The Force is strong with this one
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.