As you all know, I’ve had a lot of down-time this summer. Not that I am complaining! On the contrary, it has given me a chance to plot various knitting projects, and to watch a great deal of Battlestar Galactica, known colloquially as “BSG.” I am now about midway through season 3, and am somewhat sad that only a season and a half of this excellent series remains!
I’m a dork, but I don’t usually go for science fiction. With the exception of a few forays (mostly cinematic: Star Wars, and Star Trek, when I was young) into the genre, I’ve remained firmly stuck in the supernatural past. I’ll take unicorns over robots any day.
But my preferences are not really what I’m here to talk about today (I know: surprising!). No, I want to discuss the latter half of the second season, and how it has impacted (albeit tardily) my view on the Gulf War II, and the American habit of occupying countries in general.
For those of you who aren’t BSG junkies, a quick rundown of the plot: Human beings live on 12 planets, known as the 12 colonies. They are an advanced society (sort of): they call everyone “sir” and have invented sentient machines called cylons. At first, the cylons are little besides slaves! Naturally, they rebel, and flee the galaxy. No one sees any sign of them for 40 yrs, whereupon they arrive en masse and nuke all the planets. The 50,000-odd survivors flee aboard their space ships, and the hunt is on!
Fast forward a bit: the fleet has been hanging out (literally) among the stars for a while, and the people are sick of it. So, when a couple of pilots inadvertently stumble upon a habitable planet, there is much celebration. A decision is made to try and settle, and the majority of colonists flock to “New Caprica.” A dusty settlement comprised of tents and rusty scrap metal springs up like a bed of springtime daisies. How charming! So you know it must be destroyed. Scarcely a year passes when THE CYLONS ARRIVE. But wait! They come in peace! They just want to befriend the humans and improve relations between the two races! And they will prove this by declaring martial law!
As the viewer, we are privy to both sides of the conflict. We see the cylons, wanting to reach out, but unsure of how to do so, except for resorting to further violence. This is a slippery slope, for as Eisenhower said, “When you resorted to force…you didn’t know where you were going….If you got deeper and deeper, there was just no limit except the limitations of force itself.” The cylons give a human quisling nominal power. He is in an impossible position, torn between fear for his life and loyalty to his people. Time and time again, fear overrides his misgivings, as the cylons force him to sign treaties, proclamations, and finally, death warrants. The cylons also start recruiting a human police force, hoping that the people will respond better to those who can understand them. Of course, both the president and the “police” are loathed by the general population, who view them as wretched traitors.
Meanwhile, a human resistance is brewing, kept alive by hope of rescue from the handful of ships that managed to escape the cylons. Its members know that they have no hope of defeating the cylons, who outnumber and outgun them, and can’t really die anyway, but they are more concerned w/ sending a powerful message, of letting the occupiers know that they are and will always be unwelcome invaders. Things change when Colonel Tigh is released from detention, where he had been held w/o charges and interrogated so harshly that he lost one of his eyes. His hatred for the cylons is as thorough as it is bitter, and he will stop at nothing to inflict harm upon them.
A graduation ceremony for the new human police force is coming up. One of the graduates is secretly a resistance member, and so at his compatriots’ (led by Tigh) behest, he straps a bomb beneath his jacket, and as one of the cylon leaders is shaking his hand, he whispers his dead wife’s name before pressing the detonator.
Now, you can imagine, this idea of suicide attacks hit pretty close to home. They are, in fact, on the news every day: American soldiers being killed in Iraq. I never could understand them. Yes, I was v. much against the war, and thought the Iraqis’ anger was totally justified, but suicide bombing? Really? How barbarous, how unacceptable, how utterly stupid! Didn’t they see how much they were just hurting themselves, esp. when they targeted public places, like markets?
Watching these episodes, I found myself firmly on the side of the humans. After all, the cylons had stripped the people of their basic rights; they raided tents at night and dragged screaming mothers from their children! They kept people in durance w/o reason under horrible conditions. THEY WERE JUST PLAIN BAD. And so, as the humans were struggling in the face of insurmountable odds, hoping for a rescue that may never happen, I heard myself rooting for them, Resist, resist, do w/e it takes. NEVER SURRENDER. Quite the little rabble-rouser, aren’t I?
Anyway, it didn’t take me too long to draw the striking parallel btwn. BSG and the real, live war that is going on in Iraq. Except, in the latter case, the Americans were not the noble fighters! We were the cylons!! And all of a sudden, I felt I had gained a new insight into the Iraqi p.o.v. I could feel the depth of the hatred they must have for us, paired w/ the overriding desire for us to just get the frak* out of their frakking country.
“Why don’t you just leave?” the puppet president asks the cylons. But they don’t want to. Leaving would be equivalent to losing face and admitting defeat. Until the end, they are baffled as to why the humans haven’t been grateful for the “mercy” they have been shown: after all, the cylons could have nuked them all over again w/o batting and eye. This is v. similar to what our army says: haven’t we given them new hospitals and power lines? Haven’t we brought order after ending the reign of a bloody dictator? Perhaps, they acknowledge, but Americans would not have had to rebuild if you hadn’t bombed our cities in the first place. And who asked you to bring order to our country? Did we try and overthrow your president, even though we might have liked to? No. But you come waving your guns, and you round up our sons and friends and husbands and fathers, and you put them in prison and you torture them, you monsters. Can you blame us if we fight you unto our dying breath?
Then there’s all this talk of training “Iraqi” troops so that they can “police” themselves. It should come as no surprise that those who consent to aid the enemy should become enemies themselves, part of the “other,” and legitimate targets to those who have remained loyal.
As I said, I was always against the war, but seeing it thus portrayed really changed my view about it. Before, I was indignant over the affront to my moral sensibilities; now, I am truly sympathetic to the plight of the Iraqi people. And I am sad for all of us, the well-intentioned American soldiers who are just following orders, the Iraqis striving for some measure of safety and security, and even for those who are so consumed w/ righteous anger that they will die for it.
The thing is, before watching this, I haven’t even realized my stance on some of these issues. You can imagine how jarring it was to agree w/ Colonel Tigh when he said that they should do anything and everything w/i their power to disrupt the occupation. After all, if our own beloved United States were to be taken over, don’t we all hope in our heart of hearts that we would remain loyal to our country, even to the point of sacrificing our lives for its cause?
It’s a thorny issue, and at its heart is the question: is there ever a just war? And if so, when? Obviously entire books could be (and have been) written, attempting to answer it. Beyond that, I think this experience has also underlined the importance of fiction to our everyday lives. Fiction at it best gives us an accurate reflection of a reality that we may or may not be able to experience. B/c we know its characters aren’t real, we have no qualms about projecting ourselves onto them; thus we feel what they feel, know that they know. Fiction makes us privy to experiences that would otherwise be unimaginable, and allows us to cultivate an empathy we could not otherwise have.
I am confident that BSG-as-a-metaphor-for-Iraq has been commented on before (I am a few yrs late to the game, after all), but I deliberately eschewed looking for any source material, b/c I wanted to offer my own thoughts and opinions on the subject, w/o fear of borrowing from someone who said it better.
Reality and fiction have since parted ways: we are pulling out of Iraq (what’s left of it); in BSG, the humans are daringly rescued by the rest of the fleet. Still, I have no doubt that the lesson will continue to shape my future views.
*Do you know, I catch myself saying this out loud occasionally?