"I would listen to the generals…"As promised with lines like these, spoken by then-candidate Donald Trump when questioned on Middle Eastern policy and ISIS in early 2016, the current administration has emulated the sort of aggressive foreign policy typical of Republican presidencies. Like both Bushes, and Reagan before them, Trump has ratcheted up military intervention in the Middle East. In doing so, he has often ignored the tradition of civilian control over the military. This is as evident in our adventures abroad as it is in our domestic surveillance state. To find a more thoughtful, balanced model of governance, you could look to Scandinavia, Germany, or the television show Battlestar Galactica.
Ron D. Moore's beloved 2004 science fiction series (inspired by the original 1978 version) pits a beleaguered fleet of human refugees from the planet Caprica against Cylons, a race of sophisticated robots that look and sound human. Battlestar Galactica is a forceful allegory about the ills of the United States government. When Moore created the series, he was aiming at George W. Bush, but Battlestar's themes are equally resonant under Trump. The conflict between the civilian government led by President Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell) and the military, commanded by William "Bill" Adama (Edward James Olmos), is just as important in the series as that between humans and Cylons.In Moore's series bible, he centers this conflict as one that exists between military defense and civilian democracy. He sets the stage for what will become a struggle between the hawkish interests of the armed forces and democratic considerations of the armed forces. Of Adama, Moore writes:"[Adama] is both a military officer and … a fierce advocate for the liberties and freedoms on which the Colonies were founded."Of Roslin, Moore writes:"Uncomfortable with pressing the flesh and asking for support, she never considered a run for office … She listens extremely well, takes her time making decisions, and understands what makes people tick on a gut level."Throughout the series, these worthy leaders engage in a complicated diplomatic dance, acting as persistent checks on each other as the Capricans rebuild their civilization. When one of them oversteps in the name of protecting the people, the other is there to advocate for society's bedrock principles. As they jockey for power, Adama's son Lee (Jamie Barber) is caught in the middle—as is the audience—trying to determine which of them is just.
The season one episode "Bastille Day" explores this tension in earnest. Adama and Roslin decide to use prisoners on a dangerous mission, only to have the prisoners launch a jailbreak and take hostages. The rest of the episode explores whether the Galactica team should use military or diplomatic force to resolve the situation. Lee, moved by Roslin's dedication to civil liberties, resolves the stand-off through diplomacy.Pressure from the Cylons grows throughout the season, as does the strain between the government and the military. In season one, the fleet endures a Cylon suicide bombing. The military uses torture against Cylons. Civilian ships are used as bait for the Cylons. Roslin makes a play to expand the civilian government.In the season finale, "Kobol's Last Gleaming," Adama and Roslin's relationship finally hits a breaking point when they pursue different plans for the fleet without consulting each other. After she undermines him, Adama confronts Roslin, and she responds, "My responsibility as president is to protect the fleet and its future."Adama orders a military coup against Roslin. Lee cautions his father: "My instincts tell me that we cannot sacrifice our democracy because the president makes a bad decision." Adama goes ahead with the coup, and we leave season one with Roslin under arrest.
Season two finds Roslin in jail, Adama recuperating from an assassination attempt, and the government in shambles. After several authoritarian military officers try and fail to fill the leadership void, Roslin and Adama make amends and retake power just in time to face their greatest political challenge. As promised, the fleet conducts presidential elections.
Roslin stands against Gaius Baltar (James Callis), a charismatic, Trump-like candidate who promises the fleet a safe home on a planet dubbed "New Caprica." Not only is the planet semi-habitable at best, but landing there would leave them sitting ducks for the Cylons. Roslin flirts with rigging the election against Baltar for the sake of civilization, but Adama talks her down. He tells her, "You try to steal this election, you'll die inside…You'd have to live with it."The American tendency is to cede power to the executive and the military during hard times. Critiques of military force during the Iraq War were met with bumper stickers and shirts with phrases like, "If you can't stand behind our troops, feel free to stand in front of them." Trump's response to America's isolationist fears has been to expand our wars abroad and crack down on leakers and journalists at home. Military and executive overreach are as American as apple pie.
The thesis of Battlestar's first two seasons, as expressed through Roslin and Adama's complicated relationship, is that a democracy under attack shouldn't succumb to fear and aggression, but double down on its values. For Moore, true leaders are capable of protecting society's freedom, not only regardless of circumstances, but especially when things get most dire.Roslin comes around to Adama's point of view, and the government transfers power peacefully to Baltar, bringing a fitting conclusion to their arc. The military acts as a moderating force, providing a check on government overreach, rather than using the armed forces as a "wag the dog" distraction or as an authoritarian crutch. Whether you look at the perpetually expanding war in the Middle East, America's vast domestic surveillance network, or Trump's ongoing threats against North Korea, it is hard to view our military as a moderating force.This ultimate reversal of positions, Roslin giving in to authoritarian impulses and Adama forced to defend civil liberties, was part of Moore's plan all along. In the show bible, Moore wrote:"One would expect the story of Adama and Laura to be the classic hawk vs. dove tale as they struggle to reconstitute an entire civilization with only 50,000 refugees while it becomes more and more apparent that there are also Cylon terrorists among them. However, we will be subverting these expectations by playing Laura as the increasingly hawkish leader and Adama as the defender of personal freedoms."In desperate times, the generals have to listen to the people.Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.