So I married a killer robot

I know I’m kind of late to this party, but danged if I’m a gonna quit. I’ve been reading a bit of what the reaction to the new season of Battlestar Galactica has been on some parts of the English blogosphere and I just had to offer my take.

Battlestar Galactica began as a clash of civilizations: the genocidal and merciless Cylons versus the battered yet defiant humans. The people of the Colonial fleet were shown as noble but flawed, peace-loving but driven to violence, grief-stricken but stalwart, courageous, craven, paranoid, and cooly rational — in short, they were shown as human. The humans were the flawed heroes while the Cylons were the perfect Others, the anti-humans: relentless where the humans faltered, inscrutable where human pain was displayed, and all-knowing where the humans groped around blindly in the dark.

That was where Galactica began, but it’s certainly not where it is now. Slowly, we began to see more of what Cylons were really like, and slowly, we began to sympathize with what had been an unknowable enemy. Finally, by the third season the tables had turned and “we” were supposed to feel conflicted as to which side root for: the violently incompetent Cylons, or the suicide-bombing humans?

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that the issue of suicide bombing in the show has become so controversial. After all, suicide bombing has been relentlessly portrayed in the news media as a cowardly tactic used by the enemies of civilization, possibly in league with Satan, Darth Vader, and Lord Voldemort. Setting aside the issue that cowards cower, not willingly blow themselves to smithereens, it’s a bit odd that the characters’ use of suicide bombing should be so fraught with moral crisis. I’d always gotten the impression that the problem with suicide bombing was that it was inconsiderate of distinctions between civilians and soldiers, whereas the tactic on Galactica has been used only against military targets. I think that the discomfort with suicide bombing among the show’s viewers comes from two main reasons.

The first reason is that suicide bombing lays bare the fiction that soldiers are human beings. That is, suicide bombing acknowledges that soldiers are not and cannot be human as long as they are soldiers; rather, they are military assets, pawns to be moved back and forth in war, the true game of kings. If a cause is worth killing others for, then it’s also worth killing your own soldiers for (Dean Stockwell’s character voiced a similar sentiment on the show, though he was arguing for the war to become genocidal again). Soldiers are trained to be the tools of their leaders, and the more perfect they can be as machines, the more perfect they become as soldiers. Therefore, when you see Colonial rebels blowing up themselves and their enemies, you aren’t seeing humans killing Cylons. Instead, what you are witnessing is the spectacle of killer robots killing other killer robots.

The second reason I think that suicide bombing in the show is controversial to its viewers is that its viewers are mostly composed of those who conquer, instead of those who are conquered. That is, it is the privilege of the viewers to see suicide bombing as a horrendous crime instead of being forced to consider it as a viable tactic. Which is why I don’t relate at all to the controversy over suicide bombing, since I’m descended from people who might have considered suicide bombing had the option been available.

What I’m referring to is the Philippine-American War of 1898-1902 (the latter year being somewhat arbitrary since armed resistance was still taking place in many “pacified” territories). It’s an obscure war to most Americans, though its impact is still felt today. Many historians see it as the precursor to the Vietnam War and therefore the ancestor of the current war in Iraq, though I see the Indian Wars as the truly prototypical conflicts that lent their shape to later wars of American imperialism.

Briefly, the Philippine-American War grew out of the the Spanish-American War of 1898. The United States, having finished its land-based empire-building in the Indian Wars like the Russians in Siberia, wanted to get into the overseas possessions game. Spain was already in the process of imperial decline and it was the ruler of colonies immediately adjacent to the US (remember, the Monroe Doctrine had already established the Americas as the playground of the United States). With the Philippines in hand, the US hoped to use it as a springboard into China. US troops invaded the Philippines, arriving in the middle of an ongoing insurrection by Filipino rebels. Hoping to use the native insurgents against Spain, the US tacitly encouraged the cause of Philippine independence. By the time the Spanish-American War ended, Spain had ceded the Philippines to the US, which claimed the colony for its own. Feeling betrayed, Filipino rebels went to war against a new colonial master. In the end, they lost and the Philippines became a US Commonwealth.

The conflict soon became a guerilla war for the Filipinos, who could not use conventional tactics against better-equipped and better-trained Americans. The US Army saw guerilla war as dishonourable and uncivilized. A US general, in an exchange with a leader of the revolution, remarked that war

[C]ould only be justified by a combatant where success was possible; as soon as defeat was certain, “civilization demands that the defeated side, in the name of humanity, should surrender and accept the result, although it may be painful to its feelings.” Combatants who strayed from this principle “place themselves in a separate classification” as “incompetent in the management of civil affairs to the extent of their ignorance of the demands of humanity.” In this specific case, the end of conventional war and the dispersal of the Philippine Army meant that continued Filipino resistance was not only “criminal” but was “also daily shoving the natives of the Archipelago headlong towards a deeper attitude of semicivilization in which they will become completely incapable of appreciating and understanding the responsibilities of civil government.” Civilization meant “pacification” and the acceptance of U.S. sovereignty: “The Filipino people can only show their fitness in this matter by laying down their arms…” (Kramer 2006)

However, the Filipino revolutionary countered that the statement

was simply the claim that might made right, that the U.S. war was “just and humanitarian” because its army was powerful, “which trend of reasoning not even the most ignorant Filipino will believe to be true.” If in real life, he noted, “the strong nations so easily make use of force to impose their claims on the weak ones,” it was because “even now civilization and humanitarian sentiments that are so often invoked, are, for some, more apparent than real” . . . [T]he Filipinos had been left no choice. The very laws of war that authorized strong nations’ use of “powerful weapons of combat” against weak ones were those that “persuade[d]” the weak to engage in guerrilla war, “especially when it comes to defending their homes and their freedoms against an invasion.” (Kramer 2006)

Update the language a bit and they might have been talking about suicide bombing. I think that instead of asking how suicide bombing can exist, it is better to ask what kind of dire situation a person can live in that they would think blowing themselves up is a good idea. Make no mistake that suicide bombing is a weapon of the weak, else they would be using cruise missiles and nuclear threats.

Therefore, I cannot really understand why just the very use of suicide bombing in a fictional context can be so fraught with debate. Personally, it seemed perfectly logical that people in the position of the Colonials on New Caprica would turn to suicide bombing in the face of the overwhelming power of their enemies. Why suicide bombing? Why not? To me, something less would have seemed more unrealistic.

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