Strategy Strikes Back: A Review

By Maj Scott Humr

In Strategy Strikes Back: How Star Wars Explains Modern Military Strategy (SSB), a parade of authors use the Star Wars series of films for helping to interpret modern military strategy. While Star Wars provides a simplification that can be easy to understand, it leaves out many aspects that would confront the modern military strategist.

All models of complex systems are flawed but are still useful, someone has quipped. Modeling helps identify the most important aspects of a complex system and their interactions. The use of Star Wars throughout SSB could at most only provides a 1 to 2-dimensional view of the complexities of strategies taken. Modern military strategists have the unenviable task of making sense of all actors and their interactions in current multi-domain warfare. The use of Star Wars in SSB was indeed a simplification of the complexities faced/used by modern military strategists. The Star Wars universe has to simplify complexity down to a range of narrow options either side could take, otherwise, you would likely lose an audience quickly (especially my kids!). I enjoyed how some authors in SSB astutely pointed out the monolithic approach the Empire could take toward defeating the Rebels and the close kinship US strategy might have with the Empire in some instances (e.g. Star Destroyers compared to Navy carriers). The lessons drawn from SSB are still important for us to think about as we think about future operating environments.

We have to admit we can all suffer from the tyranny of knowledge. Interestingly, the subtitle of SSB implies there is a direction of explanation (i.e. Star Wars explains modern mil-strat). Let’s be honest, George Lucas and other cinematographers of Star Wars are equally informed by their own knowledge of military history, which colors their portrayal of military conflict through Star Wars. Hence, Star Wars can look a lot like other military operations (circular). Helpful? Perhaps. Entertaining to contemplate? Yes. Even in a galaxy far, far away Thucydides honor, fear, and national interest still seem to apply.

The vignettes that demonstrated clear connections to current and future military strategies were more instructive. The essays that used creative interpretations for dialogue not spoken in the movies were enjoyable to contemplate. Many different dialogues could have taken place, but in the end, it helped open up different possibilities for thinking through the issues.

The book did the job of broadening some of my own perspectives on military technologies and strategy. My mind immediately went into thinking about how Star Wars portrays artificial intelligence, human-machine teaming, and swarming technologies and how the US military might follow a similar or different approach. A sequel to SSB could easily spend 300 pages on those alone. Nevertheless, SSB helped elucidate the challenges with technologies and faulty approaches to a centralization of control (e.g. Order 66-rogue malware, droids being controlled by a mother ship-cloud computing, Darth Vader’s leadership style-toxic leadership, etc.).

I would recommend the book with confidence to all ranks to help expand one’s thinking about problems. Overall, the benefit of Star Wars is the deep fan base, which lends itself to the use of many idioms that transcend militaries and cultures—a communication and leadership tool par excellence.

Comments
  1. Scott, spot on. I posted on an earlier review that the book loses its traction for me the deeper into the minutia of Star Wars trivia it ventures, but that is not the book’s fault, its mine. The title of the book tells you where it will go, and I was probably unprepared to go there.

    I feel like any writer who takes on a book like this has somewhat of an easy path to illustrate the United States’ shortfalls in the strategic realm. These movies were written and pieced together in the shadows of two horribly conducted wars on a strategic/political level—Vietnam and OIF/OEF. The influence, even if not consciously impacting, certainly seeped into the screenplays.

    Multiple authors have tackled the American strategic paradigm through the advent of these wars, and most reach the not so alarming conclusion: there may have been more thought to the strategic course Vader took than that of our political / military structure during the aforementioned conflicts and wars—and both end up losing(ish) in the end… Even Desert Storm when viewed through something other than a catastrophic success lens and properly deconstructed shows generals and politicians struggling to understand strategic concepts outlined in SSB. Tom Ricks does well bringing this out in his book, The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today.

    Fun read that is easy to get through once you do some Wikipedia searches on who was who!