The most successful film franchise of all time, Star Wars thrillingly depicts an epic multigenerational conflict fought a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. But the Star Wars saga has as much to say about successful strategies and real-life warfare waged in our own time and place. Strategy Strikes Back brings together over thirty of today’s top military and strategic experts, including generals, policy advisors, seasoned diplomats, counterinsurgency strategists, science fiction writers, war journalists, and ground‑level military officers, to explain the strategy and the art of war by way of the Star Wars films. Each chapter of Strategy Strikes Back provides a relatable, outside‑the‑box way to simplify and clarify the complexities of modern military conflict. A chapter on the case for planet building on the forest moon of Endor by World War Z author Max Brooks offers a unique way to understand our own sustained engagement in war-ravaged societies such as Afghanistan. Another chapter on the counterinsurgency waged by Darth Vader against the Rebellion sheds light on the logic behind past military incursions in Iraq. Whether using the destruction of Alderaan as a means to explore the political implications of targeting civilians, examining the pivotal decisions made by Yoda and the Jedi Council to differentiate strategic leadership in theory and in practice, or considering the ruthlessness of Imperial leaders to explain the toxicity of top-down leadership in times of war and battle, Strategy Strikes Back gives fans of Star Wars and aspiring military minds alike an inspiring and entertaining means of understanding many facets of modern warfare. It is a book as captivating and enthralling as Star Wars itself.
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About the Author
Max Brooks is a writer, public speaker, nonresident fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point, and senior resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Art of Future Warfare project. He is the author of World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War and The Harlem Hellfighters, among other works. John Amble is the editorial director of the Modern War Institute. A military intelligence officer in the U.S. Army Reserve, he is a veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. ML Cavanaugh is a nonresident fellow at the Modern War Institute and a U.S. Army strategist with global experience and assignments ranging from the Pentagon to Korea and Iraq to Army Space and Missile Defense Command. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and USA Today, among other publications. Jaym Gates is a science fiction editor and author, with more than a dozen anthologies to her credit. She is the coeditor of War Stories: New Military Science Fiction. Stanley McChrystal is a U.S. Army general (ret.) who led the Joint Special Operations Command in Iraq during the Persian Gulf wars and was top commander of American forces in Afghanistan.
Read an Excerpt
The Case for Planet Building on Endor
My fellow senators, I write to you on the one-year anniversary of our glorious victory over the Empire, to remind you of those forgotten allies whose courage and sacrifice made that victory possible. Many worlds rose in defiance of Emperor Palpatine's tyranny. Many cultures contributed to his downfall. And yet when the entire rebellion hinged on a final, desperate battle, one race leapt heroically into the fray to strike the critical blow for freedom. Of course it was the Ewoks of whom I speak, those eleventh-hour allies who made the difference between victory and defeat and who need our help as badly as we once needed theirs.
On that momentous day of our liberation, as cheers erupted, from Tatooine to Bespin, I danced among the bonfires of Endor, beneath stars once hidden by the looming shadow of the Death Star. With me danced our small, courageous allies, who drummed on the emptied helmets of stormtroopers as they sang songs of peace and freedom. We laughed and cheered and thanked our new comrades from the bottom of our hearts. And then we left them. No provision was made for postwar nation building. No plans were drawn for restoring their land. In our rush to return to private lives and personal interests, we abandoned a deeply traumatized world.
While the moon of Endor may still look idyllic from above, the tranquil forest canopy cloaks deep and festering scars. The horrific battle, combined with years of brutal Imperial occupation, has devastated the fragile terrestrial ecosystem. Ewoks are a subsistence-based society who now find their gathering flora poisoned and their hunting fauna massacred.
Like their environment, the Ewoks' civilization has proven too fragile for the calamity of combat. They govern by extended family groups, or "tribes," and have no concept of centralized leadership. This is why, in answer to previous queries, they have had difficulty comprehending the notion of a galactic representative to the Senate (to say nothing of electing one). Not only were a substantial number of tribal elders killed in the Battle of Endor (Ewoks always lead from the front), but those who survived the carnage have found their legitimacy threatened by the starvation and depredations that have followed.
As the delicate web of traditional order frays, corruption, intimidation, and fraternal bloodshed are now the law of the land. Younger, more militant warriors are now asserting themselves into the power vacuum. Many are veterans of the battle against the Empire, hardened by loss and tempered by violence. As I write this, my friend and former ally Wicket leads a patchwork Northern Alliance in a civil war against a growing faction of religious fanatics.
These younglings refer to themselves as "students," followers of an ancient belief we used to coerce their people to our cause. Never forget, my fellow senators, that we cynically stoked the fires of their religious faith to turn those flames against our enemy. But how quickly do flames spread out of control? Should the students defeat Wicket's Northern Alliance and seize control of Endor, we may one day find those fanatical flames before us. Control your laughter. I mean this in all sincerity.
I do not suggest the possibility of future Ewok starships emerging from hyperspace to threaten the heart of the Republic. Quite the opposite. They may never come to us, but we may have to return to them. The Republic still faces numerous threats both from rogue worlds and from non–state actors. What if the latter launches a devastating terror attack against densely populated Coruscant? And what if that attack is launched from the militarized sanctuary of Endor? What would happen to the pursuit force that attempted to land?
My fellow senators, do not for a moment underestimate the ingenuity, tenacity, and utter ferocity of the Ewoks in battle. Do not be misled by the "sticks and stones" stories of the Battle of Endor. Those primitive weapons soaked Endor's soil in the blood of the galaxy's most advanced warfighters.
Ewoks are masters of stealth and ambush. I personally witnessed a company-sized unit creep within bowshot range of an Imperial legion to launch a surprise attack. Ewoks are also superb logisticians. Without roads, without wheels, without anything but vines and muscle, they somehow managed to preposition both falling and swinging logs that destroyed two Imperial AT-ST Scout Walkers. While you may laugh at the story of the wood-and-hide glider that fecklessly dropped rocks on another AT-ST, remember that behind this seemingly comical device is a mind capable of comprehending the physics of flight. And it is that mind that saw two Ewoks assist my comrade Chewbacca in not only capturing another AT-ST but learning to operate its controls! And this, my fellow senators, this ability to adapt at near lightspeed, is what makes the Ewoks supremely dangerous, because while we may not have showered our former allies in emergency relief aid, we did leave them with mountains of discarded Imperial weapons.
I can still remember the image of a victorious Ewok, arms raised in triumph, brandishing an Imperial blaster; and my stomach tightens at the thought of that blaster aimed at us. How long before he and those like him decide that they were merely pawns in our grand strategic struggle, and how long before that resentment boils over into rage?
That is why I encourage — I implore — this august body to make Endor's reconstruction a prime objective. It will take time — years, perhaps decades. Remember, we are essentially starting at year 0 and must rebuild from the ground up. The Imperial occupation and subsequent postwar neglect has nurtured an entire generation of Ewoks on chaotic conflict. This must be reversed. We must engage with Endor long enough to train up an entirely new generation whose formative years are anchored in peace and stability. That stability can only be accomplished by an army of aid workers. Every security detachment must be matched by an equal, if not larger, force of doctors, engineers, and ethnoecologists just to name a few. They must be dedicated, highly trained, and deeply, deeply sensitive to the cultural peculiarities of their host planet. Never forget: we are rebuilding Endor, not recreating Naboo. We must work within their ancient society in order to repair it. We must tread the razor blade's width between the twin dangers of hostility and dependency. Lack of societal awareness, no matter how well intentioned, will place us in the role of foreign occupier. Likewise, bottomless charity further erodes the system we seek to save. We must not help the Ewoks but rather help them to help themselves. In doing so, we must practice the strictest strategic flexibility. We cannot be afraid to replace failed programs and always consider contingency plans. The kind of fluid thinking that Captain Solo took to navigate an asteroid field is exactly what is needed here. That and a great deal of money.
Healing Endor will be expensive. It may require cuts to other programs throughout the Republic. It might even require additional taxes on our citizens. Some of those citizens will grumble. Some will openly resist. They may ask — demand — why their hard-earned credits are siphoned off to a faraway land they have never seen to help strange foreign creatures they have never met. We must be brave and honest when dealing with this backlash. We must educate our citizens about the role Endor played in our fight for freedom. We must admit our mistakes at that fight's end. We must explain to them, as I explain to you, the dangers of neglecting a former ally. Of course I understand that many worlds have been devastated by decades of Imperial rule. And as an orphan of a destroyed planet, of course I can sympathize with the plight of those tasked with re-fusing the shards of a shattered Republic. But while we debate on the future of Jedha refugees and Kashyyyk's Truth and Reconciliation Courts, I urge you to consider the crossroads between empathy and security. Make no mistake, my friends, those roads converge on Endor. We must win peace today to avert war tomorrow.
The Jedi and the Senate
Jedi guard themselves, they cannot. Try, they may, but fail, they will.
When the Galactic Empire rose from the ashes of the Republic after more than one thousand years of democratic rule, many Rebels focused their blame on Anakin Skywalker and his betrayal of the Jedi. Yet this simplistic story ignores the much deeper structural and institutional flaws that undermined civilian control of the Jedi Order. While there is no doubt that Skywalker is at least partially culpable for the fall of the Republic, it nevertheless remains the case that the system of civilian control — based on the Senate's granting of complete autonomy to the Jedi Council in matters of personnel policies, professional education, and strategy — was ultimately doomed to destroy the very system the Jedi Order was designed to protect.
The Jedi Order, like all large organizations, was only as good as the sentient beings who inhabited its ranks. Unfortunately, elitist Jedi and their sheltered professional military education system were bound to create a warrior caste of arrogant and entitled polymaths who resented the very life forms they were sworn to protect.
The Jedi accession system was largely hereditary, drawing a small pool of recruits exclusively from families predisposed to high midi-chlorian counts. As a result, the inhabitants of many solar systems were drastically underrepresented among the Jedi, and some species were completely excluded from the Jedi Order, with no hope of joining the ever-shrinking ranks of this elitist organization. This exclusivity, combined with distinctive Jedi attire and impressive lightsabers, helped set the Jedi apart from other life-forms in the galaxy and created a mystique around the Jedi. It also drove unprecedented levels of confidence in the Jedi Knights, demonstrated consistently by the nearly complete deference shown to the Jedi in public, and decreased public scrutiny of the Jedi Council. Many sentient beings simply had little or no direct contact with the Jedi. Since they did not understand the Jedi, many citizens of the Republic no longer felt qualified to criticize even obvious strategic or ethical failures committed by the knights. And since the Jedi were seldom questioned by the public or the Senate, they too began to believe that their actions shouldn't be questioned and grew increasingly irritated and incensed on the rare occasions when they were.
This sense of Jedi entitlement was exacerbated by a sheltered professional education system that separated Jedi candidates from their families at a very young age and indoctrinated them in the ways of the Force. As young padawan learners, aspiring Jedi were sequestered from other life-forms and constantly reminded of how unique they were and how they were among only a small percentage of citizens in the Republic who could even hope to become part of the elite order of Jedi. Although they often traveled on missions to the farthest reaches of the galaxy during their training, they were held at arm's length from the general population. They observed but did not interact with — or learn to appreciate, understand, or respect — the diverse cultures and citizenry of the Republic spread throughout the far corners of the galaxy. And since Jedi themselves came from traditional Jedi families, over time they became more and more detached from the Republic itself.
Jedi attempts to become apolitical and completely unbiased were also ultimately self-defeating. The Jedi were instructed to be selfless, detached, and altruistic. However, their lack of real and enduring relationships with members of other species, combined with the belief that the Jedi Code was not something to which most life-forms in the galaxy could even aspire, caused these humble servants to begin to believe that they were morally and ethically superior to other, more primitive species. Comments like Obi-Wan Kenobi's sarcastic question upon meeting the Gungan Jar Jar Binks, "Why do I sense that we've picked up another pathetic life-form?" sadly had become commonplace among the Jedi. By the time they completed their training, most Jedi had developed the belief that they were better and morally superior to the citizens of the Republic they served. In fact, this sense of arrogance and entitlement was impossible to deny. As even Master Yoda admitted upon hearing Kenobi's complaints about young Anakin Skywalker's lack of humility, "Arrogance is a flaw more and more common among Jedi. Too sure of themselves, they are. Even the older, more experienced ones."
The ethical foundations of the Jedi professional education system also rested primarily on the belief that the Jedi, in fact, could subvert their desires and passions to achieve a state of total emotional detachment. Yet while the attempt to master one's emotions and to subvert one's own desires was a laudable goal, Jedi often believed that self-abnegation was a challenge they had overcome rather than a continual — and perhaps ultimately impossible — process. This failure to recognize the ways their emotions, biases, and parochial interests could cloud their own judgment would have devastating consequences. The belief among a small yet misguided band of heterodox Jedi that the Jedi could never fully escape their own passions led to the establishment of the Order of the Sith and the rise of the dark side of the Force, the greatest threat the Republic would ever see. Although remaining Jedi rightly criticized the lust for power and eternal life sought by these dissident Sith, they also failed to recognize that they had not, in fact, achieved the unbiased state of complete selflessness that they believed they had. The Jedi Knights' failure to subvert their own emotions and desires was evident on many occasions, particularly in Qui-Gon Jinn's emotional deathbed plea, during which he begged his former padawan Obi-Wan Kenobi to promise to train young Anakin Skywalker. Neither Jinn's request nor Kenobi's loyal pledge to his master was even remotely rational, detached, or bereft of passion and emotion. As a result, Jinn's prideful belief that Anakin would bring balance to the Force began a chain of events that would lead to the emergence of Darth Vader and the death of millions.
Jedi arrogance and entitlement also led to Jedi suspicion of — and disregard for — political leaders themselves. Obi-Wan Kenobi and Qui-Gon Jinn both repeatedly and openly expressed their disdain for politicians and admonished Anakin Skywalker that Padme Amidala and other members of the Senate were "not to be trusted." This lack of trust in political leaders is difficult to understand given the limited interactions between the Jedi Council and the Senate and the immense autonomy granted by the latter to the former in all matters of strategy. Yet Jedi increasingly became more and more willing to pursue their own interests while asserting impartiality and hiding behind their claims of expertise and knowledge of the Force.
It is true that the Jedi developed a knowledge of the Force that allowed them to wield amazing telekinetic powers and unparalleled skill with lightsabers. Yet the Jedi Council failed to recognize the limits of their expertise, ignored the prevalence of uncertainty on galactic battlefields, and underestimated the ability of Sith adversaries to adapt to Jedi tactics and strategies. As a result, the Jedi were completely surprised and unprepared for the rise of the Sith on multiple occasions, most notably at the start of the Clone Wars.
In fact, even in the face of compelling evidence that the Sith had returned — when Qui-Gon Jinn encountered Darth Maul — Mace Windu and Master Yoda were unwilling to recognize that there might be limits to their expertise, with Windu asserting, "The Sith would not have returned without us sensing it." After the creation of the Clone Army finally forced the Jedi Council to recognize their tragic mistake, Master Yoda nevertheless refused Windu's plea to "inform the Senate that our ability to use the Force has diminished." Rather than notifying their elected civilian leaders of the immense vulnerabilities in the Republic's defenses with enough time to develop alternative options to counter the growing threat, the Jedi instead tried to take matters into their own hands and actively avoided political control. Mace Windu led a small group of Jedi in a failed attempt to remove Chancellor Sheev Palpatine and, when faced with a decision of whether to arrest his adversary or serve as his judge and executioner, chose to ignore the rule of law. It was at this moment when Palpatine manipulated Anakin's passions and Darth Vader was born. Yet it is telling that — when faced with a true crisis — the Jedi trusted only themselves.
Excerpted from "Strategy Strikes Back"
Copyright © 2018 Max Brooks, John Amble, ML Cavanaugh, and Jaym Gates.
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Table of Contents
Foreword Stanley McChrystal Preface ML Cavanaugh Introduction Max Brooks Part 1. Society and War 1. The Case for Planet Building on Endor Max Brooks 2. The Jedi and the Senate Jim Golby 3. Distant Warriors: Are Clones and Troops Too Separate from the Societies They Serve? Crispin J. Burke 4. On Destroying Alderaan Mick Cook 5. Civil-Military Relationships in Star Wars Daniel D. Maurer 6. How General Grievous and Vulture Droids Foreshadow Conflict’s Fast Future Raq Winchester and Fran Wilde 7. From Princess to General: The On- and Offscreen Rise of the Woman Warrior Erica Iverson Part 2. Preparation for War 8. Tarkin Doctrine: The Empire’s Theory of Victory Kelsey D. Atherton 9. How Not to Build an Army: The Empire’s Flawed Military Force Mick Ryan 10. The Jedi and the Profession of Arms Steve Leonard 11. The Right Fleet: Starships for Strategic Purpose BJ Armstrong 12. Why We Need Space Marines B. A. Friedman 13. Jedi Mind Tricks: From the Reel to the Real Jean Marie Ward 14. Lightsabers and Death Stars: Military-Technology Lessons from Star Wars Dan Ward Part 3. Waging a War 15. Hybrid Star Wars: The Battle of Endor James Stavridis and Colin Steele 16. Han, Greedo, and a Strategy of Prevention Chuck Bies 17. The Logic of Strategy in Space Steve Metz 18. Darth Vader and Mission Command Jonathan Bratten 19. The Battle of Hoth: A Critical Analysis Andrew Liptak 20. Why Military Forces Adapt, Even in a Galaxy Far, Far Away Chuck Bies 21. Dispatch from Hoth: When the Blood Runs Cold August Cole Part 4. Assessment of War 22. Darth Vader’s Failed Counterinsurgency Strategy Liam Collins 23. Why the Jedi Won Fights, Not Wars John Spencer 24. Why the Galactic Republic Fell: An Imperial-Network Perspective Van Jackson 25. Why the Empire Failed Theresa Hitchens 26. Star Wars, Cyclical History, and Implications for Strategy Kathleen J. McInnis 27. Suffer, the Weak Must: A History of the Galactic Civil War Craig Whiteside 28. A Strategist, Yoda Was Not ML Cavanaugh Epilogue: The Lessons of Star Wars ML Cavanaugh Contributors
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The best essays in this book make you reflect on Star Wars in new ways, with the writers showing sharp insights into this fictional universe and its implications. To give one example, Jim Golby's essay makes a brief but quite observant point about Luke Skywalker's actions in Return of the Jedi that I had never considered or heard discussed much, in years of Star Wars fandom. There are only some minor hiccups here and there where I thought an author maybe had gotten something slightly wrong about the universe, but I was generally impressed with the level of SW analysis (The Clone Wars animated series is discussed surprisingly often!). Similar insights are here to be had on military and strategic matters, with the book succeeding in engaging a layman like me in themes such as toxic and over-centralized leadership, the importance of rapid-deploying expeditionary forces, fleet and naval command structure, among others. I would say that, because the book embraces a goal of accessibility for a layperson like myself, the insights on military affairs are shallower than what you will take away in just new ways to think about Star Wars. What I mean is that the Star Wars fan will come away with more learned than the military thinker. While I had a good time with the collection, some themes are discussed more than once (the civil-military divide mainly). There are also some pieces where I felt the author was sort of spinning their wheels. In particular there are a couple pieces written from an in-universe perspective (with a fictional narrator), and some of them just seemed like cut-and-dry summaries of the Galactic Civil War. A small handful of other inclusions did feel somewhat perfunctory as well, so there is a bit of unevenness to the book. Admittedly, this is a difficult sensation to avoid in an anthology. For many readers looking for thoughts on Star Wars, this will be quite satisfying. For military strategy professionals hoping for deeper dissections of military strategy, however, I suspect it may fall short. Disclaimer: I received and advance copy through NetGalley.
Military strategies compared to Star Wars are the theme of the 28 essays within Strategy Strikes Back. Focusing on both past warfare and the wars to come, it is comprehensively researched and annotated. I have to say that only reviewers will have the patience to read a foreword, a preface and an introduction all in one book. You can probably skip all three though I’m going to quote the Introduction later. The remaining book is split into four sections: Society and War, Preparation for War, Waging a War, and Assessment of War. There is also an epilogue. I selected this book solely because of one of its authors, Max Brooks. I adored his World War Z book (not so much the movie though the visuals were awesome—who can forget the zombies climbing the city’s walls). Unfortunately, he only pens the introduction and first essay. However, he included some profound thoughts on why an average person should care about military strategy. As he states “to be blunt, war impacts everyone [...] from the language we speak to the land we live in to the god we choose or don’t choose to worship.” Using Star Wars as an easily understood analogy was another co-writer’s idea he actually used when tasked with training South Koreans in military strategy. The essays vary widely in style. Some read like dissertations, others like pop culture fandom. Most are written in third person. One is written in first person by the “esteemed historian of the Galactic Civil War”, who I assume is fictional. There are a few errors within. Saying that Leia caused woman to be taken more seriously in leadership roles may be arguably true. Saying that she influenced Wonder Woman is absurd when she predates Leia by more than three decades in comics. In contrast, some things that sound unbelievable are actually true like the chapter note referencing Wookieepedia, which is the actual name of the Star Wars wiki. Overall, I enjoyed reading Strategy Strikes Again. But it isn’t for everyone, readers should be familiar with Star Wars but not too familiar or the duplicate descriptions of battle scenes will become tiresome. I enjoyed the essays that included less Star Wars and more current or future war strategies and weapons. How is the clone army’s swarm mindset being replicated with US military drones? How did the Soviets and US militaries spend millions exploring Jedi mind tricks like Anakin’s floating fruit over a banquet table? Yes, more please. Some other essays droned on and on like the classic military strategy texts described by Max Brooks in the Introduction as “total snoozefests”. So difficult to rate, this book is. (You knew I had to do it somewhere in this review). For Star War nerds (you know who you are) or war fanciers, 5 stars. For all others, 3 stars. So 4 stars overall. Thanks to the publisher, University of Nebraska/Potomac Books, and NetGalley for an advance copy.