Of Bonds and Bands: Alliances, Military Doctrine and Warfare in The Lord of the Rings – Part II

September 18, 2014

In the previous post, I explored what The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) had to tell us about when and why alliances came to life and what obstacles they needed to overcome. In this post, I ponder a couple of more practical issues that have a bearing on what makes alliances effective.

Shock and awe

In all discussion of NATO’s current plans, two words appear more than others: deterrence and reassurance. We aim to deter the adversary with new, better equipped, and faster forces, say NATO officials. We build them up so that we never have to use them. But this is not enough: the sine qua non of deterrence is not possession of capabilities, but convincing the adversary that one is willing to use them. Morale and decisiveness are key ingredients of credibility and are as important, if not more, than capabilities. Technological shock and awe is insufficient.

Shock and awe is a significant part of American military planning. U.S. troops are not to go to war unless they can utilize a force so much larger and more technologically advanced that an adversary will retreat in shock and awe at the assault. But LOTR offers a curious inversion of this paradigm: shock and awe comes to, not from, those with greater numbers and supreme technology. Twice—once at Helm’s Deep and once at the gates of Minas Tirith—are the numerically superior and nearly victorious orcs thrown into disarray by the appearance of a smaller, worse armed, but more determined force from Rohan. True, the Rohan force is based on cavalry, which gives them an edge over orc infantry; they also seem to have the sun behind them, which certainly helps. But this is not decisive: what seems to matter here is not numbers supported by technology, but rather an army with morale and nothing to lose.

Similarly, shock and awe on the part of Sauron and Saruman also only achieve limited effects. When the Grond, the enormous fire-spitting battering ram breaks through the defenses at Minas Tirith and lets through chainmail-adorned trolls, Gandalf’s face freezes in horror, but only momentarily. He and the Gondor knights adjust quickly. Even more striking is the sequence on the Minas Tirith battlefield. Facing newly arrived warriors riding elephants, the Rohan cavalry falters, but not for long. They quickly regroup and find ways to neutralize the elephants. Shock and awe are not enough to dampen a stubborn spirit, which may well regroup and find a way to undercut the giant. This is something well worth remembering, and important for NATO: without a glue of community to support its capabilities, it might end up as an empty shell.

Band of brothers

LOTR dabbles in abstract concepts: freedom, solidarity, and alliance. But these abstract concepts exact a very concrete human (and elvish) price, and the film doesn’t shy away from it. Haldir, Aragorn’s friend who led the relief of Helm’s Deep, dies for the alliance; Boromir is brought down by the Uruk-hai while defending the hobbits; and Eomer’s grief at thinking his sister dead, or Eowyn’s at her uncle’s passing, are harrowing. But there is more to individual, personal relationships than death and grief. The Gimli-Legolas banter helps to bridge a divide between two groups with sour history and not much in common. Aragorn, related to elves and brought up among them, also makes alliances more palatable. When the elves arrive to support Helm’s Deep, Haldir tells King Theoden, “An alliance once existed between elves and men. Long ago we fought and died together. We come to honor that allegiance.” The last sentence is delivered straight to Aragorn, not to Theoden; it’s as if his presence at Theoden’s side made the sacrifice easier to justify.

Personal relationships also underpin the “band of brothers” effect, where soldiers volunteer because others have and fight for those next to them. Merry the hobbit wants to go to battle because all his friends have gone; Eowyn fights not only because she seeks valor, but also because of her feelings for Aragorn and for the men in her family. Individual qualities matter for leadership, too. Identification with Theoden, Aragorn, and Gandalf as leaders lets the soldiers withstand increasingly ferocious assaults. Interestingly, however, the LOTR brand of leadership is collegiate: it shifts and is shared as some falter and others pick up the slack. Theoden pulls up Aragorn, only to be encouraged by him later; Gandalf rouses the scared garrison at Minas Tirith, but would not achieve much without Aragorn’s and Theoden’s efforts. Even among the hobbits, Pippin, the more carefree of the two, steps in with his own idea when Merry has given up.

All of this illuminates the importance of rotating soldiers through task forces and common exercises, so that something approaching a multinational band of brothers, with some who act as its leaders, can emerge. But this should not stop at soldiers. Article V leaves the final decision as to when and how assistance should be offered to allies up to individual members. For solidarity to become less abstract, a band of brothers needs to exist not only among the soldiers, but also among political leaders.

Overall, LOTR delivers a message far from simple and yet optimistic: with all the weakness, the bickering, and the mistrust, there is a way to bridge differences when necessary. With central planning and central authority limited to Elrond’s preaching and Gandalf’s cajoling, threatening, leading by example, and outright mischief, the sum of the moving parts of the Middle Earth alliance is still to be reckoned with. Despite the differences, in the end most will come together; it won’t be all of them, and they won’t make equal contributions. But that’s how alliances tend to work. What they eventually and grudgingly put together—just in the nick of time, for dramatic effect—might just be enough.


Karolina MacLachlan earned her PhD in the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. She currently works as Research and Policy Officer for Transparency International-UK Defence and Security Programme, but this article is published in her personal capacity and does not express the views of Ti-UK on NATO, alliances, orcs, or anything else discussed within.