The story behind this episode:
Two planets, Eminiar VII and Vendikar, have been at war for some time. An annoying diplomat has been entrusted to Capt. Kirk. He is named Fox, has eye bags that Doctor McCoy would envy, and dons a bizarrely collared Federation official diplomat's uniform, which seems to be inspired by things Judy Garland wore in the 60s. No one on board likes the guy. Arrogant tool. He has been sent to open negotiations with the inhabitants of Emeniar VII. We learn that the two planetary civs are technologically advanced, have interplanetary space travel, and that they have been contacted before by the Feds. They were at war at the time of that contact. Interestingly, and ominously, the contacting ship, USS Valiant disappeared shortly thereafter.
As the Enterprise approaches the planet, Kirk receives a priority communication using a known intergalactic diplomatic code of some sort, from the planet, forbidding all contact. Fox, being the annoying SOB that he is, insists they continue on. He even claims right to take command of the ship. Yeah right. Like a State Department person would be given that right. But, hey, it's the Federation. Damn. For some reason Kirk accepts Fox's lame argument, and acquiesces.
Kirk sends a landing party, which includes himself, Mr. Spock, and three redshirts. They are met by fabulous babe Mea 3 and Planetary President Anan 7, almost as annoying a man as Fox, but minus the eye baggage and Garlandesque regalia. Anan sternly reminds Kirk he should have heeded the warning. Anan says the city has just been hit by a Vendikarean fusion bomb which has killed half a million people. But, things aint 'splodin' 'er nutin', and Kirk, confused, calls up Scotty on the ship. Scotty sees nothing untoward going on. Sensor readings show no attack has happened anywhere on the surface of the planet.
Kirk discovers that the war is simulated by computers. They are used to launch what amount to sophisticated war game attacks and counterattacks. Each planet is exhaustively duplicated in the computer sim. The computers are in constant contact via subspace radio. Causalities and damages are calculated and the inhabitants that have been pegged as "dead" by the computer games are expected to report to disintegration booths, little one-person jobs. (One wonders how millions of people are disintegrated in booths that only disintegrate one person at a time..) This has been going on for a majority of the time the two planets have been at war, and is the result of a treaty with Vendikar. This arrangement is considered superior to conventional warfare, because there is no real damage to the environments of the two planets nor their infrastructures, and respective cultures are also kept intact.
Too make things easy on Kirk, that is, to give him a damn good reason to break with the non-interference directive, the annoying Anan tells him that the last Vendikar attack took out the Enterprise with a 'tri-cobalt satellite,' (not the real thing mind you, but an incredible simulation, like Beatlemania). He insists that the entire ship's crew must be terminated within a day. The landing party is held hostage until all Enterprise crew members report to the planet for execution. The fabulous babe Mea 3 is also a casualty of the latest sim attack. She tells Kirk she has no problem reporting for disintegration.
Now, we discover that Anan 7 has mad Rich Little skeelz. Doing his best Shatner impersonation, he tries to fool Scotty into sending the entire crew down for a shindig celebrating the start of diplomatic relations. Scott, putting out of mind the possibility of indulging his love of Saurian brandy..er..Scotch, refuses to bite, runs the recording through a voice analyzer and finds it is bogus. He wonders how good a Nixon this guy can do.
Anan 7 orders the Enterprise to be destroyed, but the ship's shields easily repel the less than impressive attack. Ambassador Fox, being not only annoying and Garlandesque, but dense, believes Anan when he claims that a sensor malfunction misled them into thinking the Enterprise was about to attack. Anan profusely apologizes and and gushes. Fox of course, bites. Anan invites the Ambassador to beam down and talk. Ambassador Fox accepts and orders Scotty to lower the shields. Scotty isn't having any of it. He doesn't trust the Rich Little wannabe. He refuses. Fox blusters and then beams down with his own red shirt analog, a man whose collar is not as large. Junior diplomat no doubt. They are taken into custody and sent to be terminated.
As that is all going on, Spock and Kirk manage to break out of their cell, stop Mea 3from keeping her appointment with the disintegration booth, and destroy a booth. An uncharacteristically incautious Kirk is then recaptured by Anan 7 while sharing a drink with him.
Spock along with some help from the redshirts, now cleverly disguised as Eminiareans, rescues Ambassador Fox and destroys another disintegration booth. Fox realizes his mistake, and becomes noticeably less annoying. His collar retains its Garlandesque dimensions. He nevertheless indicates he will fight alongside Spock, who doesn't rub it in too much.
Using Kirk as a hostage Anan talking with Scotty, demands that the Enterprise's crew beam down and accept disintegration. Kirk yells out to Scott to implement General Order 24, a full attack on the planet, within two hours. The Enterprise is capable of wiping the planet's surface clean. Anan still refuses to release and orders the Enterprise destroyed, but it has now inconveniently moved out of range. Mr. Scott confirms the threat of planetary destruction. Anon is agog and aback. Kirk manages to overpower the guards and take their disrupters. Spock arrives with Fox.
Kirk and Spock destroy the entire war gaming system. A break in communications between the two planet's computer systems constitutes a breach of the treaty. This entail resumption of conventional warfare by Vendikar.
Kirk encourages Anan 7 to instead contact Vendikar and negotiate an end to all hostilities. Anan agrees and Fox offers his services as intermediary. As the Enterprise leaves, Fox reports that the peace negotiations are progressing. We are not informed as to his effect on clothing fashions in the Emeniarian diplomatic corps. We can only assume they have whole heartedly adopted the over sized Judy Garland 60s era collar look.
No redshirts were killed in this episode.
Now, on to some considerations of the ethical issues raised by the episode. As with many Trek episodes, the interests of creating drama cause plot elements to be created that take some of the sting out of the ethical quandaries that Kirk and company would have had to contend with. What would those be in this case?
Suppose, for instance, that there was no warning off of the Enterprise, that they were fully informed of the war, and its cyber nature. Suppose they were assured that the Enterprise was in no real or simulated danger of being involved in any way in the conflict. Suppose as well, as does appear to be the case, that the cyber war has broad consent of the populations of each planet. Would Kirk have been in the right interfering in that circumstance?
We can imagine that an argument could have been made to the contrary, citing the fact that warfare as conducted by Eminear VII and Vendikar is in fact morally superior than conventional warfare, because it involves substantially less harm. It is arguably, with certain assumptions, planetary warfare with the nominal amount of suffering necessary. We can imagine Anan saying something like this:
"Consider an analog Earth man. Before the advent of smart weaponry on your planet you, of necessity had to make use of imprecise bombing methods, destroying whole cities, and causing much damage and environmental degradation. Suppose you never developed the smart weapons that made this obsolete and otiose on your world. Wouldn't you have considered making cyber war? We, after all, preserve the environment and the infrastructure of our two planets and our cities by operating in this way. Yes, we lose lives, but any war will come with that result. But, unlike you, that is all we lose. We don't poison our environment, and wreck our cities"
How might Kirk respond? He would likely point out that the more antiseptic nature of this cyber war has encouraged its prolongation, and has actually made it the case that more lives have been lost than otherwise would have been the case. What is more, if this sanitized form of conflict becomes a standard form of warfare, warfare will be resorted to more frequently than would be the case if major infrastructural and environmental damage was always also in the offing. Kirk makes this case in his speechifying toward the end of the episode. War needs to be ugly in order to serve as a sufficient deterrent to our natural propensity to aggression.
This is all well taken, and similar argumentation is found any time advances in technology make warfare more antiseptic or sanitized. In fact, a major line of critique or concern as regards remotely piloted aerial lethality, and military robotics follows this line of reasoning. If a nation's war fighters can fight remotely, or via robotic stand-ins, then, a nation will be more prone to resort to war.
Nations have responsibility to avoid warfare because of its obvious harms. However,nations have to balance these concerns with not only the responsibilities they have to protect their national interests but also with the strong responsibility they have toward the lives of their fighters, not placing those fighters at any more risk than is necessary to accomplish missions.
The worries that resort to war will be made too easy have heretofore usually been mollified by the fact that technology eventually finds itself evenly distributed between states, so that the relative "ease" of the lethal option is perceived to be shared by all. This, in effect, serves to deter, despite the technological wizardry. Something like MAD prevails. The future will tell with regard to the present superiority of the U.S. vis-a-vis modern technology. It's a good thing we have all the advances, being a nation ideologically disinclined to aggression. The world would have been a very different place if Soviet Russia had run away with the technological race. And one can only imagine what would occur if a state like Iran were the run away leader technologically/militarily. *Shudder*
Still, returning to our episode, and the argument it presents: In light of the modifications of the storyline I introduced, I think that Anan could have found an effective way to respond to Kirk's arguments. It might have gone something like this:
"Look Kirk, I grant you all that you just said, but the situation here is much different than I take you to believe. We in no way are spreading our practice. Things have been kept just between ourselves and Vendikar. What is more, our respective populations have consented to this, and have done so for centuries. So, you have no moral basis upon which to interfere."
"So what if we resort to warfare more frequently, or have been engaging in centuries of cyber conflict when we might not have been? So what, if you are correct in arguing that we would not have done so with the prospect of full fledged warfare? What business is it of yours what we do, especially if its true that our practice will have no effect on how you or others conduct war? We have taken great pains to isolate ourselves from others. That's one primary reason. We don't want to influence or harm other worlds. We have succeeded in isolating ourselves. So, you should leave well enough alone."
How might Jim respond? I suspect along these lines:
"Anan, you say you have general consent. You admit that this war, with its high casualty rate, has been going on for many decades. It's a generational thing now. Your people actually do not have a clear idea of their options. Because this antiseptic warfare is as much a part of their environment as is the air they breathe, they have no real idea that they can actually do without it, with no great hardship being involved. So, they really are not giving free and fully informed consent. After all, minus that desensitization that familiarity brings, do you really think your folks would consent to death by lottery. After all, that is essentially what is going on. Put them behind the veil of ignorance man!" (Kirk here whips out his handy picture of John Rawls)
"Would they agree to live in a society that all but assures a permanent cyber war..a permanent death lottery, when there are other less odious alternatives? No man. Don't you see? There are other ways to assure domestic tronquility!"
Exit question: If its true that the USS Valiant was destroyed by these folks, why does the Federation just let that slide at the end of this episode? Shouldn't they seek restitution of some sort? Come on Jim!