Wounds, Spoons, and Ridges: The Education of Miles O’Brien

Lieutenant Stiles is a one-off character. He only shows up in “Balance of Terror” to be a bigot and learn the error of doubting Mr. Spock. He’s Federation. He’s Starfleet. But he’s not main cast. So it’s easy to think of him as an aberration. None of the crew — especially Kirk — evince any sympathy for Stiles, and so we don’t have to either. We don’t relate to Stiles.

For the fans of the 24th century Star Trek, though, there exists the most relatable of characters, Miles Edward O’Brien. And like Stiles, it turns out he’s got issues too. But they don’t resolve themselves simply in a single episode. Or series, for that matter.

In the fourth season Next Generation episode, “The Wounded,” we get O’Brien’s first really meaty dramatic arc. It’s also when we are introduced to the Cardassians. Just as Kirk raced to the Romulan Neutral Zone to preserve peace, so does Picard go to the Cardassian border. It seems that the tentative peace treaty between the Cardassians and the Federation is at risk when a rogue captain named Benjamin Maxwell is reported to have attacked Cardassian science outposts and cargo ships. Picard welcomes aboard Gul Macet and two glinns (lieutenants) to observe the Enterprise’s honest attempt to stop Maxwell. In a staff meeting, we learn that O’Brien served with Maxwell at Setlik III during the Federation/Cardassian War.

O’Brien is a pretty special character as he is the only one to go from a recurring guest star (on TNG) to a series regular (on DS9). Also, he’s the only series regular who is a non-commissioned officer and the only character with a relatively stable married life. He’s an extremely capable crewman, of course, but he’s just wonderfully regular. But there’s something off about O’Brien when it comes to the Cardassians, or as he occasionally — and derisively — calls them, Cardies. Cardassians are unique in the Trek universe for being the only alien race to have not one but two racial epithets that are used to against them, Cardies and spoonheads. I’ve always taken these insults to be the Cardassian equivalents of jerries and krauts, respectively. Mostly these slurs are said by Bajorans whom are typically not very big fans of Cardassians (you know, because of the whole genocide and occupation stuff). So there’s a lot of ill will there. And as we see in “The Wounded,” humans also bear a lot of ill will for the Cardassians.

Though O’Brien never uses either slur in “The Wounded,” he does say the next worst thing, “those people.” A Starfleet man — a Federation man — actually says, “It’s just, well, I know them. You learn to watch your back when you’re around those people.” Damn.

Old Leather

In the episode, Captain Picard says:

I think when one has been angry for a very long time, one gets used to it. And it becomes comfortable, like old leather. And, finally, it becomes so familiar that one can’t ever remember feeling any other way.

So why does O’Brien internalize all this distrust for the Cardassians then? Setlik III. Discussed many times but never seen, Setlik III was a major battleground during the Federation/Cardassian War in which Cardassians massacred what turned out to be a civilian settlement. Captain Maxwell lost his family there. And O’Brien lost his innocence: in a physical struggle with a Cardassian soldier, O’Brian was forced to grab a phaser and incinerate his foe. It was the first time he had ever killed a person.

Setlik III goes on to be a major component of O’Brien’s backstory. While we mainly know Chief O’Brien to be an engineer, he has a history as a soldier of some distinction, especially during the Cardassian War. It is also where the seeds of his distrust and outright prejudice towards the Cardassians were sown.

Of course all of the human characters in Trek have spoken about other species in broad generalizations at one point or another. Everyone in Starfleet seems to look down on the Ferengi for their sensual excesses and are often bemused at the overly ascetic Vulcans. And when you’re in diplomatic negotiations with Romulans, Cardassians, or Vorta, it’s generally understood that you don’t believe a word they’re saying.

keiko_obrien_und_rugalStill, the distrust O’Brien has for the Cardassians is something a little bit deeper. As one of the few married characters in Trek, we get to see some of the domestic life he shares with his wife Keiko. In the second season Deep Space Nine episode “Cardassians,” the O’Briens are made temporary caretakers to Rugal, a young Cardassian boy born and raised by Bajorans. When Miles learns that his daughter Molly had been playing with Rugal, he becomes indignant at Keiko’s folly for letting their daughter near a Cardassian. Keiko insists that Rugal was very gentle, to which O’Brien responds, “Gentle was bred out of these Cardassians a long time ago.” The invectiveness in his response is particularly telling here because unlike in most Trek situations — where there is often tension between officers on the eve of a battle — he’s speaking this way. To his wife. At dinner. With a Cardassian boy in the next room.

Shit runs deep.

But I don’t mind that he’s racist. In fact, it’s one of my favorite things about O’Brien. This undercurrent of distrust of the Cardassians is what makes him flawed and all too human. Lieutenant Stiles and Captain Maxwell hold their prejudices, but we’re separated from them as characters. O’Brien is one of us, and more importantly, he’s working through some stuff.

Daro and Rugal

Glinn Daro is one of Gul Macet’s aides in “The Wounded,” and while he only has two scenes, they’re both incredibly important when trying to understand O’Brien. In the first scene, the two are stuck in a turbolift together, yet O’Brien curtly refuses to make small talk.

Later after a conversation with Picard about Maxwell, O’Brien tries to make amends but he can’t quite do it.

O’Brien is being totally irrational, and moreover, he recognizes it. But he can’t escape it. Cardassians are a reminder of a dark page in his past. It isn’t until encountering Rugal — the aforementioned Cardassian youth — that O’Brien begins to let go of this distrust. After being raised by Bajorans, Rugal has developed a severe case of self-hatred. He hates Cardassians, and he hates being Cardassian. Whether intentionally or not, Rugal’s Bajoran upbringing has caused him to develop a deep sense of guilt for the actions of his people. When Keiko invites Rugal to dinner, she prepares traditional Cardassian food, both O’Brien and Rugal push away their plates. O’Brien sees this, sees how deeply Rugal has come to dislike himself because of his skin. It is through their shared hatred of Cardassians that allows O’Brien to finally see Rugal as an individual and thus, the error of not seeing him that way before. Consider this exchange between Miles and Rugal:

O’BRIEN: It must be tough for you, living on Bajor.


O’BRIEN: Being Cardassian.

RUGAL: That’s not my fault. I was born that way.

O’BRIEN: That’s not what I meant. There’s nothing wrong with being a Cardassian.

RUGAL: Yes, there is.

O’BRIEN: Who taught you that?

RUGAL: It’s the truth. Everybody knows it.

O’BRIEN: How do your parents feel about Cardassians?

RUGAL: They hate them.

O’BRIEN: Why would you want to live with someone who hates you?

RUGAL: They hate other Cardassians, not me. My parents have never done anything wrong to me.

O’BRIEN: Come on, even I got my bottom whacked by my Dad once or twice.

RUGAL: Not me. My parents follow the teachings of the Prophets. What do you think of Cardassians?

O’BRIEN: Me? Well, I can’t say, really.

RUGAL: Why not?

O’BRIEN: Well, you can’t judge a whole race of people. You can’t hate all Cardassians or all Klingons or all humans. I’ve met some Cardassians I didn’t like, and I’ve met some I did. Like you.

RUGAL: Do you know how many Bajorans the Cardassians murdered during the occupation? Over ten million. We had a test on it in school. I wish I wasn’t Cardassian.

I empathize with O’Brien. Not with his racism, but with his fear and his sense of helplessness. That he recognizes the error of his racism doesn’t excuse it, but it does let me understand it. And I think that provides a way forward. I love O’Brien. I want to go play in the holosuites with him and Bashir. But I also want to help him.

One thought on “Wounds, Spoons, and Ridges: The Education of Miles O’Brien

  1. As you point out, O’Brien (a chief, an enlisted man in a Starfleet in which we’ve only ever gotten to know officers) is the rare regular human character in which we’re allowed to see racism or discrimination still extant in a Roddenberryesque universe in which humanity is supposed to have gotten over that sort of thing. Yes, in other series, we get to see human xenophobia as a plot device, but our heroes, our main characters, are usually set above and beyond it. However, the multiple shows seems to not have such an issue with regular characters who are not human. Through allegory played out in story arcs involving, for example, Klingons, Cardassians, Bajorans, and the Dominion, we get classic science fictional tales of real-life antipathies displaced onto fantastical alien species. What does it mean, then, for the bulk of these story lines to be relegated to non-humans in the allegorical story telling of the series?

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