Clausewitz as The Last Jedi? Culminating Points of Victory, Civil-Military Relations, and Strategy in Star Wars
Editor’s Note: Spoilers abound in this article. Warned, you have been!
In a scene from the latest Star Wars movie that likely sent a chill down the spine of professors, librarians, and graduate students alike, Luke Skywalker watches horrified as Master Yoda, in Force ghost form, sets ablaze an ancient tree that housed a small collection of sacred Jedi texts on the island planet of Ahch-To. “Time it is,” Master Yoda tells a flabbergasted Luke, “for you to look past a pile of old books.”
Yoda’s admonition might resonate with critics of Carl von Clausewitz who dismiss On War, his unfinished (and occasionally turgid) tome, as an artifact of a distant past. The battle sequences in Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, however, make clear that Resistance commanders would have benefited from the Prussian war theorist’s teachings a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. Indeed, perhaps they remain relevant for our own.
Dameron’s Dereliction of Duty and the “Culminating Point of Victory”
The Last Jedi illustrates how defiant military officers, emboldened by early operational successes, can undermine broader strategic objectives set by political leaders at a campaign’s outset. This is precisely the fate that befalls Poe Dameron (Oscar Issac), the Resistance’s top starfighter pilot, who disobeys the orders of General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) to pull back and instead directs a squadron of glacially slow Resistance bombers to take out a fearsome First Order dreadnought. Emboldened by the success they initially deliver during an evacuation of the Resistance base on D’Qar, Dameron’s starfighters ultimately destroy the dreadnought, but not before the First Order wipes out the entire Resistance bomber fleet and several escort vessels.
By pursuing tactical gains that extend beyond the operational objective at hand, Dameron proves himself susceptible to the same “victory disease” that Clausewitz diagnoses in 19th century military commanders. By insisting on the subordination of military means to the policy objectives they serve — and, by extension, the subordination of operational and tactical elements to overall military strategy — Clausewitz cautions in On War against the temptation of soldiers to pursue success in operational art at the expense of broader strategic imperatives.
In Dameron’s case, he trades the entire Resistance bombing fleet for the destruction of a single, replaceable First Order warship (albeit one with massive firepower). Doing so proves both operationally unnecessary in facilitating the Resistance evacuation and excessively costly through the mass slaughter of trained starfighter pilots needed for the Resistance’s survival.
By taking on the dreadnought, Dameron overshoots what Clausewitz (Book VII, Ch. 22) calls the “culminating point of victory,” the moment in battle that an attacking force, having achieved superiority over its adversary, ought to halt its advance and consolidate its gains rather than continue fighting. Clausewitz writes,
If one were to go beyond that point it would not merely be a useless effort which could not add to success. It would in fact be a damaging one, which would lead to a reaction; and experience goes to show that such reactions usually have completely disproportionate effects.
By fortifying one’s current position rather than extending it for some greater advantage, Clausewitz argues the attacker will be able to translate this battlefield superiority into strategic success in the larger engagement. “But one must know the point to which it can be carried in order not to overshoot the target,” Clausewitz cautions, “otherwise instead of gaining new advantages, one will disgrace oneself.”
Ironically, Dameron learns this lesson almost too well, because he undershoots this culminating point later during the Battle of Crait. Staging a last stand to protect the handful of surviving Resistance fighters who have taken refuge on the salt planet, Dameron leads a squadron of clunky land speeders to destroy the latest First Order superweapon: a powerful siege cannon with lasers that can obliterate hardened defenses. As the Resistance suffers heavy losses against the First Order’s AT-M6 walkers, Dameron orders the remaining fighters to fall back rather than continue in what amounts to a suicide mission against the First Order’s ground forces.
Although this restraint is induced by Dameron’s earlier losses, the retreat he orders once again appears divorced from the broader strategic realities at play. When Gen. Organa ordered Dameron to fall back when he took on the dreadnought, she did so because she wanted to preserve the Resistance starfighter fleet for future, more strategically significant operations.
By the time they arrive on Crait, the Resistance forces have been decimated, and they believe the only hope they have of surviving the First Order’s onslaught is to hold their position long enough for their Outer Rim allies (or a fortuitous pack of crystal foxes) to come to their rescue. Given that the Resistance was facing near-certain death, Dameron’s squadron should have done everything in its power to destroy the First Order cannon and thereby buy time, however fleeting, for their allies to arrive.
Challenges to the Resistance’s Chain of Command
In light of his track record, it’s no small wonder that critics have berated Dameron as “a terrible commander” and a cocky fighter pilot who should respect the chain of command. He certainly earns those stripes: He openly defies two of the Resistance’s top leaders — both of whom, perhaps not incidentally, are women — and even launches a short-lived coup against Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) after she refuses to read him into her strategy for evading the First Order’s hyperspace tracking capabilities.
Dameron’s penchant for provocation and clinching overwhelming victories reflects a well-documented tension in the civil-military relations literature that exists not only between political leaders and their military commanders but also among top generals and their lower-ranked subordinates. In his survey of Cold War crises through the 1970s, Richard Betts finds that theater commanders are often more likely than civilians and even their military superiors in the president’s circle of advisors to recommend strategies and levels of mobilization that use force massively and decisively.
Given Dameron’s narrower vantage point in the battlespace, it becomes understandable why he might be tempted to take advantage of the opportunity to deliver a devastating blow to the First Order’s seemingly endless arsenal of superweapons. The willingness of his superiors to intervene directly in tactical matters seems to run counter to Samuel Huntington’s classic argument that leaders can best exercise “objective” control over their own forces by deferring to the professional judgments of officers in matters of military expertise. Given that Dameron’s superiors refuse to give him a free hand in matters he perceives to be within his starfighting portfolio, his chafing against the chain of command may not be entirely unexpected.
This does not, however, mean it is justified. Because war is a continuation of politics by military means, its political purpose, according to Clausewitz, is the “supreme consideration” that must “permeate all military operations” and have “a continuous influence on them” (Book I, Ch. 1). There can be “no arbitrary line,” argues Eliot Cohen, “dividing civilian and military responsibilities, no neat way of carving off a distinct sphere of military action.” As the ultimate authorities empowered to determine the political course of the Resistance itself, Gen. Organa and Vice Adm. Holdo reserve every right to intervene in matters of intergalactic warfighting in order to ensure that, in Clausewitz’s terms, the Resistance’s military means serve its political ends.
Is Star Wars Clausewitzian? The Primacy of the Political Object in The Last Jedi
But are these ends, in fact, political? At first glance, the aims of the Resistance and the First Order in The Last Jedi appear remarkably apolitical. From the blare of the film’s opening trumpets to the rolling of its end credits, the Resistance remains committed to a single, overarching strategic objective: survival. For its part, the First Order is dedicated to the destruction of the remaining Resistance fighters.
The objectives of each side, then, appear unlimited and near-total in scope. Consequently, their starfighting tends towards Clausewitz’s “absolute” theoretical conception of war, where each side is unbridled by political constraints in exerting maximal strength and marshalling its full resources to disarm its enemy. According to Clausewitz,
The more powerful and inspiring the motives in war, the more they affect the belligerent nations and the fiercer the tensions that precede the outbreak, the closer will war approach its abstract concept, the more important will be the destruction of the enemy, the more closely will the military aims and the political objectives of the war coincide, and the more military and less political will war appear to be. (Book I, Ch. 1)
In assuming the strategic defensive throughout The Last Jedi, the Resistance privileges the preservation of its forces over all other considerations — a strategic objective that is almost entirely military in character and appears isolated from any broader political purpose. The fact that the Resistance’s surviving leaders are uniformly military commanders rather than civilians only serves to underscore this point.
The recession of political considerations from The Last Jedi, however, does not mean they don’t exist or exert their influence. In an unlimited war like the one between the Resistance and the First Order, the original motive would have been “rather overshadowed by the law of extremes, the will to overcome the enemy and make him powerless,” Clausewitz writes. “But as this law begins to lose its force and as this determination wanes, the political aim will reassert itself” (Book I, Ch. 1).
The events of The Last Jedi take place against a broader backdrop that is intensely political: an overarching struggle between a ragtag group of Resistance fighters and First Order militants over who rules the galaxy. To the disappointment of political scientists — and likely relief of moviegoers — much of this political intrigue is relegated to a series of Star Wars novels (specifically Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath trilogy and Claudia Gray’s Bloodline) that help bridge the gap between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens.
After the collapse of the Empire following the Battle of Endor, Chancellor Mon Mothma and the Galactic Senate of the recently inaugurated New Republic order the peacetime demobilization of as much as 90 percent of the central galactic government’s starfighting fleet, leaving only a token force as part of a broader unilateral commitment to the galaxy’s disarmament.
Decades later, then-Senator Leia Organa becomes aware of a renegade element of Imperial loyalists in the outer reaches of the galaxy. Although she tries to warn her colleagues about this burgeoning threat, the increasingly polarized Galactic Senate refuses to remilitarize, driving her to resign and organize an armed Resistance over which she assumes command. Although formally independent, the Resistance effectively functions as a military wing of the New Republic once the First Order emerges under Supreme Leader Snoke — and becomes its lone surviving successor after the First Order eradicates the New Republic using Starkiller Base in The Force Awakens.
Gen. Organa and Vice Adm. Holdo therefore serve as de facto civilian leaders of the New Republic’s remnants in addition to holding their military positions, an arrangement Clausewitz found quite natural among the leaders he studied (Book VIII, Ch. 8). The defensive aims that Organa and Holdo pursue to preserve their own forces have what Clausewitz calls a “negative purpose” (Book I, Ch. 2). This posture can buy time to fight in the future under more favorable circumstances, but “a defender must always seek to change over to the attack as soon as he has gained the full benefit of the defense” (Book VIII, Ch. 4).
This dynamic shift from a defensive to an offensive orientation would, Clausewitz suggests, restore the original strategy the Resistance sought in disarming its First Order adversary — and with it, the Resistance’s ultimate political aim to reconstitute the Republic and restore peace and justice to the galaxy. Whether the Resistance actually follows Clausewitz’s advice is a question left for Episode IX.
As the last surviving Resistance fighters flee Crait aboard the Millennium Falcon, the audience is offered a fleeting glimpse of a stack of dusty books that bear a striking resemblance to the ancient Jedi texts once thought to have been destroyed on Ahch-To. As officials in our own galaxy weigh preemptive strikes against their adversaries’ weapons of mass destruction installations, they would be well advised to dust off the works of our own Jedi-like mastermind and heed his teachings in the art of warfighting.
Theo Milonopoulos is a PhD candidate political science at Columbia University. He thanks Lance Richardson, Erik Lin-Greenberg, and two anonymous reviewers for their helpful feedback and for indulging this geeky enterprise.