Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is the ultimate “all-destroying but unconquering” revenge story with the protagonist Captain Ahab spending is entire life unsuccessfully destroying the white whale that destroyed his life. The hauntingly tragic tale witnesses a man so inflamed with emotional rage due to a perceived injustice that he is willing to sacrifice everything, pay whatever cost, and take whatever irrational action to exact his revenge against the perpetrator of injustice. Ahab therefore is an adversary one must take extreme caution of as his irrational rage drives any and all actions in order to receive the end goals.
Moby Dick has inspired many modern tales, especially Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which is considered the best Star Trek movie in the franchise. Nicholas Meyer, the film’s director, saved the franchise with a masterful and multilayered story pitting two distinctly different leaders and leadership perspectives in an interstellar battle of wits balanced with emotional response. Two leaders who approach problem solving differently, with an irrational antagonist willing to inflict pain on a specific person no matter the collateral damage while the protagonist accepts the consequences of his past actions.
The Wrath of Khan sees the return of Khan Noonien Singh who was a Star Trek The Original Series character who was genetically modified leader from the Eugenics Wars on Earth. In his failed attempts to take over the starship Enterprise, Captain James Kirk banished him and his followers to a remote planet. During the time Khan was “marooned,” his wife and others were killed by a series of unfortunate events thus adding to his trauma and feeding his unhinged hatred for James Kirk. When presented with the Federation Starship Reliant to escape his unhopeful situation, Khan’s number one priority is not to escape but exact revenge for his injustices even against the wishes of his remaining followers. His revenge is a “dish best served cold.”
Enter now Admiral James Kirk, who while celebrating his 50th-something birthday contemplates his career decisions and the consequences of living a career minded life that now has him leading from a desk. Kirk joins Captain Spock and the original crew on a training voyage comforted with familiar scenes of starship operations. These interactions with a young crew soothes his discomfort with the decisions he has made.
The Enterprise crew receives a message from Dr. Carol Marcus, Kirk’s old romantic interest with whom the relationship soured, regarding the seizure of her scientific research. Marcus’s message puzzles Kirk as he had no information related to these orders and therefore the Enterprise crew investigates the matter. What Kirk does not know, Khan has utilized the stolen Federation starship to lure Kirk to his death using his previous romantic interest and her scientific work. Khan has no boundaries in his approaches to hunt Kirk.
What proceeds is a cat and mouse game where Khan takes an early advantage of anonymity and cripples the Enterprise. “But I wanted you to know first who it was who had beaten you,” Khan states over the view screen to a stunned Kirk. Khan’s confidence blinds him to Kirk’s leadership experience as Kirk and crew use a hidden capability taking control of Reliant’s command console making the ship an easy target.
Khan escapes to fight another day while Kirk witnesses the death and destruction his relaxed decision making wrought upon the crew. The two meet for a second time later as Kirk and crew face a Starfleet officer assassin who Khan manipulates to kill Kirk. From this failed attempt, Kirk realizes Khan will do anything, no matter the cost, to punish Kirk for his transgressions. This brings about the famous film quote: “KHAAAAANNNNN!” as the Enterprise crew are left marooned on a cold moon. Resourceful Kirk utilizes his operational experience and passes along false information that allows the Enterprise to regroup and prepare for the final battle.
The Battle of the Mutara Nebula is where the irrational character meets the person who does not like to lose. Kirk and crew use the nebula as the great equalizer as all the advantages the Reliant has over the Enterprise are neutralized and now the battle becomes one of exploiting an opportunity. Khan had the ability to turn and run, but Kirk realizes the way to beat Khan is to stoke his inflamed passions that his ego has blinded. Fighting culminates as Enterprise gains the advantage and disables Reliant leaving Khan mortally injured yet unwilling to surrender and ready to kill everyone to deliver his revenge.
There are multiple lessons military members can learn from this movie, but the major lessons come from the battle between the irrational character and the one that does not like to lose. First, is that the irrational character is extremely dangerous and to make matters worse when they have supreme skills and capabilities one should be wary of their threat calculus. These individuals will, if necessary, not hesitate to sacrifice themselves or their organization to maintain what it is they find valuable. There is no room for compromise nor is this this person willing to logically address grievances.
“But I wanted you to know first who it was who had beaten you,” Khan triumphantly states to Kirk and crew following the crippling of Enterprise. His pride in ensnaring his target and watching Kirk’s destruction was the justice he saw that was needed. Khan’s pride blinded him to the threat of a more experienced Kirk could bring to bare. Hubris claims another victim.
Wrath of Khan teaches us the best way to defeat the irrational character is to exploit these emotional vulnerabilities and lapses of logic. Kirk realizes the best way for his disadvantaged crew to gain the advantage is to exploit Khan’s lack of wartime experience and to use their understanding of how things operate. “You must learn why things work on a starship,” Kirk coaches Lt Saavik when she asks why they need Reliant’s command console prefix code. In his haste to taste vengeance or his lack of knowledge, Khan never changed the prefix code therefore Kirk and crew could exploit this vulnerability.
If someone finds that their adversary has better capabilities, intelligence, or fighting position, one must exploit vulnerabilities that the adversary never appreciated or knew about. Former Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld famously said there are unknown unknowns or “the things we do not know that we do not know.” Not only must one always be willing to learn, but when engaging an irrational character, one must find the vulnerability the irrational character does not know about.
We see this today with the Russo-Ukrainian War. The NATO alliance can not respond to an aggressive Russian invasion of a non-NATO country due to the escalatory actions towards nuclear war. Instead, NATO is adjusting their gameplans to engage Russia on terms Russia was not expecting nor prepared to receive.
Khan is bleeding and drags himself to the Genesis weapon console, activates the weapon, and prepares to destroy everyone. Kirk who says in the movie that he does not like to lose ends up paying the big price as he faces death as there is a true no-win scenario. In order for Kirk and crew to survive, he must sacrifice his best friend Spock and faced death for his first time after many situations that he says he has “cheated death.”
This ties into the second lesson: the person who does not like to lose must be prepared to pay a price if they must win. We tend to think that when one wins they meet all their objectives on their own terms. Of course that is an alternative, but rarely does an organization or leader meet their objectives without paying a cost. Most of the time we may not realize the cost as an organization, but there are times when the costs are painful and perhaps have long lasting repercussions on those who are impacted.
In the military we see this everyday: leaders who work their people to no ends, squadrons with high divorce rates or poor morale, and office politics that are rather pathetic. We are an organization built upon the idea that each of us (yes, even generals) are expendable to reach an objective so when we lose members while in combat or from suicides after they return, each of us must remember our actions have repercussions and we must face those circumstances.
Examine the U.S. withdraw from Afghanistan. Following 20 years of failed investment, the entire U.S. mission rallied at the Kabul Airport to make a final stand allowing for a withdrawal of people. Not only were thousands of American and Allied forces withdrawn, but thousands of Afghan nationals were rescued from certain death following years of assisting the mission. The cost for that mission: 13 dead American military members, killed from a suicide attack that killed over a hundred Afghans. We as leaders must fully appreciate the consequences of our actions and decisions at all levels.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is well-done movie and the special effects hold up well considering the movie was produced in the early 1980s. The most impressive feature if the film score James Horner composed providing the dueling themes and powerful melodies. Fun fact: William Shatner and Ricardo Montalban did not record one scene together.
All these lessons and components put together make this movie a classic. One needs to watch this movie several times to gather all the military lessons hidden away in this adventure. This will be a movie we shall comeback to discover more lessons.