Thoughts on Season One of Battle Star Galactica and American History


This was written in September of 2016. Derek was invited to speak at a lecture series around Battle Star Galactica and these in the first season. He choose to speak about military decision making and the nature of power. It was written before the Presidential Election where Donald Trump defeated Hilary Clinton.  


    Good evening everyone, my name is Derek Jones and I am excited to be here and talk with you about one of my all time favorite shows, Battle Star Galactica. To begin with, I should probably tell you I have absolutely no professional credentials to justify me being here. I work in IT management, and I do consider myself a life long nerd/geek/dude who likes Sci-Fi and fantasy a little more than any 35 year old man probably should. I have no experience in TV, film, or videography and I don't have a creative bone in my body. What I do have, is a degree in history, one of my great passions in life, and a close friendship with Beth, who invited me here today. I'm going to be talking about BSG season one. 


    So where to begin? There's a lot of scholarship around season one of BSG. And despite my insufferable lack of credentials, I do think season one of BSG is a masterpiece. It has interwoven astounding special effects into a compelling narrative that touches on themes such as the nature of consciousness, what constitutes political power, sexual and gender identity, attacks of horrific terrorism, war, espionage, and I could go on and on. In so many ways, season one is a mirror into modern American political, social, and judicial life-- that is, if we were all in space ships. Just like the Lords of Kolbol, our current American problems are unlike the vastness of space. We do not live, act, breath, decide, and ultimately die, in a vacuum. As Martin Luther King Jr said, "We are not makers of history. We are made by history."


    I'm here to point out and discuss how BSG draws from American history, to which season one gives us many opportunities to explore. In particular, I'm going to draw parallels to the American Revolutionary War. To me, this comparison was obvious. When war broke out in Massachusetts in 1775, the odds were stacked against the rebels. The British Empire was the strongest military force on the planet. The small group of colonial militia needed to band together to survive, least their way of life would be annihilated and the great, albeit imperfect, American experiment would have been over before it began. The comparison is not a perfect metaphor, and it will have rhetorical and argumentative holes. My aim here is not to say that season one and the American Revolution are synonymous. Rather, I hope to inspire people to see that American narratives-- whether they are shows, movies, or political positions-- are intertwined with her history, and that having a rich appreciation of how we were, will tell us volumes of who we are.


    Let's get right to it. I'd like to start over two thousand years ago, back in Ancient Rome. Rome was a young Republic, growing into a vast power that was already reshaping the mediterranean. Rome soon found itself at odds with the North African neighbor Carthage. Carthage was home to one of histories most famous generals, Hannibal. Most of us know something about Hannibal, we probably know he's a general, he fought Rome, he liked elephants a lot, wasn't too keen on mountains and crossing them, but got it done somehow. What most of us may not know, is how he was defeated. (You might be asking yourself, how is the pertinent, but stick with me, I promise it will become clear.) Defeating Hannibal came down to one guy, Quintus Fabius Maximus. See, after Hannibal somehow got his elephant riding army over the Alps, the Romans sent a large force to engage and destroy him. Well, turns out fighting an army that has war elephants was a lot harder than the Romans thought, and this force was destroyed, nearly to a man. Rome was in a panic. It had lost nearly all its fighting force to Hannibal, and it seemed that the entirety of Rome was on the eve of it's demise. Imagine if ISIS wasn't off in the middle east, but in Georgia, and they just destroyed America's army and you'll start to understand the fear the Romans where living under. So what do they do? they appoint Quintus Fabius Maximus as the dictator of Rome and give him full sweeping legal and military power to combat the invading Carthaginians at all costs. So what does Fabius do? He musters as many soldiers as quick as possible. He marches to the field of battle and realizes that it would be stupid to attack an army that is riding on elephants. So he just doesn't. He maneuvers around the army, like a long horrific dance. He only allows his army to engage in battle if he is 100% certain he'll win, and never commits his full force. He realizes that time is on his side, not his enemies. Hannibal's elephants were expensive and difficult to maintain. His soldiers also needed food and shelter. The Roman's were on their turf and Fabius realized that if he could just keep his army together long enough, eventually the Romans would train, equip, and muster a superior force. To make a long story short, Carthage does not defeat Rome. Rome wins the war and goes on to become one of the greatest empires of human history. The strategy of exhausting the enemy through attrition and mobility became known as Fabian military tactics. 


    So I bet your thinking,"Great, thanks for the lesson about Rome, I thought you were talking about BSG and American history?" Well, here comes my comparison. You know who know all about Fabian military tactics? George Washington. I could stand up here all day and talk about George Washington, luckily for you guys, that isn't gonna happen today. To put it simply, he was obsessed with military glory. This was pointed out by one of Washington's biographers, Joseph J Ellis. Letter after letter, war council after war council, Washington wanted to meet the British on the field and with musket, bayonet, gun powder, and cannon ball. Early in the war, Washington makes such a stand in New York City. The year was 1776, the Americans had been at war with the British since fighting broke out in 1775, and the Declaration of Independence had recently been signed. The British sent Lord Howe with a major force of both men and ships to put down the rebellion. Washington had caught the British unprepared at Boston the previous year, forcing the British to retreat. Washington's next maneuver was to dig in at New York City, knowing it's strategic importance. Washington also guessed that the British would want to take it from the rebels. The British fleet sailed up the Hudson river and landed their troops with such ferocity and ease, the rebel forces took flight, causing General Washington to exclaim, "Are these the men with which I am to defend America?" 


    General Washington envisioned a New York battle where his men would muster under fire and deal such damage to the British that there army would be destroyed, ending the war after only one year of fighting. However, Washington was out manned nearly 2 to 1 and had no navy to speak of. His naïveté lead to several blunders-- blunders that lost lives and nearly destroyed the cause of American freedom. Luckily, narrowly, Washington escaped New York City with a semblance of an army, and the British were to hold New York under their control for the duration of the war. However, Washington had read his history, and he knew the lessons of Qunitus Fabius Maximus. Like Fabius, time was on his side. If he could keep his army together, he would instill a will to keep the fight in the American people and gain the respect of European powers, namely France. Washington, the founder of our country, put aside his selfish visions of grand battle and implemented Fabian military tactics. The war for independence would not be won quickly, nor would the cost of victory be minimal. Five years later, an American and French force gave Washington the victory he so envisioned, and thus our republic was born.


    I see this struggle in Commander Adama in season one of BSG. Adama was a relic of a bygone age, a man of war in a time of peace. Instantaneously, he is thrust back into war, as the Cylons unleash a nuclear holocaust in the 12 colonies of Kolbol. In an odd way, Adama is comfortable in this scenario. We hardly see him mourn or lament the loss of 12 planets full of billions of people. Instead, he goes directly into command. And his first, primary, and only objective is to bring the fight to the Cylons. His determination and military make up will not permit submission to the enemy, and he will fight at all costs. Similar to Washington, he envisions a grand battle where either the humans or the Cylons are destroyed. I find this attitude to be very relatable. Like Washington, one doesn't rise to a high rank in military office without some internal identity as a solider. And what makes a solider successful? Bravery, fortitude, discipline, strategy, and ultimately, killing your enemy or die trying. Thankfully for the show, newly appointed President Rosalyn quickly and demonstrably displays the flaw in Adama's quest for glory or death. She is a civilian, with no training, background or knowledge in interstellar combat. However, she is thrust into a position of prominence and importance, only to butt heads with a great military commander. Like Washington, Adama has antipathy for running from the enemy. But, thanks to Rosalyn, he soon realizes that his military objectives have to adapt or he, and the fleet he commands, will die. 


    So what does Adama do? I would argue, he switches his military strategy away from direct combat with the enemy in favor of Fabian tactics. His job is to outlast the Cylon empire, to keep his fighting force intact, and to only engage the enemy when in the most favorable terms. This strategic shift is essential to the survival of the fleet, which is tantamount to the survival of humanity. And, I hope you don't mind some spoilers, his strategy ultimately proves successful as he leads humanity to the lost 13th colony of Kolbol, Earth.


    I'm not sure if the comparison to Washington and Adama is intentional or subconscious. I have no way of knowing if the writers of the show knew about the Battle of New York or Fabian military tactics, or if they knew George Washington was obsessed with a great military victory. I would argue that what's significant is that our history naturally manifests itself into the cultural archetype of what a great military leader should be. In order for us, fans of the show, to view Adama as a great leader and one of the central hero's of the narrative, he has to be Washington-like.


    Why does any of this matter? While it may seem like a cool imaginative exercise to argue that Washington and Adama bare a similar personality make up, and military decision quality, it may also seem kind of pointless. This brings me to the theme that is at the center of BSG (at least season one and two) and the American Revolution. The question at hand is, what is power? Where does it come from? Does power manifest form military might, or does it derive from the consent of the governed? This conflict is laid out in season one, as the question who controls the fleet arises. Does Adama outrank Rosalyn or vice versa? Do the articles of colonization, the constitution of the colonial government, even exist after the planets are destroyed? These fundamental questions bare a similarity to some of questions asked by 18th century political philosophers, statesmen, and farmers. Why should 13 colonies submit to a parliamentary monarchy that did not advocate or represents the interests of said colonies? But more importantly, as we look at our history and BSG, it is important to remember that we should be asking the similar questions today. We can not pretend that the fate of the fleet, just like the fate of the American Revolution, was a forgone conclusion. The choice that Adama made, to submit to civilian authority and abandon his quest for military glory, was as significant and impactful to the show as Washington's decisions were in the  War for Independence. To put it more simply, it matters who's in charge. It matters who wields power when the chaos and unpredictability of life intercedes into human affairs. As I reflect on the mountain of history books I have read and this wonderful show, I am reminded that we have the honor of choosing who will be the most powerful person in the world for the next four years. The nature of that power, and the person who yields it, can and will shape our planet for years to come. We can ill afford an apathetic attitude to the awesome responsibility we have. I know that at times we may feel like we are adrift in the vacuum of cold space, like the fleet under Adama's control. But as we grapple with the difficult decisions we face going forward, I can't imagine what it would have been like to be Washington or Adama. To face complete and total deduction on a daily basis, and to make mistakes that cost lives, but have perseverance to overcome them and lead people to freedom. Our future is as uncertain as the colonial fleet's was at the end of season one. I do not know about you, but I am excited. 


Thank you to Vox Populi for having me, thank you Beth for asking me to come here, and thank you to everyone that came and listened.