Star Wars and Counter Insurgency: Application of COIN doctrine with regards to the Rebel Alliance

Parallels have been drawn between the Galactic Empire of the Star Wars universe and other periods of hegemonic power in history. Conversely, the Rebel Alliance bas been viewed as an insurgency. Did the rebels act as such? Were their actions in line with the conventional definition of insurgency? The Army Field Manual on Counter Insurgency defines it as such, “An organized movement aimed at the overthrow of a constituted government through the use of subversion and armed conflict.” (2006, G-5) Certainly under that definition it would appear so. If you accept that, how does the Galactic Empire fare with regards to its counter insurgency tactics? What changes could have been made in the lead up to the destruction of Death Star two, and the inevitable fall of the empire. Some sources though, such as The Economist argue that only limited instances of insurgency are shown and American film viewers find the subject distasteful. Whether or not the viewer accepts that view, the movies still provide a ripe ground in which to consider these questions.

Various tactics employed by insurgent movements throughout their history are replicated by the rebellion. The opening scene of Episode IV: A New Hope, has a rebel Corvette class ship fleeing an Imperial class “Star Destroyer” of the Imperial Navy. This is due to their possession of intelligence with regards to the Death Star’s vulnerabilities. Later in the film The Economist points out parallels between Casablanca and Luke Skywalker’s fleeing of the empire, assisted by smuggler and pirate Han Solo, in his obviously Bogart-esque role. Initially unwilling to give assistance unless it was in his best interest he is witnessed returning at a pivotal moment to cover Skywalker’s run down the Death Star’s trench. The very environment they share, as described by Obi Wan Kenobi “…a wretched hive of scum and villainy”, was to those that have fallen afoul of the Galactic Empire what Casablanca was to refugees from Europe pre World War 2. This collusion with elements of organized crime shares elements in common with the insurgency in Afghanistan and its involvement with the drug trade. Andrew Exum (2009) describes the recruitment of the Ewoks in episode VI as yet another element of an insurgent’s strategy, the recruitment of the local populace for a coordinated military strike against an Imperial target.

Given the opening crawl sets up “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” one can excuse the Galactic Empire for not having a copy of the Army’s Counter Insurgency Field Manual handy. However, without question, many of their tactics run directly counter to these theories. The use of the Death Star on Alderan, a planet that provided almost no military support to the Rebel Alliance, served to move popular support against the empire. Patrick Barry (2009) gives this as evidence the multi planet fleet brought to bear against Death Star 2 in Episode VI. The empire attempts to pursue counter intelligence operations against the rebels, even going so far as to allow the Millennium Falcon to escape their control and follow it back to the rebel base on Yavin IV. In Episode V, their use of surveillance drones provides them with the location of the rebel base on the planet Hoth. Their strike on that base holds up as the empire’s greatest success in their campaign against the Rebel Alliance, with no civilian causalities, considerable damage to the rebellion in terms of troops and resources. But that holds up as their only success, and considerable reform is needed in the empire’s counter insurgency tactics.

First and foremost, no more Death Stars. Both Death Stars 1 and 2 were unsuccessful as military weapons, given their only depicted uses were on an non-military target (Alderan) and in defense of both rebel attacks. While its “shock and awe” factor was substantial, the empire was building a weapon to fight a large scale war with a more powerful enemy. The absolute destruction of a planet would only energize the rebellion’s supporters. The US has applied this principle, in trying to limit collateral damage to avoid spreading insurgency. The Counter Insurgency field manual lays this out under the heading “Use the Appropriate Level of Force” and “Sometimes the more force is used, the less effective it is.” The summary section (“Counterinsurgency Field Manual”) provides an easy to understand list of so called “best practices” in fighting an insurgency and tactics to avoid so as not to empower the insurgent groups.

But what if this argument is all for naught? For the remainder of the films, we observe mostly conventional military tactics employed by the rebels against the empire. Barry (2009) argues that given the lack of “natural environment” in space based warfare the Rebellion lacked one of the biggest advantages of an insurgency. Barry also argues that the rebellion leveraged considerable political might against the empire, as evidenced by the increased diversity of the rebel forces upon attacking Death Star 2. (Barry, 2009) Perhaps the even more leading criticisms put forth is the “It’s just a movie”. The Economist argues that Americans hate insurgency as a topic of film, especially with insurgents as the heroes. If Star Wars was made in a country with a long history of insurgency, the argument for its basis would be stronger, but instead it’s argued that George Lucas just set out to making an entertaining film. This author argues that whether the intent of the movie to this standard or not, it makes for an interesting thought exercise regardless.

In the scope of the original trilogy, it would be difficult at best to explore all the aspects of a conventional insurgency. There is even question to whether the general public could have grasped this concept at the time. Some of the films success must be due to the clear cut differences between good and evil, which the American public had not see in the Vietnam years. (Economist, 2009) Star Wars has inspired countless official and unofficial additions to the universe, covering all manner of topics. As previously stated, the popularity of this series serves only to broaden the base to draw from, making for interesting academic debate. Had the empire pursued more aggressive counter insurgency strategy would they have seen the defeat they did at the end of Episode VI? At that point it can be argued the rebellion had entered the third phase of a Maoist insurgency, having survived and pursued a path of asymmetrical warfare against the empire, they marshaled enough resources to launch a conventional military assault against the nexus of Imperial power, finally toppling the empire and installing themselves as the new power. Regardless of opinion on the matter, any film that entertains the way that Star Wars does, and inspires this kind of debate, gets two thumbs up.


About adamphaley

Student of Political Science, especially security and insurgency.
This entry was posted in COIN, Film, Political Science, Star Wars. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s