This article by Alex Hollings was originally published by SOFREP
During my recent appearance on SOFREP Radio, I said something that wasn’t true. No, I don’t mean accidentally calling Rich Froning (Crossfit Champion) Rich Franklin (former UFC Champion) though I did do that too… I mean when I said that I was a “late blooming” nerd that embraced things like Star Trek as an adult, once I was certain my tough guy resume had enough bullet points on it to keep my ego intact throughout my twilight years. The truth of the matter is, I was always a nerd, I just used to hide it.
I grew up playing sports, hanging out in locker rooms and picking fights like the sort of punk that so often ends up enlisting into the U.S. Marine Corps – but when I wasn’t trying desperately to convince the world that I was a big tough guy, I was home on the couch, drinking hot chocolate and watching re-runs of “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” I knew admitting that at school wasn’t going to win me any tough-guy accolades or girl’s phone numbers, so I usually just left that part out of casual conversation, intent instead on convincing the world at large that I was the sort of brooding tough guy I so hoped they saw me as.
Now, as an adult, I did find a renewed passion for the shows that so enraptured me in my youth: above the fireplace in my living room, there hangs an oil paining of Brisco County Jr. and his faithful horse Comet – the wild west bounty hunter that taught me that there didn’t have to be a difference between being a tough guy and being a well educated one. My years watching the X-Files still informs my approach to some content I write to this day – but no single fictional character has had a greater impact on the man I became – the Marine I became, than the Captain of the Federation’s flag ship, NCC 1701-D Enterprise: Jean Luc Picard. And I don’t just mean because the man handles being stabbed through the heart like this… but I do have to admit, seeing this as a child left a lasting impression.
Although my father was a veteran and I grew up surrounded by others that had served, I never interacted with active duty service members until I was one myself, and anyone that knows vets can tell you the general demeanor exhibited by veterans telling stories about their days in service is far from the behavior one might expect in uniform. When someone asks me about the times I found myself standing tall in front of First Sergeants and Lieutenant Colonels for my mistakes, I recount the tale as though I was as salty before my leaders as I am today… but in truth, I was standing at a crisp parade rest, responding with aye sirs and good to go’s. The Marine Corps is, to a large extent, built on discipline, and as a Marine the prided himself in being good at what he did, that discipline was a big part of who I was.
The higher calling of duty was paramount to Picard – and as far as he was concerned, those who didn’t share the understanding didn’t deserve to wear the uniform.
And I learned that recognition of authority, that understanding that the chain of command outweighs your feelings regardless of how strong they are, from my time watching Star Trek. When Lieutenant Worf started bending Star Fleet’s rules to clear his family’s name, Captain Picard was there to stop him, even though he supported the cause. When Picard was captured by the Cardassian, Gul Madred, and tortured for information regarding Federation defenses, he chose torment over even the simplest of allowances, like agreeing that there were five lights shining above him, when in truth, there were only four.
“Torture has never been a reliable means of extracting information.” Picard said in 1992. That sentiment would be echoed by Secretary of Defense James Mattis more than a decade and a half later in discussions with now president Donald Trump.
As a child, I couldn’t understand the choice to suffer pain over just telling the alien what he wanted to hear, but even then I understood the rationale: being hurt, even dying isn’t as important as the greater cause. In the face of overwhelming adversity, it’s those small allowances that lead to great failures.
However, he also drew distinct moral lines when it came to what you could justify in the name of that greater purpose.
“You cannot explain away a wantonly immoral act because you think it is connected to some higher purpose.” Picard declared when an alien species used other intelligent beings without their permission to pursue peace.
Time and time again, as the series wore on, the crew found themselves facing extreme danger, even seemingly inevitable death, but they never wavered in their commitment to the chain of command. They didn’t question their captain, and in the few instances where this trust was violated, repercussions were immediate. The Federation, like the United States, liked to play the role of the peace keeper, but in a fight, you had a place, and you were expected to stay in it.
That isn’t to say that Captain Picard was unwilling to hear the concerns or complaints of his staff when presented in the appropriate and respectful manner. In fact, as much as Star Trek taught me to embrace the structure of military living, it also taught me that good leaders, the ones that really make a difference, listen as much as they speak. They’re level headed, and they’re willing to carry the burden of their decisions, even while accepting the input from those around them.
“In my experience, communication is a matter of patience and imagination. I would like to believe that these are qualities that we have in sufficient measure.” Picard told his crew.
Picard saw each action of his ship and his crew as a representation of the Federation as a whole, just as I saw my actions in uniform as representative of the United States and the branch of service I called my own. If you were to take away the starry backdrop, the photon torpedoes, and the colorful opponents, Star Trek would ultimately be a clinic in how naval operations are run – with strong leadership, a committed crew, and an appreciation for duty over self.
“It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness. That is life.” He taught his android science officer, Lieutenant Commander Data, and in doing so, he taught a 12 year old me.
Picard and his intrepid crew served as ambassadors of the Federation’s way of life, as explorers seeking knowledge, and when called upon to do so, as warriors defending the rights and lives of sentient beings, of people, in the face of overwhelming odds. In my mind, that’s exactly what America’s military does each day, the world over. We tend to think of the military as strictly a war fighting apparatus, but America’s military, in many parts of the globe, serves as a stabilizing presence, rather than a war fighting one – just as the Enterprise and her crew did on so many missions, but if enemies of peace, freedom, or the greater good appeared on the horizon, Captain Jean Luc Picard would be there, holding the line.
Star Trek, through its various iterations, has led to advancements in space science, has encouraged young engineers and researchers to develop new technologies that we had previously only dreamed of – but to a young man that grew up in a rough household and never particularly excelled at math or science, “Star Trek: The Next Generation” offered me something more. The science, the space ships, the alien species… they were all interesting enough, but to me, it was the people, the crew, risking their lives for a purpose they recognized as bigger than they were that inspired me. Star Trek showed me what discipline and self sacrifice can offer. Star Trek, in a very real way, taught me how to be a good Marine.
And while I served alongside no shortage of incredible officers, none have had such a lasting effect on who I am than a fictional Frenchman, played by a Brit, doing battle with poorly costumed foes. It was out there, in the depths of fictional space, that I learned very real lessons about humanity, about life, and about the service I would one day come to pursue.
Captain Picard’s wisdom, based in history, both real and fictional, but presented in a futurescape so fantastic, I’m not certain our species could ever actually attain, still speaks to me today – perhaps because our society has grown increasingly divided. As we use our own advanced technology, and the digital weapons of our day, to tear one another down, I’m reminded of one more important Picard speech; one about military justice, and honoring the Constitution. You may think a space show is silly, or maybe you just like Star Wars better… but moments like this shaped me as a child, and made me into the man I am.
For that, I’ll always be grateful.