After the Intrepid captures Admiral Tolwyn in Wing Commander IV's Peleus series, Blair tells him that he hasn't defected because the Union of Border Worlds isn't officially at war with the Confederation. Tolwyn replies: "We weren’t ‘officially’ at war with the Kilrathi either, but there were two sides. And defection was the only possible movement between them." But… is that true? Let's look at all the references to how the Terran-Kilrathi Wars were 'officially' declared.
What is a Declaration of War?
A declaration of war is a formal statement from the government of a nation that a state of war exists between it and another party. Depending on the government, declarations of war typically give a leadership greater emergency powers, especially dealing with how they are allowed to use their military forces. In the United States, declarations of war must be approved by Congress in order to grant the President such powers. There have been very few formal declarations of war since World War II, largely a result of changes in the legalities of war.
The process by which the Terran Confederation Senate votes on a declaration of war was seen in some detail in Wing Commander IV, where whether or not they choose to declare war on the newly-formed Union of Border Worlds is a major part of the game's story. The novel Fleet Action also shows some of the limitations of not having a state of war declared: during the 'false peace' period in the novel the Confederation is unable to legally launch any offensive operations, preventing them from striking the inbound Kilrathi fleet before it reaches Confederation space.
Wing Commander (1990)
Claw Marks is the first source to mention that the Confederation declared war on the Kilrathi. The short timeline breakouts explain that war was formally declared by the Terran Conferation on the Empire of Kilrah on July 5, 2634. It's interesting to note that the declaration of war precedes the Kilrathi attack on McAuliffe by about two months; the Confederation has declared war because of ongoing piracy rather than a Pearl Harbor style attack.
On 2634.186, war is formally declared by the Terran Confederation on the Empire of Kilrah for countless acts of piracy and unwarranted assault.
A nearly identical entry is included in the timeline in Wing Commander Armada's Voices of War (1994).
On 2634.186, the Terran Confederation officially declares war on the Empire of Kilrah for committing countless acts of piracy and unwarranted assault.
Wing Commander III (1994)
Wing Commander III's Victory Streak manual continues the story introduced in Claw Marks and adds a fair amount of detail about the attacks that led to the July 5, 2634 declaration of war including the specific attack that finally moved the Confederation to act, the destruction of the Anna Magdelena. It also mentions some of the diplomacy that preceded the war, including failed attempts to meet with the Kilrathi government.
The Terran Confederation receives numerous reports of unwarranted assault, space piracy, kidnapping and interplanetary plundering, all taking place at an increasingly expanding distance from the planet Kilrah. Frequent attempts to meet with Kilrathi High Command are rejected without explanation. In retaliation, the Terran Confederation Congress votes unanimously to enforce a strict nonaggression policy by the Kilrathi. The leaders of Kilrah are warned that their next transgression could lead to military reprisals.
The Anna Magdelena, a refitted transport ship ferrying orphans to their new homes on Dieno, is openly attacked by a pair of Kilrathi fighters. No one survives. In retaliation for this and the five-year string of equally heinous abuses of all known laws of civility, the Terran Confederation officially declares war on the Empire of Kilrah.
Wing Commander Prophecy (1997)
Origin's Official Guide to Wing Commander Prophecy offers a similar take on the beginning of the war, although it adds some small details about the lack of diplomacy between the Confederation and the Kilrathi leading up to the war.
The Kilrathi were first encountered by the Terran Confederation scout ship Iason in 2629. About 20 minutes after first contact, and without previous communication, a Kilrathi ship destroyed the Iason. For the next four years the Kilrathi refused -- violently -- all offers of trade (other than the occasional ransom) or diplomacy, while steadily expanding their piratical operations into Confed Space. In 2634, after the unprovoked destruction of an unarmed transport filled with children, Confed formally declared war on Kilrah.
Wing Commander Action Stations (1998)
The novel Action Stations, which tells the story of the first days of the war, includes a news release announcing that war has been declared. The Action Stations story follows the original Claw Marks timeline exactly but in order to make the McAuliffe Ambush, which is the centerpiece of the novel, more equivalent to Pearl Harbor, Dr. Forstchen significantly downplays the initial declaration of war as a limited action targeting only those responsible for piracy in frontier sectors. We are also told when the announcement was made, at 6 PM GMT.
CONFEDERATION NEWS NETWORK
DATELINE: OFFICE OF THE PRESIDENT
OF THE CONFEDERATION
This evening at 6:00 p.m., GMT Earth, the President announced that a state of war now exists between the Confederation and the Kilrathi Empire. Elements of Task Force Twenty-three have crossed into Kilrathi territory in the Facin Sector on a punitive expedition against supposed centers from which Kilrathi raids had been launched into Confederation territory.
When asked about the scope of the war the President declared that the war is limited in scope and that it is not the intention of the Confederation to seek what he called "a battle of annihilation which can only serve to destroy both sides." When asked to clarify this point, the President stated that it is believed that the attacks along our border were not necessarily actions directed by the Emperor but rather might very well be the activities of rival clan or family leaders seeking to provoke a general war. Our actions, therefore, will be directed solely against those sectors from which verified attacks have previously been launched. Due to the limited nature of this conflict the President made it clear that he does not wish to bring about a general war and has conveyed such sentiments to the Emperor in an open message on a frequency known to be monitored by the Kilrathi. He closed by declaring that the war can be ended at any time when the Kilrathi make a clear effort to bring these provocative factions under control.
Wing Commander (1999)
The opening credits to the Wing Commander movie tell the story of the series' future from the 1960s to the start of the movie in 2654 through a series of stills and audio clips. One of these clips seems to be a news story adapting the original war declaration story: the Confederation is attempting to end Kilrathi attacks diplomatically but ultimately announces the declaration of war instead. The only thing that stands out is that it specifies the war begins at 6 AM instead of the 6 PM stated in Action Stations, though this is easily either a different time zone (New Zealand if it's on Earth!) or a case of the war having formally started at 6 AM but not having been announced by the president until after Task Force 23 began their maneuvers in the Facin Sector.
With escalating tension in the Vega sector... the whole Confederation is on a knife edge. Will these unprovoked attacks continue? Will the diplomatic probes be successful? We can only hope...
I regret to report... that all diplomatic avenues with the Kilrathi... have been exhausted. It is now clear they have no interest... in coexisting with us or any other race. It is my sad duty to inform you... that as of Six A.M. this morning... we are formally at war with the Kilrathi. God help us all.
Wing Commander Confederation Handbook (1999)
Things become somewhat more confused in the media associated with the movie. The Wing Commander Confederation Handbook includes an excerpt from an in-universe encyclopedia on the history of the Terran-Kilrathi War which claims two other dates for the start of the war: January 7, 2639, following attacks on two human colonies, and January 9, 2641 in the introduction. Which might make you say… huh?! First of all, it's extremely likely the fact that there are two dates is simply a copyediting mistake that missed that the two dates on different pages needed to be the same. But in either event, that's one or two declarations of war that are half a decade or more removed from what was already established.
On the surface, that is because the Confederation Handbook decided to shift the Kilrathi conflict several years to make room for the Pilgrim War in the early 2630s. Many have wondered why this 'change' was made to Wing Commander's well-established history when nothing in the movie itself seems to necessitate such a reset. The answer has to do with when the Confederation Handbook went to press. One major element of Wing Commander's post production were the introductory credits, which Chris Roberts wanted to use to set the scene, explaining the background of the Confederation, Pilgrims and Kilrathi. But developing that idea took quite a while, with attempts that ranged from a Star Wars style opening crawl, a monologue from Freddie Prinze Jr.'s Blair introducing the setting and then ultimately the more subtle collection of quotes and sketches played over a map of the galaxy that appeared in the final film. Development of the credits was still continuing when HarperEntertainment needed the book to be finalized and printed (some months before the release of the movie). At the time, the plan was for the movie to begin with this introduction read by Blair:
The Pilgrim wars ended 20 years ago. Nobody knows how they started. The history books describe it as the civil war to end all wars. 3 Billion dead and the destruction of the Pilgrim home worlds. All that was left was hate. I should know. My mother was a Pilgrim. My name is Lieutenant Christopher Blair and today I'm off to fight in a new war. This time it's not about territory or independence. It's about survival, for finally we've encountered a race that makes our ability to wage war seem primitive: the Kilrathi, two thousand years of uninterrupted conquest until they met us. Because we have something they don't - The Navcom A.I. a computer with the capacity to chart and navigate black holes and quasars. It's the equalizer - the tool that allows us to travel through deep space, keep the Kilrathi off balance and away from the Confederation homeworlds.
Ironically, this was soon after replaced by an updated version in which twenty was changed to forty, which would've made it very easy to keep the original timeline intact.
History of the Terran-Kilrathi War
The Terran Confederation and the Kilrathi Empire first came into contact on 2638.229, and conflict ensued immediately. On 2641.009, Confed formally declared war. From that day to the present, conflict has continued unabated, and the Kilrathi have uniformly refused any offers of cease-fire, truce or negotiation. At present, neither side possesses any clear-cut strategic advantage, and there are no signs of any abatement of aggression.
Following the Iason incident, Confed interdicted all non-military exploratory, trade and colonization activity beyond the Vega sector frontier. At the same time they began a coordinated covert scouting operation to determine the extent of Kilrathi dominion. By the end of '38, Confed analysts had determined that the Kilrathi sphere of influence was at least equal to, and possibly greater than, that of humanity. Four separate envoys (under heavy escort) were sent into Kilrathi space in an attempt to at least open up lines of communication, but all such efforts were met by armed aggression. (All four missions were able to retreat under fire back to Confed space.)
The conflict escalated on 2639.006, when a Kilrathi carrier group attacked and destroyed the agricultural colony on Hellespont, an unarmed settlement of assimilated Pilgrims. 82,000 humans were either killed or enslaved in that attack. About 12 hours later, a similar force attacked the shipping port of Tartarus, but that colony was able to hold out until reinforcements arrived from Brimstone Naval Station, and the Kilrathi withdrew after 48 hours of heavy fighting. On 2639.007 less than eight hours after news of the attacks reached Terra the Confederation Senate passed a formal declaration of war against Kilrah.
A Separate Peace, Then Additional War
As mentioned in the introduction, the novel Wing Commander Fleet Action technically does introduce an additional declaration of war against the Kilrathi. The book centers around the Kilrathi asking for an armistice and then secretly dispatching a powerful new fleet to attack Earth during the peace. Towards the end of the book, as the Kilrathi carriers enter Confederation space, the Senate approves a new declaration of war.
The changes in the Handbook have always been one of my least favorite things introduced around the movie, which is a shame on the surface because the book is a wealth of amazing Wing Commander background lore. So is it possible to reconcile these disparate declarations in a single continuity (note 'possible' rather than 'necessary')? Yes! Consider that a simple American history of World War II might say that the war began with Pearl Harbor, on December 7, 1941, or possibly that the war was declared the next day by Congress on December 8. But that's not the whole of it at all: in fact, the United States issued three separate declarations of war over the course of more than six months: Japan on December 8, Germany and Italy on December 11 and then Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary on June 5 of the next year. This last set of countries were allies of Nazi Germany and it was considered wrong at the time to engage in fighting in their territory without a formal declaration of war. And that's just declarations BY the United States.
Could the same be true of Wing Commander? Multiple declarations of war, potentially against multiple definitions of the Empire? Yes, but it might require a reconsideration of the history of the early war. Action Stations very clearly specifies the original July 5, 2634 declaration is "limited in scope" and is aimed not at the Emperor but at the raiders bordering the Confederation. Since the Kilrathi are divided into clans which control different regions, that might mean that the initial declaration of war that we're familiar with was specifically against only, perhaps, the Caxki who are known to control space adjacent to the Confederation. Additionally, it has been established that the Terran Confederation is just one of several allies in the war against the Kilrathi; the others may all have their own declarations.
Instead of throwing out the Confederation Handbook article, it could be seen instead as detailing the early days of the war in a way we had not previously assumed. Very little has ever been specified save the McAuliffe Ambush in 2634 and the Enyo Engagement in 2639. What if the first five years of the war differed from later engagements in some way? The Wing Commander Prophecy guide suggests exactly this:
The first five years of the war were perhaps the most hellish, with the Kilrathi unleashing massive blitzkriegs of suicide fighters at Confed fleets, and indiscrimnately employing weapons of mass destruction against civilian targets. Strategically, the first five years centered around the struggle for the Kilrathi-occupied world of McAuliffe, which was finally retaken by Confed in 2639, in a massive strategic ambush engineered by Captain Geoffrey Tolwyn.
There's a fair amount of history mentioned here that isn't repeatead elsewhere, especially the focus on McAuliffe for the first half-decade of the war. It's possible the battle centered around McAuliffe and random raids and strikes against frontier worlds while the Confederation attempted to establish diplomatic relations (as discussed in the Handbook). Perhaps the Empire waited until Enyo to launch another true invasion, which prompted the 2639 declaration. A functional timeline might work like this:
- 2634.186 - The Terran Confederation declares war on the regions along its borders.
- 2634.228-239 - The McAuliffe Ambush ends in a nominal Confederation victory but with severe damage to both fleets.
- 2634-2639 - Fighting continues; the Confederation, reeling from the losses at McAuliffe and the occupation of territory on the frontier, seeks a diplomatic solution. The Kilrathi launch violent attacks on human colonies but do not make another significant push towards the homeworlds. At some point, McAuliffe falls.
- 2639.006 - The Kilrathi attack a former Pilgrim Alliance agricultural colony causing heavy casualties.
- 2639.007 - The Senate declares war "on Kilrah" as a result of attacks on civilians at Brimstone and Tartarus.
- 2639.033-.042 - The Enyo Engagement widens the scope of the war.
- 2641.009 - The Senate finally declares war on the Kiranka or the entire Empire.
Is this interpretation necessary? No, but there are so few stories of the early war that it actually teeths together from known sources fairly well (there's also a date added to the Claw Marks timeline in the Super Famicom booklet which talks about a lengthy stalemate that starts in 2642). One added knock-on from this interpretation is that it explains both why different sources have different lengths for the war (generally ranging from thirty to thirty five years) and why some sources set later in the timeline, like the Wing Commander I & II Ultimate Strategy Guide, refer to 'Kilrathi Wars' rather than a singular Kilrathi War (though just the fact that Fleet Action involves an additional declaration of war in late 2668 alone could explain this).
If you know of another interesting reference to the Confederation's declarations of war against the Kilrathi be sure and let us know in the comments. Otherwise, the next time someone asks you how many times the Terran Confederation declared war on the Kilrathi you can decisively say between zero (Tolwyn in Wing Commander IV) and four (our count)!