kirk and his away team beam down to an idyllic urban paradise.  Confused, the crew soon learns that the Eminians have not been fighting their war in the traditional sense.  Instead, they wage a theoretical battle, much like our Cold War, but with very real consequences.

When a target is successfully ‘hit’ by an enemy attack, any people in the area will be declared dead, and obligated to report for incineration.  The death toll of their war is real, but by conducting it in this fashion, the Eminians preserve their infrastructure…all the things that a real war would have destroyed.

Upon first glance, this seems like an elegant solution.  All culture, buildings, artwork, etc. would be preserved, and only people are lost.  The Eminian culture is worth preserving, but they were paying a high cost.  If their existence were in such a tenuous state, would the people be interested in creating artwork, or giving something to society, as a way to extend their fragile lives?  Would they strive to give meaning to such a precarious existence, or would they just want to eat drink and be merry?  What would be the point of contributing to a culture that puts so little value on their lives?

In another sense, the war was not fair to the people caught in the middle of it.  It is true that even in the best of times, we never know when the next tragic accident or fatal disease may take our lives, but at least we have some control over our immediate circumstances.  If people felt they were in danger, they might flee the city or try to hide.  Theoretical targeting never gives them an opportunity to sense danger.  This is highlighted by the fact that the Enterprise crew could be forgiven for not understanding that Eminiar VII was at war.  There was no sign of conflict to be detected, and they didn’t have the opportunity to raise their shields or defend themselves.

Unfortunately, the Enterprise was also declared a ‘casualty of war’.  Kirk and his crew are now forced to engage in this strange battle, or risk starting a real one.  Of course the noble captain would not stand for such treatment, and instead destroys the Eminian computer system, forcing them to engage in a real war.  Kirk may have risked millions of lives, as well as the destruction of art and infrastructure, but his actions were also the first step forward in saving the Eminian people from themselves.  With the computer destroyed, Eminiar VII is forced to recognize the real cost of their war.  Protect the people or forfeit the possessions they value so much.  The Captain’s final quote says it all: ‘You’ve made [war] so neat and painless you have no reason to stop it’.  The real horrors of war ‘make it a thing to be avoided’.

The people of this strange planet turned over their agency to computers, but for what?  Do their lives really mean so little to them that they would sacrifice themselves for inanimate objects?  It may be that a single person seems insignificant compared to the value of a culture and all its accomplishments, but a real person stands behind every achievement.  The cost of this war was also the cost of eliminating a talented individual before they were able to contribute all that they could.  By only preserving the material possessions, and not people, Eminiar VII also loses its culture.  A culture is not just the objects people create, it’s also the stories they tell, and the values they hold.  Our technology continues to challenge the value of life every day, but any culture that cannot recognize the rights of the individual is not worth sustaining.  Even a theoretical war that preserves the creation by sacrificing the creator will still incur a cost.

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