Archive for July, 2012

The Jedi Way of War

Posted: July 31, 2012 by blogtarkin in Uncategorized
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Editor’s Note: Today’s guest post come from US Army officer Jon Jeckell, who studies complex adaptations to war and has been analyzing science fiction since the days of usenet. Here he takes a close look at disruptive conflict long ago and far away.

Chancellor Palpatine’s conspiracy to seize control of the Republic is central to the plot of the Star Wars series. Clearly a key part of his plan involved confusing, misleading and preoccupying the only other institution in civil society capable of recognizing and countering the usurpation and centralization of power—the Jedi Order.i

Palpatine deflected Jedi skepticism of the war by manipulating them to agree to lead it, with the premise they would avoid the need for war through their traditional role as diplomats and peacekeepers. By taking part in the government by leading the war, they devolved to just another interest group within the government, gradually ending their immunity to political infighting and culminating in charges of treason. The Jedi were not only distracted from their role in upholding the rule of law during Palpatine’s political plot by taking a leading role in the war, but cognitive biases inherent being part of it prevented them from taking a wholly objective, critical view of it. Veneration and respect for the Jedi institution, their powers and skills, their selflessness and wisdom placed their reputation among society beyond reproach. No one questioned or criticized Jedi performance in the war, even when the war raged directly above the capital at Coruscant. Surely the casualties from huge pieces of spacecraft and debris falling into a heavily populated city seen at the beginning of Revenge of the Sith would’ve prompted some public curiosity about the war. Even if some technology, such as shields or point defense systems deflected or destroyed debris before it fell on the city, the spectacle would’ve been impossible to ignore. Yet life seemed to go on as if it never happened. Lack of public involvement and discourse deprived the Jedi of badly needed outside perspectives and diversity of ideas. Public faith in the Jedi institution, their supernatural skills, and the vast resources provided by the Clone Army obviated the need for citizens to fight in the war and lulled them from even paying attention to it at all.

While it seems the Jedi would be the only institution competent in warfare after thousands of years of peace, they were the worst possible choice on many levels. What institution within the Republic retained any practical knowledge of warfare? Some private institutions and individual planetary governments, such as Naboo, had their own modest security forces, but the Republic seemed to lack any other institution capable of employing coercion on behalf of the state. This study will elide the political, policy and civil society aspects and focus on explaining why the Jedi Order were a uniquely poor choice to lead the Grand Army of the Republic. Although it superficially appears the Jedi are the only ones capable of taking on this burden, they suffered from numerous institutional biases and a philosophy that impeded their ability to understand what was happening or adapt to realities of their new role. Leading a massive Army was not a linear extension of the skills the Jedi possessed, and they lacked the ability to gain those skills.

Although the Jedi were renowned diplomats and keepers of the peace, they were not politicians or strategists, and never critically examined the Separatist’s grievances to identify the root causes of the conflict. Without understanding the causes of conflict, they failed to develop a theory of victory. Without this, they merely continued to pursue of the Separatist leaders and the destruction of their army after the first engagement. They failed to reframe from their roles as individual combatants to leaders of an Army for a multitude of reasons explored below.

The Jedi had become arrogant (Yoda says as much), complacent and convinced they possessed all knowledge worth knowing. The librarian at the Jedi Archives dismissed Obi-Wan Kenobi’s query about a planet he heard about that was not in the archives by briskly declaring it does not exist if it is not in the records. As Obi-Wan’s friend told him earlier, the Jedi have forgotten the difference between knowledge and wisdom. The last indication that the Jedi recognized their limitations was when Mace Windu told Palpatine they were keepers of the peace, not soldiers and that there were too few Jedi to fight a war. Even this last shred of self-doubt was swept away after the fortuitous arrival of the Clone Army to rescue a Jedi commando raid gone horribly wrong. Mace Windu led a large team of Jedi on a mission to rescue hostages(of Obi-Wan Kenobi, Padme Amidala and Anakin Skywalker) and to capture Separatist key leaders on Geonosis. Although he launched the raid hastily in desperation to save hostages from an execution already underway, they blithely ignored strong intelligence indicators that the Separatists had a large conventional force in the area. The Jedi were flushed with a false sense of victory by the providential arrival of enormous resources that turned the tide of the battle in their favor. Fortune forestalled further doubts about their abilities and the Jedi failed to learn lessons on how to use this new army wisely. Even though the battle entailed profligate losses, Yoda alone seems to recognize that this was just the beginning of the war and not a final victory, but fails to implement any institutional changes to adapt to their new role to lead the Army. Absence of outside skepticism and suppressed internal dissent, doomed this closed, oligarchic organization to fall prey to groupthink and fail to see broader implications of the battle. Lacking a diversity of ideas to draw from impaired their ability to comprehend what was happening and made them ill equipped to adapt.

Planning and strategy are anathema to Jedi philosophy, which relies upon using the force to guide them.ii . Daniel Kahneman provided an extensive look at different forms of thinking, both deliberate (rational) and instinctive in Thinking Fast and Slow.iii While instinctive modes of thought (without the force) can provide superior results in their proper context, particularly if instincts are honed and refined with experience, they can also be dangerously misled and lead to biases and dangerously bad results in others. Perhaps the Jedi can normally get by without calculating, planning, or developing deliberate strategies through their use of the force to foresee the future. However, although they are all aware someone using the dark side is deliberately clouding this ability, they continued to rely on it exclusively, disregarding solid intelligence and credulously acting on false information fed to them. They failed to develop alternative intelligence, decision-making, and planning models to compensate for their degraded senses. Clearly they have not faced a Sith in a very long time, or these battles involved were more directly focused among force users.

On the tactical level, they failed to evolve beyond the familiar individual fighting styles and develop basic tactics or lead the Clone Army. Yoda appropriately exploited the speed, shock, surprise and firepower provided by the Clone Army to air assault extract Mace Windu’s failed Jedi assault force at Geonosis. What followed, however, demonstrates the Jedi failed to understand the fundamental shift in warfare and their role in leading it.

The Jedi have a penchant for melee combat with lightsabers, and at first blush, leading from the front and setting the example are admirable qualities. But because they were too busy fighting, they failed to step back to organize, coordinate, and lead using anything resembling acceptable military tactics.

The Jedi value complete selflessness and acceptance of fate in battle, and view attachments as dangerous. Perhaps this is why they were undaunted by the grievous casualties suffered among the clones. Lab grown soldiers programmed for obedience and lacking ties to the rest of society obviated the need for accountability, outcry over casualties or the need to use them wisely. Were clones even considered people, or merely replaceable tools?

Of all the frontal assaults in science fiction, this is the most egregious. The leaders possessed values that should have caused them to recognize and value the well being of their troops. The organization valued reflective thinking and wisdom above all else. They had vast resources, time, and the option to do it differently.iv Once they recovered the hostages and the enemy leaders fled, why didn’t they commence an orbital bombardment of the enemy ships concentrated neatly on an open plain? Shields? How about a blockade to trap them and place them under siege? Perhaps the Separatists had local space superiority preventing a successful blockade? Even if a ground assault was the only option, the execution was ghastly.

Clone Troopers at Geonosis "Thumbs Up, let's do this...Leeroy Jen..GAH"

Clone Troopers at Geonosis “Thumbs Up, let’s do this…Leeroy Jen..GAH”

Not only did the clone troopers literally wade slowly forward into battle without using any cover while firing their weapons from the hip, there was no sign whatsoever of any coordination among them. It was a vastly scaled up brawl of millions of individual fights rather than a cohesive battle. They continually inserted fresh troops directly into the middle of the battle rather than in a safe landing zone or better yet, to maneuver for the enemy flank. Even when Yoda or others give commands, they are directing individual weapons systems to fire on a particular target, not to establish the synergy of combined arms and maneuvering units. A special team of commandos linked up with Mace Windu and he led them on a charge directly into the center of the battle! Countless clone troopers marched into a the machine onslaught. Every droid they destroyed could be easily replaced on an assembly line at a comparable rate. The only attempt to break with attrition style warfare was led by Obi-Wan Kenobi by pursuing the escaping leaders, but again is attributable to the Jedi’s preferred individual role and not an attempt to guide the army.

Why didn’t the clones organize themselves into units and fight cohesively? The Kaminoans claimed that clones can think creatively, giving them a decisive edge over droids…so why didn’t they? They were programmed with accelerated learning and genetically modified to make them totally obedient. Rote instruction styles and authoritarian models do not foster creative problem solving. Their programming and training regimen probably included some organizational and fighting techniques, but since no one had recent combat experience, where did those concepts come from? It seems they were merely copied as a symmetric response to the observed tactics used in the last war by the droid army, comprised of expendable, non-living combatants. No sign of anyone revisiting the logic predicating those tactics, nor to take advantage of capabilities the clones possessed. The clones also probably had their sense of fear and self-preservation suppressed as part of their programming, which further reduced their incentive to develop safer, more effective combat skills. Even if the clones had the capacity to develop and employ tactics, perhaps those thoughts pushed aside when they were ordered directly into the fight, particularly when they saw the Jedi wade directly into battle in front of them. The Jedi, suffering from the curse of expertise, probably never gave it a second thought that the clones were aping their fighting style without access to the required supernatural abilities to match (like the ability to deflect shots with a lightsaber).v

George Lucas undoubtedly intended to convey lessons regarding democracy and civil society, but the implications for warfare were no less profound. Forsaking their role outside the government and taking part in its actions, they lost their outside view and objectivity, and compromised their ability to enforce the rule of law. Worse, they made coup charges by their enemies plausible when they appeared to become just another interest group. The Jedi had fatal cognitive and institutional biases born from their abilities and their reliance on those abilities limited their ability to adapt. This perversely resulted in the Jedi blithely inflicting unnecessary and grievous suffering and exploitation on disenfranchised living beings rather than leading them. The Jedi completely misunderstood the cause of the conflict, leading to a faulty theory of victory and subsequently a poor strategy to end it effectively. Vast resources to fight the war, free from outside encumbrances or accountability, forestalled the need to think how to use them efficiently or adapt to profound changes on the battlefield. They continued to rely on cognitive models they knew had been compromised by the enemy, and failed to adapt their model of warfare. The Jedi bravely led the men under their command on repeated campaigns of profligate, epic attrition predicated on faulty strategic aims. While the Jedi superficially seemed like the only, if not the ideal choice to fight the war, their values and abilities defined their uniquely fatal disabilities.

Special thanks to @GWG, @Starbuck_WOI, @Aelkus, @Mims, @Exolyrical, @SMSaideman, @Neilbhatiya and @zenpundit for inspiration and discussion on this topic 23 July 2012.

i The Jedi Order seems to be an institution outside the government, yet with a role in keeping it accountable, limiting power, and fostering the rule of law, similar to the role the Catholic Church had in post-Roman Europe. Francis Fukuyama discusses this in detail in Part III of The Origins of Political Order.

ii This makes nicknaming graduates of the U.S. Army School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS) after the Jedi since at least Operation Desert Storm rather ironic.

iii Kahneman, Daniel, Thinking Fast and Slow, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011

iv One discussion prompting this article nominated the climactic battle from Avatar as the worst frontal assault in science fiction. However, the opposition leader was a young former Marine corporal leading pre-technological indigenous tribes. He could have made much more effective use of the abilities and skills of the indigenous population in, say, a guerilla campaign. However, his limited military experience and mild influence with the tribes limited his ability to change the way they fought.

v Curse of expertise describes how experts often grossly underestimate the time and effort required by novices to acquire skills they possess, particularly when these skills involve large amounts of tacit knowledge the expert assumes they have. (Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting it Right When You Have To, Sian Beilock, 2010, Free Press, Ch1)

Lessons from the Clone Wars: Occupy Coruscant

Posted: July 29, 2012 by Crispin Burke in Uncategorized
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Season 3, Episode 10: “Heroes on Both Sides

Original Air Date: 29 November 2010

Long-time fans of the Star Wars saga might feel some dismay that George Lucas–the man who makes billions marketing Star Wars toys–incessantly hammers home ham-fisted anti-corporate rants throughout the Star Wars prequel saga.  So it is with the Clone Wars episode, “Heroes on Both Sides”, a unique commentary on the war in Afghanistan, and its perceived effects on the American economy.

Lesson Number One:  Corporations are bad because they’re, well, corporation-ey.

The episode  begins with the Galactic Senate debating the escalating debt.  Senator Bail Organa of Alderaan places the blame solely on the cost of the escalating Clone Wars, ignoring the obvious effects of Senator Palpatine’s tax cuts, the soaring costs of medical droids, and the thousands of members in Gungan marching bands.

There are more Gungans in marching bands than there are in the entire State Department.

This prompts the representatives from the Trade Federation and the Intergalactic Banking Clan to run a bill through the Galactic Senate proposing the de-regulation of the banks.  Right away, we know this is a sinister plot because:

a.) It involves de-regulating the banks, which is, like, totally corporation-like.

b.) The script writers were lazy, and somehow forgot to notice that the Trade Federation and the InterGalactic Banking Clan were in clearly in league with the Separatists since Episode II.  Then again, Obi-Wan seems to never remember ever owning a droid…

Meanwhile, Senator Padme Amidala argues against spending more money on the Republic’s military-clone creating-Senatorial complex. This earns her the ire of a powerful senator, whom we’ll simply refer to as “Loren Thompson”.  (I fully expect George Lucas to release a special edition in which this Loren Thompson alien has a giant butt for a head, which would only confirm that Loren Thompson is a total asshat.)

The spiraling cost of the war, both in blood and treasure, has caused Padme to secretly negotiate with Separatist insurgents on the planet Raxus.  There, an incognito Padme attends a session of the Separatist Congress, where delegates are also pressing to negotiate with the Republic.  Says one idealistic Separatist representative, “Corporations do not rule here, only democracy”.

Oh, if only he’d watched Episode II, when Count Dooku rallies powerful corporations to his cause:  the Trade Federation, the Corporate Alliance, the InterGalactic Banking Clan, Industrial Lights and Magic, and LucasArts Software.

Lucas’ anti-corporate rants are little removed from your local “Occupy Wall Street” denizen: Railing against corporate oligarchy by posting blog posts on their $4000 MacBook Pros.

This girl is basically a tool of Steve Jobs. Or General Grievous, I get the two mixed up…

Lesson Two: Insurgents cannot negotiate for peace without the backing of their powerful proxy overlords.

Several idealistic Separatist leaders push for a negotiated peace with the Galactic Republic, only to meet a terrible end, as they are conveniently killed by Clone Troops.  Darth Sidious, in his guise as Chancellor Palpatine, learns of the secret negotiations from Padme, and passes the details along to his apprentice, Count Dooku–also known as Darth Tyranus.  Dooku and Palpatine have every reason to keep the war raging, and a non-sanctioned peace overture could overturn the Sith’s plot.

Sound far fetched? Tell it to Mullah Baradar.

Superhero films, TV series, and comics have supposedly become gritty and tough. But only a few deal with one of the central problems of the genre: the fantasy of violence with minimal consequence. “With great power comes great responsibility,” Spiderman learned. Certainly, this is true. But a more important lesson would be that it is impossible to utilize power without making difficult choices. Superhero media avoids the brutal reality that combat involves serious injury, death, and collateral damage. Many comics, movies, and films posit a frictionless way to disarm the opponent. In doing so, they remove basic elements of choice and consequence inherent in any serious endeavor to triumph over a thinking, willful, and dangerous opponent.

Disarming the Enemy

Carl von Clausewitz declared in On War that there are many ways to victory, but the most likely is either the direct disarmament of the opponent by annihilation or the erosion of his will to resist via attrition. Either method involves lethal force or the threat of it. Sometimes there are better, less harmful ways to victory. But in order for such methods to work, the opponent must play by the same rules. Napoleon looms over On War because he, like the Joker in The Dark Knight, refused to play by the approved rules of the game in his era. As a result, he threw Europe into chaos and initially destroyed the armies of the old regimes.


Superheroes rarely win by eroding the opponent’s will to resist. Instead, they often forcibly disarm their foes.  The hero (at least in Western comics, TV, and film) ideally defeats and disarms his enemy through nonlethal force and leaves the opponent to face justice and confinement. Sometimes villains die, but in often in a manner that absolves the hero of blame. Death either occurs in heated combat, or more frequently as a result of the villain’s own morally repugnant qualities. Captain America doesn’t kill the Red Skull–he is dissolved by the very artifact he covets. Of course, there are always qualified exceptions such as the Punisher. But heroes that kill are often cast in the mode of morally tainted antiheroes engaging in redemptive violence.

The hero generally defeats opponents in one of two ways: he or she eliminates their weapon or beats the opponent into submission and renders them incapable of further resistance. This is not a strict typology, as minor flunkies–armed and unarmed–are often beaten up or rendered unconscious. Here, however, we begin to encounter problems. Heroes from cowboy radio serials onwards either shoot the gun out of the opponent’s hand or wound in them in some manner without threatening critical areas. But “shooting to wound” is generally impossible and blowing a gun off someone’s hand is exceedingly rare. Police officers generally are taught to employ lethal force as a last resort but shooting at the center of mass to stop a target usually means killing or at the very least inflicting grievous injury.

Within the context of the superhero universe, superheroes without guns generally disarm opponents via melee combat. They are able to do so without inflicting non-recoverable damage on opponents, often knocking them out cold. Yet it is difficult to believe that a superpowered hero fighting, say, an ordinary bankrobber, could overpower his or her adversary without serious injury or death due to the vast disparity in power between them. Peter Parker once gave in to his frustration and engaged in a boxing match with bully Flash Thompson and sent him flying with the slightest touch. Could a superhero always perfectly calibrate the level of force needed to nonlethally disarm an opponent, human or metahuman? More realistic is Hellsing‘s vampire-hero Alucard and his equally enhanced Vatican counterpart Alexander Anderson–both of whom tear through normal humans like rag dolls. Granted, Alucard has a lust for battle but even if he did not it is difficult to see how he could avoid killing his human adversaries with his powerful guns, fangs, or superhuman strength.

At the very minimum, disarming an opponent through melee combat holds the possibility of inflicting lasting injuries. Even under highly controlled conditions, boxers and footballers still suffer the long-term effects of being repeatedly bashed and beaten. But the duel between foes, unlike sport, is far less structured because both fighters are struggling over life and death. Clausewitz analogized war to a duel on a nation-wide scale, generating high degrees of complexity and lethality. War in its absolute state tends toward escalation of force, but in practice political and material constraints limit the level of violence. Violence still, however, is the basic currency of the duel.

Other heroes use nonlethal weapons (NLW) that remove the opponent’s ability to resist. But NLWs are perhaps better regarded as “less lethal” solutions given their latent capability for harm. Moreover, the purpose of NLWs is not to disarm opponents intent on killing. The Active Denial System (ADS) is used for crowd control and stopping suspicious vehicles, not the disarmament of armed enemy troops. Superheroes cheat by using NLWs as a substitute for violence against other combatants, whereas the police and military mostly employ NLWs to avoid lethally harming noncombatants. This does not mean that NLWs are not used against armed opponents, but their effects are often transitory and intended to enable lethal violence. The Russian use of gas during the Moscow theater hostage crisis is a case in point.

The absence of collateral damage is perhaps one of the most pernicious elements of the superhero genre. In a world where precision-guided munitions and drones can still kill many by mistake, it is ridiculous to believe that immensely destructive battles between heroes and villains would not result in widespread and lethal collateral damage. Collateral damage is not entirely absent from the superhero mythos, but it is not as omnipresent as it should be. Even if collateral damage did not result in death, the lasting injuries and fiscal damages alone resulting from destructive battles would be daunting. It would be a challenge to feel heroic if defeating a villain meant accidentally injuring a small child and ensuring that she could never again walk on her own two legs. Military and law enforcement must constantly weigh the tradeoffs between personal safety, the mission, and noncombatant immunity. There are often steep consequences for failure. Superheroes, on the other hand, largely do not consider noncombatant immunity and are largely unaccountable to those harmed by their battles.

“Tell Me How This Ends”

Finally, the status of superpowered opponents poses a moral quandry for the hero’s desire to not target the enemy after he is rendered hors de combat. When an enemy lays down his gun he is usually (suicide bombers and fake surrenders excepted) incapable of resisting any further and thus no longer a threat. When an enemy general is captured, he cannot physically command his army. If his army is defeated, he cannot pose a threat even if he still desires to resist. But if the enemy’s weapons cannot be separated from his person, how can the hero guarantee that the danger can be removed?


Even when locked up in the most secure of prisons, villains frequently return either through their own power or the aid of others. Even killing them does not guarantee safety as villains are often resurrected. Despite the hero’s desire to not strike a fallen opponent, he and the ones he cares for sometimes suffer because of his mercy. In The Dark Knight Rises, Batman sparing Bane would have resulted in his death had Selina Kyle not shot the masked brawler. Kyle mocks Batman’s desire to avoid killing his foes but Christopher Nolan doesn’t really reflect too much on the significance of Batman nearly being killed by his greatest adversary after refusing to finish him off.

The problem is that, as in war, the battle is only over when the opponent judges it to be so. As long as the enemy has the ability and the will to resist he will continue to do so. Capturing Napoleon III and defeating his main forces didn’t end the French resistance in the Franco-Prussian War.  Hitler gambled for resurrection in the Battle of the Bulge despite the sheer weight of Allied material superiority. Mao did not give up despite the fact that the early years of the Chinese Civil War saw him and his compatriots fleeing encirclement after encirclement.

If the enemy’s ability to resist is completely tied to their innate physical qualities, the hero faces a danger as long as the villain returns the will to harm others and the possibility of escape.  Can supervillains be meaningfully prevented from harming society? Can their will to destruction be curbed and thus reformed into society at large? Or is the hero forced to do what he has always refused: lower himself to his opponent’s level and kill them? Some comic book heroes have attempted to answer this question, but rarely from a threat-centric perspective. The hero’s classic moral dilemma is whether he will give in to revenge or his feelings of repulsion. But what if the problem is not creating justice for past wrongs but the question of preventing future harm? We are often shielded from such considerations.

The Hero’s Choice

Being a hero and remaining true to one’s moral code is tough but not impossible. But as dark as superhero films are, they run away from the reality that combat involves serious injury and death. They give the hero the option of saving innocents with precise and discriminate (and mostly nonlethal) force. They avoid the collateral damage that destructive battle inevitably creates. They avoid uncomfortable questions about what happens to super-powered villains after they have been defeated. Granted, these considerations take the fun out of watching a battle that destroys a city block and removes the element of escapism that makes superheroes popular. But it’s not impossible to create heroes who can face the consequences of their actions. Some heroes, despite their imperfections, exercise choice and responsibility.


In fighting Neon Genesis Evangelion‘s demonic Angels, Shinji Ikari accidentally injures a classmate’s sister. Shinji is made to own up to the fact that his massive biomechanical weapon is a blunt instrument of war and sometimes can be as much a threat to the people he wants to save as the enemy. Shinji’s battles are not clean. He beats, batters, and often tears Angels apart limb from limb with his giant robot’s bare hands. There is no easy or considerate way to defeat the Angels. Shinji does not coolly contemplate which kung fu move he is going to use to take out his opponent. Instead, he desperately fights for his own life and the lives of his friends. Every battle is a challenge to marshal the will to endure. He does not face the challenge alone–he has comrades in arms and the soul of his mother often protects him by manipulating his robot. Still, it is Shinji’s battle to win.

In Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card contrives to create a “innocent killer” whom the reader is always forced to forgive. Ender is always forced to fight. He kills another boy in a bathroom in self-defense and destroys an entire race because he was tricked into doing so. Ender does not own his violence because he is always forced into battle. Shinji is initially forced to fight in a similar manner, but he often refuses to accept it. He breaks down and runs away. When Shinji eventually returns to the battlefield, it is because he fights of his own volition in order to protect the people he cares about. At the climax of End of Evangelion, Shinji makes a crucial choice and decides that a world of pain and genuine humanity is superior to one without it. Ender’s destiny is largely determined by others and basks in the reader’s sympathy because of his victimhood even as he commits horrific acts of violence. Shinji, as frustrating and unlikeable as he is to most viewers, struggles to take ownership of his actions and avoid solipsism and his own (understandable, given his personal history) intense desire to flee from pain and struggle.

Shinji, despite being weak, indecisive, and frankly psychologically disturbed, is stronger than most heroes because he (barely) finds the strength within himself to make difficult choices in ambiguous circumstances. He does not shy away from the harsh reality involved in fighting for his own survival and the greater good. Unlike Frank “Punisher” Castle, Shinji is not perpetually haunted by an perfect past he can never return to or obsessed with exacting vengeance. His struggle to preserve life–his own and that of his friends–is what makes him such a formidable adversary to the Angels. Nolan’s Batman also chooses life and the future over wallowing in the past. Bruce Wayne, in the end, fulfills Alfred’s desire to see him happily dining with a woman at an outdoor cafe. He could only do so, however, by choosing to survive despite all odds. The morose, vengeance-obsessed Batman could not do so this, and it is the new Batman who inspires even the jaded Selina Kyle to throw away her opportunity to escape in order to assist him defeat Bane’s plans. Batman only acquires real power when he gives his own life value and meaning.

The desire to survive and thrive is ultimately what gives heroes the strength to face impossible decisions and triumph nonetheless. But without the opportunity to demonstrate this will, the hero’s struggle simply becomes a matter of physical courage alone. As Abraham Erskine noted at the beginning of Captain America: The First Avenger, Steve Rogers had the raw material to be a hero long before he was physically transformed into a super-soldier.


Basil Liddell-Hart once wrote that the true object of war was to create a “better peace.” But without overcoming the will or capability of a thinking adversary such a peace is impossible to create. Duels are always fraught with complexity and involve conscious choice. Confronting choice involves making and owning up to decisions, not simply making an elaborate show of moral conflict like Steven Spielberg’s Mossad agents in Munich. Strategic choice is not entirely absent from the superhero world, but it is often subdued. This is a shame, as the worth of a hero cannot simply be reduced to physical courage or tactical genius. Rather, heroes do not shy away from the choices, compromises, and consequences inherent in violent conflict.

International Relations and the Batman, Part 2

Posted: July 24, 2012 by J. Dana Stuster in Uncategorized
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Editor’s note: Yesterday we ran the first of guest author J Dana Stuster‘s two-part piece on Batman and International Relations. Today he continues where that piece left off, with how a multinational network of Batmen and Batwomen would be addressed by institutions meant to protect the interests of states. We hope you enjoy!

The United Nations:

China can wage its own diplomatic battles with the United States, but what recourse does tiny Mtamba have in fighting Batman’s crimefighting imperialism? Chances are they would turn to the paragon of multilateral institutions: the United Nations. This could start with the Mtamban delegation introducing a resolution in the General Assembly condemning the actions of the American vigilante and his financier. They would probably have several significant supporters. Countries with comparable problems of corruption, human rights violations and domestic unrest – ideal countries for new bat-franchises – would be inclined to support the resolution in the hopes of preempting further threats to their regimes. The resolution would probably also garner some significant supporters by capitalizing on the issue of state sovereignty. China and Russia took a stand in February of this year against a resolution before the U.N. Security Council that would have called for an immediate ceasefire and the start of negotiations in Syria; the Russian delegation argued that to do so would violate Syrian sovereignty and constitute an intervention in what they considered a domestic Syrian affair. China and Russia would be similarly supportive of measures to counteract the foreign meddling of an American agent provocateur. Many rising nations in the international arena have also made state sovereignty a hallmark issue. India, after decades as a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement, is still wary of any actions that would link it too closely with the United States. If Indian leaders have anxieties about importing American airpower icons like F-16s and F/A-18s, they would likely have similar concerns about importing a batman, or encouraging it elsewhere. (Besides, India can always fall back on its Bollywood counterfeit of Iron Man.)

This doesn’t mean a resolution condemning Batman, Inc. would pass, though. Most countries are wary of challenging the United States directly. While a resolution that explicitly condemns an American citizen would find some backers – Russia, China, Cuba, Iran and North Korea, among others, have few qualms about taking a diplomatic jab at the United States – many others that sympathize with the issue of guarding against violations of sovereignty would choose to abstain from an explicit criticism of the United States. The Mtamban government could try to garner more support by phrasing its resolution in more diplomatic language, perhaps condemning internationally financed terrorists broadly. Even the United States would find it difficult to vote against a critique of one of its citizens if it were couched in such agreeable terms.

And then? Not much. There still would be nothing to compel the U.S. government to close down Batman, Inc. General assembly resolutions expressing condemnation are toothless and non-binding. A statement of condemnation would be little consolation to autocrats facing the existential threat of bat-franchises that could potentially destabilize their countries and depose their regimes – to them Batman constitutes a genuine terrorist threat. The United Nations has the authority to target sanctions against individuals associated with terrorism and violations of peace and human rights agreements. Instead of just criticizing, these countries could press for sanctions to be levied against Bruce Wayne and his businesses. However, sanctions can only be approved by the U.N. Security Council, where only one veto by any of the five permanent members (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia and China) will derail a resolution. The reward for states like Mtamba – and sovereignty advocates like Russia and China – are increased, but it is also significantly more difficult to achieve an agreement.

Oh God, there could probably be an entire post about the contract this had to involve.

Oh God, there could probably be an entire post about the contract this had to involve.

France would be unlikely to embargo Nightrunner, the Parisian batman it has already condoned. Even if the French delegation chose not to oppose such a resolution, they would probably not support it either, and instead choose to abstain. The biggest challenge, and the biggest conflict of interest, though, would be to the United States. Batman is a vigilante who violates U.S. law, not only international norms and agreements – would the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations veto a Security Council resolution to protect an American criminal?


U.S. Domestic Response:

Bruce Wayne would likely find allies in the U.S. administration, regardless of the party in office. Advocates of liberal interventionism and the “responsibility to protect” doctrine (often abbreviated “R2P” like a late ‘90s pop song), which was used to justify NATO assistance to Libyan rebels last year and has as an antecedent in the deployment of NATO peacekeepers to the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, would likely be supportive of Batman’s efforts to protect embattled civilian populations. Neoconservatives would also find much to admire in Batman’s assertion of American preeminence to preempt global threats. Neither would be likely to approve a sanctions regime that would impugn Wayne’s efforts, even in the face of international pressure. But any administration would resent being placed in the humiliating position of vetoing a resolution with significant international support.

An American president, regardless of party, would have to chastise Wayne for provoking an international incident that implicated an American citizen in foreign terrorism. The president would have to take care in doing so, though. This is America, after all, where election season never ends and the adage that “all politics are local” holds true. Criticizing the efforts of a populist hero has a cost in ballots. To the extent that the administration could chastise Wayne’s Batman, Inc. endeavor, it would have to be private and muted, like the NSA’s conversation with Superman in Action Comics #900, in which the NSA accuses Superman of having “gone rogue” and committing what the Iranian government has perceived as an act of war.

The administration would be reticent to do even this. Wayne is a billionaire, and politically active. In The Dark Knight, he hosts a lavish fundraiser (attended by Batman enthusiast Sen. Patrick Leahy) for Harvey Dent’s campaign for Gotham district attorney. Any criticism by the president, private or public, would run the risk of alienating a substantial and influential campaign contributor.


Real-World Corollaries:

Analyzing the international politics of a global syndicate of crimefighters might seem a bit out of touch with reality. It is. It’s a reductio ad absurdum means of analysis, but in truth, it’s not that absurd. There is real value to these explanations through analogy – the emerging genre of PoliSciFi (examples of which include Dan Drezner’s Theories of International Politics and Zombies and, related to this post, the Law and the Multiverse blog, which focuses on legal technicalities in comics). The reason to think through the implications of Batman Incorporated is because it demonstrates an extreme of transnational non-state action. Non-state actors are proliferating, and their role in global politics is growing. Terrorist organizations act with the tacit support of national governments, creating the situation of unofficial proxies (as with Superman in Tehran). These groups have provoked crises that have escalated tensions to the brink of war, as was the case with the massacre of civilians in Mumbai in 2008 conducted by Lashkar-e-Taiba, a terrorist group partially supported by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence. This is also the case in Syria, where Iran, Turkey, the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar are funneling support to proxy forces, though it is unclear just who, exactly, those forces are.

Al Qaeda, the most infamous franchised terror organization, has prompted a decade-long war in Afghanistan, copycat terror attacks and a clandestine program of airstrikes from Pakistan to Yemen and Somalia. Al Qaeda is not terribly dissimilar from the League of Shadows, featured in the movies Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Rises, or Leviathan in Batman Incorporated. The League of Shadows and Leviathan are nihilist international terrorist organizations that seek to humble opulent Western cultures through violence and destruction. Indeed, the parallels between Batman’s enemies and America’s were enough to develop a plot in which Batman hunts down Osama bin Laden – ultimately, the project used a different character (“the Fixer”), and the resulting publication, Holy Terror, became a bizarre, Islamophobic screed that never should have been committed to the page. To the governments it challenges, though, Batman, Inc. is the transnational terrorist, with a global structure that mirrors other terrorist groups. Indeed, this highly-reactive, disaggregated network approach is increasingly an inspiration for U.S. special operations as well.

While autocratic and oppressive governments would probably be eager to perceive Batman as a terrorist, perhaps he is more comparable to a non-governmental organization that promotes the rule of law, though taking liberties with the law himself. Many rule of law advocacy NGOs exist in contemporary international politics – Freedom House, Human Rights Watch and International Crisis Group, among many, many others. These organizations face numerous challenges, particularly from governments not open to criticism. Just this past January, the Egyptian government raided the offices of 17 NGOs, including Freedom House, and these organizations have faced similar challenges from unreceptive governments in countries like Russia and China. The inability of these organizations to operate freely in certain countries is indicative of the challenges that Batman, Inc. would face, especially given Batman’s more hands-on approach.

More relevant to Batman’s role as an unofficial ambassador is The Elders, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu’s organization of retired statesmen, which includes former president Jimmy Carter. Like Batman, Jimmy Carter cannot go abroad without being perceived as a formal instrument of U.S. diplomacy, and his independent actions, out of keeping with administration policy, have rankled the State Department at times. Upon his return from an Elders visit to North and South Korea, during which he criticized U.S. food aid procedures, State Department officials refused to meet his delegation in a clear rebuke of his rogue diplomacy. Secretary Clinton, when asked if she would like to meet with Carter, is reported to have replied, “Hell no!” The State Department’s reaction to potentially needing to defend an American vigilante at the United Nations would certainly be more severe.

Is Jimmy Carter Batman? No, but they are both de facto ambassadors.

Is Jimmy Carter Batman? No, but they are both de facto ambassadors.

Missing the Point

The comics don’t go in to the details of international politics, nor did The Dark Knight explore the legal battle with China that no doubt followed Batman’s extraordinary rendition of a Chinese citizen, which is something of a missed opportunity. International politics has all the qualities of good drama: great power struggles, conflicts of interest, moral ambiguity. Batman Incorporated is instead a good idea executed poorly. It is at times needlessly convoluted and, along with its spin-off series, Batwing, prone to some of the crass stereotypes, especially of women and Africa, that are far too common in the comic book medium. And this is to say nothing of the complicated issue of where Bruce Wayne’s operations fit in what Teju Cole has called “the white savior industrial complex.”

Still, it is a bold step. Superheroes have gone abroad before, but usually to fight the enemies of the United States – in the 1940s, Superman and Captain America both landed punches to Adolf Hitler and fought Nazis regularly, and Iron Man (2008) reinvented the character’s origin story with a confrontation with the Taliban in Afghanistan. (As others have noted, hurling a ball at a carnival is the closest Batman ever came to taking the fight to Hitler, and he was actually aiming for Mussolini anyway.) Batman Incorporated’s tack is markedly different; it hinges on global engagement and local empowerment instead of military adventurism. In so doing, it makes a perceptive, if sometimes clumsy assessment of the ways in which the world is shrinking and the power of individuals is growing. The global order and its governing bodies do not preclude the internationalization of the Batman, but they do discourage it. And that is well and good. The U.N. Security Council will never have to vote on sanctions against Bruce Wayne. In the years to come, though, countries will have to confront transnational non-state actors more and more, and as they do, they will follow many of the same patterns that govern all of international relations – just as they would to confront a fictitious superhero syndicate. All of politics may still be local, but they are increasingly global, too. Even the local vigilante in Gotham City has noticed.

International Relations and the Batman

Posted: July 23, 2012 by J. Dana Stuster in Uncategorized
Tags: , ,

Christian Bale as Batman from Dark Knight Returns

When the movie “The Avengers” was released in May 2012,’s Danger Room blog reported that the U.S. military had opted not to cooperate with the film’s production because it found the subject matter too unrealistic – not because of the plot involving a half-dozen superheroes fending off a trans-dimensional alien invasion, but because Pentagon liaisons could not determine how the paramilitary organization S.H.I.E.L.D. fit in the chain of command. If it seems ridiculous that such a pragmatic concern would be the deciding factor in Pentagon advisers giving up their willing suspension of disbelief, well, it really is. (Steve Saideman did a great job dissecting this at the time.) But it is often the pragmatic issues in superhero comic books that have the most interesting implications.

The intersection of international politics and superheroes is infrequent, but reliably raises difficult questions for observers of international relations. Superheroes are almost always vigilantes, acting without any sort of government authority – they are non-state actors. (There are notable exceptions to this. Wonder Woman is the ruler of the Mediterranean isle of Themyscira. In the Marvel universe, exceptions include the “Fifty State Initiative,” a nation-wide effort by the U.S. government to sponsor domestic superhero teams, and a recent X-Men storyline in which, after decades of government persecution, a band of mutants secede and establish the independent nation of Utopia on an island in San Francisco Bay – no one ever said comics were subtle.) A number of recent plotlines have addressed the issue of nationality, particularly the fact that, though individuals with no formal ties to the government, characters like Superman or Batman cannot go abroad without being perceived as de facto American ambassadors. This was addressed in a brief (and non-canonical) vignette in Action Comics #900, in which Superman tells the U.S. National Security Advisor that he plans to renounce his American citizenship after the U.S. government chastises his show of solidarity with Iranian Green Movement protesters. “‘Truth, justice, and the American way’ – it’s not enough anymore,” he explains. “The world’s too small. Too connected.” In the 1970s, Captain America briefly followed through on this premise. After the Watergate scandal, and in what is truly a high-water mark for political disillusionment in comics, Captain America witnesses the suicide of a disgraced government official, prompting him to rename himself Nomad, “the man without a country.”

One of the most grounded approaches to this subject has come from one of the most grounded superheroes: Batman. The premise of Batman Incorporated, the climax of Grant Morrison’s run on the Batman title, is simple. Bruce Wayne publicly announces that he is Batman’s financier and establishes an organization to fund batmen and batwomen around the world. His motives are two-fold: to counteract a clandestine global terror network called “Leviathan,” but also to engage and empower local vigilantes fighting regional crime around the globe. The goal is “to fight ideas with better ideas,” he explains. “The idea of crime with the idea of Batman. From today on, Batman will be everywhere it’s dark, no place to hide.” (Yes, the sentence structure here drives me crazy.) The potential implications of this would be more complex and would affect every tier of international relations.

Bilateral Relations:

Let’s suppose for a moment that you are the embattled field marshal of a military junta in the generic central African country of Mtamba, trying to maintain what territory you control against rival warlords, armies of child soldiers, the machinations of a family of deposed royals, and corruption within and without your “government,” if you feel generous enough to call it that. Billionaire entrepreneur Bruce Wayne visits your country, and you help facilitate this visit because your country is a great investment opportunity – a polite way of saying, “really needs some capital.” Instead, he sets up a bat-franchise in your backyard. The situation is worse than you realize – you suspect that, behind the mask, this new superhero backed by foreign funds is actually a member of the former royal family. (In a spin-off title, this character is rewritten as Batwing, a former child soldier and the only clean cop in his police department in a fictionalized capitol of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The fictional city is named Tinasha instead of Kinshasha – again, not ones for subtlety.) How many seconds would it take for you to issue an arrest warrant – if you care for such formalities – for Bruce Wayne, in the event he ever returns to your country? Would you impose a tariff on imports of Wayne Enterprises goods to disincentivize Wayne’s business in your country? How quickly would you call the President of the United States to complain about the American-financed terrorist threatening your government?

The junta tries a remarkably light hand with Batwing

Impoverished African countries have limited leverage with the U.S. government. The field marshal might huff and puff, but it is unlikely that an administration would do much on his behalf. But take for instance the scene from The Dark Knight (2008; spoilers ahead) in which Batman travels to Hong Kong to abduct the financial manager of Gotham City’s mob bosses. The banker is essential to a criminal investigation that could implicate Batman’s nemesis, the Joker, but as Gotham District Attorney Harvey Dent explains to Batman, “We need Lau back, but the Chinese won’t extradite a national under any circumstances.”

We need Lau Back

So Batman goes to Hong Kong and forcibly extradites Lau, as only Batman can (with fighting, base jumping and a midair rendezvous with a plane, of course). In the world of Batman, Inc. incidents like this are even more likely to occur with a bat-franchise operating in Hong Kong and Moscow. (There’s not enough written about the “Batman of Moscow” to draw any conclusions about his relationship with the Russian government – he makes a three page appearance in Batman and Robin #1 before being unceremoniously killed off by a vigilante.)

China has considerably more influence in Washington than the field marshal of Mtamba. Lau would stand trial in Gotham City after Batman’s extrajudicial rendition (the legality of trying persons who were captured illegally has been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court), but there would be considerable effects for China-U.S. relations. China prizes its sovereignty and the irregular rendition of a Chinese citizen would provoke a diplomatic crisis. China would almost certainly request that the United States extradite Batman for trial in China. This was the response of an Italian prosecutor, who brought charges against a group of Americans believed to be working with the CIA in the 2003 abduction of a radical Egyptian cleric with political asylum in Milan (the United States refused to comply with the request and the Americans were tried in absentia). China would also prove less cooperative with joint efforts. For example, after the United States seized and transported to the United States a Mexican national suspected of killing an American DEA agent, Mexico halted its cooperation with the DEA and threatened to arrest any American law enforcement officials operating without the explicit consent of the Mexican government. Sovereignty has already emerged as a point of contention with China this year, when Chinese activist Chen Guangchen took shelter in the U.S. embassy in Beijing in late April. The incident precipitated an international crisis over whether he would be returned to China or be granted asylum in the United States. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Kurt Campbell and State Department Legal Adviser Harold Koh were dispatched to broker a compromise and defuse tensions. Though a very different circumstance, Batman pulling Lau out a window to stand trial in Gotham would prompt a diplomatic crisis of at least similar scale and create lingering tensions.

Multilateral Relations:

Most multilateral organizations would be unconcerned by the international proliferation of batmen and batwomen. Multilateral organizations tend to focus on issues of trade, which would be mostly unaffected, and security. The establishment of bat-franchises does constitute a transnational threat to some countries; in his own title (and a separate continuity from Batman, Inc.), Batwing, though based in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, chases his archnemesis across Africa to the Great Pyramids in Egypt. However, convincing a multilateral treaty organization to take action against a transnational security threat is difficult. NATO certainly wouldn’t step in to shut down a bat-franchise, first and foremost because of the diplomatic cat herding always necessary to will NATO to action, and second because of its membership. The United States is and always will be the most important country in NATO, and it would not be eager to court the international embarrassment of a joint military operation against an American enterprise. France also hosts a bat-franchise, an Algerian immigrant and parkour-master with the nom de guerre Nightrunner, that operates with the knowledge and support of the French government, so French officials would be similarly opposed. Many other European countries would simply not have their interests affected enough to justify the expense.

Oh God, there could probably be an entire post about the contract this had to involve.

Oh God, there could probably be an entire post about the contract this had to involve.

Regional human rights courts might be more successful. For example, the European Court of Human Rights (an organization of the Council of Europe) could present legal challenges to bat-associates like Nightrunner and British-based characters Knight and The Hood. The ECHR hears cases about violations of the European Convention on Human Rights, with charges brought by individuals against governments or between governments. If The Hood detains a person in a way that involves torture, unlawful killing or the violation of other fundamental rights, and the British government does not prosecute The Hood, charges can be brought against him at the ECHR. If any Council of Europe country is involved in an extrajudicial rendition, this too can be challenged at the ECHR as a violation of individuals’ rights to liberty and security. The most high-profile instance of this was when Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the Kurdish Worker’s Party, an organization responsible for terror attacks against Turkey, accused the Turkish government of illegally abducting him from Kenya to face trial in Turkey (the case was ultimately dismissed on account of the Kenyan government’s complicity in Öcalan’s enforced departure from Kenya). If Batman had abducted the Gotham mob banker, Lau, from Frankfurt instead of Hong Kong, he too could be indicted by the ECHR. Whether Batman would be likely to care is another matter – the ECHR’s decisions have at times proven difficult to enforce, with Russia frequently taking umbrage with the court’s decisions.

Concerned governments might try to work through other regional organizations. The Mtamban junta, if it is in good standing with the African Union, could argue its case to the AU assembly or press charges through the AU’s equivalent of the ECHR, the African Court of Justice. If Arab governments were concerned enough by the incident at Giza or a pair of incidents involving Batman in the Persian Gulf, they could present the issue at the Arab League (though no bat-franchise discussed in the comics has been established in the Middle East). Both of these organizations, though, are known for their infighting and stagnated politics. The AU has deployed peacekeepers in extreme cases, but barring a massacre or a civil war that can somehow be tied back to Batman, it is unlikely that the AU would intervene. The Arab League has a history of non-intervention – indeed, its approval of (but not necessarily participation in) the NATO intervention in Libya and sponsorship of a observer mission to Syria, while not particularly effective, have demonstrated an unprecedented willingness to critique the internal affairs of member states. However, it is unlikely the League could achieve even a toothless resolution or observer mission for what is only a peripheral threat to the Arab states.

Batman's presence in the Arab world

Batman’s presence in the Arab world

Smaller, less formal international partnerships would fare no better in forging agreement on a course of action. Various groupings of developing nations – often including Brazil, India, South Africa, China and sometimes Russia – have leveraged their economic and political strength to increase their influence. However, this cooperation has generally been on matters of trade, finance and climate change, and it is difficult to imagine a scenario in which this would change while Batman, Inc. directly affects China only (though Brazil could be concerned about its border with Argentina, the base of operations for bat-affiliate El Gaucho. Then again, the Brazilian government seems to be on exceptionally good terms with Batman).

NEXT TIME: Batman at the United Nations, and domestic responses! Same bat-time, same bat-channel!

[Mass Effect 3 Spoiler Warning]
Probably without intending it, the Mass Effect 3 development team built the game as a crash course in coalition warfare and grand strategy on a cosmic scale. As the game opens the Reapers, a biologic/synthetic race far more powerful and advanced than any in the galaxy, attack the homeworlds of the major races with the bulk of their forces (their main effort) attacking Earth. After the opening scene, the player is tasked with escaping from Earth and rallying the rest of the galaxy to attack the Reaper main effort in the Sol System.

This is no easy task, as the Milky Way is in turmoil. Every race has their own Reaper offensive to worry about and the pre-war fears, honor, and interests remain despite the threat of galactic extinction. The player turns first to the Turians who possess the largest and best military in the galaxy, but their homeworld is as bad off as Earth. The Turians want help from the Krogan, but Krogan honor and interest demand a cure for the genophage, a bioengineered disease that wrecks their population growth (all but one in 10,000 baby Krogan are stillborn.) The Salarians, who designed the genophage, can provide a cure but fear a resurgent and vengeful Krogan race. On another front, standing in for Israel and the Palestinians, are the Geth and the Quarians. Quarians can provide a massive fleet and technical specialists, but want their homeworld, Rannoch, back from the Geth, who conquered it generations ago. The Geth can help if they are released from Reaper control and do not have to worry about reprisals from the Quarians. Oh by the way, you’ve also been marked for assassination by Cerberus, a pro-human, anti-alien non-state actor with vast resources (Space-KKK).

Yeah, we’re going to need some help with these guys.

This isn’t just a canned story, though. The player must make all these choices. Do you give the Krogan what they want and risk a future war or deceive them and condemn them to a slow genocide? Do you appease the Salarians in order to gain their advanced technology and science skills or ignore them in order to gain Krogan ground troops? Do you restore Rannoch to the Space-Palestinians and gain their fleets, side with the Space-Israel and gain their fearless, artificial intelligence ground troops, or do you use diplomacy to end their war that began three hundred years before you were born? Why is President Jed Bartlet in charge of the SpaceKlan?

The Illusive Man, Grand Wizard of the SpaceKlan (voiced by Martin Sheen)

This is an accurate representation of coalition warfare. Take World War II for example. Britain is under dire threat from Nazi Germany, but US interests prevent American entrance into the war until Pearl Harbor. Once the US is in the war, the Soviet Union is a powerful ally against Germany, but they are a communist nation and assisting them could make them stronger in a future war. A more contemporary example is the United States’ shaky relationship with Pakistan. The Taliban and other militant groups are a threat to the current Pakistani government, but Pakistan is probably more worried about a stable Afghanistan that aligns with India than they are extremist groups. For Pakistan, the fear of India trumps their interest in regional stability and strains their relationship with the US, even in the face of a mutual threat.

This is the reality of coalition warfare throughout military history. Fears and interests are not left on the battlefield’s doorstep but rather carry through and affect the course of strategy. Most high-level strategic functions will involve allies of some sort, and Mass Effect 3 offers a primer on the balancing act of coalition warfare. Thrown into this mix are the personal relationships developed between the player and characters on all sides (Shepard’s team includes a Salarian, two Krogan, a Turian, a Quarian, and a Geth). This also reflects reality. The warm relationship between FDR and Churchill was very different than their sometimes icy relations with Joseph Stalin. Again, these are the issues that ME3 deals with that are rarely present in other war games. There are no Call of Duty missions that require you to establish peace in the Middle East before the fighting even begins. Certainly, other works of science fiction have delved into these issues in an intergalactic construct, but most of these are books, movies, or tv shows. The beauty of games is that you get to control the strategy rather than be a silent observer.

1. Adam Elkus, The Strategic Implications of Giant Robots in Space:

Mobile Suits and ships locked in combat

One important ability is that expeditionary forces can, with proper equipment, campaign in both Earth and space. In low-intensity warfare, guerrilla bands or terrorists move from place to place with a mobile base ship, carrying out a process of moral and strategic attrition. If Earth grows too hot for them, they can “break out” to hide in space. Since “magic bullet” weapons (tactical nukes and abnormally powerful suits) are available, small groups of properly equipped suits can inflict great damage on civilian and military targets. In one episode, a “bitter-ender” partisan armed with a tactical nuclear weapon annihilates a significant portion of a Earth naval fleet review.

It goes without saying that nowhere is logistics at any point considered beyond the strategic problem of resources for protracted war.

Jedi Council member Adam Elkus wrote one of the most accessible studies of fictional war I’ve ever seen, and set out some good principles for taking it seriously. Acknowledge that a lot of sci-fi hinges on functional absurdity in favor of aesthetics, treat it as an internally consistent universe, and assume it is one where rational actors and strategy apply just as much as they do in reality.

2. Ben Adams, How to Hack into an Alien Space Ship:

Perhaps their culture is so rigidly honest that lying, even to a computer system, is utterly taboo. The captured alien certainly isn’t reticent to tell the President all of their plans. Perhaps, like in Harry Turltedove’s World War series, their culture was united under one empire so early in their history that certain aspects of war never really became an issue, and they are woefully unprepared for an asymmetric “insider”-attack. In a society where individuals can communicate mind to mind (as the aliens can), would unauthorized access to computers even be a thing? There’s no reason to assume that just because one aspect of their technology is powerful that another will be as well developed.

What’s clear from the movie, however, is that their security sucks. Centralization is generally a bad sign from a computer security standpoint. Their system is so heavily centralized that an external agent (the Mother Ship) can manipulate an individual Fighter to a ridiculous level of granularity, even overriding the system and opening the cockpit doors. Any human security expert would lose their mind if they discovered than an F/A-18 was designed so that a remote signal could lower the landing gear or open the cockpit hatch without the pilot’s consent – the potential for abuse by an enemy is too great.

This and the next entry both deal with alien invasion in film, and while the next piece is a dissection of how poorly thought-out most invasions are, this one instead justifies the depiction of aliens in Independence Day with probably more thought than Roland Emmerlich ever put into it. Extrapolating from what is seen on the screen, Adams finds takes key details: the 40-year project with the alien fighter, the far-reaching control of their network, and an interface with it through decoded transmission, and builds them into an understanding of how a space-faring race could be defeated by a powerbook. This piece, while mostly a commentary on the film, has cybersecurity insights that it directly relates back to reality.

3. S Peter Davis, 6 Giant Blind Spots In Every Movie Alien’s Invasion Strategy

Punching a mugger in the knife

Punching a mugger in the knife

Yes, we get why you might think it makes perfect sense to attack the powerful developed world first, just to get it out of the way, knowing that whoever’s left won’t put up much of a fight. That is, it makes sense if you are a Hollywood scriptwriter who has never had to plan a war. In reality, going straight for the United States is like trying to take down a mugger by punching him in the knife.

It’s written as comedy, but the thought put into dissecting why Alien invasions in film go so poorly is clearly greater than the filmmakers themselves put into creating those invasions. Just imagine for a moment if Aliens, rather than mounting a full-scale assault on the United States, set up camp somewhere that America has a hard time operating. Deep in the FATA, say, or perhaps as the guests of our enemies (much like Cortez and his Tlaxicala gambit), and then launch a campaign of conquest, with a local base to return to. Infinitely smarter plan! Yet film aliens keep making this mistake. In the Avengers, of all the places Loki could choose to make his big stand, why did he pick the one spot where Iron Man would have the most resources available to stop him? (Granted, there are good theories for that, but he still shouldn’t have punched the muggers in the knife.)