Profiles in Leadership: Grand Admiral Thrawn

Posted: September 17, 2012 by Graham J. in Uncategorized
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The Star Wars “Expanded Universe” (EU) – that is, the incredible wealth of fiction, stories, and other new material set in the Star Wars universe but outside of the events of the three real six films – generally gets a bad rap. And it’s not wholly undeserved. The various young adult series, The Crystal Star, everything Kevin J. Anderson has ever written – I get it. But there are some true gems in the EU, the pinnacle of which is Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire trilogy.

Zahn created a number of characters that would go on to become long-running franchise favorites in their own right, like Mara Jade, who many books later marries Luke Skywalker. One of his most iconic creations was an embodiment of the most dangerous (and least cartoonishly evil) aspects of the Empire, a man who posed possibly the greatest threat to the fledgling New Republic in the wake of the Rebel Alliance’s victory at Endor: Grand Admiral Mitth’raw’nuruodo, or more commonly known as Thrawn.

Grand Admiral Thrawn

Here it should be emphatically stated that what follow are pretty major spoilers, if you have not yet read the series. So continue, but be warned…

Grand Admiral Thrawn’s backstory is intriguing and impressively fleshed out, but much of that can be gleaned from his Wookieepedia article. Nevertheless, a little background is needed for those who may not be familiar with the trajectory of galactic geopolitics after the events of Return of the Jedi. The Emperor dies, and while the Empire attempts to preserve itself for a time, within a few years the former Rebel Alliance has become the New Republic and established a seat of government on the traditional capital planet of Coruscant. However, unlike the transformation of Old Republic to Empire, the Empire does not merely change names, leadership, and political system. Instead it partially fractures, with the majority of planets under Imperial rule coming under the New Republic, but with a sizable remainder of systems remaining separate – either independently or as a rump Empire, the “Imperial Remnant.” The Imperial Remnant is roughly a quarter of its former galaxy-spanning size, the Imperial Fleet is at an all-time low in resources, manpower, and weapons system, and its continued existence is in question. Into this situation strides Grand Admiral Thrawn. And where he truly excels – and is of relevance to this blog – is as a military tactician, political-officer, and as a leader of men.

He was a Grand Admiral, with all the cunning and subtlety and tactical genius that the title implied.

As a Chiss, Thrawn was a true rarity in the New Order of Emperor Palpatine. The Empire suffered from a distinct pro-human bias, but Thrawn became not only the sole non-human to ever attain the rank of Grand Admiral, but became one of the Emperor’s most trusted military advisors. Thrawn’s promotion occurred in secret about three years before the Battle of Yavin, and he immediately engaged in and mastered the internal Imperial politics commensurate with his new position. Eventually, following the death of Emperor Palpatine at the Battle of Endor, he was elected “supreme commander” by the Council of Moffs and from thereon was his own commander-in-chief.

Leadership Style

In relations with his own subordinates, GADM Thrawn proved himself every bit the opposite of Darth Vader. Vader was a harsh martinet, and while not a strict adherent to the “chickenshit” school of discipline (at least according to the Paul Fussell definition), failure under Vader’s command would mean immediate relief of both one’s duties and life. Poor ADM Ozzel, who committed one too many errors both operationally and in intellect, suffered the ultimate punishment for his bungled attempt at surprising the Rebel Alliance on Hoth. Incompetence was not the only grounds for Vader’s many executions: the Dark Lord of the Sith choked the life out of the Imperial officer corps for apologizing, disagreeing, and…loving? In any event, it was do as Vader said, how he said, or suffer the consequences.

Thrawn with an Interdictor cruiser in the background.

Thrawn, on the other hand, was a different sort of leader. He valued creativity and initiative to a much greater extent than Vader, and was more forgiving of mistakes made in their pursuit. Whereas Vader punished incompetence and damned all the rest, Thrawn was willing to reward the bold and the capable – though also prepared to mete out discipline. When Thrawn laid a trap for Luke Skywalker through use of a hyperspeed-canceling Interdictor-class cruiser, Skywalker managed to escape through use of an unorthodox tactic. The tractor beam operator from whose grasp Skywalker escaped referred any blame to his commanding ensign, for the latter’s failure to train him properly. Thrawn then had his personal bodyguard kill the man on the spot and instructed the ensign to train a replacement, reminding him of the difference between an error and a mistake: “Anyone can make an error, Ensign. But that error doesn’t become a mistake until you refuse to correct it.”

The replacement tractor beam operator, Ensign Mithel, is then charged with capturing Luke Skywalker in a later encounter. When Skywalker, in an X-wing, blasts out of the freighter onto which the tractor beam is locked (using a covert shroud maneuver), Mithel attempts a counter to the classic technique, which fails when the tractor beam seizes up. Skywalker escapes again. Yet Thrawn lauds Mithel for quick thinking and innovation, regardless of the ultimate outcome – promoting a critical thinking, small-unit-style devolution of initiative. As the Grand Admiral tells him, “Yours was one of the more innovative attempts, particularly given how little time you had to come up with it. The fact that it failed does not in any way diminish that.” In general, Thrawn promoted freedom of thought and creativity among both senior and junior officers, in marked contrast with Vader and the normally more rigid Imperial officer corps. That sort of devolution of authority was previously unheard of within the Empire; the grand admiral’s loosening of those senseless standards helped his commanders to achieve decisive victories even without his direct leadership.

Hoewever, before the Battle of Endor and his appointment as supreme commander, Thrawn himself occasionally ended up in hot water over his own resistance and outspokenness. When ordered to engage in a battle he knew he would not win, he refused and was stripped of his rank. When his replacement’s force engaged and was destroyed, he was reinstated as Grand Admiral and his assessments paid closer attention to by the Emperor. This was also a result of Thrawn’s mastery of the game of politics, and he eventually developed enough of a rapport with the Emperor to be inducted into the elite “Order of the Canted Circle.”

Politically, though, one has to question whether this sort of refusal would ever actually be made in a democratic society, especially without being accompanied by some sort of resignation in protest. While it could be made, it would almost certainly result in demotion if not outright discharge, and an attempt to find cases in which reinstatement occurred gave only two results: Ensign/Lieutenant Tom Paris and Lieutenant/Major Lee “Apollo” Adama. Nevertheless, it could be seen as sign of extraordinary political skill and military prestige combined that Thrawn managed to avoid any permanent demotion or consequences, and he in turn instilled this same culture among his own subordinates.

Intelligence and Cultural Knowledge

Throughout the novels, GADM Thrawn displays an innate sense of perception that’s portrayed as an aspect of his military genius. Quite simply, he analyzes art (there’s hope for you after all, Sarah Lawrence grads! [Ed note: ARTINT?]).  Repeatedly, Thrawn encounters an adversary of another species – the New Republic enjoying a much more diverse military than that of the Imperial Remnant – and through previous methodical analysis of that species’ artistic habits and styles, discerns advantages and points of tactical weakness.

In fact, the first book of the trilogy opens with the admiral seated in a virtual art gallery, studying several Saffa paintings and noting how the style changes after the Saffa make contact with a new species. Not long thereafter, his single Star Destroyer encounters four New Republic assault frigates with three wings of X-wings flying escort. After a brief probe with a sentry ship, Thrawn orders TIE fighter squadrons to launch and engage with “a classic Marg Sabl closure maneuver.” While his ship’s CO, Captain Gavrisom Pellaeon, fears that the Republic forces will never fall for such a simple maneuver, the X-wings reform in a futile defense against it. Thrawn explains while the X-wings are quickly routed and destroyed that from the initial probe, he could tell they were Elomin. And thus:

They’re trying the only defense they know of against a Marg Sabl… Or, to be more precise, the only defense they are psychologically capable of attempting… You see, Captain, there’s an Elom commanding that force…and Elomin simply cannot handle the unstructured attack profile of a properly executed Marg Sabl.

Within an hour, the entire Republic fleet is destroyed.

Thrawn tells Pellaeon to “learn about art…when you understand a species’ art, you understand that species.” And this both literally and metaphorically informs Thrawn’s quest for information, intelligence, and knowledge. Purporting to know an entire species, much less a culture, from their art certainly smacks of Porter’s military orientalism, but in its context, it makes sense. The simplified universe of Star Wars is one where entire planets have a single biome, so to assign individual assign species monolithic characteristics is hardly out-of-keeping with the rest of the galaxy.

Intelligence drives much of Thrawn’s movements. An offensive against a given planet is just as likely to be a feint in the name of obtaining information as it is an attempt to take and hold territory. The initial skirmish with the Elomin occurs as Thrawn’s forces are uncovering references to a lost Imperial storehouse supposedly home to “Spaarti cylinders” – a technology capable of cloning soldiers. While initially a myth, a mere rumor, a bit of scuttlebutt floating around the officer corps, Thrawn runs that thread down to its end and succeeds where others might have immediately dismissed the notion. He locates the Spaarti cylinders in a forgotten Imperial warehouse on the backwater planet of Wayland, and surreptitiously begins cloning himself a new army. As a sort of means of augmenting existing manpower with technology – but using that technology to create more of the same manpower, rather than improving on existing personnel – Thrawn observes sort of a Joseph-Stalin-and-Donald-Rumsfeld-had-a-baby approach to war. “Quantity has a quality all its own” meets “the army you’ve got.”

The love child of Stalin and Rumsf[FILE NOT FOUND]

But in this way and others, Grand Admiral Thrawn proves himself to be a creative master of resourcing – a necessity in any time of austerity. He seemingly creates entirely win-win situations for himself in an attempt to enlarge his initial fleet of just six Imperial-class Star Destroyers. Launching feints at Nkllon and Bpfaash, Thrawn’s actual offensive comes at the Sluis Van shipyards, where he attempts to capture New Republic star cruisers by drilling “mole miners” (stolen during the Nkllon skirmish) filled with boarding parties into each ship, which would then crew the vessels and add them to Thrawn’s fleet. His plan is foiled by the usual cast of characters, but they are only able to prevent it by giving the mole miners a command to drill all the way through the star cruisers, denying them to both the Empire and the New Republic. So while Thrawn does not expand his fleet through this action, he effectively knocks a large swathe of the New Republic’s forces out of the war.

Dreadnaught-class heavy cruiser

Perhaps Thrawn’s masterstroke – and the culmination of his pursuit of intelligence – is in tracking down the lost Katana fleet. Like a spacefaring version of Ragged Dick, Thrawn uses his limited resources and his innate talents to grow his own fleet through nontraditional means. A fleet of 200 dreadnaughts that supposedly vanished when all their hyperdrives were slaved together, Thrawn again pursues the legend of the Katana and runs the rumors regarding its location to ground, to the point where he actually discovers the fleet, recovers 178 of the ships, and crews them with his newly-cloned soldiers. Using the inevitable gossip and hyperbole that then runs rampant throughout the New Republic, Thrawn launches a number of further feints, diverting New Republic forces to such an extent that he is able to mount an assault against Coruscant – the very seat of the New Republic government.

Victories Tactical and Strategic

Timothy Zahn ascribes Thrawn a Napoleonic talent for deception, and Thrawn makes use of several different technologies as a means towards achieving information superiority and driving towards his ultimate goal. In addition to the Spaarti cylinders that Thrawn’s forces find on Wayland, they also uncover another most diabolical technology: cloaking devices. This is how Thrawn inserts his mole miners into the Sluis Van shipyards. But cloaking devices, beyond their obvious purpose, have many other uses as well. In an attempt to begin yoking nearby worlds to the Imperial mantle, Thrawn conducts an effective demonstration of his planetary shield-defeating superweapon. One of his Star Destroyers fires upon the planet of Ukio, which has raised its defensive planet-wide shield in defiance of Thrawn’s command to submit. When the turbolaser shot is not deflected but rather passes straight through the shield to hit the surface, the native Ukians are cowed into submission.

Of course, Thrawn has not actually invented a superlaser. Instead, another Star Destroyer had earlier entered orbit around Ukio at an altitude lower than the shield radius and waited for Thrawn’s fleet to emerge. It was a carefully coordinated deception that worked beautifully and provoked a chain reaction of systems and planets stampeding to join the Empire. In their eyes, the New Republic now had no legitimacy – it could not protect them from the might of the Empire.

The Siege of Coruscant was the most dramatic use of cloaking technology, and the penultimate offensive in the Thrawn Campaign. In this situation, Thrawn does not use cloaking to obfuscate the truth so much as he uses the technology and lies about the overall numbers. By placing a series of cloaked asteroids into orbit around the capital planet, Thrawn effectively cuts off all physical routes to the surface of Coruscant. He only cloaks a total of 22 asteroids, but as the procedure for launching them is indistinguishable from a “blank” launch, he gives the appearance of having placed more than 300 asteroids in low orbit around the planet, posing what seems to be a hazard to space traffic and an existential threat were an asteroid to impact the surface.

Like most of Thrawn’s maneuverings, the Siege of Coruscant serves a dual purpose: it both knocks the capital out of the war, ties down one of the Republic’s more able tacticians (Garm Bel Iblis), and forces the entirety of the remaining Republic fleet into battle at Bilbringi in order to seize a device capable of revealing the locations of the remaining asteroids. But it is during this battle that Thrawn’s luck finally runs out.

Thrawn’s strategy of never committing the bulk of his forces – despite superior firepower – but instead drawing out and destroying piecemeal the Republic fleet was a sound one, despite his eventual defeat. Over the course of the campaign, the New Republic suffered 10% KIA and a further 30% WIA – yet Thrawn only seized roughly 30% of New Republic territory. However, he managed to sufficiently weaken the rest to the point where, had he emerged victorious at Bilbringi, imposing an Imperial mandate over the rest of the New Republic would have been a simple exercise. Thus, the absence of a detailed or well thought-out plan to hold the seized territory may be excused. Thrawn was not invading in order to nation-build; rather, he was challenging New Republic authority in order to bring it to its knees.

The End of Thrawn

Of course, in the end, Thrawn is not victorious at Bilbringi. He is brought down, in essence, by his own cleverness. The homeworld of the Noghri species, Honoghr,was poisoned during the Clone Wars by a crashed Separatist ship, and subsequently offered salvation from Darth Vader. Vader promised a series of autonomous vehicles to cleanse the world of toxins, in exchange for the service of the Noghri (renowned throughout the sector) as loyal bodyguards and assassins. Eventually, after victory over Prince Xizor and in the Battle of Derra IV, Thrawn is given command over the Noghri.

However, beginning under Vader and continuing under Thrawn, the vehicles cleaning Honoghr are in fact poisoning the planet further, thus ensuring the virtual enslavement of the Noghri continues indefinitely. After Thrawn has the Noghri attempt to capture a pregnant Leia Organa Solo (she and Han being married by now), Leia pays a visit to Honoghr to convince the Noghri people to end their service to the Empire. While there, she discovers the secret of the cleaning/poisoning droids and sets in motion a series of events that culminates in Thrawn’s eventual assassination by his head bodyguard, Rukh, during the Battle of Bilbringi itself.

Thrawn sits dying in his command chair after being stabbed by his bodyguard, Rukh.

Ensuring the loyalty of those closest to you is a key tool for most leaders. That loyalty comes in different forms. In dictatorial and authoritarian countries, often this loyalty is coerced and subject to the vagaries of a given regime or leader. Witness the bomb that killed top Syrian defense personnel back in July – set by an Assad bodyguard. An even more direct comparison could be made with the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards in retaliation for Operation Blue Star. And who could forget the assassination-by-bodyguard of Hussein allegory “The Mustache” in Tom Clancy’s Executive Orders? (Though granted, that bodyguard was an Iranian sleeper agent.) More often than not, however, these scenarios do not come to pass for various reasons, be it an ideological affinity, threats against family members, national pride, or any number of factors. In this sense, Thrawn succumbed to the internal elite insider threat, the bodyguard from a particularly skilled warrior race who was never quite equal with those in the society he served.

Thrawn’s legacy remains mixed. While he posed the gravest danger that the New Republic faced since its founding, the Imperial Remnant never really recovered from the damage done to it after his death at Bilbringi. With Thrawn dead, Captain Pellaeon assumed command and ordered the fleet to retreat. The Empire’s gains were undone, though the New Republic was faced with a massive rebuilding challenge, as well as the strain of providing for many war-torn worlds before it had even properly established itself as the legitimate galactic government. Thrawn himself, though, remained a powerful memory for both sides. Ten years later, a Moff hired an imposter to portray the admiral in an attempt to restore morale and strike fear into the heart of the New Republic. This prompted a massive response and a Luke Skywalker-lead expedition that sought out a secret clone of Thrawn and destroyed it and the facility it was being grown in, putting a stop to the rumors of his return…for the time being.

Thrawn remains a fascinating character and certainly one of the more interesting products of the Star Wars Expanded Universe. At all levels – the strategic/political, operational, tactical – Grand Admiral Thrawn managed to integrate his plans and schema so that victory at one level led to success in the others. His overarching tool to accomplish this was his use, possession, and collection of information. Thrawn’s own analysis of this would be a defining feature. While a mastery of Imperial politics and infighting served him well during the New Order, by the time of his campaign for the Imperial Remnant he no longer had to concern himself with adhering to a complex chain of civil-military relations and could instead concentrate his talents towards defeating the New Republic through a clever grand campaign of deception and imbalance. Eventually, he was done in not by his own cleverness, but instead by his complacency in maintaining a dangerously shortsighted policy put into place by his predecessor.

  1. Ubiqtorate says:

    Great article! Grand Admiral Thrawn’s undoing was his crucial lack of information about the Lord Darth Vader being the father of Leia Organa Solo. The Grand Admiral was intimately knowledgeable about the Noghri and had Thrawn known Leia was Lord Vader’s biological daughter, he would have realized that using the Noghri to capture this Rebel leader was foolhardy. Sadly, this piece of knowledge was largely unknown to the Galaxy at large as well. It is ironic that this “trivial” piece of information became a terribly important variable and ultimately trumped the Grand Admiral’s strategy to achieve total victory over the Rebellion. However it must be recognized that even without this information, the esteemed Grand Admiral knew something was terribly wrong with Noghri – he even pulled the Noghri off assignment – but not Rukh. He had no reason to doubt Rukh. This vile Noghri turncoat’s egregious assassination of the noble Grand Admiral will live on in the SW saga as the biggest turning point in the fortunes of the post-Endor Galactic Empire. We are left to wonder “what if”.

  2. Strategos says:

    Reblogged this on Warrior's Forge and commented:
    An outstanding post on one of the best tactitians, even if a fictional character….

  3. Chris Jaskowiak says:

    Absolutely loved the article on Grand Admiral Thrawn. A quick question: do you have any theories on where Thrawn’s corpse ended up after his assassination? In the Hand of Thrawn books, the fake Thrawn could have easily been exposed if someone was able to produce the original Thrawn’s body. Yet in those books, no one, not even Pellaeon, thought to search for the body of Thrawn for proof that this “returned” Thrawn was nothing more than a fraud.

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