Max Brooks, John Amble, ML Cavanaugh, Jaym Gates, Stanley A. McChrystal, eds. Strategy Strikes Back: How Star Wars Explains Modern Military Conflict. Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2018. xx + 246 pp. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-64012-033-4.
Reviewed by Stephen Dyson (University of Connecticut)
Published on H-Diplo (December, 2018)
Commissioned by Seth Offenbach (Bronx Community College, The City University of New York)
What is it about speculative fiction that fascinates students of war and peace? A big part of the answer is how readily, when talking of grand strategies, armed conflicts, and political systems, the interstellar can sub in for the international. Another draw: popular culture makes it possible for academics to interest others in their esoteric bodies of thought. And the balance of trade is roughly equal—writers of speculative fiction draw liberally from real-world history when building their imagined realities.
There are at least three ways that the relationship can work. The first is by analogy—war and peace in outer space can be used to reason about war and peace in the real world. The second is by ideation. The thoughts and fears of a society are reflected in the fiction it produces, and that fiction, in turn, feeds back into the ideas of a society. If you want to know what a people is thinking and talking about, study their fiction. The third is by cause-and-effect. Someone watches a killer robot in a movie, becomes concerned about killer robots on Earth, and joins a movement to ban them.
Strategy Strikes Back, a collection of short essays about the Star Wars universe focused on the plans and tactics of the Rebel Alliance and Galactic Empire, is mostly an exercise in analogy. The authors, a collection of scholars, fiction writers, and military officers, relate the Star Wars movies to aspects of the US military and political systems. It's a rollicking collection. Each of the twenty-eight chapters is a bite-sized, briskly written vignette, few of which belabor their points or overstay their welcome. There is enough variety to keep the reader returning for the next installment, with wonky think tank-ish pieces sitting alongside imagined diaries and documents of the Empire and the Alliance.
Two broad themes emerge from the chapters. The first is the importance of a sizeable and professionally led military. Responsibility for the disasters of the Star Wars universe is laid at the door of the Jedi, a group of aristocratic mystics who operated outside of the political structures of the Republic. Thus Jim Golby, in chapter 2, finds that the Jedi “did not believe in the system they were sworn to defend,” leaving galactic stability dependent on the inconstant benevolence of a small group of warrior-priests (p. 11). John Spencer, in chapter 23, concurs that the Jedi were spectacular close-quarters combatants but displayed little skill in strategic planning. They could not effectively lead large bodies of regular troops.
The Jedi’s dark-side counterparts, the Sith, are held to be no more talented in the art of generalship. In Jonathan Bratten’s analysis, in chapter 18, Darth Vader made idiosyncratic interventions on matters of strategy, overruling (and summarily executing) important Imperial officers without laying out a viable alternative campaign plan. Vader’s rageful tantrums and obsession with his duel with Luke Skywalker got in the way of a clear-eyed appraisal of the Empire’s strategic interests.
These readings are informed by the authors’ real-world beliefs in a professional military and secular-rational principles rather than the cultish ecstasies of the Jedi and the Sith. In Kelsey D. Atherton’s reading, the only character on either side who laid out a plausible theory of victory was the Imperial Grand Moff Tarkin. He sought to use the Death Star as a deterrent against rebellious acts. “How to create peace after decades of insurgency is a maddening question,” Atherton writes. “In a galaxy defined by war, Willhuff Tarkin was one of the few even attempting to answer the right question” (p. 62).
The second broad theme is the recurrent problem of political order presented by a large and unruly universe—and by extension, by our own politically diverse world. In the analysis of Van Jackson, chapter 24, the Republic was a barely functioning entity even before it was manipulated to death by Emperor Palpatine. Riven by core-periphery tensions, it failed to build strong and viable institutions, its Senate too often paralyzed by endless debate. In the face of ineffective governance by the core, the peripheral worlds drifted into lawlessness and were ripe for exploitation by malevolent forces such as the Trade Federation and the Sith Lords Dooku and Sidious. The decline of the Republic—and the rebooting of the cycle of empire and insurgency in the new movies—suggests a lesson that resonates in the age of President Donald Trump: when an outsider overturns a set of political norms and practices, it is fruitless to wish for a return to the status quo ante. There is a reason why the old system was too weak to defend itself. Instead, look to build a future that moves beyond the problems of the past rather than replicates them.
For all its diverse entries and small pleasures, there are some opportunities missed in Strategy Strikes Back. Little effort is made to draw together the individual contributions. Stanley McChrystal’s foreword and World War Z (2006) author Max Brooks’s introduction are each on point, but at two pages apiece they represent the briefest of stage-setters. The chapters are nominally grouped into four thematic parts (society and war, preparation for war, waging a war, and assessment of war), but the difference between the essays under each heading seemed slight. The sections would have benefited from either a much more substantive framing chapter (those in the volume run to just a couple of paragraphs) or a meaty integrative analysis.
The second missed opportunity was to speak more about the real-world influences that bore upon Star Wars creator George Lucas and his collaborators. For a volume focused on strategy, civil-military relations, and the problems of empire, it seems pertinent that Lucas was consumed with thoughts of the Vietnam War when dreaming up the original trilogy (indeed, he almost made the Vietnam War epic Apocalypse Now instead of A New Hope, only to at the last minute subcontract the job to his friend Francis Ford Coppola).When thinking about the prequels, his thoughts were shaped first by the Newt Gingrich-led takeover of Congress and later by the problems of post-9/11 politics. This deeper analysis of context and subtext is left largely undone.
Strategy Strikes Back succeeds, though, in illuminating the parallels between war-fighting in speculative fiction and the real world. It opens strategic thinking to non-expert audiences, and prompts experts to reason creatively about the role of force—and indeed the Force—in establishing and maintaining political order.
. For example, Abigail Ruane and Patrick James, The International Relations of Middle Earth: Learning from the “Lord of the Rings” (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2012).
. A strategy explored in Barry Buzan, “America in Space: The International Relations of Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica,” Millenium: Journal of International Relations 39 (2010): 175-80; and the multiple and innovative works of scholars such as Jutta Weldes, Daniel H. Nexon, Patrick Thaddeus Jackson, and Iver B. Neumann.
. Charli Carpenter, “Re-Thinking the Political/-Science/Fiction Nexus,” Perspectives on Politics 14 (2016): 53-69; J. Furman Daniel III and Paul Musgrave, “Synthetic Experiences: How Popular Culture Matters for Images of International Relations,” International Studies Quarterly 61 (2017): 503-16.
. See Chris Taylor, How Star Wars Conquered the Universe. (New York: Basic Books: 2014). For a manifesto on the types of work that can be done at the intersection of popular culture and international relations, see Kyle Grayson, Matt Davies, and Simon Philpott, “Pop Goes IR: Researching the Popular Culture—World Politics Continuum,” Politics 29 (2009): 155-63.
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Stephen Dyson. Review of Brooks, Max; Amble, John; Cavanaugh, ML; Gates, Jaym; McChrystal, Stanley A.; eds., Strategy Strikes Back: How Star Wars Explains Modern Military Conflict.
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