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Some Thoughts on Kirk as Military Leader

Cross-posted from Daily Kos

James T. Kirk, CAPT, Star Fleet Command is an . . . interesting . . .  character.

In the early episodes of the series (for example The Corbinite Maneuver) , William Shatner played CAPT Kirk as highly formal and a bit of a martinet.  Given the character’s situation, a man young for his rank given an important . . . and very . . . independent . . .  command, this is what a good officer would do.

As time went on, and Kirk got the measure of his officers and crew (and they of him), he became less formal but never overly familiar.  There were apparent bonds of deep, mutual respect between the leader and his command, the ideal situation in a military or naval unit.  (It was odd how palpable this was given William Shatner’s reputedly strained relationship with his fellow cast members.)

CAPT Kirk, in many of the episodes, demonstrated the proper balance between seeking the performance of his mission and seeking the welfare of his command.  While many critics have commented on CAPT Kirk’s unusual willingness to put himself at risk, it seems a natural reaction for a good officer leading a command in dangerous operations, where casualties were, if not high, then not uncommon.

This would be especially true if the officer in question were relatively junior in grade and had only recently been an XO/First Officer (in Kirk’s case on USS FARRAGUT, where he would serve as acting Commander after his possible inaction lead to the death of his commander), leading landing parties as part of his duties, and where that officer had two officers, CDR Spock and LCDR Scott, who had a strong, demonstrated aptitude for ship-based command, but who were arguably less capable at leading landing parties.  (Remember an episode called Gallileo VII, which was apparently Spock’s first independent command of a landing party as a full Commander?)

One of the things I thought very realistic about the original series was that CAPT Kirk was not the expert on ship’s system that LCDR Scott was or the expert on navigation that LT Sulu was or on communications that LT (JG) Uhura was, but that he was able to use their knowledge in particular areas, as a generalist, to solve tactical and operational problems.  (That William Shatner apparently hated this particular aspect of the show, but played this trait very effectively, is another sign that he was a very . . .  underrated . . . television actor.)

CAPT Kirk also had a substantial leadership challenge in developing his XO,  LCDR (later CDR) Spock, an individual whose Vulcan heritage both could inspire prejudiced (remember the Lieutenant/Helmsman/Weapons Officer in Balance of Terror. who clearly had a problem with Vulcans .  .  .  and how Kirk, quietly and effectively, let him know he would not have that behavior from his Bridge crew?) and would potentially limit him in developing the emotional bonds which are probably critical to commanding human beings.  Kirk was able both to use Spock’s encyclopedic knowledge (he was fully as much Kirk’s N-2/Intelligence Officer as his Science Officer) to reach sound and timely decisions and to allow CDR Spock to obtain the greater insight into the human condition that would make him more competitive for selection for independent command and promotion to Captain.

I think Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry must have been a good officer during his WWII service as a bomber pilot.  I think Star Trek producer Gene Coon must have been a good Marine in World War II and must have  had some interesting conversations with Audie Murphy on the set of the film he wrote for Murphy, No Name on the Bullet.

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