The short-lived but much-loved show Firefly opens with the Battle of Serenity Valley. In it, Sergeant Malcolm Reynolds, fighting for the Independence Movement, downs an Alliance aircraft with a surface-to-ground gun emplacement, before finding out that high command as withdrawn support for the battle and the Browncoats are being ordered to lay down arms. The clip embedded above was originally featured in the pilot, before being deemed too grim to air. That actual combat was less grim than the battle’s week-old aftermath is telling; this was the science fiction equivalent of the Battle of Ebro. Whatever war happened after that battle was more a formality than a real conflict.
The show, much to it’s merit as entertainment and my frustration as commentator, does not go into great detail discussing the battle, or indeed much of the war. In fact, only three engagements are discussed at all. Still, from the similarities between those engagements we can begin to piece together an understanding of how the conflict proceeded. The first point worth mentioning is that the Alliance, on the eve of the conflict, tested a chemical weapon on one of it’s more recently terraformed planets. This was an attempt to pacify a populace not yet in revolt; that a planet was risked after considerable investment indicates that unrest was for the Alliance a thorny problem, as it is for most rulers ever anywhere. Nowhere is it recorded that the Alliance used this weapon again; it turns out their is a finite limit on the risks most powerful governments are willing to undertake when they have sizable conventional forces.*
The second battle shown in Firefly is the Battle of Du-Khang, where we find Sergeant Malcolm Reynolds and Corporal Zoë Alleyne fighting a holding action against an Alliance advance. After the Browncoat lieutenant in charge is incapacitated trough shellshock, Reynolds assumes command from and orders a retreat. Much like in Serenity Valley, Du-Khang featured a force composed large of riflemen with incompetent and inept leadership arrayed against a larger, better armed, and more technologically advanced foe. In the few minutes of the battle that are shown, we see mortars, heat-seeking missiles, and the prospect of rubble-crushing armor identified only as “Rollers.” The independents, for all their ability to contest territory with small arms, are shown with a marked lack of capacity to hold it.
Perhaps this is why the third battle mentioned in the Unification War was fought over a hoard of money. The Battle of Sturges took place entirely in space, and is commonly assumed to have been the bloodiest battle of the war. From it’s sequencing and it’s setting, it is entirely possible that this is the battle in which the Independence Fleet lost it’s ability to contest space, as there is no further mention of conflict in space during the war, and the remaining battles all take place as defensive engagements, with limited air support rumored to exist but never materializing.
Despite the war’s six-year length, the Unification War doesn’t fit the resource intensity of early 20th century conflict, where industrial strength, mass mobilization, and technological innovation led to victory. Instead, this fits the longer pattern of intrastate conflict, where currency is the prized resource, and where small arms can contest territory but are incapable of holding it against determined advances by technologically superior forces. This does not mean that the Alliance won without effort. During the Battle of Serenity Valley alone they suffered 300,000 casualties. The war took years, featured experimentation in biological and chemical weaponry, included a bombing campaign so severe it rendered a planet uninhabitable, and created a surplus of guns for hire in a post conflict environment with few prospects. The Alliance was successful in quashing the independence movement, but beyond that little changed in governance on the formerly-independent worlds. The Alliance setting up new rulers who were frequently little more than bandits with official sanction and private security forces. This is what campaigns to expel hostile governance frequently look like.
In the film “Serenity“, we see the Alliance tasked with bringing down an ideologically hostile group featuring former Browncoats. They pursue their quarry through sizable investments of human intelligence, but ultimately resort to a heavy-footprint campaign concentrated on forcing surrender through superior firepower, literally burning every sanctuary sought by the former Browncoats to the ground. While successful for a while, this strategy leads to an unconventional response. In this case, it’s an information operation so powerful it threatens to destabilize the Alliance Parliament. If one wanted to be facetious, they could call this “cyber’s Serenity Valley.”
*This is somewhat countered by Saffron’s statement that her former husband Haymer was a bio-weapons expert who would use them to clear out neighborhoods to acquire artifacts contained therein. I’m willing to omit her account in this because YoSaffBrig is a notoriously unreliable narrator. At any rate, if Haymer was in fact able to do so, it indicates the use of a limited weapon in theaters where superiority was probably assured, so it doesn’t go against the overall picture of the Alliance war effort.