The Force is strong with this one

by on 2013-02-13 in Duck- 4 Comments

Episode I: Spencer Ackerman over at  Danger Room posts this analysis of the Battle of Hoth.

Episode II: 90 e-mails and twelve hours later, this symposium goes up on the Danger Room website including a contribution by our own Dan Nexon. Unfortunately, not all of us involved in the furious e-mail thread made the cut or the deadline, so not all of our replies were posted. Which brings us to:

Episode III: my piece, sadly not included in the Danger Room symposium. Below the fold.

Everybody — including, I suspect, the official Imperial histories — acknowledges that Admiral Ozzel’s decision to take the Imperial fleet out of hyperspace too close to the planet contributed to the failure of the Hoth operation (and I am sure that the official histories also commend Vader for his quick and decisive action in Force-choking the life out of him once the problem came to light). But Ozzel’s mistake was overdetermined by a bigger problem endemic to the organization of the Empire: the mismatch between the goals that the military command structure thought it was pursuing, and the goals that the true goals of the Empire (the Sith) were pursuing. Dan properly claims that the actual Sith goals involved the elimination of the Jedi order once and for all, through extermination of Force-sensitives or through their corruption and conversion to the Dark Side, and as far as we know these goals were not shared with anyone outside of the most inner circle of Imperial rule. Even Tarkin, who seems to know more about Vader’s past than most other high-ranking Imperial Navy officers (as he says to Vader in Episode IV, “you, my friend, are all that’s left of their religion,” acknowledging that Vader was once a Jedi), doesn’t seem cognizant of the deeper Sith plan to decisively shift the balance of the Force, and regards Vader’s abilities as military assets rather than as pieces of a much grander design. The Imperial Navy and Army seem to think that their goal is to destroy the Rebel Alliance and consolidate the Emperor’s rule, unaware that this is, for Sidious and Vader, merely a means to an end.

This dichotomy, combined with the climate of fear engendered by the fact that high-ranking Imperial officers were likely to be killed for operational and tactical failures, produces a situation in which command decisions are likely to be both cautious and at variance with the actual goals of the political elite. Ozzel, thinking that the goal of hunting down the rebels was to eliminate them all and crush the rebellion, chooses the tactically wise move by abruptly appearing in the skies over Echo Base, hoping that the element of surprise would keep the rebels bottled up long enough to allow him to perhaps bombard the base from orbit and reduce it to rubble. We don’t know precisely what his next move was going to be after coming out of hyperspace, because he did not live long enough to give those orders, but we can bet that it wasn’t a ground assault designed to flush the rebels out of the base and into the waiting arms of the Imperial fleet; it was Vader, not Ozzel, who directed Veers to be ready for a ground assault. Perhaps Ozzel was planning to use TIE fighters and bombers to attack the base, as Ackerman suggests. But in any case, the fact that Ozzel misunderstood the strategic objectives Vader was pursuing and therefore made a decision that frustrated those objectives is, in a way, not his fault — how would have have known any better? Sidious and Vader don’t exactly trumpet the fact that they’re Sith bent on revenge against the Jedi and the elimination of the Jedi order (and at an even deeper level of the long game, Vader doesn’t exactly trumpet that fact that the capture of the last known Force-sensitive in the galaxy would allow him to perhaps train an apprentice of his own — who happens to be Padme Amidala’s son — with the eventual goal of overthrowing his master Darth Sidious). Certainly no one in the military command structure seems to be knowingly pursuing that goal. Certainly not Ozzel.

Indeed, by the time of the Battle of Endor, Sidious has modified his dealings with the military such that he is giving direct tactical orders to Admiral Piett. The fact that Sidious doesn’t explain his grander design to Piett is unimportant, because the change in how commands are being issued (and how little flexibility the officers have in executing those commands) means that, at the very least, the military is now acting in accord with the Sith plan instead of the purely military one. The Battle of Endor is not designed to eliminate the Rebel Alliance; it is designed to force Luke Skywalker to despair and to turn to the Dark Side, completing the Sith elimination of the Jedi once and for all. If Ozzel had been in command, or if Piett had not been given such explicit tactical instructions, we might instead have had a complex firefight between capital ships that would have made it impossible for the Death Star to use its superlaser to support the Imperial forces — and again, the operational superlaser was part of plan to make Luke despair, not to crush the rebellion. Thus it appears that Vader and especially Sidious learned the real lesson of the Battle of Hoth: if you are planning to keep your military command in the dark about your true objectives, but you still want to use the military in support of those objectives, you need to put in place compliant officers and give them extremely specific orders. Piett fits that bill better than Ozzel did, and Sidious’ orders to Piett are at the level of specificity that Vader would have had to give Ozzel in order for Hoth to have been a Sith success. In the event, however, the conflict between Sith and Imperial goals at Hoth allowed the rebels to escape by exploiting the holes in the Imperial assault, and if the new command arrangement at Endor led to failure, it wasn’t because of a conflict of goals as much as it was because of a few indomitable Ewoks and Anakin’s redemptive concern for his son’s life.

Never forget that Star Wars is high fantasy, not science fiction. As in Tolkien, the important stuff in Star Wars is theological and metaphysical; the rest is eye candy.

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  • MAS

    Sorry if this has nothing to do with your actual post, which was quite good. Hadn’t really thought about that before and it does make Sidious and Vader look a bit better.

    I have heard you point out that Star Wars is High Fantasy as opposed to Science Fiction before. Can you give us a definition of the difference? If High Fantasy is theological/metaphysical, then what is Science Fiction? I get the LOTR seems to be about battles between good and evil and the choices men make in such stark situations. What sets Science Fiction apart? And if you have time, where would you put A Song of Ice and Fire? While it doesn’t seem like science fiction (my own distinction has usually revolved around an admittedly facile space/medieval Europe distinction), not does it really dwell in the theological or metaphysical. It seems much more about politics in a similar way to Battlestar Galactica or Firefly (and many others) but with much different optics.

    Anyways, thanks for the post. Enjoyed it immensely!

  • Dan Nexon

    Without getting caught up in definitional issues (maybe later), one of the sources of success of Song and Ice and Fire is that it takes a high-fantasy setting and (pastiche) high-fantasy elements but deliberately criticizes the moral universe usually associated with the genre.

    Thus Martin’s relentless attention to class and gender oppression, as well as the general brutality one might expect in a more “realistic” quasi-medieval setting. BSG also confronts space-opera cliches and juxtaposes elements of realism not usually seen in television space opera with non-naturalistic theological elements. Note that DS9 was something of a dry run for this kind of synthesis.

  • PTJ

    I would agree with Dan here and say that Song of Ice and Fire is, like the Harry Potter series, kind of a genre pastiche. Science Fiction for me means that there is some kind of plausible developmental trajectory between our world and the fictional world depicted, such that it’s relatively easy to use the science-fictional world as a counterfactual exploration that can shed light on our world. There might be thematic correspondences between our world and a Fantasy world, but the element of plausibility is suspended because we’re not planning to develop into Middle-Earth or whatever. Star Wars is set “a long time ago in a galaxy far far away”; Star Trek is set in our — the — 23rd and 24th centuries. And that for me makes all the difference.

    HP and SoIaF are genre pastiches because despite having the main marker of not-plausible — magic — it’s more or less disenchanted (in the Weberian sense) magic, a kind of super-technology (in HP there are even textbooks for people learning how to do it) magic. And there’s all this emphasis on recognizable politics, which makes the whole seem more plausible, instead of the more traditional Tolkien/Lucas/mythic saga feel in which weird shit happens and the poor mortals get tossed around on the seas of Fate and Destiny and the like. Again, nothing is pure, so while there are certainly political elements in Star Wars and Tolkien, they are not the point of the exercise, and there are certainly traditional high-fantasy elements in HP and SoIaF. Hence: pastiche. Genre definition only makes sense to me as an ideal-type, not as a rigid classification.

    One of these days I am just going to buckle down and write the essay on that I have been planning for years. But it will use Stephen R. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant series, because Donaldson is pretty meticulous in holding the balance between genres as the series unfolds. Once he finally — finally! — releases the last book of the Last Chronicles, it might be time for me to write that. Or, come to think of it, another pop-literary site that would make for an excellent exploration is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Damn, that’s it — now I know how to fulfill one of my life goals and get listed in Slayage, the Online Encyclopedia of Buffy Studies!