SG-1 ESSAY - SCORCHED EARTH by FABRISSE

We are living in dangerous times. No one disputes that.

It is a time when the military is being called upon to give its all for our country, and, recently, the stories of what our personnel have been doing have been horrible.

I can only imagine how happy the Air Force must be to have a series like Stargate SG-1 to point to as an example of the finest spirit of our armed forces. Every week we see dedicated people with specialized training fighting an enemy that "the folks back home" are not allowed to know about. It's heroic, and, thanks to an Air Force advisor, the details are generally accurate.

Where Stargate SG-1 often misses isn't in the fine details, but in the huge issues. Some of it is done in the name of drama. A completely smooth command would be dull as ditchwater to watch, no matter how pleasant it would be for the people associated with it to be part of that command.

The problem with adding drama is that people believe what they see. Fiction can be taken as a representation of a higher truth. Certainly the award that's being presented to the program by the Air Force supports the idea that this fiction is serving a higher truth about the bravery of the people serving in our armed forces.

Stargate SG-1 is primarily concerned with one team that is a mixture of military and civilian. Because we see them most often in the field, it is the military part of the culture that we see most often. Beyond that, we are seeing the culture and regulations that appertain to the officer corps.

Chain of command is important. Officers have efficiency reports filed about them by their senior officer once a year. These go up to be reviewed. To use a hypothetical SG-1 example -- Lieutenant Hailey will have an efficiency report filed by the commander of her team and, if she is also seconded to the science department, will likely have that efficiency report reviewed by Major Carter as the senior rater. It will also be seen by Colonel O'Neill and General Hammond, and it could make them aware of a problem to be solved or a commendation to be recommended.

The report will then go into Lt. Hailey's jacket where it will be read again when she's reviewed for promotion. These reports will remain in her jacket for the rest of her career and will be re-read every time she comes up for promotion.

The issue that is on our minds at the moment is fraternization. That's unfortunate, because these regulations and the issues around them are not cut and dried.

It's customary, for instance, for a commanding officer to have junior officers to his house. Depending upon the command style and size, this can be something that happens frequently -- say once a month or so -- or may only happen toward the beginning of the assignment or as part of a yearly command get together. Back when an officer's family was part of the total package, it was a way of judging the spouse's fitness.

Promotion parties have a tradition. Someone being promoted from Second Lieutenant to First Lieutenant is usually expected to buy a drink for his colleagues of the same rank. By the time the promotion is from Full Colonel to Brigadier General, the party, usually held at an Officers' Club, is for every officer of equivalent or lesser rank and includes hors d'oevres. There are also "hail and farewell" parties, and individual commands may have traditions for other types of social gathering. In remote locations, the only social life an officer may have are the fellow officers -- perhaps with their families -- that share the same lonely posting.

Moreover, the military allows mentoring relationships, as Major Carter attempts with Lt. Hailey, and friendships such as that between Colonel O'Neill and Major Kawalsky. In some ways, it encourages friendship among its officers in the same way that it encourages bonding among the enlisted ranks -- it can make for a greater loyalty, and thus a more cohesive unit, in the field.

So with all this socializing, mentoring, and friendship, why are there fraternization regulations that refer to officers' relationships with other officers? The answer cuts two ways.

The first is that a commander can cross the line from mentoring to favoritism. This can cause resentment and create bad command decisions.

The second is that "loyalty in the field" from a junior to a senior officer can result in impaired judgment by the junior officer.

No person in any branch of the US military is required to follow an unlawful order. Truthfully, the punishments for enlisted personnel for not following orders in the field are high. It is rare that a corporal, for instance, will even ask that an objection to the order be noted. An officer has the duty to refuse an unlawful order.

There are accepted ways of doing this. The first step, except in immediate combat situations, is to request written orders. This is intended to make the senior officer think about the order that has been given and to assure that the senior officer will not later disavow the order. Many officers see this request as a sign of disloyalty as it implies that the senior officer might in future act dishonorably.

It is possible to request that the senior officer note that the order is being complied with over the moral or other objections of the junior officer, too. This notation, provided both officers survive, will be placed in the same jacket as the efficiency ratings and may prove either helpful or detrimental in future promotions.

The big guns start to come out when the junior officer informs the senior officer that the junior officer will not comply with the order. At this point, the junior officer is risking court-martial, career, and, depending upon specific circumstances, life.

In the farthest extreme, the junior officer -- usually with the consent of other junior officers -- relieves the senior officer of command. This is mutiny in the navy, and, if the senior officer is NOT found to be at fault, every officer taking part is risking his or her life. Cowardice, which refusal to follow a lawful order in the field can be construed as, is still a capital offense.

The question remains: What is a lawful order?

A lawful order does not knowingly violate any order given by a higher ranking officer.

A lawful order does not violate the rules of war or the rules of engagement.

A lawful order does not violate international law. Genocide is covered here.

A lawful order does not violate the Geneva Conventions or its annexes.

Welcome to "Scorched Earth."

The season 4 Stargate SG-1 episode, "Scorched Earth" is one of my favorites. It deals with issues faced by field troops in repatriating or relocating refugees. In addition, it has the unique perspective of other life forms and the ethical questions of terraforming.

However, as much as I love the episode, I find it deeply troubling. The imperatives of drama require conflict and the two alien societies with specific needs and limitations provide this conflict beautifully.

Additional conflict was provided by having Colonel O'Neill so identify with one of the two alien societies that he cannot recognize the other society as equally valid.

There are good reasons for this. SG-1 has helped the Enkarans find this world and relocate to it. We've had indications that his past in "Black Ops" has not given him many chances to see happy endings for the people with whom he has interacted. Colonel O'Neill is personally invested in helping the Enkarans keep this world that he and his team have found for them. In addition, the Gadmeer are so alien -- sulfur breathing, somewhat lizard-like appearance, and currently mere petri dish samples -- that he can't see them as equivalent to human.

Dr. Jackson immediately sees the Gadmeer as sentient beings. He accepts the word of their AI -- based on the technology he sees around him -- that the civilization was sophisticated. And the Gadmeer ethics, as described to him by their AI, ultimately allow him to find a solution for all of the participants involved.

Teal'c has very little to do, but seems to support Dr. Jackson's efforts and respect the choices that Dr. Jackson makes. He never speaks against Colonel O'Neill or the decisions that Colonel O'Neill makes.

Major Carter does not seem to respect Dr. Jackson's choices, but implies by tone of voice that she also doesn't agree with Colonel O'Neill's.

After the first meeting with the Gadmeerian AI, there's a meeting back at the SGC. Every member of SG-1 is present at the meeting. Colonel O'Neill requests weapons and personnel to fight against the Gadmeers' ship. General Hammond not only refuses, but issues a direct order for Colonel O'Neill to find another way.

Back on the planet, Colonel O'Neill looks at the devastation and asks Dr. Jackson to find him another way. In the meantime, the Colonel asks Major Carter some pertinent questions about the explosive potentials of naquada generators.

Colonel O'Neill then gives Major Carter a direct order to cause the naquada reactor to explode and destroy the Gadmeerian terraforming ship.

The Colonel has at this point violated General Hammond's order. Major Carter would be well within her rights to refuse the order on this point as she was present when General Hammond gave the order.

More than that, Dr. Jackson has made the point that the entire Gadmeer civilization is aboard the terraforming vessel. Colonel O'Neill's order violates international law because it is genocidal.

When the explosion occurs it may be uncontrollable. This would mean that the very non-combatants whom SG-1 purports to help will be at significant risk. This violates the rules of war.

Major Carter seems hesitant and reluctant, but not once does she inform Colonel O'Neill that she won't be following the order. The order is unlawful three different ways and yet she complies.

Colonel O'Neill indicates that he knows Major Carter will have a problem with the order -- it's why he makes it clear that it is an order rather than phrasing it as a request. His expectation of compliance with an order that he should know is unlawful and has reason to suspect that the person being ordered will object to on moral or other grounds, indicates that Colonel O'Neill is staking the order on personal loyalty rather than adherence to the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

Major Carter's compliance with the order over her own moral objections and her duty to recognize and refuse an unlawful order indicates that she can no longer separate her friendship for the Colonel from her conscience.

This is why fraternization is forbidden. Impaired judgment by a commanding officer should not lead to impaired judgment in those under his command.

There may be those who think that I'm stating my case too strongly. Or that "since it's only a television show, why does it matter?"

The answer is that fiction reflects life, and good drama reflects our difficult moral choices.

The United States' military is all volunteer. Those who wear the uniform do so out of choice. Most who serve consider it an honor and comport themselves honorably. They will be put into morally difficult situations and asked to kill and die for their country, and they do it so that I can stay home and watch TV and live my life.

Again, why am I letting a television show bother me so much?

Because the horrors of war have been increased by the pictures that have come back to us from Abu Ghraib. Because I have heard a General state that she was "only following orders" in allowing the mistreatment of prisoners. Because it was a Specialist who came forward and said, "It is the right of every soldier to refuse an unlawful order," thus beginning the investigation that has led to three courts-martial to date and probably more to come. Because recruitment ads for the Marine Corps, Air Force, and occasionally the Army, Navy, and/or National Guard run regularly on the syndicated screening of Stargate SG-1 every week.

Officers are supposed to be the highest military standard -- this is doubly true for graduates of the academies. Both Carter and O'Neill have been established as graduates of the Air Force Academy. As fans of Stargate SG-1, we should demand that the officers we see on the screen hold fast to that standard.

Divide and Conquer doesn't bother me. Adults work together and deal with their attractions to each other all the time. Had the situation with the Zatarc's not occured, the subject might never have come up. Since it did, the team had to worry about the appearance of impropriety. As honorable officers (and two very interested other parties), I hope that we can assume that the situation was discussed and judged by the team, not merely ignored.

Even after the issue came to the fore in the early episodes of season 4, the important part of the fraternization equation is whether or not the closeness of the relationship impairs the judgment of either party.

"Scorched Earth" is the answer to that question.


FINIS

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Biblio, PhoenixE, babs, Brionhet, Darcy, Devra, Fabrisse, JoaG, Kalimyre, Marcia, Rowan and Sideburns, 2001-2008.
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