War and Humanity: SciFi and the Moral Gray

Amber Atalaya Evans Pinel

Trigger warning: this post discusses physical and sexual abuse with some mention of details.


One of the things I love the most about Science Fiction as a genre is its limitless opportunity to make critique on modern day society and political issues. Battlestar Galactica (2003 reboot) has a plot based entirely on this opportunity, and they surely took advantage of it. In every episode of the show, the characters are faced with some really difficult decisions that bring them straight into the gray area of morality. This is truly what is so fabulous about this show, and many SciFi books/movies/tv shows that push the envelope.

One of the most fully developed, complicated, and well-thought out characters on Battlestar Galactica, Admiral Cain, brings all the other characters face-to-face with their own moral beliefs. Her character addresses some very real questions that would come up if humanity was faced with its own extinction.

Admiral Cain

Admiral Cain comes into the show about halfway through season two, when the Battlestar Galactica comes into contact with another Battlestar named Pegasus. At this point in the show, everyone in the fleet thinks they are the last shred of humanity. Then the Pegasus enters and the characters are faced with the very real possibility of there being a lot more humans left in space. And, due to the juxtaposition of the crews on Galactica and Pegasus, the audience, as well as the characters, realizes the decisions the Galactica and their fleet have been making aren’t entirely moral.

Commander Adama and President Roslin have been bending political and military rules in order to do what they think is best for the fleet. They have forgiven military officers who were sleeping with cylons, disobeying orders, and generally disrespecting traditional military authority. Sometimes they elected to leave civilian ships behind who didn’t have working FTL (faster than light) drives.  During the episodes where they make these tough decisions, the audience tends to decide for themselves what is or is not right or moral. However, the characters stay pretty strong in their belief that rules are worth bending if it’s for the greater good.

Admiral Cain has been driving her battlestar based solely on military protocol, as she believed the president was dead. She has also faced a great deal of challenges, and handled them according to her own moral compass. However, what makes this part of the show so fascinating is that she makes decisions in a totally opposite manner as Commander Adama and President Roslin. And, I would argue, almost everything she did was justifiable despite lingering in a morally gray area.

The first thing we learn about Admiral Cain is that she shot her former second in command (XO) in front of the entire crew for disobeying orders– the XO refused to attack a Cylon fleet while they were at war. Yes, this was definitely a lot crueler than throwing him in the brig and court martialing him. But we have to remember that this entire show takes place during wartime.

Admiral Cain, unlike Commander Adama and the President, had decided she wasn’t going to roll over, and she was going to kick the Cylons off the twelve colonies and take her home back. When the Pegasus encountered civilian ships, Admiral Cain ordered her crew to strip them for useful parts and new crew members. Some of the people who were being drafted complained about being separated from their families; so Cain ordered her crew to shoot the families of anyone who refused to be drafted onto Pegasus. Her crew ended up killing two families in the presence of all of the passengers on one civilian ship. All of this was for the sake of continuing military operations against the Cylons. So, she made these decisions because, to her, military offense against the Cylons was more important than anything else.

Like the Galactica, we find out the Pegasus has a Cylon prisoner aboard. Galactica’s Cylon prisoner is pregnant due to a relationship she has with one of Galactica’s pilots. She is kept in a cell as a prisoner of war. However, she is given a bed, food, clothing, and regular visits from the ship’s doctor. And, she is allowed to speak to the pilot she is in love with through a prison-esque phone.

To say the Cylon prisoner on Pegasus doesn’t have these luxuries would be a gross understatement. When Galactica’s “Cylon expert,” Dr. Baltar, goes over to Pegasus to see the Cylon prisoner there, a model Six named Gina, he is utterly horrified (and so are we) by the physical and psychological state she is in. She has been beaten totally black and blue and she lays on the floor in a filthy medical robe with a vacant and pained expression on her face. We learn that Gina has been sexually abused and battered as an interrogation tactic ordered by Admiral Cain, who, we find, is Gina’s former romantic partner.

Dr. Baltar, “She must have struggled, she must have fought back…”

Baltar’s Imaginary Cylon Friend, “That doesn’t justify this.”

This brings up a lot of moral questions. Though Cylons are not technically human– their brains are programmed and their bodies are artificial– they are programmed in such a way as to experience human emotions like love and emotional pain. They eat, sleep, sweat, and feel exactly the way humans do. But they are still not human, and Admiral Cain argues that you can’t rape a robot. And these robots committed mass genocide on the human race.

So where is the moral line when it comes to war? Nearly all religious texts have statements about how one should not kill another human being. These days we have the Geneva Conventions to guide what is and what is not humane during wartime. It’s our way of deciding what’s moral, while also talking about killing people in large numbers as a tactic of solving political disputes.

The situation between the Cylons and the humans wasn’t a dispute over politics. The Cylons dropped nuclear bombs in every major city on the twelve planets populated by humans. And they did it for apparently no reason. They had already rebelled against their human masters and left the colonies to be their own civilization. The genocide took place decades after their rebellion, right when the humans were starting to feel as though the Cylons would never return.

So when Admiral Cain discovered that one of her crew members, Gina, was actually one of the new humanoid Cylons, she brutally tortured Gina as a tactic of war. But Cain was keeping in mind the billions of humans who were dead because of the Cylons. She was doing it in order to glean as much information as she could from Gina so that she could strike back against the Cylons. But also, I think it is important to mention, that Gina was Admiral Cain’s lover before the genocide on the twelve colonies. And it is quite probable that Admiral Cain ordered the sexual assault on Gina as a form of revenge because Gina was a Cylon spy. It is also quite possible that discovering her romantic partner was a Cylon spy is the reason Admiral Cain used such extreme methods later in the show (killing her XO in front of the crew, for example.)

Admiral Cain and Gina having dinner before the Cylon attack.

However, it’s no secret that sexual assault is used as a tactic of war right now on this planet. A lot of the United States population is blind to the horrors that occur during war because it’s simply not covered by the media today.

“UN agencies estimate that more than 60,000 women were raped during the civil war in Sierra Leone (1991-2002), more than 40,000 in Liberia (1989-2003), up to 60,000 in the former Yugoslavia (1992-1995), and at least 200,000 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo since 1998 … For centuries, sexual violence in conflict was tacitly accepted as unavoidable. A1998 UN report on sexual violence and armed conflict notes that historically, armies considered rape one of the legitimate spoils of war. During World War II, all sides of the conflict were accused of mass rapes, yet neither of the two courts set up by the victorious allied countries to prosecute suspected war crimes — in Tokyo and Nuremberg — recognized the crime of sexual violence.” (un.org)

I hope everyone who is reading this commentary of mine believes that sexual assault is a war crime. But it’s been used as a tactic of war since the evolution of humans. And the reason it hasn’t been named a war crime yet is because of the way we other our enemies. In Battlestar Galactica, there are some very real reasons to other the Cylons — not only are they not human, but they committed mass genocide of humans. But this is exactly the point of bringing these moral issues to Battlestar Galactica. Because when you open up a Cylon and a human next to each other on the operating table, they look exactly the same on the inside. And when a Cylon and a human are both physically brutalized and psychologically tortured, they both have the same mental reaction.

When Dr. Baltar sat down on the floor of the cell with Gina, a model Six like the one he loves and often imagines, their interaction is totally human. He tells her he is there to help her, and he is. After he reveals to her that before the attack, a model Six had such a profound impact on his life, she begins to trust him. And the first thing Gina asks him is to help her die. The experience of being so brutally tortured has made her suicidal, she wants permanent death to end her psychological suffering. And isn’t that exactly how humans react to the same kind of brutal torture?

Perhaps there’s a lot of moral gray that comes with war. You may agree or disagree with me on that. However, it is known that the process of othering is what humans use to justify the terrible things they do to one another. And what Battlestar Galactica argues throughout the show, and especially in the episodes involving Admiral Cain, is that it’s not about who the other is — it’s about how we conduct ourselves.


“It’s not enough to survive. One must be worthy of survival.”

-Commander Adama



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