The Strategic Illogic Of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Posted: February 3, 2014 by kdatherton in Uncategorized


Sam Ratner tweets at @SamRatner and works as the project coordinator for Iran Matters.

Does SHIELD Have A Strategy?

Friend 1: “The part with Hulk throwing Loki around!”

Friend 2: “The part with Downey sassing Captain America!”

Friend 3: “The part with Galaga.”

Chorus of friends: “THE PART WITH GALAGA!”

Me: “But guys, what kind of SHIELD governing council made up of presumably rich and powerful English speakers thought nuking New York was a defensible strategic decision?!”

Chorus of friends: “…”

The above is a play in one act entitled “Why My Friends Don’t Take Me To See Summer Blockbusters Anymore.” It’s more of a memoir than a play, really. That scene took place after I went to see Marvel’s The Avengers in the theater last summer.* I enjoyed it a great deal, but my question continued to bother me. What were the SHIELD Council thinking? The Avengers had the alien invasion confined to a 3 block square in Manhattan.** Even if the fight expanded to the whole island, the damage inflicted by the battle would be cosmetic compared to the destruction of a nuclear blast. Don’t believe me? Take it up with the editor. What’s more, no one knew if the aliens were vulnerable to conventional arms. The military never got a chance to show up. Even if it turned out a nuclear bomb was necessary to close the portal, surely you have to give the Avengers and the military a chance to hold the aliens off for long enough to evacuate the civilian population.

The only justification the Council gives for the “stupid-ass decision” (Nick Fury’s words, not mine) to go nuclear that early comes when Fury decides to make a mockery of SHIELD’s command and control system by flat out refusing to follow the direct order to launch the nuke. The Council leader, doing his best Walt-Rostow-as-domino-theory-proponent impression, responds  “If we don’t hold [the aliens] in the air, we lose everything.” Fury displays some Clausewitzian wisdom in telling the Councilor that the act of nuking New York will itself lead to SHIELD losing everything, since how are they going to retain their legitimacy as defenders of Earth if they go around irradiating the Hudson? The Council never gets a chance to reply, and their thought process remains a mystery.

Maybe the SHIELD Council really are strategic morons on the scale of The Best And The Brightest, but that’s a pretty unsatisfying answer for a Marvel universe that will dominate our summers for years to come. There should be a better explanation for SHIELD’s strategic choices, and I’ve become a little obsessed with finding it. It’s gotten to the point where I’ve made some unfortunate, even embarrassing, personal decisions in service to the search. That’s right, I’ve watched Agents of SHIELD. Multiple times even.

Two U.S. Navy Grumman TBF-1 Avenger torpedo bombers in flight, circa 1942

Two Avenger torpedo bombers. Not “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” not “The Avengers,” but still pretty cool.

I’ve found more questions than answers. Under whose authority does SHIELD operate? Is it a wing of the American government? Where does it get its funding? What is its bureaucratic structure? How does it do its procurement? Is it bound by international law? Is it completely secret, and if not, who are its PAOs and how the hell do they do their jobs? Basically these questions boil down to two fundamental strategic questions: what is SHIELD and what are its goals?***

I have found a couple answers though. We got a small window into the international law question through an (unintentionally, I think) hilarious discussion of how an organization that tried to nuke New York could work around the fact that they were barred by treaty from operating in Malta.

Most of what we see in the show involves SHIELD defending Earth against alien threats, whether in the form of viruses or Asgaardian weapons. Yet we also learn that SHIELD is a great deal older than our knowledge of the existence of aliens, and therefore has terrestrial reason to exist. Last week we got our first confusing hint of what that reason might be.

“The Hub” took us to SHIELD headquarters on a mission with no extra-terrestrial or supernatural components whatsoever. It seems that a separatist group in South Ossetia built an “overkill” device that could trigger any weapon in a substantial radius. At first we were led to believe that SHIELD was only sending in a small team to deactivate and recover the device, thereby maintaining the delicate balance of power. It seemed like an exercise in a Star Trek-esque preference for stability. As the episode continued, however, we learned that SHIELD had a rather more activist mission in South Ossetia. As soon as the overkill device was disabled, a large SHIELD force swept in to destroy the separatist army that was set to assault Georgian forces behind the power of the device.

Assuming that SHIELD isn’t an agent of the Georgian government, who might want to protect the world from alien attack, even at the cost of New York, and would take strong action to limit South Ossetia separatism and, by extension, the expansion of the Russian sphere of influence? Is it possible that the SHIELD council take their orders from… China?

Guys, I’m totally trolling you with that last sentence. I actually have no idea who would want to do that. But don’t you kind of like the idea that SHIELD is actually the agent of a repressive and self-interested government and that Fury, Agent Coulson, and the Avengers will eventually realize this and craziness will ensue? Doesn’t that make more sense with the pro-individualist, anti-censorship values of the show that are constantly running into the realities of being cogs in a giant machine? That’s my best guess, but I’ll probably keep watching to learn more. I want SHIELD to think strategically, and the nice part about watching a world created by an auteur rather than a bureaucratic/legislative mess is that I may just get my wish.

"The Avengers" by Samuel Thomas Gill. Not the Avengers we're talking about, but too great not to share.

“The Avengers” by Samuel Thomas Gill. Not the Avengers we’re talking about, but too great not to share.


*Since you are a living human, I assume that you saw the Avengers and retain some memory of the relevant plot points. If, however, you are a zombie with exceptional intellectual curiosity, here is a quick plot summary. Loki (the bad guy) has opened a portal in the skies above Lower Manhattan through which his army of evil aliens are flying to begin their campaign for world domination. The Avengers (the good guys) are fighting those aliens as they come through the portal, and have confined their battle to a three block square. Nick Fury, The Avengers’ titular boss and head of an organization called SHIELD, explains all this to his bosses, a council of four headed by a guy who looks eerily like Charlie Rose. Charlie Rose, for reasons unknown, orders Fury to detonate a nuclear weapon over Manhattan in an attempt to close the portal.

**If Captain America had stayed true to his enlisted roots, this would be a great place for a “3 block war/strategic Corporal America” joke. Alas.

***I’m aware that SHIELD has a long history in Marvel comic books. For our purposes, I’m only interested in the SHIELD of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Partially that’s because I’m just not interested in going back and reading all the comics, but mostly it’s because the Whedonverse SHIELD is distinct from the SHIELD of the comics. For example, in the comics SHIELD stands for Strategic Hazard Intervention Espionage Logistics Directorate, but in the Whedonverse it stands for Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division. If that’s not a dog whistle that Whedon’s SHIELD is meant to be a commentary on modern security issues, I don’t know what is.

  1. You’ve given clear examples on leaders that are inefficient

  2. Agent Obvious says:

    You were not that far off, as it turns out. The SHIELD council was taking its orders from Hydra. The only question is if the writers of The Avengers did it purposely, knowing what would happen in Winter Soldier, or whether they really meant to portray the council as so incompetent?

  3. Well done for guessing the plot of CA:TWS!

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