Unintentional Lessons from TV

Put on your nerd hats, boys and girls.

Recently we discussed why a navy has to do more than just be able to fight wars – it has to be able to keep the peace, too. As an alternate means of making the point, let’s indulge in the Internet’s favorite habit of taking pop culture way too seriously and use TV shows to demonstrate the difference. Specifically, that is, Star Trek.

The Star Trek franchise is fifty years old in 2016 – meaning one of America’s favorite narratives of the future is, in fact, older than all of its current stars. I’m sure there’s a cultural statement to be made somewhere, but never mind (Ross Douthat already made it, albeit with a different series). I want to focus on two of its shows that, between them, ran from 1987 to 1999 – Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (DS9). These two shows ably demonstrate the different roles of a naval organization, in this case Starfleet, the military arm of the United Federation of Planets.

TNG has many great episodes (I remember our sixth grade teacher showing us this one in class), but thematically it is actually kind of boring. Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the 24th century was intensely utopian, and there is essentially no conflict among the main characters, especially in the first couple seasons. The “alien of the week” appears, causes a problem, our fearless crew learns it’s all a misunderstanding, and they go about their merry way, and we never see the alien again (and then the holodeck breaks down, just to shake things up). It’s the sort of TV where you can watch it one week, take a six-month vacation to the Gobi Desert, and then watch another episode without really having missed anything. Characters come and go (especially if they’re named Crusher), but there’s no story to keep up with.

So if there’s no story, what is the show about?

In a word, presence.

A moment of high drama, probably.

A moment of high drama, probably.

Just because the Federation is an interstellar utopia doesn’t mean there are no problems. Different worlds still have different interests, and external forces still wish to assimilate the Federation’s territory. The apparently aimless travels of the Enterprise are, in fact, designed to address these contingencies. If we take a step back into the real world, the voyages of the Starship Enterprise overlap very much with the official missions of the U.S. Navy in the 2015 Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower (see pg. 2), which is itself derived from the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance:

  • Defend the Homeland
  • Deter Conflict
  • Protect Maritime Commons
  • Strengthen Partnerships
  • Respond to Crises
  • Defeat Aggression
  • Provide Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief (HA/DR)

Arguably, Gene Roddenberry’s Enterprise performs all of these missions just as its real-world counterparts did. And all of these (even “Defeat Aggression” to a certain degree) can be done by a lone ship going about its business outside of a major war. Somewhere in the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, each of these missions is being done right now. And Starfleet did them all at some point too:

  • Defend the Homeland (Borg invasion)
  • Deter Conflict (calming excitable Klingons)
  • Protect Maritime Interstellar Commons (in this case, ensuring safe navigation)
  • Strengthen Partnerships (with colonists, aliens, or whomever)
  • Respond to Crises (like when aliens take a dislike to human colonists)
  • Defeat Aggression (those pesky Romulans)
  • Provide Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief (HA/DR) (often a side plot leading to other things)

Through these activities, no major wars occurred during TNG’s run – even the very destructive Borg invasion was a one-shot deal with no follow up (the Collective was a poor operational planner). The Enterprise and the rest of Starfleet managed to keep a lid on things by reminding member worlds that the Federation had their backs, and deterring outsiders from anything silly. This maintained the Federation as a legitimate authority for its varied members, and as a potentially prickly opponent for would-be aggressors. Thus, the chances of internal insurrection or external invasion were minimized.

But for the crew of Deep Space Nine, this fragile order breaks down. The darkest, but arguably best-told, of the Star Trek series follows the crew of a space station on the Federation frontier, overseeing a world rebuilding after a brutal occupation by a foreign power. Dramatically, DS9 is an oft-overlooked pioneer in the long-form narrative storytelling now common on television.[i] There were stand-alone episodes, more often in the first couple of years, but by the third of its seven seasons, the show settles more or less on a single storyline: the Federation’s increasingly hostile relationship with the newly-discovered Dominion. That benign six-month break for a TNG viewer will really mess with a DS9 fan.

Another day at the office.

Another day at the office.

The Dominion is different from the Federation’s other neighbors (most famously, the Klingons) because Starfleet presence and peaceful precedent is not a factor for them. In the show’s pilot episode, the new space station crew discovers they are positioned near the mouth of a wormhole, a gateway to some faraway corner of the galaxy. It is through this wormhole that contact with the Dominion is made. It’s as if Europeans only discovered the Pacific by digging the Panama Canal – and they find Hirohito’s Japan waiting for them. They share no border and cannot reach each other, nor even communicate, through any other route. The Dominion and Federation have no history with one another, and thus the Federation has no opportunity to set peaceful precedents through a naval presence. And since they don’t share a border or a mutually-accessible common area, the Federation can’t even conduct shows of force to deter the Dominion, since they would have no way to be seen except by actually pushing a large fleet through the wormhole, which could itself be considered an act of war.

So presence is a bust. Power projection it is!

The middle seasons of the show are a slow burn of escalating hostilities and shifting alliances, but impending conflict is never in doubt. The final two seasons depict a sustained total war, something that is otherwise never seen onscreen in the Star Trek canon. Viewers see fleet-on-fleet engagements, infantry battles, POW camps, and a host of leadership decisions the tea-drinking Captain Picard would be appalled at. It should not be too much of a spoiler to say the Federation wins in the end, but only by taking punishing casualties, building a massive battle fleet, and managing its allies. DS9 showed that victory isn’t easy, but when an opponent can’t be deterred, it becomes the only available option.

One series made for way better TV, but as a model for international relations, I’ll take the boring one any day.

Both shows are available on Netflix.



[i] For “Babylon 5” fans: Yes, I acknowledge it existed at the same time as Deep Space Nine, and was another long-form show set on a  strategic space station. But I have never seen it, so I’m not going to write about it.





Presence and Postwar Peace

So the navy exists to blow stuff up, right? To clear the seas of our dastardly enemies and smite them with a righteous baptism of fire? To dominate and decimate those who would oppose us?

Well, no. That’s a part of it – an important part! – but it doesn’t really get to the core of what navies historically spend their time doing. The U.S. Navy has gotten by without fighting a major sea battle since 1945, and yet for some reason it has managed to hold onto generous[i] funding through these relatively peaceful decades. Why keep around a huge and expensive navy when there is no one for it to fight?

What people often miss is that that last 70+ years have been relatively peaceful because a global maritime power maintained a worldwide navy.

Sure, the postwar U.S. Navy wasn’t fighting any epic battles for sea control, but it provided a very valuable service in simply reminding people that it existed. It seems somewhat circular (“I deploy, therefore I am”), but is really quite critical. This forward presence serves two critical purposes, one geared toward averting all-out global war, and another for ensuring free access to the global commons.


It’s more about this…

For that first purpose, presence implies a credible threat of force that can act quickly, and credible threats provide deterrence that act to avert major conflict. That’s pretty straightforward. But additionally, it establishes the precedent that a U.S. presence in a given location is normal, legal and non-threatening. Legality has come up lately in the context of the South China Sea – the U.S. and other powers aim to demonstrate that China’s claims to certain waters are invalid by sailing through them. A non-threatening posture is relevant in the Arabian (neé Persian) Gulf, in which dozens of U.S. ships have been continually present just outside Iranian waters for 25 years without once invading Iran. Thus, Iran tacitly accepts the precedent of the U.S. Navy’s lawful presence and knows that just because a new Amphibious Ready Group is headed to the Gulf doesn’t mean that the regime is about to be toppled. This allows the U.S. to conduct routine operations without causing undue alarm.


… than that.

Think of a simple counterfactual[ii] – if there was no U.S. presence
in the Gulf, but we still decided we wanted to send a Carrier Strike Group to bomb ISIS, Iran would probably mine the Strait of Hormuz and get ready to defend their turf, not wanting to cede their lake to the Americans. And that would be bad.

But that is the high-end war-and-peace kind of stuff. Much more mundane is the day-to-day task of securing the “global commons,” upon which about ninety percent of global commerce moves (we’ll pull this thread further in a future post). That pencil on your desk might have been made in your home country, but the raw material all had to come from somewhere. Did you see “Captain Phillips”? Good movie. No sequel was ever made because nowadays an international naval flotilla constantly patrols the Gulf of Aden and Somali basin and has had great success curtailing the level of Somali piracy. Similar efforts are replicated around the Strait of Malacca, the Gulf of Guinea and other well-trafficked but loosely-governed areas around the world. Now and then they capture pirates, but it’s the brigands that never go to sea in the first place who provide the real victories. These are the mundane victories that permit pencil manufacturers to go about their mundane business.

Bottom line: These efforts keep maritime commerce affordable, and, by maintaining something resembling order, enable the world economy.

All that said, do navies also have to project power and be able to fight a war? Yes, but ultimately they have to be able to do that and maintain a constant low-end presence in their areas of interest. Some ships (“platforms”) will be optimized for one or the other, but the greater fleet must be able to do presence in order to prevent or minimize the need for projection.

The Army used to say you could Be All That You Can Be. The Navy’s motto could be shorter: simply “Be.”

Stand by for the next post, with a different take on the subject.


[i] Yeah, not always so generous, but we’re talking big picture here – the topline sum is always pretty big.

[ii] Please don’t complain that it’s more complicated than that. This is for beginners, so we’ll keep it simple.

(Public domain photos from U.S. Navy and Wikipedia)

Welcome to The Salty Wog: Where We Rhyme with “Faulty Blog”


Come on down!  (U.S. Navy photo)

Welcome aboard. Nice to make your acquaintance. I hope your time with the Wog will prove worthwhile, and likewise I should hope my own time here is well-spent. But, see, that’s the thing – for once in my life, I have that time.

This blog’s genesis is an overseas deployment. It is not entirely about that deployment, as many other things will be covered here, but it does provide a vehicle to keep people somewhat up to date on what’s going on. What I do day-to-day for the Navy is of little interest to a general audience (unless you’re fascinated by PowerPoint), but certainly observations about life in the Middle East will pop up now and then. What the deployment really provides, vis a vis blogging, is time. I am a watchstander on a rotating schedule with three other guys, which means I have liberty built into my week. The Woggettes are all back home, so there are no preschool runs or diapers to change (though, of course, I still dearly miss them). The net result is precious hours to write about my experiences here, about the Navy, about the Reserve, and anything else which seems appropriate.

But all things must end, including this mobilization. Thus content will include plenty of things aside from simple life on the ground in the CENTCOM AOR. It is those other topics – with, I expect, a focus on the ins-and-outs of the Navy Reserve – which will continue to provide fodder for posts at distant points in the hazy future.

Stay tuned.