Editor’s Note: when not pondering the combat effectiveness of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, guest author Hayes Brown writes seriously about the UN at his main blog, for UN Dispatch, and in 140 characters.
With an alien fleet in route through an intergalactic portal in the blockbuster film The Avengers, the odds are not in the favor of Earth. Faced with this, Tony Stark, also known as Iron Man and a member of the eponymous Avengers, promises the Asgardian Loki, “If we can’t save the world, you can be damn sure we’ll avenge it”. It shouldn’t be much of a spoiler to reveal by now that the former holds to be the case by film’s end. But in the event that the combined might of the Avengers had been unable to prevent Loki’s Chitauri armada from sweeping past Manhattan’s borders and conquering the world, would Stark have been able to back up his threat?
In this instance, we have a case of an asymmetrical battle, where one side greatly outnumbers the other in sheer manpower, and outstrips them technologically as well. Only luck was able to allow the Avengers access to Loki’s spear and the means shut down the portal. Considering the impervious nature of the shield surrounding it and the Tesseract, it is easy to see the device remaining standing while the rest of Manhattan disintegrated in a nuclear explosion in the event of failure. Had the Avengers fallen, given the number of ships seen waiting to cross through the portal at the time of its closing, it is easy to imagine them running rampant over the combined armed forces of the Earth’s remaining humans. In such an instance, those Avengers who survived, which in this thought exercise we’ll say is all of them, would likely continue on fighting, albeit in a less direct fashion.
Underground resistances and insurgencies are nothing new when it comes to warfare, such as the Free French Forces during World War II, or the pockets of fighters that continued on after the fall of Baghdad in 2003. These groups tend to, as per their comparative small size, prefer ‘hit and run’ operations, and other means of tactics that take away their opponents’ military benefits. Such tactics include the use of improvised explosive devices to render the armor of their opponents moot, while relying on relatively primitive means.
Considering that Tony Stark was able to miniaturize the design of the arc reactor in a cave, from a box of scraps, the chances of him managing to create other devices to harry Loki and the Chitauri from whatever he is able to get his hands on are high. Likewise, while Captain America served primarily as infantry during World War II, he is one of the greatest tacticians ever in the Marvel Universe, and carried out several infiltration and espionage missions in his day. Backed up by the skills of Hawkeye and the Black Widow, the Avengers and any humans they recruit, including survivors on the Helicarrier, would inflict serious damage on the invaders ability to hold the territory they’ve taken.
What is unknown, however, is whether they would, with such a disadvantage, be able to provoke the enemy to withdraw from its conquered territory. The approaches that would likely be leveraged in response to such a campaign by the Avengers render this unlikely. We don’t know anything about the political or economic systems of the Chitauri, other than their loyalty to their Master, who doesn’t seem the type to back down. It is unlikely that the Avengers will be able to have them withdraw through a regret at loss of blood and treasure. The heavy losses in the initial battle didn’t seem to faze the Chitauri in the slightest, and would likely have continued until the only opposition that faced them were defeated.
It is also worth noting that we have no idea of the full extent of the Chitauri’s weaponry. The small craft that we saw were the only ones firing energy projectiles, with the Leviathans providing support more in the form of a flying tank than anything, though one lacking artillery. Its unlikely that such a war-minded race would, in inventing hybrid biological-mechanical weaponry like the Leviathans and the blasters mounted on their cruisers, would neglect to determine how to shoot things from far away. We can thus assume that we haven’t seen the full extent of the Chitauri’s weapons capabilities, which would be turned loose in response to continued resistance from the Avengers.
We must also consider the goals of the invasion in the first place, and thus the politics of the aftermath. Loki initially launched his war against Earth be able to rule over the world that his adoptive brother, Thor, so loved. In Ivan Arreguin-Toft’s paper “How the Weak Win Wars”, Arreguin-Toft labels four strategies in fighting wars:
Attack (strong actor) strategies:
1. direct attack
Defense (weak actor) strategies:
1. direct defense
2. guerrilla warfare strategy
This typology includes two assumptions: (1) strong actors initiated the asymmetric conflict in question, and therefore “strong actor” and “attacker” are synonymous; and (2) these ideal-type strategies are war-winning rather than war-termination strategies.
The initial battle between the Avengers and Loki’s forces is a blend of direct attack, with Loki’s focus on ending the Avengers’ threat, and barbarism, with the lack of distinction between civilians and ‘military’ targets. In the aftermath of this direct engagement, Loki, caring more about control than being loved, would not be keen to adopt the counter-insurgency strategy (COIN) seen in Iraq and Afghanistan. As demonstrated in Germany early in the film, Loki would only be satisfied with total subjugation of the human race. Rather than winning over the population, he would seek to rule through fear, countering the guerrilla strikes of the Avengers with further barbarism, inflicting human losses that the Avengers may not be able to stomach.
The outlook gets even worse once you consider what happens if Loki turns over the Tesseract and his wishes no longer remain part of the equation. Thanos, as revealed at the stinger at the end of the movie, is the one seeking the Tesseract, and his care for Earth is microscopic. He literally worships and seeks the love of Death personified, and so would care not whether the humans of Earth lived or died. Unlike the United States facing the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army, Thanos isn’t bound by the Genocide Convention, and would likely relish the thought of extinguishing billions of lives in sacrifice to his paramour.
Here is where the utility of insurgent tactics in the face of a victorious Loki break down, as the Earth’s Mightiest Heroes’ strategic goal, withdrawal of Loki’s forces from the planet Earth, is likely unachievable through these means. Counter to the storyline of Falling Skies, as described by Joseph Young at Political Violence at a Glance, total war in the style of an alien race of invaders seen in The Avengers would be by its nature buffered against insurgency campaigns. Any attempt to avenge the Earth by the Avengers would have to be a fast one, with a decisive blow sooner rather than later, as they would be racing against the clock with each strike.