Archive for January, 2013

“Help yourself again, there is plenty and to spare!,” bellows the Dragon, as the nimble-footed Hobbit scampers from his gold-bedecked lair. So begins Bilbo’s brief encounter with Smaug, the scourge of Dwarvish civilization. According to Tolkien’s legendarium, Dragons have maintained a mixed relationship with Sauron’s dark powers, reflecting a diversity of motives for inter-civilizational violence. Smaug’s seizure of Thror’s Erebor, the Lonely Mountain, stems from opportunistic banditry, as distinct from his successors’ annihilationism. Smaug’s intentions, however, have little impact on the scale of his invasion, which terrorized Erebor’s Dwarvish inhabitants, as well as the Men of Esgaroth, the valley’s township. For one-hundred and fifty years, Smaug slept, and napped, and dozed, and every-so-often, preened himself on his kleptomania.

As compelling as Peter Jackson’s computer-generated dragoneering may be, Tolkien’s death of Smaug is, by all readings, a marginal event. Bilbo’s intelligence-gathering effort, mentioned above, is operationally successful, revealing the Dragon’s physical vulnerabilities. Smaug seeks vengeance against the Men of Dale, whom the Dragon casts as disruptive Quislings. In an unusual occurrence in Middle Earth warfare, Smaug’s assault is a limited engagement, as Bard the Bowman pierced the Dragon’s underbelly. Of course, Bard’s defense of Dale permits limited relief; soon after Smaug’s death, an Orc horde swarms Erebor, prompting the Battle of Five Armies. If Smaug’s death bore local relevance, the impact of the Battle of Five Armies was cataclysmic. According to Tolkien’s narration, the Elves, Men, and Dwarves vanquished more than three-quarters of the North’s Orc population, a decisive victory. The counter-Orc coalition’s warfighting logic transforms a century of Middle Earth’s geopolitics, as Jon Jeckell’s survey of the War of the Ring details.

Tolkien’s sprawling, grand-strategic analysis of the Battle of Five Armies overshadows a micro-perspective towards discreet violence. Tolkien’s Hobbit, the Five Armies’ chronicle, is quick to highlight the post-Five Armies unity of Elves, Men, and Dwarves, forged against the Orcs’ assault. The counter-Orc coalition equitably distributes Erebor’s spoils, recaptured from the Dragon’s lair. The successful conclusion of the Battle of the Five Armies reaffirms the existence of a “free peoples of Middle Earth,” an infrequent conglomeration of Elves, Men, and Dwarves. If we backtrack, however, corrosive, if justified resource squabbles comprise the aftermath of Smaug’s demise, a marked contrast to the triumphant, trans-civilization harmony of the post-Five Armies scene. Throughout the Quest of Erebor, Thorin’s Dwarvish company lays claim to both their mining kingdom and its riches. The Dwarves’ hereditary authority bears little relevance to the Men of Dale, who request a compensatory share of Erebor’s gold, due to the Dragon’s rampant, wanton destruction of Esgaroth. When Thorin rejects Bard’s claim, the Lake-men lay siege to Erebor, requesting assistance from Thranduil’s Wood-Elves. While Tolkien introduces the subsequent scuffle as a prelude to the Battle of Five Armies, the siege of Erebor is likely more revealing of the counter-Smaug insurgency’s internal politics.

Tolkien describes the fragmentation of the counter-Smaug insurgency as a moral failure: “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world,” laments Thorin, following the Battle of Five Armies. In this way, Tolkien occupies a stark posture towards the civil conflict literature: greed, rather than grievance, drives Middle Earth’s violence. As Michael Ross conveys, the early civil conflict literature’s greed/grievance dichotomy is dated, both in its underemphasis on the particularism of resource types, as well as how violent organizations manipulate illicit economies. While gold’s influence is apparently significant, the counter-Smaug insurgency’s organizational structure may prove more significant, in keeping with recent scholarship on the “organization of rebellion.”

The Dwarvish company–Thorin Oakenshield, Gloin, Oin, Ori, Nori, Dori, Dwalin, Balin, Kili, Fili, Bifur, Bofur, and Bombur–is a familial organization, crafted in accordance with a broad edition of Thorin’s family tree. From a non-fantastical perspective, we can draw parallels to a criminal mafia, which often relies on hereditary networks to distribute resources, facilitate violence, and shape strategic decision-making. Thorin’s Dwarves create a formative nucleus of the counter-Smaug insurgency, which in its initial form maintains dual objectives: Smaug’s eradication, and the seizure of Erebor’s riches. As Bilbo burglars Smaug’s lair, the Dwarves form a temporary, informal coalition with Bard’s Lake-men, who possess the manpower with which to vanquish Smaug. The insurgency organization, however, lacks an “overlapping social base,” which Paul Staniland describes as a prerequisite for cohesive politics–the partnership relies on rent-seeking opportunism, rather than a communal logic. As the organization’s decentralization mounts, the incoherence of the insurgency’s political organization gives way to its second objective, prompting infighting and internal fragmentation.

In keeping with Tolkien’s moralistic standpoint, Bilbo’s crafty extraction of the Arkenstone, the crown-jewel of Erebor’s cache, allows Middle Earth’s free peoples to reach a negotiated settlement. Consistent with BlogTarkin’s recent tack towards alt-history, further poliscifi researchers may find it useful to conceptualize alternative trajectories of the counter-Smaug insurgency’s internal conflict mitigation.

“The Battle under the Mountain,” Matt Stewart’s authoritative rendering of Erebor’s Battle of Five Armies.


Endoravin 4



Fellow Moffs, as you are aware, we had an unfortunate  incident on Bespin last month. With limited resources, a religious terrorist attempted to assassinate Vader. While Vader survived the attack, he unleashed private security contractors to pursue the would-be assassins, and found himself betrayed by the local governor and his personal defense forces.

This is only the latest is a series of breaches of Imperial security in recent years. Disparate religious terrorists, criminal elements, unreliable local government, and dispersed operations are making the foe we face an intractable problem wherever we go. While our fleet and core worlds are not themselves in jeopardy, any major investments or deployments we make on the edge of our empire are vulnerable.  This is especially true of high value targets, which extend up from Star Destroyers to Death Stars but can be as vulnerable as unsupported Imperial stormtroopers operating among a hostile populace.

This is a mistake we have made before. Yavin 4, where the Rebel Alliance clustered after the demoralizing obliteration of Alderaan, should have been a moment of triumph. Yet we underestimated the ability of rebels and their Bothan allies to infiltrate our communications, and did not expect common criminals to join in an ideological raid. Yavin 4 was undoubtedly a defeat.

I can hear those of you in the back rows even now grumbling your disagreement. “Surely,” you are saying to yourselves, “the loss of a fortified, hospitable hideout must count as a partial success. After all, the Rebel Alliance no longer operates on Yavin 4.” This is true. We have denied them one safe haven. But we only denied them one safe haven in a galaxy of thousands. Our eagerness to meet the threat solely with technological superiority let us neglect the manpower necessary for a thorough cleanse of the world and eradication of these dangerous, nonstate actors.

I mention all of this because I fear that we are making the same mistake in Endor that we made in Yavin 4. The conditions match exactly. It’s a forest moon, great for hosting rebels. We do not know where the criminal element that was last seen smuggling religious ideologues resides, and can only assume that they returned instead to safe forests, rather than hostile deserts. We have placed our security again in secrecy, assuming that a little-noticed external vulnerability can be adequately protected more by secrecy than overwhelming defensive force.

-Admiral Zsinj

Endor is Not a Moon of Yavin:



Distinguished Imperial leadership, I understand that for many of you Endor is a new topic of study. It’s an obscure moon of a backwater planet, which is kind of the point. Endor’s obscurity is it’s greatest shield. While inhabited, the population lacks a written language, much less interstellar transport or communication. They are extremely hostile to outsiders; the closest word they have to “stranger” translates roughly as “unfamiliar food.” Their weapons are no match for our own, and it is incredibly unlikely that any foreign fighters could possibly motivate them to anger over their own appetites.

Yavin, as I understand it, is the graveyard of Death Stars. Unlike Endor, it lacks any native, sentient population. It was a world that exclusively housed rebels, a single, benign tumor. There were no smugglers, no religious radicals, only violent militia bent on undermining our Empire and destroying the galactic commons. Had we only acted faster, it could have been destroyed.

Hoth, it’s worth remembering, was not like that. On Hoth, we opted for the slow approach, a ground invasion and occupation, aimed at stemming the rebel advance before they entrenched themselves in a second safe haven. Hoth clearly shows that the Rebels show no arboreal allegiance, and that their basing concerns are centered on how to avoid detection, not necessarily proximity for striking at Imperial assets. That we think Endor is vulnerable indicates our failure to understand the current state of the alliance – beleaguered, on the run, and resorting to unscrupulous smugglers or sympathetic local governments. Worth noting that as hostile as Bespin was to Imperial presence, they also expelled the rebels, and the governor too when it was found out he had rebel sympathies.

All of this leads us back to Endor. Given the local hostility to outsiders, a small base and unobtrusive station should provide us with the best balance between remaining undetected and allowing the natives to defend against any attempts at Rebel basing. There is no commerce to be had in this end of the galaxy, so criminal connections will not lead the rebels here. The rebels are themselves on the retreat, looking for a secure base of operations, and are unlikely to mount a major assault. Endor will be overlooked as a possible haven.

I cannot guarantee the safety of the Empire, but I can tell you all that we are better basing plans on the work of regional commanders, rather than distant fleet analysts.

– Moff Tiaan Jerjerrod

Guest author Kyle Mizokami blogs on defense issues at Asia Security Watch and Japan Security Watch. He can be found on twitter at @KyleMizokami.

In the early 1980s, a series of books were published that explained what came to be called “maneuver warfare theory”. Maneuver warfare theory was presented as an alternative to what advocates dubbed attrition theory. Maneuver warfare postulated that warfare conducted with an emphasis identification of enemy “centers of gravity”, superior organizational flexibility and battlefield agility, among other things, was superior to attrition-based warfare. Maneuver warfare avoided costly force-on-force engagements to concentrate on enemy vulnerabilities.

The first, Maneuver Warfare Handbook by William S. Lind, was a hard-to-find book best located in university libraries. The book was written with the U.S. Marine Corps in mind, and illustrated theory with tactical problems. Next came Robert Leonhard’s The Art of Maneuver, a post-Gulf War meditation on maneuver warfare and the future of U.S. Army doctrine. The Marine Corps’ manual FMFM-1 Warfighting explained the Corps’ vision of maneuver warfare theory and practice. There have also been countless articles and explorations of maneuver warfare in various military journals, anthologies, and presentations.

Despite this aggregation of martial thought, the best book on maneuver warfare is in fact a 30 year old science fiction novel. Although incomplete in addressing all aspects of theory, Ender’s Game is one of the best books on maneuver warfare ever written.


Battleschool Arena

The Battle School Arena, rendered in LEGO by Mason Lindblad. Note the corners of the gate, they’ll matter later.

Ender’s Game was first published in 1985. A science fiction novel, it is the story of a young boy that saves mankind from an alien menace. Earth has twice been attacked by insectoid aliens called “The Buggers” or “Formics”, the second invasion having been a very near-run thing. Earth’s government, acknowledging the fact that it needs every advantage against the aliens it can generate, decides to try and breed military geniuses that can lead human space fleets to victory.

I first read Ender’s Game in 1986, in high school. Since then I’ve been continually surprised at it’s popularity. These days, Ender’s Game is particularly popular with geeks and hipsters. My wife read my high school copy, nearly thirty years old, which would have delighted my fifteen year old nerd self.

Ender’s Game follows child genius Ender Wiggin as he undergoes command selection and then training, first participating zero-g laser tag-like sim combat, then commanding platoons of other prodigies, then simulated fleets of Earth ships against buggers. Wiggin’s keenly observant mind, and his ability to innovate new tactics makes him mankind’s best bet. It’s those tactics he innovates that are of relevant interest to us.

Ender’s first taste of combat is in Battle School, where equally-sized “Armies” of 40 students fight battles in zero gravity using training lasers much like the modern-day MILES system. Once a student is hit he or she becomes immobilized and out of the fight. It’s conventional wisdom at Battle School that victory is achieved through killing off the other side. After that, the winning side takes touches the four corners of the enemy’s entrance gate, and passing one soldier through it. This is seen as more of a ritual than anything else.

As a lowly foot soldier in Salamander Army, Ender has an epiphany. The last soldier alive in a battle against Leopard Army, outnumbered 9-1, Ender freezes enough enemy soldiers just as they are about to touch the corners to prevent Leopard from controlling all of them. The battle, just moments before seen as a sure victory, ends in a draw.

Controlling all the corners of and passing through the enemy gate is not just ritual, it’s what wins the battle. Ender realizes that the traditional grinding battles of attrition are meaningless, and that in the end the only thing that matters is fulfilling the conditions of victory. It occurs to him that it is not the raw force that wins the battle, but rather the proper application of force that wins. In actuality, one side doesn’t even have to “freeze” any soldiers on the other side in order to win. Destruction of the enemy is irrelevant.

Ender has also discovered that the Focal Point of each battle (or as maneuver theorists like to put it, schwerpunkt) is the enemy’s gate and the four corners surrounding it. Ender’s predecessor, International Fleet commander Mazer Rackham, beat the Buggers in the Second Invasion by attacking their focal point. During the decisive battle of the invasion, with the human fleet vastly outnumbered, Mazer Rackham had figured out that there was one ship in particular–carrying an invading queen–that the Buggers were attempting to protect. Rackham made the ship his focal point and destroyed it, not realizing that the ship was directly acting as command and control for the entire Bugger fleet.

During the final battle at Command School, Ender made the planet his focal point. Ender equated the planet with the gate from Battle School, and poured everything he had at destroying it. Ender was unaware that the planet was actually the Formic homeworld, and that it was the focal point of the entire war.

Dislocation: Another maneuver warfare principle, dislocation is another discovery of Ender’s. Robert Leonhard, in his book Maneuver Warfare Handbook, describes what he calls “The Alcyoneus Principle”. According to Greek mythology, Hercules was unable to slay the giant Alcyoneus, who would spring back to life each time after being killed. Hercules only beat Alcyoneus when Athena whispered to him that the giant could not be defeated on his home soil of Pallene. Hercules proceeded to pick up the giant and carry him to a foreign land, whereupon he finally slew him.

Ender fights his own giant. Like other students, Ender plays video games in his spare time, games run by the Battle School computer that are veiled extensions of the school curriculum. Ender plays “The Giant’s Game”, a video game in which Ender faces off against a giant that kills players in particularly gruesome ways. No matter what the players do, the giant always wins.

Ender thinks “The Giant’s Game” is unwinnable until, in a moment of frustration, he attacks the giant by burrowing through the monster’s eyeball. Ender has learned that the only way to win the giant’s game is not to play, and force the giant to play his own.
Ender attacks the giant through his face, killing him, and there is peace in his video game land.

The two lessons, that of Hercules and Ender Wiggin, are virtually identical: dislocate the enemy by refusing to play to its strengths, while going to the enemy weaknesses.

John Boyd in Space: In Battle School the focus on attrition strategy has stalled innovation in tactics. Army commanders instead focus on unity of command and training. In response, Ender uses maneuver to achieve an advantage over the enemy. He hurries his troops out into the battle arena to gain the initiative; when that trick has been used he makes the enemy wait. And so on. Ender keeps the initiative by continually thinking up new tactics and retiring them before his enemies can adapt. The lack of innovation among other army commanders has lengthened their decision cycle, and they are unable to respond effectively when presented with new tactics. This is the Boydian decision cycle of maneuver warfare theorists.

Combined Arms and Presenting the Enemy With a Dilemma: By nature, combined arms is supposed to present the enemy with an unending series of dilemmas, alternating types of force. At one point in Battle School, deprived of cover to mask his soldiers’ advance, Ender even improvises combined arms by creating “tanks” made out of a frozen soldiers, complete with gunners, and sending them toward the enemy’s gate. The tank/infantry combination presents the enemy with a dilemma that they had never seen before, and which they are unable to solve in time.

Speed = Power: Speed is another. A small, fast force can achieve a decision through maneuver more rapidly than a large, slow force — particularly if it is faster than the enemy. Ender experiments with using ropes to send troops out at velocities the enemy had never seen before. In the final battle, with two armies pitted against his one, Ender uses speed to hurl a small force — with little margin for error — directly at the enemy gate.

Organizational Flexibility: Ender continues to inadvertedly explore maneuver warfare territory. Ender breaks down his 40-student army into five toons of eight soldiers, instead of the traditional four squads of ten. With each toon further broken down into half toons, that meant he could assign ten different maneuvers to his Army, more than any other army. This gave Ender more options in the deployment of his forces than his enemy, an organic organizational advantage over others. Organizing units for broader tactical flexibility, and the advantages it gave a commander, is something that Robert Leonhard discusses in The Art of Maneuver.

Delegation of Initiative to Subordinates: In a break with unofficial Battle School command philosophy, Ender gives increased initiative to his toon leaders. This harkens back to his experience as a foot soldier, where he saw opportunities to alter the battle go squandered as commanders attempt to preserve unity of command. Ender outlines his concept of operation and is in charge of the main effort, but allows his individual toon leaders to fight their own battles. The delegation of initiative to subordinates is yet another tenet of maneuver warfare philosophy.

Not all precepts of maneuver warfare are explored in the book. The concept of surfaces and gaps, for example, is notably absent. Certain events in the book ascribed to maneuver philosophy could be analyzed differently. Nevertheless, there are enough examples in the book to make a credible case for the book as a primer on maneuver theory.

Upon discovery of a letter from the King of Siam to the President of the United States offering the use of elephants, Blog Tarkin has delved into an alternate timeline and retrieved these letters describing their use during the Civil War.

Thai war elephants

The elephants as presented to us by the King of Siam

September 2nd, 1862

Dear Father and Mother,

We have at last finished training with the new beasts of war, and so I find myself with a free moment in which to let you know of our progress.  The elephant as used in the orient is a composite machine of war, and we have learned not just how to control the creatures but to use the long rifles that the Siamese use from carriages on the elephants’ backs.  I eagerly await our advances against the secessors. God willing, we will join with the Army of the Potomac by the 20th.

Nothing more at present,

March 9th, 1863

Dear Sister,

I write to you now to tell you that the only risk we have encountered so far in our campaign is that of death by boredom. McClellan had retreated from Antietam before we could arrive to press the advance, and despite our mounts leathery thick skin, Burnside refused our company the opportunity to engage. The beasts seem to not mind. The eight of them eat more oats than a company of horses, and they seemed to enjoy drills in the snow more than any god-fearing creature should. We have now been attached to General Hooker’s command, and should soon see what retribution our elephants can deliver.

Write soon,

May 14th, 1863

Dear Parents,

I take this opportunity to let you know that I am well and hope that you are as well on this glorious day.  It has been a year since we first trained with our elephants and now they have finally seen combat.  After the first move at dawn a fortnight ago it seemed that we had advanced against Lee but only to camp downhill of him.  That next morning, we woke to cannon fire ranging down from the hill into our encampment. Captain Norton had told us not to expect an advance, but Hooker seems to have regained his courage over the night, and so we broke from the treeline and headed straight towards the church on the hill. The secesh had never before seen such creatures, and while their spies may have told them of our presence, the sight itself sent many running from their right lines. The confederate cannons, trained for our camps, were slow to adjust, and the scattered shots arrayed against us made little impact on the thick hide of our beasts. Pvt John, that wild-eyed boy I wrote to you about in the last letter, even managed to fire the jingal while we charged, and the rest of us had no sooner emptied our carbines before we were in pistol range. Behind us a couple hundred paces back came the advancing boys in blue, almost as stunned by our success as were the confederates.  For the afternoon of the 1st, we fought hard to hold the hill, but with much artillery captured and a path cleared to advance the battle was well won.  Hooker personally sent us to camp on the 2nd, so that we could tend our mounts.  If we keep up this pace, surely the war will be won by Christmas.

I remain your fond and affectionate son,

January 28th, 1864

Cousin Morris,

I am enjoying good health, but wish I could say the same for our elephants.  After their triumphant day at Chancellorsville, we pursued with Hooker’s army the remnants of Lee’s force, as best we could. They proved illusive, but nowhere we marched was free from sharpshooters. D’Artagnan was the first to fall, from a minnie ball to his left eye.  He broke for the woods, dislodging Moore in the process and nearly escaping our chains. We held him back, and he marched with us further into Virginia, but his now-blind eye grew worse and worse. We buried him in September.  The loss was felt not only among the men, but the beasts too seemed to mourn D’Artagnan’s passing. After months of campaigning without encountering Lee’s army, there had been talk of Lincoln recalling Hooker, until a sharpshooter answered the question for us. We are now under Meade’s command, and he has a least chosen fortification over snipe hunting. With no enemy to face us but death in every forest, it is hard to see how this war will end.

Your cousin,

July 4th, 1864

Dear Mother,

I take this time to inform you that I am well. My dispatch must be short – Lee’s army has appeared South of Richmond to engage Grant, and General Meade has finally seen fit for us to leave our fortifications and take the fight right to Davis’ doorstep. We are now only six elephants – Planchet passed during the last snow of winter, and was buried on the southern side of the Potomac. We have also given up the jingal long rifles. They are too slow to fire back at sharpshooters. Instead, we have tried 3-pounders. Artillery is the way of things, and we can get the cannons first this way. Tell Sarah and Mary that I am well, and let little Harris know that I will finish this war before he has to fight it.

Good night,

March 2, 1865

My Darling Wife,

I can barely count the number of lonesome nights I have had since this campaign began. Nor can I keep track of how many engagements we have undertaken to punish the rebels for their betrayal of our Union. It is a good fight, but even the beasts seem to be tiring of war. With Grant from the West and Meade from the North, we have pushed hard through to Richmond, but as you know Lee held Sherman’s army in South Carolina and the rebel government has followed Davis and fled south. The campaign looks set to continue until we can break Lee himself, as secessor government now follows the general.

I wish to tell you of one moment. We had left Richardson two days before, with our Meade staying as military governor and the 1st Maryland Mahouts now joined to Grant’s army. We followed the rail line south to Petersburg, hoping to take from the west the defenses that had held so long against attacks from the east.  With no trains allowed out of Richmond, we assumed the rail line would go unused until Meade sent down reinforcements, but sure enough chugging north came an armored car. We were ordered back, Grant intending to set up artillery to end this menace, when Pvt Stacks ordered Porthos into a charge towards the tracks. The rebels fired as they approached but their shot did as little harm to our creature as our shots would have done to their train. I assumed this was only to draw fire but sure enough Porthos slammed full body into the side of the engine, derailing it as the momentum sent the rest of the rain over poor Stacks and Porthos himself. With only a handful of casualties, Stacks ended the counter-offensive towards Richmond.

We will win this war and be united soon,


April 5th, 1865

Dear Father,

I hope this letter finds you well, as I send it alive but in poor spirits. I regret to inform you that the Might Mahouts are now no more.  While we had lost three of our mounts before, nothing prepared us for what Lee had at the Second Battle of  Rivers Bridge. With Grant from the north and Sherman from the west, Lee attempted to break through a roughly-laid set of bridges over the swamp, and we were placed directly opposite his main thrust. Our charge was slowed by the bog into a crawl, with the mud too thin to stand on and the water too thick to swim through. Our elephants could navigate it but the cavalry that tried to follow became stuck and soon we found ourselves alone in a swamp full of secesh. It was then that Lee’s cannons rang out, felling Grimaud and Mosqueton in the first volley. We fired back from our three pounders, but a confederate company advanced on us, wild yells from their throats and a made gleam in their eyes. We fired on them, and as we braced for return shots we realized that they had already fixed bayonets. With our mounts waste deep, confederate blades found elephant belly, and while we killed as many as we could, by the time relief troops came the entirety of His Majesty Monguts’ gift was beyond saving. Pvt Barnum took it particularly hard.

The battle was won elsewhere, and at last Lee surrendered in a church not far from that swamp. It is good to finally be done with this business, and I hope someday to thank Mongut in person myself.

Your affectionate son,
Townsend Harris


Many references were consulted to make this piece, but by far the most helpful was this Civil War Letters Archive.

Some thoughts on Tarkin‘s foundational purpose: comparison and analysis of science fiction, fantasy, comics, and other speculative and/or world-building media. This is by no means intended to be a complete piece on the nature of comparative method but an opening to a larger discussion.

1. Comparison is everywhere, but not all comparison is useful.

During the interview Daniel Nexon conducted with me and Kelsey, we discussed the proliferation of “what ___ says about pet political issue ___” pieces about cultural products. The problem with these pieces (besides their superficial character) is their lack of reflection about the kind of comparisons they make. Teju Cole recently linked together the International Monetary Fund, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and White House-directed UAV warfare. Each apparently are ruled by people who care little about other people “down there.” Cole uses the television series Downtown Abbey as an illustration. Presuming Cole is correct in making such a sweeping accusation about large institutions that face difficult moral dilemmas, one might also question whether such an highly general abstraction is useful beyond polemic. Why do those whose decisions impact the fates of those “down there” care so little about them? Such an analysis might lead to a different question: could it be possible that they do care, but may have a different set of moral considerations than Cole? Could they care and simply be tragically wrong about the impact of their actions? This is without mentioning the highly diverse contexts of Downtown Abbey, the IMF, or the covert counterterrorism wars and how the “backgrounds” of those settings might complicate attempts to generalize in such a fashion. Surely the IMF’s operations during the 1997 Asian currency crisis cannot be compared to the intent and execution of the air strikes in Pakistan. Can anything but the most general and banal of comparisons link the fumbling response to the speculators’ attack on the Thai baht and the targeted killing regime?

Finally, it is hard to see what a show about a group of patricians in the twilight of their power has to do with the linked institutions beyond a highly suspect generalization of an psychological tendency. It may seem unfair to pick on a string of tweets, but in truth even some of the greats make the same errors. Sigmund Freud, in trying to create a “death drive,” sought to explain a large scale and heterogeneous process such as warfare with a baseline psychological motive. Tolstoy, as Eliot Cohen argued in Supreme Command, was a “strategic nihilist” that lectured his readers on the absurdity of war and the delusions behind any concept of strategy or strategic purpose. Despite the vivid individual experiences of Tolstoy’s characters, the political purpose (resist France) was a meaningful one and a combination of Russian strategy and French blundering destroyed the French Army. Freud and Tolstoy both sought very reductive explanations for complicated and multifaceted processes and did not come up with particularly useful answers.

There are many kinds of comparisons and analyses of cultural products we can make. Tarkin features pieces on everything from Jedi ground tactics to the political sociology of Batman. But not every type of comparison is useful or illuminating, an argument I will revisit later.

2. The demands of narrative can be distorting

Many fictional products are limited in their ability to plausibly realize a social world by their form. Films and television series, which Tarkin contributors often review, have to create visual spectacle and often compress complex and varied processes into a short period of time.  Since no fictional world is completely or even remotely like ours, “suspending disbelief” is an contractual obligation the viewer signs before stepping into the theater. In return, the filmmaker promises a world with internally consistent rules that do not seem to widely vary with what we understand about human behavior. If they do, there must be a plausible explanation. But in signing this “contract,” we often forget crucial mechanisms and processes that have to be assumed away in order to make the story work after we step out of the theater.

For example, the idea that al-Qaeda would develop UAVs that could plausibly threaten the President’s safety would make a nice “movie-plot threat.” But in science fiction products like the game Black Ops 2, we see a number of causal chains that at least provide some justification for the ravaging of America by terrorist robots. Black Ops 2 features future technology, critical personnel, and political organization that are not present today. Even in this setting many causal chains are largely unconvincing. A terrorist motivated entirely by revenge that has an vast army at his disposal, an army that the world’s most advanced military technology cannot track and target? Even the Rebel Alliance, a much more realistic depiction of rebellion than the one Black Ops 2 constructs, yields to what we understand about strategic history. An Empire as large and technologically advanced as the one depicted in The Empire Strikes Back can blanket the galaxy with sophisticated spy platforms, and a group as large and powerful as the Alliance is bound to leave some traces. That’s the setup to the invasion of Hoth.

The “movie-plot” threat of Al-Qaeda and UAVs isn’t even a good movie. It lacks any kind of causal chain that deals with problems of technology adoption, targeting, resource tradeoffs, and half a century’s worth of North American air defense and early warning preparation. Why would a group that has mostly eschewed exotic technologies (the passenger airline is not exactly a new thing, much less bombs and kidnapping) adopt a problematic weapon when it has many other useful tools readily available? Despite the fact that it would not even make a good film, it is an assessment informed by film logic.

3. The social world matters

Every work of speculative fiction is about portraying some kind of social world, filled with its own unique relations and structures. At Tarkin we don’t really enjoy nitpicking (well, sometimes we do!) about the technical details of the product’s world-building. Rather, we are interested in whether or not the relations depicted provide valuable lessons. Of course, this is inherently an subjective exercise. Someone can read or watch a given product and take what they want from it. You can appreciate Ghost in the Shell for its depiction of life in a time of massive technologically-mediated human interconnection or narrowly look at specific issues in law enforcement and interagency cooperation. But there are a few observations about what makes a social world useful in totality that I would like to submit to the rest of the Tarkin contributors.

First, a future’s relevance matters. All science fiction products are creatures of their time, and the intellectual, political, and scientific currents that predominated in the era of production have a significant influence. 1984‘s integrated totalitarian system of control is total, self-sustaining, and governs every aspect of human behavior. Why did Orwell believe such a society was a threat worth warning against?  Because those who observed such structures could not envision their fragility or the significant material demands and legitimation processes necessary to keep them running on a day-to-day basis. George Orwell lived in a time when the consequences of the industrial revolution, the growth of mass media, a rapidly advancing scientific apparatus, and massive governing bureaucracies had convinced many observers that planned authoritarian techno-states would win the future. His American contemporary James Burnham considered Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia the cutting-edge of modern political economy. Certainly managerial totalitarianism proved to be a powerful force in the 20th century, but it took another few decades for Alan Moore to diagnose the fragility of totalitarian systems in V for Vendetta. Orwell didn’t know what we do now, and neither did many of his contemporaries.

One may respond by saying that Orwell’s focus on media manipulation, government surveillance, and bureaucratic tyranny is still relevant to the modern era. But the integrated system that made such isolated processes genuinely totalitarian is missing. Even today’s tyrannies are mostly of a far more petty variety than Orwell’s land of Big Brother and the Thought Police. Perhaps more relevant to our times is a story of how a liberal society can overreach in its quest to extinguish social ills, as told by Philip K. Dick’s portrayal of the drug war and preventive action in A Scanner Darkly and Minority Report. Certainly we can try to alter Orwell’s social world to fit our own context, but have to abstract away the integrative whole of the work to do so. Given Orwell’s own fierce quest against the misuse of political language, it is a bit misleading to imply that illiberal excesses of the kind sometimes seen in the war on terror are forms of creeping totalitarianism. Besides, the historical consequences of illiberal steps to preserve a liberal society are devastating enough without hyperbole. Do we need to falsely claim that the America of the 1910s was a Orwellian dictatorship in order to denounce the suppression of political opposition to World War I? Likewise, you don’t need Orwell to denounce surveillance programs you dislike when Dick’s oeuvre may be more appropriate.

But how can we determine relevance? 1984 is an easy choice considering that it is a work of speculative fiction rooted in a real world structure (totalitarianism). When we get to space operas we discover that the nature of the social world structures the kind of lessons we can extract from its totality. Starcraft illuminates many interesting aspects of strategy. But the lessons to be extracted can only be utilized after dismissing most of the institutions, causal mechanisms, technologies, and tactics that make the military strategies possible and plausible. One cannot understand the nature of Confederate, UED, Dominion, and Zerg strategy in Starcraft and Brood War without a detailed analysis of the strategic implications of the ability to control large formations of Zerg with the Psy Emitter. There is no Psy Emitter or Zerg on today’s battlefield, frustrating the would-be general who seeks to learn from Starcraft. Once all of these contextual factors are removed, Starcraft‘s lessons become frustratingly general and abstract. Yes, successful players often use combined arms to balance the weaknesses of individual unit types. You can swarm with small and cheap units and overpower slower and more expensive enemies. But did you really need Starcraft to tell you about combined arms or cheap swarming when you could just as easily read a Robert Citino book or peruse a 90s Arquilla and Ronfeldt monograph? Sadly, the generality of Starcraft‘s lessons cannot be otherwise, unless you want to be the sad soul who tries to use your experience with dug-in Siege Tanks to win a artillery duel with Tarkin’s Brett Friedman. *

Good products that build on recurring mechanisms and themes in history can be usefully generalized. In contrast to 1984’s experience of life in a kind of state that controls every aspect of everyday life, Orwell’s Animal Farm is a story built around the all-too-common cycle of idealistic revolution, power struggle, and disappointment. That Animal Farm is intended to model the Russian Revolution does have some implications for what mechanisms we can use. But unless one is willing to argue that the 1917 was completely sui generis it has some relevance for a much wider swathe of history and geographic locales than 1984.

4. Above all else, have fun

This may seem to completely contradict the last few thousand words I’ve typed. But at the end of the day we’re all doing this because we love science fiction, fantasy, and comics. Even useless comparisons originate out of some fundamental love for a cultural product and a need to express why it has a deeper meaning. Many Tarkin contributors have honed their argumentative skills convincing skeptical spouses, significant others, friends, and family members to appreciate a favorite comic book, anime series, movie, novel, or television drama. However politically and sociologically informed your science fiction, fantasy, or comic comparison may be, you won’t write it unless there is some burning reason for the time you spend blogging about it!

All I’m trying to say is that there is inevitably a “so what?” question that separates fandom from thoughtful cultural analysis. Enthusiasm is a necessary but insufficient condition for answering that question. The right kinds of comparisons matter, and sometimes the lessons of a given work may offer nothing special to those seeking to understand a given strategic problem. I don’t presume I’ve even come close to answering the “so what” question here, but I hope this missive can be of value to the discussion about relating science fiction, fantasy, comics, and other alternative-world media to strategy and national security.

* Anyone interested in writing a Starcraft and strategy blog is welcome to try here, I would be happy to be proven wrong about this specific example of my general point.

Citizen Tarkin

Posted: January 12, 2013 by blogtarkin in Uncategorized
Tags: , , ,
Grand Moff Tarkin contemplating Earth's strategic folly

contemplating your strategic folly

In response to a petition, the White House has said there is no intent for the United States to pursue a Death Star. On twitter, I voiced my objections, first captured in this storify.

In response to Death Star petition, the White House exhibits a crucial failure to understand grand strategy.…  While expensive for one planet, the Death Star is not a planetary defense but instead the crux of empire. As the Tarkin Doctrine argues, and Machiavelli himself theorized, fear is the key to control. With a Death Star, the cost of maintaining fear is cheap. Cheaper even than maintaining COIN operations and forward fleet basing against an elusive foe. With a Death Star, one can permanently deny hiding spaces, while also preventing other worlds from even considering harboring such rebellious terrorists. The Death Star makes empire cheap, and while it is expensive when the burden of the cost is on one planet, it builds and secures an entire galaxy of submissive worlds. What mere UAV, MRAP, or F-35 can offer a return like that? Yet you still pursue them. You fear not cost but glory. Useless world.

While the White House acknowledged the high cost, of the Death Star, as best put forth here,  they neglected to look beyond this initial estimate to further scholarship. In a Mother Jones (!) article, Kevin Drum does a much better job understanding that while the Death Star is expensive for earth now, it’s cost would be imperceptible to a Galactic Empire of Planets with technology 500+ years more advanced than that on Earth. He writes

We can figure that the average world in the Star Wars universe is about 20,000 times richer than present-day Earth, which means the Death Star would cost about 65 times the average world’s GDP.

However, the original Death Star took a couple of decades to build. So its annual budget is something on the order of three times the average world’s GDP.

But how big is the Republic/Empire? There’s probably a canonical figure somewhere, but I don’t know where. So I’ll just pull a number out of my ass based on the apparent size of the Old Senate, and figure a bare minimum of 10,000 planets. That means the Death Star requires .03 percent of the GDP of each planet in the Republic/Empire annually. By comparison, this is the equivalent of about $5 billion per year in the current-day United States.

In an update to the post, Drum acknowledged that the Galactic Empire actually has 1.75 million full member worlds, so the annual cost-per-planet of Death Star construction is roughly equivalent to nothing.* A hegemonic power like the United States should certainly appreciate the values of tribute extraction as a way to offset security costs.

Beyond a surprisingly low construction cost, under the Tarkin Doctrine a Death Star provides a cheaper way to maintain hegemony than the full manpower costs of a galactic fleet and Storm Trooper invasions. Co-blogger Friedman has already covered this extensively, and my initial twitter reaction states it well. The easier it is to strike complete & total fear of annihilation into a planet, the fewer non-Death Star forces have to be maintained. This is a weapon that secures hegemony, guarantees tribute, and allows for a reduction in military size. Through planet-shattering fear, order and stability in the universe can be maintained, allowing resources that would otherwise have gone to extensive land campaigns against rebellious worlds to instead clear the galactic passageways (and especially the Kessel Run) of every hive of scum and villainy that threatens the lives and security of normal, law-abiding, and annihilation-fearing Imperial subjects.

In refusing to seriously consider the strategic merit of a planet-killing gun mounted on an almost-invulnerable space fortress, the Obama administration, normally so fond of tech solutions to military problems, has been short-sighted. They have also refused to adopt the mantle of Empire that a Death Star would bring them, and instead prefer to hunt their desert-based religious insurgents the slow & painful way.

I would express my disappointment more loudly, but this leaves your world vulnerable. We will be in range shortly. This is our moment of triumph.

Grand Moff Tarkin oversees the attack on Earth

Earth will be in range soon, Sir


*My staff officer  did some back of the envelope calculations to arrive at approximately $8750/yr cost for each of the 1.75 million worlds. Let me know if you arrive at a better number, and I can send the errant accountant to Vader for punishment.

BlogTarkin’s first foray into Star Trek comes from guest blogger Matt Ford, who blogs at Basic Illusions and can be found on twitter.

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine can barely be called Star Trek. Instead of a gleaming spaceship racing across the stars, we have a decrepit space station orbiting a backwater wormhole to the Gamma Quadrant. Instead of a playboy captain who seduces a different green woman each week, Deep Space Nine is led by a haunted widower raising his son alone. Gone are the strident soliloquies on justice and humanity’s noble future. Starfleet officers now wage wars, orchestrate assassinations, and condone genocide. Gene Roddenberry’s utopia is in shambles.

Deep Space Nine

Deep Space Nine

Maybe Roddenberry expected too much from us; he was nothing if not optimistic. Amidst intense social and cultural turmoil, a widening war overseas, and the ever-looming specter of nuclear annihilation, Roddenberry envisioned humanity at its intellectual, technological, and moral pinnacle in his television series Star Trek. Jean-Luc Picard, captain of the USS Enterprise (NCC-1701-D), embodies Star Trek’s moral authority and evolved perspective. “The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force of our lives,” he blithely tells a 21st-century human in one of the films, “We seek to better ourselves and the rest of humanity.” To this end, The Next Generation is rife with episodes featuring recreation on the holodeck, mishaps during shore leave, and otherwise-playful adventures among the stars.

Such interludes are few and far between on Deep Space Nine. The Dominion, a totalitarian empire from the Gamma Quadrant led by a species of immortal liquid shapeshifters known as the Founders, invades the Alpha Quadrant. With the ability to clone legions of Jem’Hadar soldiers and construct starships at an unparalleled rate, the Dominion brings the Federation to the brink of defeat within a year. One of the Dominion viceroys, a Vorta named Weyoun, draws up plans the conquest of Earth and the brutal subjugation of humanity – a necessary measure, he notes, because of the species’ resistance to authority.

Against this unprecedented threat, Captain Benjamin Sisko, the show’s main character and moral compass, gives no speeches on human nature. He doesn’t lecture the Founders on the virtues of inalienable rights or the inevitability of liberal democracy. To bring the Romulan Star Empire – one of the Alpha Quadrant’s three great powers, along with the Federation and the Klingons – into the war, Sisko participates in a successful plot to assassinate a Romulan senator and blame his death on Dominion operatives. Sisko is no Picard – he fights back, by any means necessary.

This concept is not foreign to Americans at war. Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus across the Union and incarcerated thousands of rebel sympathizers. Franklin D. Roosevelt imprisoned 150,000 Japanese-Americans without cause. Harry Truman dropped the only two nuclear bombs against civilian populations in the history of warfare. George W. Bush conducted mass warrantless wiretaps of Americans and housed hundreds of foreign detainees without charges at Guantanamo Bay. Barack Obama is currently conducting a highly-classified drone warfare program in multiple countries. And those are just the presidents. “The ends justify the means” is far from a trite cliché – it is a long-standing American wartime doctrine.

Even Bush and Truman would blanch at the Federation’s most egregious violations of its espoused principles. A few months before open hostilities with the Dominion, a rogue conspiracy within the Federation known as Section 31 secretly uses Odo, an exiled Founder allied with Starfleet, as a carrier for a “morphogenic virus.” Odo transmits this virus to the rest of his species, which lies dormant for years until manifesting itself as a debilitating, incurable illness that forces the Founders into solid form and eventually kills them. Section 31’s goal, according to its agent Luther Sloan, is to eliminate the Founders and then defeat the Dominion forces in the ensuing chaos. When the crew of Deep Space Nine find the cure (a feat apparently beyond the vast scientific resources at the Dominion’s disposal, according to Weyoun), the Federation Council – analogous to the United States Congress and the United Nations General Assembly – orders Starfleet not to divulge the cure to the Founders, recognizing the effect it would have on the war effort.

The Federation Council’s strategic thinking is cold but perfectly reasonable. The Founders’ shapeshifting abilities are ideal for intelligence work and covert action. Moreover, they demonstrated a remarkable aptitude for using them by manipulating the Federation, the Klingon Empire, and the Cardassian Union into war prior to their invasion. Once the disease’s deleterious physical effects manifested themselves, the entire Dominion intelligence network would be exposed and, in a single blow, eliminated. Who could pass up such an opportunity in wartime?

The Dominion itself exists as protection for the Founders against what they call the “solids” – humanoid races incapable of shapeshifting. Their subjects are genetically engineered to regard the Founders as gods. They fulfill the same role in Dominion government as a monarch or a constitution – the absolute source of all law. Without them, there is no Dominion. It would be as if a rogue element of the KGB engineered a virus that killed only every CIA operative behind the Iron Curtain, and their CIA handlers, and all the analysts, officers, and bureaucrats in Langley, as well as the House of Representatives, the Senate, all nine justices of the Supreme Court, and the President of the United States – and no one else. Even the phrase “surgical strike” seems too blunt for such a targeted maneuver.

Killing spies is practically customary in a war – most European nations that abolished the death penalty in the latter half of the 20th century included exemptions for wartime espionage – but military strikes against national leaders are virtually unheard of.1 Using biological weapons for such a purpose is unrealistic, and conducting a full-scale genocide to accomplish it is unthinkable. Yet in our supposedly morally-superior future, such actions are not only undertaken by private individuals, but implicitly sanctioned by the government of the Federation itself.

But are we viewing genocide through an anachronistic lens? Perhaps. Genocides in the modern world, or any other age in human history for that matter, are not undertaken for strategic or tactical purposes; genocide has never served a military purpose. It is also predicated on the inclusions of non-combatants, which no Founder can truly be considered. One of the distinguishing features between the Holocaust undertaken by Adolf Hitler and the mass killings of Mao, Stalin,2 and other 20th-century totalitarians is the desire to extinguish. As Nancy Gibbs noted in her profile of Hitler in TIME’s millennium issue on the most important figures of the 20th century,

If all Hitler had done was kill people in vast numbers more efficiently than anyone else ever did, the debate over his lasting importance might end there. But Hitler’s impact went beyond his willingness to kill without mercy. He did something civilization had not seen before. Genghis Khan operated in the context of the nomadic steppe, where pillaging villages was the norm. Hitler came out of the most civilized society on Earth, the land of Beethoven and Goethe and Schiller. He set out to kill people not for what they did but for who they were.Even Mao and Stalin were killing their ‘class enemies.’ Hitler killed a million Jewish babies just for existing.

This emotional, visceral aspect distinguishes the morphogenic virus from the Holocaust, the Rwandan Genocide, and other genocides. If we abide by the clinical definition from the Genocide Convention, the virus undoubtedly qualifies. Yet if we assess the mens rea of the Federation, we find it insufficient to justify subsequent prosecution. Moreover, the virus exists in a paradigm in which “defensive genocide” is not contemplated. Such a concept is fundamentally abhorrent in the real world, but perfectly viable in Deep Space Nine. On two separate occasions during the war, the Dominion leadership commits or attempts to commit genocide: once, when they attempt to trigger a supernova in the Bajoran system that would destroy Deep Space Nine and the entire Bajoran species, and again when the Dominion forces massacre the Cardassian population on Cardassia Prime shortly before the war’s end. If the choice is between the wholesale slaughter of Federation citizens – a likely prospect given the Dominion’s track record – and wiping out the Founders with biological warfare, can the Federation’s decision truly be condemned? If we establish the common law principle that killing a person is justified in self-defense, can we extend that to the annihilation of a mortal enemy in the fog of war? These are weighty questions.

What is clear, however, is that by even asking the question, we’ve deviated greatly from the elevated utopia envisioned by Gene Roddenberry. The American playwright Arthur Miller once wrote that, “An era can be said to have ended when its basic illusions are exhausted.” By the end of the Dominion War, the Federation, once a beacon of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness in our dreary contemporary age, has been brought low by the slow poison of necessity.


1Although Israel routinely targets militant leaders in the Palestinian territories and the United States has used decapitation strikes against al-Qaeda leadership figures, virtually no examples exist in the modern era of wartime assassinations of enemy heads of state or heads of government. Even military operations targeting specific commanders on the battlefield are rare: in the 20th century, only Operation Anthropoid (the British intelligence assassination of Reinhard Heydrich) and the U.S. Navy’s downing of Isoroku Yamamoto’s plane over the Pacific spring to mind.

2The Holodomor notwithstanding.