Note: This article was originally published as a freelance piece for Space.com. They have removed the article from their website, so I've reposted it here.
The Star Trek mission statement implies that humanity is evolved and enlightened. In the late 21st century, once we've learned we're not alone in the universe, we pull together to end war, poverty, disease, crime, and probably a majority of the other unpleasant elements in the world. New technology probably makes some of this possible, but it's clear that a change in the world also requires a change in attitude; apparently it's necessary we have a big event that gives us pause so we'll stop to consider our cosmic significance (or lack thereof).
Star Trek: First Contact proposed that proof of intelligent alien life and faster-than-light space travel would be that event. But could it really bring an end to war?
I propose that war is a reality of any situation where complicated civilizations have an impact on one another, whether it be today or in a future like the one depicted on Star Trek. Even in Trek's universe, humanity has not escaped war by any stretch of the imagination. War has been applied to new frontiers rather than having been extinguished. We might not fight among our fellow humans, and we might not impose ourselves on new societies with military action, but nor are we going to sit around and be conquered by an aggressive alien opponent.
In Star Trek stories, We Come In Peace. But peace and compromise go only so far, and even the Federation humans in the future of Trekkian "evolved sensibility" aren't going to give in to an adversary encroaching on certain rights.
What is the cause of war in general? Probably disputes over territory, growing out of differences in ideology. Or sometimes growing out of malcontent for abused authority. It can be easily argued that there are good reasons to go to war. Stopping Nazi Germany in World War II is an obvious example.
Trek is aware of this and does not pretend to be "above" war. War is not pleasant, but nor is it "bad"; it's a morally neutral act that can be employed for good or evil purposes. Of course, in war, the definitions for "good" and "evil" depend on which side you're on and what your values are.
Perhaps the earliest example of conventional warfare in Trek came with the The Original Series episode "Balance of Terror," in which Kirk engaged a Romulan enemy in submarine-like games. This wasn't actual warfare between two governments, but it did show a battle in a cold war between to opposing sides that had once been in real war.
Later we're introduced to the Klingons, another former war enemy who become a standing symbol of the real-life U.S.-Soviet Union Cold War through TOS's run, until the ongoing storyline would be tied up with a treaty in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. The Klingons, in fact, were introduced in "Errand of Mercy." Interestingly, in that episode Kirk argued vehemently for the need of a society of pacifists to rise up and engage in war because their rights were being trampled.
Isolated skirmishes and battles are of course frequent in Trek for the purposes of telling action-oriented stories, but references to actual sustained warfare are more rare. The Next Generation's most notable war stories were probably "Yesterday's Enterprise" (a war with the Klingons which took place in an alternate timeline) and "The Wounded" (in which a Starfleet captain bonds with O'Brien in the midst of a personal crisis stemming from an earlier war with the Cardassians).
It's not until we get to the latter stages of Deep Space Nine where issues of sustained warfare are tackled seriously. The Dominion War storyline is a very important one in Trek, because it showed that although Trek has always tried to depict a positive, moral view of future humanity, it also showed war as something from which we're not likely to simply and easily escape. I've long maintained that a positive outlook in Trek is only strengthened by the possibility that things can turn bad and that morals are not absolute.
DS9's war storyline provided not only an ongoing backdrop for the series, but also a new spin on the nature of the Federation. The "positive outlook" and "Roddenberry values" that have always been touted on Trek were put to the test by the writers of DS9, in part because the very core of the Federation was put to the test. Storylines crucial to the war storyline like the tour de force "In the Pale Moonlight" showed that Captain Sisko and Starfleet were willing to put certain ethical issues aside — resorting to lying, cover-ups, bribery, and even looking the other way during an assassination — in the interests of survival.
The concept of an unofficial covert spy organization — Section 31 — looking out for the Federation's "best interests" (again, survival, not ethics) reared its head in "Inquisition" and to an even greater extent in "Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges," revealing that perhaps there are those out there who are willing to break the rules so that we might be able to survive to live by them. The beauty of such arguments was that they showed the world as gray, and not as a place where overriding proclamations of "correct" ethical outlooks — Roddenberry-esque or not — could necessarily be in our ultimate best interests.
Aside from ethical situations, long-sustained warfare on DS9 also allowed the creators to drop into situations atypical for Trek, like the one in "The Siege of AR-558," in which a battalion of Starfleet soldiers (is that normally an oxymoron?) are seriously war-torn. They've been to an ugly place few humans in the Trek universe have been. And until anyone has been there, how can we know whether a Starfleet officer with that "evolved sensibility" wouldn't crack under pressure and become violent and dangerous? "AR-558" suggests that at some primal level our tendency to turn to violence in the interests of survival is not an instinct we can simply detach from our psyche. And for that matter, we may not want to.
So aside from such issues, what was the Dominion War really about? A clash of ideologies? Territorial disputes? It is maybe of some irony that as outlined by the writers in its broadest sense it was actually built on that foundation of "good versus evil" — in which the Dominion were the aggressors attempting to conquer humanity and the Alpha Quadrant merely so they could better control it. It's after the writers start the war and have it continue through two television seasons that the other war issues arise and become interesting. In that sense, the war existed so the writers could feed it with more drama involving the effects of war. Like many things Trek, it's just mostly its own dramatic little monster.
War, of course, is deadly and destructive. It solves problems, but only insofar that the opposing argument has been defeated with death. Simple logic suggests that it's best to avoid war if peace can be achieved. But in a world where ideologies clash and groups cannot come to terms with differences of opinion, rights, or territorial claim, there's probably no avoiding it — eventually. The fact that Trekkian human beings have put aside all such differences among themselves enough to be at perpetual peace is a miracle — or more likely another of those fantasies that allows Trek to be what it is.