The Civilized Man and Dirty War

“By the Pale Moonlight” is one of my favorite Star Trek episodes ever, really. I can tell you why in one sentence: “Pacifism is great, as long as the people trying to kill you are also pacifists.” The ideals of the Federation are portrayed as wonderful and fantastic, but the Dominion held to none of them. I understand some people think “I’d rather lose than violate my principles and win.” Really? When loss means you die, your family dies, and your country is put under the heel of tyrants? I understand that some people think that way; I do not understand why they think that.

And no, stooping to their level doesn’t make Sisko the same monster as the Dominion. Outside of war, Sisko sought peace. The Dominion sought only the next war. The Dominion was an empire but not civilized. You see, civilization regards those outside its borders as real people and seeks to live in peace with them. The Dominion does not. They see anyone outside the Dominion as a threat, and with all the zeal they can muster, seek to put that threat under the boot heel of tyranny. Peace, to them, means not that their flag flies highest, but that no other flag flies at all. They have no rules of warfare. In their ruthlessness, assassinations, and deceptions they showed that the ends of a subjugated Alpha Quadrant justified any means needed to get there. Solids aren’t true sapient creatures. They’re a threat to Changlings. As soon as the Cardassian military turned against them, the Dominion started killing Cardassian civilians-an entire city was razed from a distance to teach a lesson. And then the order came to kill all Cardassians. Can you, with a straight face, tell me that the Founders would not have turned on the Romulans as soon as they showed the slightest threat to the Dominion? The first hint of rebellion, which would undoubtedly come if I know my Romulans, meant millions of noncombatants killed.

Sisko and the Alpha Alliance fought to keep civilization. Centuries of tension and fueds were put aside against this greater threat. The old wisdom of being civilized to your enemy in this war because he might be your ally in the next was shown to be true. Those allied civilizations fought back because no other solution brought true peace, and the Romulans finally saw what the Klingons and Federation had known all along. It took lies and murder for them to see it, but some in the Romulan Senate must have already suspected the Dominion would betray them eventually. Look how quickly they took the fight to them! I’ve always imagined that Sisko and Garek were right and the Dominion was preparing to attack on the Romulan front as soon as the alliance was neutered.

Sisko knew that slavery was not freedom. He knew that a dirty war was better than a false peace. And he knew that without the Romulans, the alliance would fail. He did Section 31’s work for them. The Federation needs men like Bashir who can sleep at night. It only gets there with men like Sloan and Sisko who will get their hands dirty when needed. As Sisko said, his conscience was a small price to pay for victory over the ruthless Dominion. It didn’t bring immediate victory, but without the Romulans, the war was lost.

(I’ve often thought that the only thing that would have made the final push to Cardassia better would have been a fleet of Ferengi Maruaders arriving. Sisko would say, “Why are you here?” The Ferengi fleet commander would reply, “There is no profit in being slaves.” Sisko would give a feral smile and tell them to take their place with Beta Squadron.)

Sisko knew that winning by means of deception and murder was better than losing his freedom and life. This wasn’t cheating. Cheating in sports is frowned upon because it’s just a game. It doesn’t end someone’s life to lose. The Dominion War wasn’t a game where the two teams would play again later in the season after more practice. It was a war where one side wanted to eliminate the other completely. Sportsmanship applies only in sporting competitions, not warfare. Sisko gave the Dominion every chance to live in peace with them on both sides of the wormhole. Remember, it was the Founders who destroyed New Bajor first. The Founders made it clear they would stop at nothing until all were under the jackboots of the Jem Hadar. Sisko did not seek war, but when war found him, he picked up his phaser and loaded the torpedoes.

Sisko offered peace to the Founders. When it was rejected and the Founders showed they were barbarians, he fought, as any should against barbarians, with any and all weapons at his disposal, by any means fair or foul. He showed no mercy to the Founders because they offered him none. And he knew that if the Founders had asked for mercy it was only so they could lick their wounds and prepare for the next war. That’s why the Alliance pressed on into Cardassian space in those final episodes. Letting the Dominion rebuild their war machine was the worst thing they could have done.

It is a simple rule that Sisko fought by. When his foes were civilized, he fought as a civilized man with rules of conduct against his foe (such as during the short Klingon War). Once the Founders showed they were not civilized, Sisko considered uncivilized ways to win. When he saw it was necessary, he did the unthinkable.

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About frankluke

Professionally: pastor, programmer, writer. Personally: husband, father.
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One Response to The Civilized Man and Dirty War

  1. Paul Lee says:

    The Dominion War story arc in Deep Space Nine was truly amazing, and “By the Pale Moonlight” was certainly an intriguing episode. I was never a fan of the sanitized version of the Federation, and DSN did a great job in general at showing real ambiguities and compelling political and ideological themes. I share your wish for more Ferengi involvement—the show started to show them to be a more complicated people with a greater potential for nobleness than TNG portrayed them. In fact, I think I dreamed of more or less the same scene, imagining the Ferengi coming to fight because the Dominion is unprofitable or because they disturbed the “Great Material Continuum” or something.

    But I think I can understand why some people would rather die than violate their principles. I’m very aware that life is a vapor; my best efforts to seize life and to do real things leave me exhausted while I fall further behind. I’m incompetent and easily broken, and I find very little joy in life. I know that God created life to be good, but life is also broken. In its broken state, I find very little in life that I care enough about to fight for. On the other hand, meaning is incredibly important for me; I feel like I would die without a sense of meaning coming from my principles and deepest beliefs. I’m not willing to fight for an empty, nihilistic existence. If continuing to live meant forfeiting my sense of meaning, I might choose to die instead. I’m not saying that I actually want to die, but I do have the personality traits that allow me to empathize with the poetic desire for a meaningful death, like the Klingons in Star Trek.

    Ambiguity is real, and I can’t cast the first stone. There are some ideals that are worth fighting for, and when we fight for our ideals we end up trampling on common grace and denying parts of the ultimate truth that don’t work for us. We’re all too small and sinful to accept the full truth and to embrace joy while sacrificing ourselves. Sometimes I stay up all night worrying about God and the universe and stressing out over the nuances of my own conscience. It’s not about having a pure conscience. The “Federation” needs people who will violate their principles to fight for life, and also people who deny life to fight for principles.

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