Is it possible for societies to become desensitized to the very real, unforgiving and bloody results of seemingly endless war?
In Star Trek‘s 23rd episode, A Taste of Armageddon, we are given a glimpse of a culture who has done just that. The episode begins with the Enterprise transporting an ambassador to the planet Eminiar VII, in the hopes of setting up diplomatic relations between the Federation and the planet’s Emenian Union.
As Kirk and the Enterprise landing party arrive on the surface of the planet, it is revealed that the Emenians have been fighting a computer-simulated war with the neighboring planet, Vendikar. Per a treaty signed by the two peoples, citizens of either planet are required to submit to real executions inside of “disintegration booths” in order to meet the casualty counts from the simulated attacks. This method, it is explained, allows the two cultures the ability to preserve their societal structures, economies, and ecologies. Effectively, they’ve made their war clean and tidy.
As the plot moves forward, the Enterprise suffers an “attack” from one of the simulated bombings by entering into the space between the two warring planets. Thus the Emenians attempt to force the entirety of the crew to report to their “disintegration booths.”
It’s quite evident that this episode was meant to serve as an anti-war commentary, specifically reflecting the Vietnam War. When this episode aired in 1967, the Vietnam war was nearing its height and had been raging for nearly 15 years with virtually no end in sight. A Taste of Armageddon attempted to show the effects of a society that has grown complacent with a war which it is not actively seeking to end.
While this episode aptly reflects the era in which it debuted, I would argue that the message is almost more poignant when applied to the state of U.S. foreign affairs as we see them today. During the Vietnam War, while Americans frequently thought that our leaders had no interest in ending the war, the use of the draft made the tragic and devastating effects of war quite personal to countless families and people across the country who lost loved ones in the fighting. In addition to that, the era gave rise to a vocal and active anti-war and counter-culture movement.
Since the end of the draft in January 1973, those heartbreaking and personal effects of war have not been felt as widespread as they once were.
Undeniably, the families and people close to those who are currently serving overseas in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars today are indeed experiencing the struggles firsthand. However, recent data shows that there are roughly 1.46 million active American military personal, which means less than 1% of the U.S. population currently serves. With these numbers, it’s very possible that a given American citizen has either a small or virtually no personal connection to the current wars our country is waging overseas.
In doing initial research for this post, I wasn’t able to find that much on the general apathy of the American public to the costs of our current war. Most articles and/or research were specifically related to desensitization towards graphic imagery due to the rise in coverage from 24-hour news networks, violence depicted in television and film, and the video game industry. While that is also an interesting thought to consider, it wasn’t exactly what I was looking for.
As I dug a bit deeper, however, I stumbled upon remarks from political pundit, Rachel Maddow, during a press tour promoting her 2012 book, Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power. In a specific interview with David Gregory on Meet the Press, Maddow described the very concept which I want to address:
David Gregory: There’s a lot to this. As I was reading it I got out the black pen and underlined this particular section of the book that I’ll put on the screen. While America has been fighting two of its longest ever boots on the ground wars in decade following 9/11, the fighting them simultaneously, less than 1% of the adult U.S. population has been called upon to strap on those boots. Not since the peace time years between World War I and II according to a Pew Research study has a smaller share of Americans served in the armed forces. Half the American public says it’s not been marginally affected by ten years of constant war. Never in our long history been further from the ideal of that America would find it impossible to go to war without disrupting domestic civilian life. That carries a high cost.
Rachel Maddow: That has a moral consequence to the country. You can talk about the strategic costs, too. I think there’s an argument to be had. It’s not necessarily the argument of this book, if the public doesn’t feel it, we use more and more. I think that’s sort of the implicit case we found ourselves in. What we decided to do is give ourselves a giant trillion dollar tax cut. And right after we started a second simultaneous giant land war in Iraq, we gave ourselves another round of tax cuts. That is a symptom of something wrong. That is a symptom of a country that doesn’t feel it, that we’re at war. We feel like the military goes to war. The country doesn’t go to war. When the Iraq war ended, more than 4,000 lives lost, St. Louis threw a parade, New York decided not to. The overall feeling among the American population was, oh, was that still going on? We ought to be a country that goes to war.
Gregory: We talked about this off the air, what strikes me about this as a progressive and somebody who knows program obviously knows your views, your analysis and criticism is distinctly bipartisan.
Maddow: Yes. This is not a problem that emerged because one party did something wrong and one party had the right idea but they lost. This is something that emerged over multiple administrations with people not acting in a conspiratorial way. There isn’t a lot of George W. Bush in this book. There isn’t a lot of Barack Obama in this book. I think a lot of the changes that we went through happened post-Vietnam and leading up to 9/11. The Clinton administration bears responsibility. Certainly, the Reagan administration bears a lot of the responsibility the George H.W. bush administration as well. We went through the changes over time. Rational political actors, presidents trying to get around the political problems, they made rational decisions about how to get around them. We didn’t want to upset the public. We had a political constraint from the congress ,we figured out ways to go to war around the congress. All of those decisions have been decisions to make war easier, less upsetting.
I found this specific quote to be strikingly, albeit unfortunately, on point regarding our current wars: “The overall feeling among the American population was, oh, was that still going on?”
In A Taste of Armageddon, it is quickly understood that Kirk would never surrender his crew to willingly die via “disintegration booths” on Eminiar VII. Since escape was out of the question, the only option became (in true Star Trek form) to show the two warring sides the error of their ways and the true consequence of an endless war.
Kirk and Spock ultimately destroy the Emenian government’s means to continue their virtual war with Vendikar, leaving them with the options to either continue war with true carnage and destruction or find a way to make peace. The two societies realize that they both fear war as much as the other and eventually begin the process towards reconciliation.
The problem we’re presented with in the real world is that when we’re faced with a war that we cannot feel the ruinous effects of (or a ‘clean’ war with no visible damage as in A Taste of Armageddon), we aren’t as inclined to end it and work for peace. In American society today, we have become content with our apathy. Our recognition of the current ongoing wars consists of vague gestures such as slapping a “support our troops” ribbon magnet on the backs of our cars and moving on.
Tom Engelhardt wrote in the 2015 Mother Jones article, Why There is No Massive Antiwar Movement in America, about the differences in the American public’s attitude toward war during the 1960’s Vietnam War era and today’s Afghanistan, Iraq and even Syrian Wars (collectively, now approaching 15 years). Engelhardt argues that, in the years since Vietnam, the American people were “effectively demobilized, shorn of that sense of service to country, while war was privatized and the citizen soldier replaced by an “all-volunteer” force and a host of paid contractors working for warrior corporations.” As the aforementioned ribbon magnets represent, America’s national security state has convinced us to focus all of our attention on the troops. We have given into a kind of blind hero worship of our soldiers. And while their sacrifice(s) should undoubtedly be respected and honored, this worship mentality serves as a strategy to redirect our attention from the wars themselves and the political, economic and religious implications that go along with them.
In his article, Engelhardt compares not only the attitudes of the populace toward perpetual war, but also of our leaders as well. During the era of the Vietnam War, the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, J. William Fulbright, wrote a book entitled The Arrogance of Power. Today, simply implying that term could apply to the United States would be a veritable political death sentence. In our current climate, political leaders who attempt to point out the follies in our motivations for war or criticize our foreign policy are seen as radical at best or anti-American/lacking support for our troops at worst. The twisted irony appears to be that our contentedness for endless war is being manipulated into a kind of patriotic support for continuous, international assertions of power.
Ideally, our awakening to the true horrors of war will not take as long as it did in A Taste of Armageddon – and we never get to the point where we become continuous and willing cogs in the machine of war and security state like the Emenians as they line up to report to “disintegration booths.” I know that I do not have all of the answers to the root causes of all of our global conflicts, however I know that we have lost sight of the drive to at least persistently look for solutions. I hope that we can come to our senses, not only as a nation but as a planet, and realize that peace is the better, easier, and more prosperous path.