You’re Imagining Things: Pop Culture, Warfare, and the Real-Life Lessons of ‘Star Wars’

June 1, 2018

Max Brooks, John Amble, ML Cavanaugh, and Jaym Gates, eds. Strategy Strikes Back: How Star Wars Explains Modern Military Conflict (Potomac Books, 2018)

In the years I taught War and Politics, we relied on movies to explore many of the more intangible elements of combat: fear, trust, and esprit de corps. We did, of course, assign stacks of books and articles: Shils and Janowitz on unit cohesion, Steve Biddle on the evolution of small unit tactics, Eliot Cohen on battlefield learning in Korea, John Keegan on everything. We knew these academic writings were important, but they often struggled to communicate the complexity, confusion, and contingency of warfare. From Paths of Glory and Twelve O’Clock High to Zulu and Battle of Algiers, we used films to highlight the nuances of tactics and strategy that were often too sensitive or abstract to describe in books or lectures. They provided object lessons in strategy, leadership, and modern battle.

And of course, so does Star Wars. The richness of the Star Wars universe – and the long interregnum between the original films and promised prequels – encouraged audiences to ask deeper questions about the strategic logic at hand. How did the Old Republic collapse? How did the Empire balance political and miltary control? Where did the Storm Troopers come from – and why are they such bad shots? (My favorite is still the classic discussion between Dante and Randal in “Clerks” about contract labor on the Second Death Star. I would love to see that RFP.) And as the storylines multiplied – first in the expanded universe, then the prequels, and now new sequels and parallel Disney properties – it became clear that these strategic questions had parallels in the real world as well.

Fortunately, we have Strategy Strikes Back: How Star Wars Explains Modern Military Conflict to dig into these questions. Spurred by Matt Cavanaugh’s struggles to teach strategy to West Point cadets, the recently released edited volume belongs to the best tradition of taking pop culture seriously. And in doing so, it pulls back the curtain on many of the concepts and theories that animate national security decision-making: civil-military relations, imperial overreach, counter-insurgency, and defense innovation. Max Brooks’ plea for reconstruction in Endor is more lucid and coherent than most D.C. talking points on Afghanistan. And Crispin Burke’s discussion of civil-military separation by directly comparing the experiences of modern American soldiers and Star Wars clones brings the point home more vividly than most think tank reports. One can easily imagine a student unfamiliar with order of battle analysis or tactical after action reviews realizing her encyclopedic knowledge of the Battle of Hoth could be applied to real-world problems in previously unimagined ways.

The best chapters draw on material from the extended universe of Star Wars books and TV shows, providing context and detail to more casual fans of the movies. (But have no fear, you can read – and enjoy! – these chapters even if you aren’t up to speed on Rebels or Clone Wars, or if you only saw the prequels once and then refused to acknowledge they exist.) Some highlights:

  • Steve Leonard’s discussion of the Jedi as a “profession of arms,” moving well beyond the movies to foster a richer discussion of the underlying challenges the Jedi faced as a separate warrior class.
  • Andrew Liptak’s analysis of the Battle of Hoth, drawing on weapons technical intelligence and biographical details of Imperial officers to detail how the Rebels snatched survival from the jaws of defeat.
  • Brett Friedman’s call for ship-to-surface space marines, drawing on an obscure memo detailing Mon Mothma’s commitment to a starship fleet.
  • Van Jackson’s deep dive into the governance of the Galactic Republic, linking broken political institutions with military force sizing and presence to explain its demise – and positing that “real-world republics” must contend with the same risks.

In the mark of any good pop-culture analysis, I found myself disagreeing like crazy with several of the chapters. Liam Collins’ chapter on “Darth Vader’s Counterinsurgency Strategy” imagines a clever debate among Imperial officers that artfully conveys the logic of population-centric and high-value targeting strategies. The debate gets the competing theories right, but Collins gets the nature of the Rebellion all wrong! Not only do we have little evidence that the Rebel Alliance draws its support from civilian populations across the galaxy (they seem to prefer sanctuary on unpopulated planets), Luke and Leia are also not the strategic leadership. And Admiral James Stavridis and Colin Steele misunderstand either hybrid war, the Battle of Endor, or both. There’s nothing hybrid about the strategy – the Rebels are executing a covert operation behind enemy lines based on stolen intelligence. That’s what sophisticated insurgencies do! Still, both chapters would provoke wonderful classroom debates.

It is difficult for a book like this to cover all the pet topics of interest to all readers. (You won’t find a detailed analysis of Leia’s diplomatic missions.) But there were two in particular I was sorry to miss. Given the role of intelligence (and counter-intelligence) in driving the plot of nearly all of the Star Wars movies, I would have liked to have seen a more detailed analysis of it. How does the Rebellion recruit intelligence assets? Why does it leak like a sieve? Does the Empire prefer sensor data to human collectors? And why doesn’t the Force solve all the galaxy’s intel challenges?

Secondly, and more broadly, readers would have benefitted from more chapters from the Empire’s perspective. Many – if not most – of the authors analyze Rebel decision-making or otherwise identify with Jedis or the Republic. While understandable from a pop-culture perspective, it makes little sense from a strategic one. If you’re looking for lessons with regard to American military strategy, you have to address the Empire.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the best chapter of the book focuses on Imperial grand strategy – and is penned by Kelsey Atherton, founder of the once and future Blog Tarkin. In the chapter, he explores the Tarkin Doctrine as an expression of grand strategy: the problem of incessant rebellions, the limits and expense of direct control, and the promise of “peace through superior firepower.” There are no explicit connections drawn to the war on terror or other elements of American foreign policy. And there are no mentions of current military technology. There don’t need to be: They blast off the page.

While science fiction frequently takes up the mantle to address topics or causes too controversial to tackle head on, as space opera, Star Wars was not usually seen as commenting on complex political or societal issues. In the same vein, Strategy Strikes Back does not offer a critical analysis of the Star Wars universe. The contributors are not seeking to reveal hidden themes or biases, and few would argue that Star Wars is best understood via strict interpretations of imperial control, mission command, or international relations. Instead, each chapter takes the shared understanding of the Star Wars universe and leverages it to answer questions much less well understood in our own. At its best, Strategy Strikes Back highlights what good science fiction and serious reflection on pop culture can do: bring the (strategic) dilemmas of the current age into stark relief.


Dr Erin Simpson is a defense analyst turned executive, a co-host of the Bombshell podcast, and a senior editor at War on the Rocks. She is not a committee.

Image: JD Hancock/Flickr