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Intelligence and Star Wars: Beyond Just Bothans

Posted: January 28, 2016 by kdatherton in Uncategorized
Intelligence and the Star Wars universe
Since its release in 1977, Star Wars has spawned arguments and discussions about how galactic warfare would be conducted – everything from the use of Weapons of Mass Destruction (such as the Death Star), through to Counter-Insurgency and irregular warfare (such as the Ewoks). Across this spectrum, we witness an array of examples that range from dogfights between starfighters; fleet engagements between capital ships; and landwarfare between armoured, artillery, and armoured units. The ‘Wars’ in the ‘Star Wars’ title is a plural for good reason.
One key warfare element that deserves attention is the military intelligence war that plays out throughout these films, especially within the Original Trilogy. Since 1977, Star Wars has been as much an intelligence war as it has been a battle between X-Wings and TIE Fighters. Throughout the films, both the Empire and the Rebel Alliance exploit an array of different information-gathering practices to bolster their otherwise conventional warfighting capability.
Both sides are using military intelligence to address a shortfall within their warfighting ability. In the case of the Rebel Alliance, it’s a fight for survival – without intelligence on the Empire, they risk being eradicated. Further more, the relatively small band of Rebels can use intelligence as leverage against a larger, better equipped Empire, an organisation that they can not fight on equal terms. It’s this information that tells them what to attack and how best to strike it.
The Empire, meanwhile, needs intelligence…
The first ship we see in the Star Wars films is transmitted plans for the Death Star before its crew is captured, making it an intergalactic equivalent of the USS Pueblo.
The Empire, meanwhile, needs intelligence on a largely de-centralised Rebellion that has literally the entire Galaxy to hide amongst. Intelligence provides the Empire with the means to seek out the key instruments of the Rebellion (namely, its senior leadership), so that they can be shut down for good.
All three films are pretty even in their examples of using intelligence for military purposes. In A New Hope, the plans for the Death Star are stolen and smuggled by the Rebellion (a story that will be illuminated come December 2016 with the release of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story). The end game of this intelligence smuggling operation isn’t so that the Rebellion can build its own Superlaser, but rather, so that it sift through pentabytes of data and find a fatal weakness within the Death Stars design.
Conversely, we see some old school intelligence gathering techniques in A New Hope – namely, the sharing of information by the spy Garindan (AKA Long Snoot) as he stalks Obi Wan and Luke to the Millennium Falcon.
The only thing worse than his disguise is the fact that it works.
R2-D2’s venture onto the Death Star later in the film could conceivably be an exploitation of poor cyber security on the Empire’s behalf. Indeed, if R2-D2 were half the programmer that intelligence organisations use today, he would have delivered the intergalactic equivalent of a stuxnet virus into the Death Star’s memory banks, and caused the superlaser to detonate itself the next time it attempted to fire.
The Empire Strikes Back takes the intelligence campaign further. Imperial Probe Droids – the drones of the Star Wars universe – are dispatched throughout the Galaxy (I want to know about how the Empire disseminates all of the information from these Probes and decides what videos that Captain Piett will view from the bridge of his Star Destroyer).
I can’t wait to see a hilarious Twitter account ‘Drunken Probe Droid’
The end result of this Probe Droid program is the discovery of the Rebel Base on Hoth, whose destruction yields a significant blow against the Alliance. Later in the film, the Empire goes to the private sector, commissioning freelance bounty hunters to locate the Millennium Falcon and attempt the capture of Rebel senior leadership.
Boba Fett only had to park Slave I outside to find the Millennium Falcon – a fact he probably kept quiet so that he could charge the Empire a literal astronomical sum for fuel.
The conclusion of The Empire Strikes Back sees Luke using the Force to get information that leads him to Bespin, and his fateful confrontation with Darth Vader. Based on nothing more than a vision of ‘A City in the Clouds’, Luke travels halfway across the Galaxy and falls into his father’s trap, despite Vader making no physical attempt to contact him. Any academic who attempts to write a history of the Star Wars galaxy is likely to come up frustratingly short on answers when they question why certain decisions were made, if for no other reason than ‘the Force’.
In Return of the Jedi, a number of Rebels plant themselves as agents within Jabba’s Palace to mount the rescue of Han Solo (arguably more of a Special Operations mission than Intelligence activity). Never-the-less, such an operation would have required careful study of disguises for Leia and Lando, who both slip into the palace in cognito.
Special consultancy credit to Tony Mendez.
That operation is a success, bringing us to the film’s second and third act – a massive military operation against a Second Death Star. We learn that many Bothan Spies died to bring us the information presented in the briefing room of the Home One. What they don’t realise is that the intelligence on the Second Death Star is merely a counter-intelligence operation from Emperor Palpatine himself, intended to lure the Rebels into a trap. In three films, we’ve seen quite a robust exploration of how both sides use intelligence to their advantage.
The Prequels warrant a mere paragraph in the intelligence stakes – not a reflection on the quality of the films, but rather, an acknowledgement that these films have no real intelligence grounding. In The Phantom Menace, the Trade Federation uses malware coded within a distress message to track the Queen’s Starship to Tatooine. Obi-Wan does some gumshoe detective work to find a Clone Army and Droid Foundries on Geonosis in Attack of the Clones, whilst ‘Clone Intelligence’ gives a few tidbits on the Separatists in Revenge of the Sith. Throughout this trilogy, Palpatine is also playing the galaxy’s greatest double agent. Perhaps The Prequels would have been considerably improved if they took a greater focus on intelligence.
To the Republic’s credit, infiltrating the Clone Army would have been nigh on impossible given that every soldier looks exactly the same.
Which brings us to The Force Awakens. We should probably begin by acknowledging the geopolotical (astropolitical?) state of play in this film, with New Republic having signed a peace treaty with Imperial remnants. The New Republic has largely gotten rid of its military so that it can instead spend its budget on managing the Galaxy. That leaves the Resistance, a quasi-legal military force, to take the fight against Imperial remnants that did not go quietly into the night – namely, The First Order, which has been building its forces in secret.
It’s a classic hawk-and-dove scenario between the Resistance and the New Republic, suggesting a kind of political nuance that the Star Wars films don’t often get credit for. Much like Europe in the 1930s, the New Republic is too busy trying to recover from the last war, and not acknowledge grim realities. A resurgent First Order is practicing a very disciplined information game – consolidating its strength, but not so obviously that the New Republic judges it necessary to re-arm itself. Had the New Republic (much less The Resistance) have known of just how powerful the First Order really was, it’s doubtful they would have allowed them to go unchecked. Just imagine if the Axis had have had a viable nuclear weapon program in the 1930s.
This scene isn’t the only World War Two parallel in this movie.
Like the original trilogy, The Force Awakens demonstrates a good grasp of intelligence supporting a larger and more conventional war. This film doesn’t just illustrate the strengths of intelligence, however – it also demonstrates that organisations who ignore or de-prioritise intelligence do so at their own peril. We see examples of HUMINT (on-the-ground informants working for the First Order and Resistance at seen at Maz Kamata’s bar) through to Intel-gathering platforms operated by the Resistance. Snap Wexley pilots an Electronic Intelligence ship (possibly a mission-specific T-70 X-Wing variant) that brings back an accurate picture of the Starkiller Base, shields and all.
In the meantime, both sides follow intelligence leads – whether they’re from The Force, through interogations, or from defections – to look for map for Luke Skywalker.
This droid reminds me of another famous wartime intelligence agent from the Carter era; R2-D2.
What can we judge from each side’s intelligence capability? The First Order is, arguably, far superior in this regard. It is disciplined and well resourced. It appears to have more agents throughout the galaxy working for them, judging from the  Guavian Death Gang’s tip-off that Han Solo is in possession of BB-8. The First Order keeps the construction of Starkiller Base a secret, its existence only revealed when it reaches out and destroys New Republic’s capital planet. Say what you will about The First Order repeating the mistakes of the Empire by building another resource-intensive superweapon – Starkiller Base decapitated the New Republic’s government.
The Resistance – and the New Republic – largely demosntrate a shortfall in adequate intelligence throughout much of The Force Awakens. The disappearance of Luke Skywalker some 15 years earlier intelligence failure, given their inability to find him. When it has its first solid lead to discovering Skywalker’s location, The Resistance sends a mere single pilot to retrieve that information.
Brave as he may be, he probably should have had more back up than an orange and white BB unit.
In fact, it’s entirely possible that the obsessive search for Skywalker likely distracted The Resistance from intelligence that could have led to the discovery of Starkiller Base. If Luke had not have gone missing in the first place, the New Republic might still be alive today. Talk about your intelligence failures.
The intelligence that the Resistance is able to garner about Starkiller Base is largely drawn from the defection of FN-2187, and a handful of reconnaissance sorties flown by X-Wings. Through sheer luck and a little bit of talent, it’s sufficient information for The Resistance to destroy Starkiller Base. Once again, blind luck also leads the map fragment containing the location of Luke Skywalker to be decoded by The Resistance.
What we don’t see however are the repercussions of these intelligence successes and failures, and we wont know much more until December 2017 – the new release date for Star Wars Episode VIII. Disney and Lucasfilm recently announced this film would have the benefit of another six months in production time, during which I hope Rian Johnston finds the opportunity to include more ‘intelligence’ examples within the film.
What can we expect to see? There’s nothing better than idle speculation, but the real world has a host of examples that I hope are drawn upon. R2-D2 returning to the fold as an exploiter of cyber-security shortfalls, for one. An entire starship given over to the use of COMINT, ELINT and SIGINT – our very own First Order variant of the RC-135 Rivet Joint – would be a sight to see. But there’s one intelligence cliche that, surprisingly, we don’t see in the Star Wars movies – it’s the secret agent.
She’s technically a politician.
There’s a lot of characters in the Star Wars trilogy who work in the intelligence domain, but they’re largely pilots, soldiers, informants or technical specialists. None of them are a professional agent. On the one hand, I applaud the screenwriters for making seven films rich in intelligence examples without resorting to a cinematic cliche of James Bond/Jason Bourne/Jack Bauer. On the other hand, Episode VIII comes out 40 years following the release of A New Hope, and there’s one character I want to see…

George Smiley. But in space.

[Today’s guest post comes from Eamon Hamilton, who previously wrote about X-Wings. When not writing about space ships, he is a Defence Public Affairs Officer. His blog is at]

T-70 X-Wing From Force Awakens, Flying A Ground Attack Mission

T-70 X-Wing From Force Awakens, Flying A Ground Attack Mission

As with any war, the evolution of the Galactic Civil War means a change of tactics, technology, and policy in order to address new requirements. However, just because a (very small) piece of evidence highlights one particular technology does not make this technology universal, or even particularly widespread.

This is the first mistake that Eamon Hamilton makes in his recent article comparing the newest model of X-wing to the (rather less airworthy) F-35. By relying on mere seconds of film  and the availability of a toy, we can only determine that the T-70 is distinct from its predecessor, and that it can fly and shoot lasers. We have no real grasp of its new advantages or capabilities, and most importantly we do not know if it is the only starfighter at the Resistance’s disposal, or even if it is particularly widespread. We could also watch the Top Gun trailer, and conclude that the F-14 was the Navy’s only combat aircraft. The T-70s we see may even be an experimental or elite squadron, which, given the appearance of a new superweapon, more than merits its deployment. The T-70 might be exceptionally expensive, and deployed in a proportion more like the F-22 than F-35. As an aside, though, I think a better comparison would be between the F-16 Block 60 and the T-70, given that both are improvements to 30+ year old designs, rather than entirely new airframes (spaceframes?).

This comparison, however, is fundamentally flawed, and comparing the Rebellion or Resistance’s requirements to those of the US Navy is folly. Doctrine is entirely different: for example, our carriers do not have any significant armament other than their complement of fighters, and certainly don’t fight other capital ships at point blank range. There is no equivalent ship in any fleet on this planet, let alone in the USN. This is partly a consequence of politics. With planets (or moons) being the primary political unit, space is the only medium of travel between them.

This means the Rebel navy is far more important than its American equivalent, where air and land provide alternative avenues. The priority of ship defense reflects this, and the logistical aspect can be seen in starfighter design. Rebel starfighters, for example, are very space efficient: they take off and land vertically, making it easier to arm a ship of a given size. Underlining all this is the fact that the X-wing is vastly more capable and durable than any aircraft currently in service.

As we saw in The Empire Strikes Back, the X-wing is capable of sitting around in a swamp for extended periods of time (days? weeks? a month or more?), sinking into said swamp, and after being raised fly away with little-to-no maintenance. Thus, it is safe to assume its regular maintenance requirements are very few indeed. Barring battle damage, which would be partly obviated by its shields, a pilot could fly the fighter continuously for a week (the duration of its life support systems). Equally importantly, the X-wing can travel literally astronomical distances unassisted by capital ships. Further easing its logistical requirements, its primary ammunition comes directly from its power generator. Hyperdrive and shields are present on all Alliance starfighters, and it is safe to assume that the minute logistical requirements follow with them. This removes perhaps the greatest advantage of moving to a single platform, and also highlights that the difference in mobility between terrestrial vs. carrier-based fighters is not so severe in Star Wars as on Earth. This results in a lot of “tooth” and very little “tail”.

Damaged TIE Fighter Falls To A Planet Below

Damaged TIE Fighter Falls To A Planet Below

Have some things changed between A New Hope and The Force Awakens? Inevitably, but I find it unlikely that the widening of the civil war (as the Rebellion moves to establish itself) would diminish the need for starfighters with different capabilities. Indeed, it seems that the threats the Resistance faces are not, tactically, much different than when it was still the Rebellion. As the trailer suggests, the First Order’s decisions on how they fight have not changed much from the Empire’s. There is still a preference for TIEs, Star Destroyers, storm troopers, and superweapons with trenches. Given the Empire’s reliance on conventional military structures, there is every reason to believe that most other Imperial remnants remained doctrinally similar. There is also no reason to believe that the Resistance’s position is secure enough that they can safely scrap their less advanced fighter designs. I can think of another conflict that looked rather worse for the side that 30 years earlier were the unqualified victors.

We should also consider the tactical advantages of multiple starfighter types. In a galaxy where dogfighting is the main way of engaging other starfighters, improved electronics and warheads cannot take you very far. This means there is still a clear need for a more dedicated interceptor and space superiority fighter design. The A-wing was designed to fill these roles by the time of the Battle of Endor, and an upgraded version should be available to the Resistance, or even an entirely new fighter.

Hamilton does not help his case by his clear unfamiliarity with the starfighters. He claims the A-wing to be designed for “hit-and-run” attacks on convoys, when, as mentioned above, it was designed to fight other starfighters first and foremost, especially as a counter to the TIE Interceptor. With only two laser cannons and concussion missiles instead of the more powerful proton torpedoes, it is not nearly as capable at destroying heavier targets as the other Rebel starfighters. Hyperdrive makes even the Y-wing capable of hit-and-run tactics, and, with its heavier payload, far more effective against these targets.

X-Wings Fight Tie Fighters In Shakycam Battle

X-Wings Fight Tie Fighters In Shakycam Battle

Stepping back for a minute, there is a good chance that the T-70 will be the only, or almost the only, starfighter fielded by the Resistance in this film. This is not because of any in-universe logistical or training priority, but rather because having only two types of starfighter (especially those with shapes as distinct and recognizable as the X-wing and TIE Fighter) makes it easier to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys in Abrams’ preferred style, which involves rapid camera movements in close fights. It also makes an obvious callback to A New Hope, and nostalgia is a rather effective moneymaker. Nobody remembers the Y-wings from that film, of course, because all they did was die.

Robert of Bellême (Count of Ponthieu, 3rd Earl of Shrewsbury, etc.), is an Anglo-Norman magnate renowned for his cruelty and violence, who now spends his time posting bad jokes. His favorite starfighter is the TIE Interceptor.

Carved watermelon as Death Star, Windell Oskay (CC BY 2.0)

Carved watermelon as Death Star, Windell Oskay (CC BY 2.0)

There’s a moment in the third season of  “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” where it feels like the writers have run out of war stories. A side conflict about a scarcity investigation is revealed to all be a ruse, a cunning ploy by a minor political figure to undermine a slightly less minor political figure. The Galactic Republic is a vast place, and the Clone Wars span the entirety of it. Following the sideshow to the sideshow, our protagonists are whisked away onto an even more remote setting: a Jedi temple that exists in space but out of time, where an ancient monk keeps balance between his lightside daughter and his darksided son.

In this temple, in the middle of space, is where Anakin Skywalker fails to end the Clone War. The old monk needs a replacement, and the Chosen One will do just fine. Anakin refuses, out of fear for his secret wife, responsibility to his young padawan, and loyalty to his former master. Anakin is a skilled force user, pilot, and general, but he is a terrible Jedi. Faced with an opportunity to sacrifice himself and end the war, Anakin instead opts to leave. It goes poorly for the monk and for the daughter, and the sith-powered son is freed from balance, if not his temporal prison. Skywalker, Obi-Wan, and padawan Ashoka all escape, to return to their endless war.


I am halfway through livetweeting a #CloneWarsRewatch. I never saw “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” when it aired from 2008 to 2014, so my use of “rewatch” here is a bit of a misnomer, but I figured it was a good way to capture that I’m watching the show as a whole after it aired. All six seasons are on Netflix. I just finished season 3, so expect a second post when I finish the show.

I started watching because I wanted to understand how the war worked. I wanted battles, campaigns, daring stratagems and bungled schemes. I got those, and more, but the underlying logic of the universe is almost crippled by George Lucas’ overwhelmingly simple view of good and evil.

Palpatine, like he does in the movies, plays both sides of a great galactic war, urging the Republic to raise a clone army and marshaling separatist forces in secret. It’s a pat summary of evil, but it’s an entirely unnecessary one. We could get a rise to power story for Palpatine without him as the sole origin of everything bad, and it’d probably be more compelling.

This matters for BlogTarkin because I wanted to understand how the war of Star Wars worked. What follows is a brief summation, but it comes from the premise that nothing matters because Palpatine is a heavy-handed cliche.


How The Clone Wars Were Fought

The (likely) strategic objective of the Separatists is to fight the Republic to a stalemate. We get one episode with a Separatist governing body, but Count Dooku and his droid army are the real story, and their objective is terrifying galactic war, so no matter what Separatist-aligned planets hope for, they’re getting war.

The Republic’s objective is peace through victory, though a strong current is debate over peace proposals. These are shot down, literally and figuratively, by the same forces that want Palpatine in power and the war to continue. Throughout the series, we get to meet individuals, sometimes representing small planets or communities, who have strong feelings about the Republic or the Separatists, but all the personal reasons get lost in a giant grinder for Palpatine’s Imperial power.

Here are some strategic objectives fought over in the first half of the clone wars:

  • Listening posts guarding a nursery world
  • A fuel depot
  • A nursery world
  • A magical hole in time that balances the force

And that’s it, really. There are lots of other important places, but nothing with war-ending impact.

In a universe so reliant on machines, its weird that EMPs are a rare experimental weapon and hacking is barely a thing. Also weird: a lot of combat, even space combat, takes place within line of sight. Jon Jeckell has more to say on that, but here are some other observations about the wars as fought:

  • Hyperspace travel means battles always happen near planets, or significant destinations in space itself. So far, no attacks against ships in hyperspace.
  • Many ships can go to hyperspace, but smaller fighters often need a boost to get there
  • Getting to hyperspace takes a few minutes, and must be done outside a planet’s atmosphere, so blockading gunships have a window of opportunity to shoot fleeing vessels
  • That said, the first ship we ever see in Star Wars is a blockade runner
  • Blockades are really common, and must in some form be effective

But space combat isn’t all combat. There’s a lot of battles on the ground, too.

  • Armor that isn’t made of light is mostly meaningless
  • Grenades are very powerful
  • Armored vehicles are useful, and often come as troop transports too
  • Militias with sticks and spears can still defeat blaster-armed attackers
  • Almost all battles have clones versus droids
  • Of those that don’t, clones or droids support one side, so they’re always present. We don’t call it “The Droid War,” though, so I guess winners write the history books

Season 3 ends with the introduction of Captain Tarkin,  a decidedly force-ambivalent character with other ideas about ending the war. I hope we see more of him over the next three seasons.

My storified tweets about #CloneWarsRewatch can be found at the links below:

Part 1.
Part 2.
Part 3.
Part 4.
Part 5.
Part 6.
Part 7.

Screenshot, Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens Official Teaser Trailer #1

Screenshot, Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens Official Teaser Trailer #1

War. War never changes.
The Old Republic waged war to preserve order and commerce. The Separatists built a counter-empire from their lust for wealth and territory. Palpatine shaped a battered Republic into a Galactic superpower.

But war never changes.

Screenshot, Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens Official Teaser Trailer #1

Screenshot, Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens Official Teaser Trailer #1

In the last century, war was still waged over the resources that could be acquired. Only this time, the spoils of war were also its weapons: force users and conscript-able populations that could control them. For these resources, the Empire would destroy Alderaan, the Rebel Alliance would annex Hoth, and the far fringes of the Old Republic would dissolve into quarreling, bickering feudal states, bent on controlling the last remaining resources in the galaxy.

Screenshot, Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens Official Teaser Trailer #1

Screenshot, Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens Official Teaser Trailer #1

After the Battle of Yavin, the storm of world war had come again. In four brief years, most of the galaxy was left unmoored, adrfit from a broken Empire, not yet part of the New Republic. And from the ashes of total galactic devastation, civilization would struggle to return as it once was.

Screenshot, Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens Official Teaser Trailer #1

Screenshot, Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens Official Teaser Trailer #1

In this chaos, a few were able to cling to power. The Sith been declared dead and ranks of the Jedi reduced to one. That, alone, was change, and it would not last. Power abhors a vacuum, and from among the scattered remnants of the reeling Empire and the growing edge of the Republican frontier, a new chapter in Galactic history would be written, echoing that of its forefathers.

Screenshot, Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens Official Teaser Trailer #1

Screenshot, Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens Official Teaser Trailer #1

For a select few, life in the Galaxy is about to change.

Watch the new Star Wars trailer below:

Text adapted from the Fallout: New Vegas intro and best read in a Ron Perlman voice.

In Klendathu Fields

Posted: June 27, 2014 by kdatherton in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , ,

In Klendathu Fields
 (Apologies to John McCrae, no apologies to Robert Heinlein)

In Klendathu fields the dust mites teem
Between the scorch marks, beam by beam
That mark our fight, and down below
Their corpses writhe from blow after blow
Drowned out by our victors screams

We mourn our dead, mere moments past
Who covered us well, with laser blasts
Dutiful and duty done, now they rest
In Klendathu fields

Continue on our citizen’s quest
Taking up their fallen tools
The task, be ours to do it best
To honor those unlucky fools
If we fall short of those who passed
Other citizens will complete the task
In Klendathu fields

The badlands of Hell's Half-Acre in Natrona County, Wyoming. In The Starship Troopers film, this is where they filmed the Klendathu scenes. Photo by Mark A. Wilson (Department of Geology, The College of Wooster)

The badlands of Hell’s Half-Acre in Natrona County, Wyoming. In The Starship Troopers film, this is where they filmed the Klendathu scenes. Photo by Mark A. Wilson (Department of Geology, The College of Wooster)

John McCrae’s original is below, and far worthier for this occasion than my riff above. 

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place, and in the sky,
The larks, still bravely singing, fly,
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead; short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe!
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high!
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

“'If Ye Break Faith — We Shall Not Sleep'. Buy Victory Bonds.” Poster depicts lone soldier standing in a field of poppies at a grave. By the Department of National Defence, Ottawa

“’If Ye Break Faith — We Shall Not Sleep’. Buy Victory Bonds.” Poster depicts lone soldier standing in a field of poppies at a grave.
By the Department of National Defence, Ottawa

The Kingdom Beneath The Yellow Sea

Posted: March 10, 2014 by kdatherton in Uncategorized

What follows is a series of diary entries, found on a voice recorder in an envelope delivered to BlogTarkin headquarters early Monday morning. In addition to the recorder was a file. The author is unknown.

I found the file in the stacks between the dusty atlases of forgotten continents. It was devoid of dust, a rarity among books in the Miskatonic extension school. The only people generally back here were library assistants, dutifully storing duplicates of soon to be forgotten theses.

Inside the file was only news-clippings, a few pictures, and hastily scribbled notes.

The Hollow Eyes

The Hollow Eyes

It was titled the Pyongyang Report. From the fragments inside was an entire alternate history of the hermit kingdom. It hinted at the aftermath of an existential war, not against the rest of the world, but at something lurking deep within it.

By all appearances, this war ended in 1972.


Along the shore the cloud waves break,
The twin suns sink behind the lake
The shadows lengthen

In Carcosa


The victory was unheralded. It took decades, but official policy went skyward. It looked like an arms race. The rockets went upward. Satellites cruised the borders of space.

Yet space was never the destination. By all other accounts the collapse of North Korean rockets was an engineering failure. The file suggested differently. This was a concerted supply strategy. The goal was to get the parts under water. The last clipping from the file:

Pyongyang has admitted the controversial launch ended in failure and is investigating what caused it to fall into the sea. – ABC


Strange is the night where black stars rise,
And strange moons circle through the skies,
But stranger still is
Lost Carcosa


I kept the file. It’s newness intrigued, and it fell into the longer pattern of wars on the peninsular.  Somewhere in Kim Il Sung’s past, a deal was made. Nothing like the regular deals of a politician, arms and alliances for ideology. This involved something else. An emissary emerged, in the dark days of Japanese occupation. There are no details of the meeting except that it happened. Before the emissary Il-Sung’s forces existed only in a stage of fear, armed and hiding. Afterwards, they won the battle that built Il Sung’s career. History only records a strange caravan of fishing boats out to sea, all single file, all one way.


The Azure Gateway


Songs that the Hyades shall sing,
Where flap the tatters of the King,
Must die unheard in

Dim Carcosa.


Whatever bargain was struck that day, it was paid in full in 1972.  Whatever chance the Democratic Republic had at a normal existence extinguished that year. With the victory came a new cult, born from the nether gods. Founders became gods. The hermit kingdom became a workshop for hidden masters. Hands worked to the bone and bark stripped from trees. The materials of the land and the people worked raw to prepare the world for an underwater overlord

It was a compelling theory. Stuck in my research position, there was no way to get closer to the truth.

And then this happened:

On Thursday, four Scud missiles with a shorter range were fired into the sea off North Korea’s eastern coast –CNN


Song of my soul, my voice is dead,
Die though, unsung, as tears unshed
Shall dry and die in

Lost Carcosa


I’m sending this from the post office in Kuala Lumpur. I have no idea if my investigations will yield anything. My last additions to the file indicate that the King Below is hungry. Hungry for new people.

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.