Naivete or Pragmatism?, or Why Starfleet is the Ideal Science Fiction Navy

Star Wars or Star Trek. It’s the age old geek question. One cannot wander through online science-fiction forums without encountering camps of these fans engaged in debate about comparison of the two universes. Can a Jedi defeat a Borg drone? Would the Enterprise defeat a Star Destroyer? Is the Federation a better model of a state than the Galactic Republic? Unfortunately, I have answers to none of those questions (although my guesses would be yes, which one, but probably no, and see the upcoming second half of this post). I am however not here today to discuss any of those minutiae. I am here with a proposition: Starfleet, the arm of the United Federation of Planets, is the ultimate science-fiction Navy, the penultimate defense force. I am not saying Starfleet officers are the best soldiers, or that Starfleet ships are more powerful than their equivalents elsewhere. I am saying something pure and simple: Starfleet is the most effective military in science fiction in defending its government.

First though, let me clear the air on an age-old comparison. It is often said that Star Trek is not as gritty or as violent as Star Wars, that the former is a utopia and the latter is real. I will admit that I myself have often let that claim slip through my lips. Frankly it is both untrue and an oversimplification. Each universe has its own qualities. With the death of the Star Wars Expanded Universe, frankly the amount of material now available for Star Wars is miniscule compared to Star Trek, and comparing these universes is very difficult, at best. I will however point out the origins of this myth. The Federation is portrayed as a near utopia. There are no perceived social ills and no serious problems of discrimination in the Federation. It is a well-functioning democracy and meritocracy, the latter trait shared by Starfleet. This is a stark contrast with much of the Star Wars universe, which flits between high society on Coruscant to the gang-ridden and impoverished locales like Tatooine to the middle of enormous wars, such as the Clone Wars and the Galactic Civil War.

However, the universe of Star Trek is just as violent and hostile a place as the universe of Star Wars. Political intrigues and fighting abound within the major powers of the Alpha and Beta Quadrants. Starfleet has fought wars with the Klingon Empire, the Romulan Star Empire, the Cardassian Union, the Dominion, the Tholian Assembly, the Breen Confederacy, the terrorist/rebel Maquis, the pure terrorist True Way, the ongoing war with the Borg Collective, and other conflicts too numerous to name. The Star Trek universe is a violent place. And Starfleet more often than not finds its forces on the front-lines of many of these conflicts.

Ok, so Starfleet aren’t the pacifists everyone paints them as. Now what? Why are they so effective? Three reasons. One, Starfleet is pragmatic. Two, Starfleet is as pacifist as is possible to be for sane persons in a violent place. Three, Starfleet isn’t afraid to go to war. All three of these factors are tied together here, so please bear with me through this.

Let’s start with Starfleet’s pragmatism. Starfleet is in fact written into the Federation Constitution as the force charged with the defense of the Federation, and continued exploration of the galaxy. Starfleet essentially only answers to the President of the Federation and the Federation Council. Starfleet’s dual mandate is thus: to advance Federation knowledge of the galaxy at large, the advance of Federation science and technology, the practice of diplomacy on behalf on the Federation, and the defense of the Federation at large from hostile threats. Starfleet is not considered a military, but it is still a defense force, and comports itself as if it were one, in order to help maintain discipline among its disparate forces. It is the latter two concepts, that Starfleet is responsible for the Federation’s diplomacy, and the defense of the Federation that interest us here today.

Have any of you ever heard of the Ship of the Line Doctrine? No? Well no surprise there really. Officially it is the Starfleet policy that dictates all Starfleet ships, especially ships for long-range or independent missions, go significantly armed to defend themselves. Every ship must be able to stand in the line of battle (an 18th and 19th century naval concept) as a ship able to fight. Why is this pragmatic? Isn’t the Federation a stable power? Isn’t Starfleet able to defend its worlds and its science missions without giving all its explorers guns? Well yes and no. Starfleet’s mandate, as we discussed above, has always included exploration and investigation, meaning Starfleet ships are often operating independent of Starfleet Command and other Starfleet assets. Further, ships on exploratory missions often find themselves far beyond the normal borders of the Federation, and thus even farther from Starfleet assistance. To borrow a phrase from an old Star Trek novel, no Starfleet captain was ever really sure what was on the other side of the next star. Without weapons to defend themselves Starfleet ships have no way to either preserve themselves or assets critical to the Federation, such as that Starfleet ship. In short, they cannot defend the Federation, the other half of the Starfleet mandate. Starfleet cannot know when its ships will be called upon to fight, either in defense of themselves or the defense of others. It is only sensible and pragmatic that Starfleet ships all go armed and all ship crews be trained, to the appropriate level in starship-to-starship combat.

Also, remember Starfleet’s origins, specifically the United Earth Fleet. For those of you unaware of Star Trek history, the Federation was founded about 115 years before the original series, or a century before the new movies in their timeline, by Earth, Vulcan, Andoria, and Tellar. Starfleet’s origin is in the combined units of the Andorian Imperial Guard, Vulcan, Tellarite and Alpha Centauri military forces, and United Earth Starfleet. The United Earth Starfleet, also known as the United Earth Space Probe Agency, was formed in the process of humanity’s coming together after World War III. Little is known about the exact circumstances of the Third World War, other than this: humanity nearly drove itself extinct during the wars, with over 500 million dead at different points in the 80 years of off-and-on conflicts from the Eugenics Wars to the First Contact with the Vulcans by Zefram Cochrane in 2063. That is the history of humanity. The Federation when formed took elements from all of its new member worlds. The Prime Directive is a Vulcan concept. Much of Starfleet’s founding force was human, still reeling from the self-inflicted wounds on their planet from purely avoidable war. Thus Starfleet adopted the pacifism so often attributed to it. Starfleet, through its human founders, and the near mutual annihilation of the members after interference from a Romulan drone starship, realized deeply, fundamentally, the horrors of war, and thusly created a culture opposed to the use of unnecessary violence wherever possible.

Now we recently defined Starfleet as pragmatic. Starfleet learned the horrors of war. Starfleet however learned something else, that war is sometimes a necessary evil. Throughout its sojourns through the stars, Starfleet vessels, captains and crews have been confronted with occasions where violence is not only necessary, but an absolute requirement, more often than not in the pursuit of preventing more violence. For example, in 2267 USS Enterprise was forced with her sister ship USS Constitution to engage and destroy the rogue Doomsday Machine, a gigantic, near-invulnerable superweapon threatening Federation worlds with annihilation. In 2268 Enterprise was also forced to destroy the unique space amoeba, which had already destroyed one inhabited world and a Starfleet ship sent to investigate. In 2266 Enterprise was forced to confront a Romulan attack ship, which, upon destroying three Federation outposts along the Neutral Zone from the previous war, engages Enterprise in a game of wits and strategy. In the end, the Enterprise defeats the warbird, under the advice of Spock, who explained to show weakness to the Romulans, i.e. not engage and destroy the ship, would be an unacceptable show of weakness, giving the Romulans an excuse to invade the Federation and spark a full war. Kirk, in his ongoing adventures with Khan Noonien Singh, was never under the false impression that Khan would hesitate to use force to dispose of him if necessary, and that he must be prepared to use force in return. In his second encounter with Khan, instead of marooning him as he did the first time, Kirk was prepared to destroy him rather than let him use the Genesis device to destroy inhabited planets. Kirk was not forced to such action, as Khan destroyed himself with the Genesis device.

We have discussed much of Starfleet’s defense force actions. Let us consider another facet of Starfleet, its diplomatic corps. I previously asserted that Starfleet was the most effective of science fiction’s defense forces. I urge you to consider this, why should defense force be limited to the military actions in wartime? Defense forces exist to preserve their governments. War is certain of little but destruction and death, or to put it another way, those who live by the sword die by the sword. Consider this then, why should Starfleet’s diplomatic overtures not be considered here? On quite a number of occasions, Starfleet has offered overtures of peace, even when to do so was not to do so from the greatest position of strength, but to end the fighting so that more lives might be spared.

Starfleet has a long list of such instances, in both the original and the new universe. In 2293 Starfleet negotiated an alliance with the Klingons, despite a conspiracy bent on continuing the wars. After the Starfleet sacrifice of USS Enterprise-C at the Battle of Naredra III, the Federation signed a lasting peace and alliance with the Klingon Empire, ending those conflicts at long last. Starfleet worked with the Romulans in 2379 to defeat the rogue dreadnought Scimitar, a ship which posed imminent threat to both governments, despite long-standing animosity. In the alternate timeline, after defeating Nero and the Narada, Kirk offered to beam the survivors of the starship aboard the Enterprise, and even attempt to save the ship; Kirk Prime made the same offer after his own dance with a Romulan aggressor. When confronted by the First Federation flagship Fesarius and upon appearing to defeat the subship sent to try to destroy the Enterprise, Kirk elects rather to return and attempt to aid the ship and its crew, rather than leave them to their apparent fate. In the alternate universe, Kirk again negotiates, this time with Klingon patrols, while in pursuit of Khan on Qo’nos (by the way, that’s the original spelling of the Klingon homeworld/capital.) Yet more examples abound throughout the Star Trek lore, such as the Vulcan offer via Spock, a former Starfleet officer, to attempt to rescue Romulus from the Hobus supernova, events which ultimately led to the alternate timeline. I will leave with one final one from Deep Space 9. At the end of the Dominion War, a war I might add precipitated by the Dominion, Starfleet elects to allow the Founders, the Dominion’s leaders, to be cured of a virus invented to kill them, rather than allow the virus to run its course. In short, Starfleet, culturally aware of the horrors of war and death, is not afraid to talk and it is not afraid of peace.

That does however bring us to one last point: Starfleet is not afraid to go to war. We’ve established their pragmatism, Starfleet’s history with the horrors of war, and Starfleet’s ongoing overtures for peace, with everybody. Now we have one last point. Starfleet is not afraid to go to war when war is justified. We’ve already established Starfleet will not hesitate to fire its weapons when necessary, but consider that many of those were rather small scale actions fought single ship to single ship. I am now considering Starfleet as a whole, against the enemies of the Federation. Consider the Borg, against which Starfleet assembled an armada at Wolf 359 with the express purpose of destroying the first encountered Borg cube, no quarter given. In the wake of that attack, Starfleet rushed into production the Defiant, Prometheus and Akira class starships, three vessels expressly designed for war and the first of that kind Starfleet had built in generations. Starfleet is not afraid to fight, as a force willing to build such pure warships clearly shows. After the illegal capture of Captain Sisko and Quark, a non-Starfleet civilian, by the Dominion, Starfleet sent the USS Odyssey and three runabouts to rescue them. The four ship task force fought the Dominion for the first time in the rescue, losing the Odyssey with all hands. Starfleet is a force for peace, but that does not mean that they do not understand how sometimes peace means a terrible war must be fought first. Starfleet later engaged the Dominion invasion of the Alpha Quadrant, at great cost. At the Second Battle of Chin’toka, 99.6% of the defending ships and crews were lost, nearly 100 ships. Instead of capitulating to the terror and tyranny of the Dominion, Starfleet, the Klingon Defense Force, and the Romulans fought on, eventually winning the war three months later. During the Borg invasions of 2381, Starfleet mustered every available ship, and gave orders to engage Borg on sight and without warning.

In short, Starfleet built for itself a culture of valor and honor, fighting for the lives and freedoms of those it protects. This is a force multiplier beyond measure, as indicated in the myriad examples above. Starfleet wars not because it wants to, not because it desires something, but because it has to. Starfleet always makes its efforts with one ideal in mind, the defense of the Federation. Not its expansion, not the defeat of its foes, but the ongoing good of the Federation and the galaxy at large wherever possible. Starfleet, through and through, demonstrate themselves to the knights of science fiction (if one buys into the romanticized view of medieval knights, although it is a convenient stereotype.)

There is one last example I would have of that valor which allows Starfleet such a capable force. The Battle of Narendra III is such an example of the willingness for valor, a willingness to fight when the chips are down, a willingness to fight when the greater good would be served, no matter the cost. USS Enterprise-C encountered in 2344 a distress call, from a Klingon colony on Narendra III. The Klingon Empire and the Federation were at this point still quite hostile, although not technically opposed or at war. The Enterprise‘s action? Warp to Narendra III at maximum speed anyway and engage the four Romulan warbirds bombarding the Klingon colony. The Federation flagship was shortly thereafter badly damaged by the superior power of the Romulan ships, and forced into a temporal anomaly, pushing it into an encounter with the then-future Enterprise-D. In yet another act of bravery, the Enterprise-C returned to her time, with volunteers from Enterprise-C to continue the battle, despite the knowledge the only possible outcome was the complete destruction of the Enterprise. Consider that for a moment. Consider the scale of that valor, of that ability to fight for the good. Consider, in the scheme of Starfleet, that such bravery in battle was and is in fact not unusual. Consider the combat power of Starfleet, its strategic realism, and its diplomatic prowess. Consider all of these, is Starfleet not the finest, most refined, single greatest force for good ever imagined by science fiction?

If the answer to that last question was no, feel free to put it in the comments with your own contender. I would love to hear it, as well as any other thoughts. Thanks as always for reading. – GP

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