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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.


“He can’t be bought, bullied or negotiated with…some people just want to see the world burn.” – Alfred, The Dark Knight, 2008.

“Are there such men? Conceivably. But history affords no example of them, outside of comic books and the movies, attaining the sort of power it would take actually to burn the world, or even any very significant part of it. Reality seems to provide a natural check upon such people in the form of a shortage of those who both (a) share their psychosis and (b) are willing to play the part of humble assistant — rather than starring as the evil genius themselves — in accomplishing their purposes. This problem for the would-be evil geniuses — a reassurance to the rest of us — is what creates the distinctive unreality of Mr Nolan’s movie. Again and again we see Mr Ledger’s Joker pulling off the most fantastically-conceived acts of evil which, in real life, would require a virtual army of assistants, many of whom would have to be almost as clever as he is. Yet the movie shows us not even one. We do see the Joker lording it over some fellow criminals on a couple of occasions — not the best way to gain their cooperation, one might have thought. And, in the bank robbery with which the film opens, he casually murders all his assistants, which is even less likely to help him with any hypothetical recruitment effort. So how does he do it?” – James Bowman, 2008.

The Three Alls Policy (Japanese: 三光作戦, Sankō Sakusen; Chinese: 三光政策; pinyin: Sānguāng Zhèngcè) was a Japanese scorched earth policy adopted in China during World War II, the three “alls” being “kill all, burn all, loot all”[1] (Chinese: 殺光、燒光、搶光). This policy was designed as retaliation against the Chinese for the Communist-led Hundred Regiments Offensive in December 1940.[2] ….Contemporary Japanese documents referred to the policy as “The Burn to Ash Strategy” (燼滅作戦 Jinmetsu Sakusen?), In a study published in 1996, historian Mitsuyoshi Himeta claims that the Three Alls Policy, sanctioned by Emperor Hirohito himself, was both directly and indirectly responsible for the deaths of “more than 2.7 million” Chinese civilians. His works and those of Akira Fujiwara about the details of the operation were commented by Herbert P. Bix in his Pulitzer Prize–winning book, Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan, who claims that the Sankō Sakusen far surpassed the Rape of Nanking not only in terms of numbers, but in brutality as well. – “Three Alls Policy,” Wikipedia.

Pity the modern supervillain. Unlike Professor Moriarty in Sherlock Holmes, he is not a master criminal. Unlike Ming the Merciless, he cannot be a inscrutable Other whose villainy can be neatly reduced via racist pseudoscience to his origins. The Cold War is over and the overseas box office necessary for capital-intensive movies to actually make back their production and distribution costs narrows the range of potential foreign adversaries for heroes to battle. A combination of Hollywood political correctness and understandable audience discomfort with ten years of war nixes al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or Iran from the list of possible villains. Most Americans have studiously ignored the horrific slaughter perpetrated by Mexican drug cartels. So what drives the modern supervillain and how does he (or she) carry out dastardly deeds?

The modern supervillain is truly a sad creature. Driven either by the desire for petty revenge, nihilistic glee in acts of destruction, and self-aggrandizement, the supervillain stands for nothing of additive value. There is nothing to explain how he or she can motivate others to fight and frequently die in large numbers. The supervillain has no positive goal, no attractive ideology; nothing except a quasi-mystical ingenuity and luck. Unlike al-Qaeda, a group with a systemic ideology (albeit a highly fantastical one), the modern supervillain is essentially an opportunist with a violent drive. Perhaps this is not a new development, as it is hard to see anything coherent about Napoleon’s essentially opportunist statecraft and military strategy. The Corsican may have ostensibly desired to create a system of subordinate states with France as hegemon, but his actions also suggest a strategic Attention Hyper Deficit Disorder fueled by excitement and martial vigor. There is certainly a tradition of British historiography that sees Napoleon as a proto-Hitler, but today he seems like a comic book supervillain. Napoleon is tactically dazzling, but tripped up by a basic strategic incoherence. Sadly, most supervillains today lack even Napoleon’s charisma and drive.

Consider several recent franchises—James Bond, Batman, and Call of Duty: Black Ops–for a portrait of the modern supervillain. Skyfall‘s Raoul Silva was tortured horribly after MI6 gave him up to the Chinese government. The half-crazed Silva responds by building up a powerful mercenary organization and relentlessly attacks MI6 for the sole purpose of killing the intelligence chief M. Silva is completely indifferent to how much this Ahab-like endeavor will cost him, and cares little even for his own life. So why should his men be willing to engage in a suicidal fight against the British government? The Dark Knight‘s Joker is a black box; nothing he says about his own origins and motivations can be taken at face value except his distaste for rules and plans. As Alfred observes, the Joker just wants to destroy everything. The Dark Knight Rises‘ Bane fools the citizens of Gotham with anti-capitalist rhetoric, but really just wants to punish them for their sins by blowing them up with a nuclear bomb. Bane commands a formidable force of heavily armed thugs, most of whom are bound to him by obligation. But would they really all die for him if all he wants is to go out in a glaze of glory? Black Ops 2‘s Raoul Menendez suffered through horrible family losses at the hands of the Contras during the Nicaraguan civil war, including the disfigurement and death of his beloved sister. But the connection between his personal loss and desire to provoke a war between the US and China is unclear. Even more unclear is why he has a private army with advanced military hardware and billions of fans worldwide hanging on his every YouTube update.

In contrast, crime bosses and deviants that act on a granular level always stand out as more richly textured and believable villains. It’s assumed Jack Nicholson’s crime boss in The Departed is out to make money and hold power. Hannibal Lecter is a serial killer, hence he commits horrific crimes. Cape Fear‘s convicted rapist wants revenge on his lawyer, not to take over the world. Villains with nonpolitical motives rooted in revenge or self-gratification also plausibly commit their deadly deeds without need of anything more than a small group of partners in crime. These criminals are not interested in overturning the existing order, nor could they attract anyone willing to help them if they did. Ad hoc groups of thugs are easier for commercial or thrill-killing criminals to plausibly command. But large groups? Taking on another state–to say nothing of the world–requires well-armed centralized military forces with the ability to project force and sustain themselves in austere conditions. Hannibal Lecter might be more terrifying than Erwin Rommel, but only one of them has the Afrika Corps.

Supervillains have to be different. To be a modern supervillain, you must want something tangible that the status quo inherently cannot provide. The more radical the aim, the greater the effort needed to overcome anticipated resistance. The genocidal Adolf Hitler needed to destroy much of Eastern Europe and Russia to create a zone for the Germans to colonize. For Hamas to fulfill the aims of its charter, Israel and the Palestinian territories would inevitably have to be forcibly and brutally replaced by an Islamic theocracy. A Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere dominated by a Japan that could parasitically feed on Southeast Asia for resources necessitated the destruction of Western military power and the enslavement of China. So why do modern supervillains fall short of such historical villainy?

Unfortunately, many supervillains fundamentally lack a sense of the political, a factor that separates powerful men from common criminals acting out their own personal dramas. Politics is about who gets what, when, and how. This does not mean that power is pursued for its own sake. But control over the political process is necessary to realize any project on a large scale. Power is a finite resource, and when an group is unable to accumulate enough power to realize their aim through peaceful means they may attempt to violently redistribute it. Aims that can require political action range from basic survival to more abstract notions of justice and equality. Seizing political power is foreign to many modern supervillains precisely because they cannot articulate positive aims that would require control of an existing polity or the use of violence to construct a new state or society.

Similarly, the supervillain must also be rational. Rationality is a basic requirement for any kind of consistent strategic behavior:

It is sometimes said that strategic theorists assume rationality on the part of those whom they study because they cannot assume anything else. To pass judgment on whether anyone is rational or irrational in political life is to assume that one exists in Olympian detachment with a unique insight into what constitutes supreme powers of reasoning (a self-evidently delusional position). The assumption of rationality, however, does not suppose that the actor is functioning with perfect efficiency or that all rational decisions are right ones, merely that an actor’s decisions are made after careful cost–benefit calculation and the means chosen seem optimal to accomplish the desired end.

This does not mean that our supervillain’s identity and goals are not historically contingent or otherwise constructed. It only means that we can assume that they will consistently and vigorously seek to realize their goals, however they may originate. It may be objected that supervillains can also exhibit bounded rationality, satisficing, or appreciate symbols and cultural totems over rational strategic effectiveness. But we must also assume a Darwinian logic at hand in regards to the relative utility of a supervillain’s guiding set of goals and his or her ability to make useful decisions. The supervillain incurs huge risks to overturn the status quo and villains lacking the ability to survive and convince others to follow must instead depend on their adversaries to be strategically inept.

A villain’s ultimate defeat does not offer definitive proof of their irrationality. Hitler may have been a terrible military commander and a poor geostrategist, but his delusional and genocidal ideology still motivated countless Germans to fight and commit grave atrocities. Moreover, his deft political skills allowed him to gain control of Germany and exploit the psychological and political weaknesses of European leaders. Without the latter skill, Hitler’s war machine could have potentially been strangled in its crib before it consumed Europe. Nor does individual or group misbehavior by supervillain henchmen demonstrate the overall enterprise is expressive and self-indulgent rather than instrumental in nature. It would certainly be ahistorical to suggest that a villain must run a completely disciplined and professional organization. Many of history’s greatest monsters governed loose networks of affinity and fielded warriors motivated by lust, greed, and a need for belonging rather than status, ideology, or theology. But the leaders of such organizations desired shifts in political order that required instrumentally using their brutish subordinates to realize larger aims.  As we have seen in World War II, even highly disciplined organizations may sanction, encourage, or even command predatory behavior by subordinates against civilians.

Another common mistake is the perception that a supervillain’s policy aims have to be elaborate. Science fiction’s most terrifying villains are aliens that seek to extinguish all human life they come into contact with in order to survive and grow. The basic biological and even virological imperatives of survival and expansion are what make single-minded nonhuman adversaries like self-aware killer robots and buglike alien xenomorphs so popular. Such behavior is also “political” in that full realization of a enemy species’ biological or technological imperative requires as a basic condition the destruction of the human state system–a de facto alteration of the balance of power. A related point: human opponents that seek control of crucial resources, territory, and conquest without modernist ideologies or nationalism should not be regarded as somehow categorically different. All strategy, however impressionistic, relies on the use of force to create new political “facts on the ground.” Clausewitz wrote of tribal groupings and barbarians that fielded entire communities at war, but such groups were still political actors.

Finally, a supervillain’s undemocratic nature does not remove his or her dependence on the cooperation of others to force their will upon a resistant world. The bigger the task, the bigger the need for delegation of authority. Delegation of authority requires plausible material and/or spiritual rewards for those who follow. Benedict Anderson wrote in Imagined Communities that the decline of religious authority in the everyday lives of Europeans necessitated a new structure–the nation–to promise some form of continuity after death. Men may die in horrific numbers in war, but the nation lives on. Sometimes fear of negative sanction is enough to motivate evil deeds. The fate of Syrian leader Bashar Assad’s loyalists are tied to the fortunes of his regime. At best, defeat would lead to a drastic drop in status. At worst, they can expect lethal retribution from those they once oppressed. A fear of divine retribution can also be a powerful source of motivation. As Joseph Tainter notes, the Aztec religion of Huitzilopochtli demanded human sacrifice to keep the world in balance. The need for fresh bodies to sacrifice spurred militaristic expansion to secure a reliable source of sacrifices.

Many franchises feature supervillains seeking revenge for an old wrong, but individual grievance does not translate into group motivation. Black Ops 2‘s Menendez bears a grudge against the US for its 1980s backing of the Contras and Manuel Noriega, but it is hard to believe that such events would matter to his young followers in 2025. Consequently, the Serbs that fought in the Yugoslav civil wars embraced an ideology that emphasized the righting of centuries-old injustices and the restoration of the Serb nation to its allegedly glorious past. What made the Serbs villains was that their vision of “justice” required the subjugation and massacre of Muslims and Croats. But fictional supervillains tend to get hung up on personal grudges rather than a sense of collective imbalance that requires purifying violence. Their need for personal revenge makes them followers to be used by others, not leaders of gangs, armies, and terrorist groups.

Perhaps we lack realistic supervillains because we think that only irrational men or women seek to completely overturn the status quo. Is the Joker, with his love of sadistic violence and penchant for moral experiments, is really all that different from the similarly depoliticized protagonist of the Saw horror movies? Bane’s invective against Gotham’s 1% is insincere, but what if it wasn’t? In order to create better supervillains, we must come to terms with the unpleasant fact that violent revisionists have ordered preferences and use violence instrumentally to realize them. The fact that those preferences are appealing enough for armies to kill for is half of what makes a good supervillain dangerous. But the true craft of the supervillain lies in the cunning and ruthlessness needed to get the job done. Alfred was right: some people do want to watch the world burn. But they will always be subordinate to those who believe that the world is theirs for the taking.

Keeping to the Script

Posted: August 16, 2012 by Adam Elkus in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , ,

What would you do if you, an ordinary soldier, were told that a weapon would arise that would completely change the context of warfare as you understood it, to say nothing of international politics? The kicker: said weapon would be used against your country and lead to its total devastation and surrender. That was the dilemma faced by Captain Isao Takachiho, a captain in the Imperial Japanese Army’s Kwantung Army and the anime Night Raid 1931‘s primary antagonist.

Weapons and Armies in the Balance

The dominant problem for any strategist in a time of peace lies in prediction. What weapons will be utilized? How do they shape politics while being shaped by politics? Because of contingency, even a relatively stable vision of the future can be derailed by the actions of agents, structures, and cascading trends. Existing structures can be a barrier to coping with the demands of the future, but change also unleashes disruptive political forces that can barely be controlled. The degree to which early 20th century Asia served as a test lab for shifts in strategic history is often undervalued by strategic analysts preoccupied with the decisive European battlefronts that rendered Asia (by comparison) a strategic sideshow. Since Night Raid 1931 deals in part with the strategic consequences of these shifts a few words about early 20th century military history is warranted.

In Asia, China had critical military importance to the balance of power but also lacked the strategic centrality its sheer military and economic muscle affords it today. Reformers within the late Qing military were painfully aware of new ways of war, but were frustrated by conservatives who readily accepted Western weapons but rejected the new modes of organization and training necessary to employ them. When reforms were adopted, the creation of professionally trained and led bureaucratic armies empowered militarists such as the Beiyang Army’s commanding officer (and future post-Qing warlord) Yuan Shikai. By the 1930s, the Nationalist Party held a substantial chunk of territory and fielded a German and Soviet-trained party army. It had crushed the majority of the warlords but faced a persistent Communist military challenge and Japanese territorial encroachments.

Military professionalization in Japan gave rise to a politically autonomous army, much of it based in northern China. It subscribed to an vision of total war rooted firmly within a global ideological rise of authoritarian belief systems rooted in race “science” and blood and soil conceptions of nationalism. Unlike in 1914, every military–including the Japanese–understood the stakes fairly well. These would be truly national wars in which the “strategic rear” that supplied military machines would be targeted. However, Japan took this understanding to a gruesome extreme.  As brutal as warfare would later be within maritime Southeast Asia, even the worst paled in comparison to the intensity of the carnage the the Japanese would unleash in mainland China, which ranged from Genghis Khan-like scorched Earth tactics to the first modern employment of battlefield biological warfare. China was ultimately a distraction for the US in World War II.  It was, however, central to the Japanese strategy and vision of a postwar order. China was a promising resource area and colony for the future Japanese empire and held the bulk of its land forces.

A Captain’s Strategic Choice

Takachiho, who comes of age within the Japanese Army professional military educational system, is a firm believer in the ideology of Pan-Asianism and the maintenance of the Japanese imperial system. But a shocking revelation revealed by an imperial soothsayer ultimately causes him to deviate from the strategic script. Within the anime’s fictional universe, Japan’s rulers depend on a line of prophetesses to assist them in pivotal moments of decision. The prophetess tells Takachiho of a vision of a ruinous world war ending with the use of a terrifying new weapon and the end of the imperial era. Takachiho and his men promptly desert the Kwantung Army, vanishing into northern China as they contemplate what to do with their terrible knowledge. This weapon, to be clear, is the atomic bomb. Yet because the series occurs within the 1930s, the characters lack the proper language and terminology to delineate it. They merely refer to it as “the new kind of bomb” and other provisional terms.

Colin S. Gray has written that each era has a strategic narrative, shaped by politics, culture, technology, and waves of military tactics and doctrine. However, we can only know this strategic script in retrospect. Even then, new historical revelations can upend our understanding of the script. Unlike a movie script, in which the narrative is preordained, strategic narratives are also always contingent stories marked by the paths not taken. Takachiho lacks the most important aspect of the strategic script: the political context of the 1940s and the early Cold War. What he has is the knowledge of the future and the desire to change it. The Captain’s foreknowledge is necessary but not sufficient for the success of his ambitious ends. His plan involves three elements of the strategic script that he gets, at best, partly right.

First the Captain decides that he will use the bomb, which he succeeds in assembling with the resources of Kwantung Army contacts, to further pan-Asian nationalists. What he could not understand is that Asian nationalism, though later channeled and fed by both Japan and the Allies to further their own war aims, could not succeed without the destruction of both Japanese and European military power in Southeast Asia. Even if his plan (which will be elaborated on later) had succeeded, the squabbling and powerless nationalist intellectuals he vainly attempts to enlist to his side would be ill-placed to take advantage of it. After World War II, many of those same men would go on defeat the British, French, and United States with a combination of political maneuver and armed struggle. In 1931, however, he conferences with a group of men politically agitated but incapable of seizing control over their nations’ destinies.

Second, Takachiho anticipates the concept of deterrence and the gruesome fact that recognition of the ultimate weapon’s capability could only be achieved by the mass destruction of civilian life. A weapon that is never used cannot create a “balance of terror.”  Takachiho plans to drop a bomb over Shanghai, demonstrating the bomb’s potency to great power observers by simultaneously taking Chinese, European, and Japanese lives within the internationalized metropolis.  Takachiho hoped to use such a demonstration to compel the creation of a Pan-Asian state system with Japan as a powerful component and prevent the outcome the prophetess foretold. But the supreme weapon, while immensely destructive, ultimately proved to be rather useless as the driver of grand political designs. Despite possessing nuclear weapons neither the United States or the Soviet Union could use them or threaten them to spread their ideologies. The devastation inflicted by twin atomic weapons at Hiroshima and Nagasaki coerce Japan, but the scholarly debate over how it did is far from settled. Nuclear weapons, despite being dubbed “strategic” could not, on their own, lead to the expansive political outcomes Takachiho desired. As far-seeing as he was, Takachiho did not understand the limits of his new weapon.

Finally, Takachiho’s actions represent a fairly off-key element of the 1930s strategic narrative: the independent non-state actor. His group, if successful, would commit an act of nuclear terrorism and change the course of history. Takachiho’s attempts to marry terrorism with pan-Asian activism anticipated the rise of transnational ideological guerrilla and terrorist movements in the Cold War. But his strategic design was not realized in the 1930s or thereafter. The most powerful non-state actors in the 1930s were either guerrilla movements like Mao Zedong’s Chinese Communist Party (CCP), political organizations like the National Socialist Party (later known as the Nazis) and the Japanese militarists who aspired to take command of a state. These were all national actors, with the state-organized Comintern the only true transnational actor.

Mao would probably object to being called a “non-state” actor, as unlike the transnational al-Qaeda he regarded the CCP as China’s rightful government. The warlords that held sway over much of China and patches of Central Asia lacked transnational ambitions. And in the Cold War, the most successful non-state groups were national guerrilla armies with state support, not small bands of passionate men with a desire to change the course of history. Those men languished or died in the hundreds of thousands in prisons throughout Latin America, Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. In the end Takachiho is manipulated and killed by Japanese Army intelligence, who have their own designs for nuclear warfare.

The Dominance of Structure

Perhaps that is the best way to transition into the next point: the anime’s rather depressing–if complex–take on the ever-present issue of agency vs. structure.  We live in an era supposedly marked by “super-empowered actors.” These actors, we are often told, use networks and technology to punch far above their geopolitical weight and are poised to overturn warfare and statecraft as we know it. All of Night Raid 1931‘s characters are super-empowered both literally and figuratively. The agents of the Sakurai Agency, a special organization within Japanese Army intelligence have abilities ranging from tekekinesis to telepathy. Takachiho and several of his men also possess super powers. Moreover, Takachiho and later the Sakurai agents are empowered by their own determination to resist what one agent dubs the “cage” of state authority and the fate that larger political designs dictate for them. The Sakurai agents pursue Takachiho and later thwart their own superiors’ desire to capitalize off the Captain’s technology,

This freedom is achieved, but at at a great price. Takachiho is defeated, his bomb and research notes are destroyed, and a telepath within the Sakurai Agency creates the illusion of an atomic explosion to scare visiting international dignitaries into abandoning the path of great power war. But it is implied that World War II happens regardless, even if perhaps a far worse horror was avoided by the thwarting of Japanese Army plans to utilize Takachiho’s doomsday weapon. The cosmopolitanism and vibrancy of early 1930s Shanghai, a prominent setting of the anime’s early episodes, is cruelly shattered when Japan attacks and destroys a substantial portion of Shanghai in 1932. The main characters ultimately find themselves free of the bondage of the state, but are condemned to live their lives with knowledge of the horrors to come. Even with their abilities they are unable to change what grand empires have set in motion, and merely seek to live day by day.

Networks certainly matter, but perhaps not in the way contemporary theorists imagine. The Japanese militarists depicted in the anime are a substate network, but one that channels a noxious ideology and ultimately captures a powerful state’s warmaking capacity. The Sakurai agents and Takachiho’s men are another kind of network, and both are ultimately failures. This isn’t to say that the anime disregards individual agency. The anime’s complexity can be seen in its revisionist (to put it mildly) depiction of the events leading up to the Mukden incidentNight Raid 1931 uses a typically supernatural device to illustrate the contingency of strategic events and the role of “irrational” elements like religious beliefs to impact world events. The appearance of the prophetess motivates wavering Army officers to make good on their plans to destroy the Manchurian railroad, starting a destructive new chapter in Japan’s political-military designs over China. But the prophetess like the Emperor, functions as a part of the state’s guiding political-religious ideology, not an completely independent force that acts in variance with it. Of course, it is also her dire warning that spurs Captain Takachiho to desert. Different individuals can sometimes have drastically different interpretations of official religion and ideology that cause them to clash.


Captain Takachiho certainly deviated from the strategic script of his time. But, for a man whose tidy world was shattered by a revelation of future warfare, he was sadly effective at grasping at some of the major currents of future policy and strategy. Those currents are ultimately what gives Night Raid 1931 an air of quiet tragedy. Individuals–many of them likeable and friendly–find their destinies circumscribed by structural forces. The super-empowered Sakurai men and women are ultimately bystanders to the larger geopolitical order and find meaning in tending their own gardens. The last shot of the anime–Takachiho’s younger sister and Sakurai agent Yukina standing alone amidst falling snow in a deserted and poorly lit Tokyo zoo–is particularly evocative. She is a small figure amid a gathering darkness and will never see her companions, who scatter to the four winds, again.

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

Disarming the Enemy

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

“Tell Me How This Ends”

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


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

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

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

The Hero’s Choice

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


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

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

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

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


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