“Tell all the truth but tell it slant.”: A SSB Review

By Capt Olivia A. Garard

I think the herculean effort by Max Brooks et al. in Strategy Strikes Back to decompose the Star Wars universe tactically, operationally, and strategically is a unique and commendable application of current concepts to a fictional universe. Filtering how we think about war and conflict within a robust, yet imaginary, universe allows us to see the same thing but through a different perspective. It’s as Emily Dickinson wrote, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” Fiction gives us just such an avenue to study truthfully, yet canted and morphed by the logic of an alternate world. Like a good tactical decision game (TDG) it probes the intellect beyond which one might think is possible or probable, exposing creativity and training coup d’œils.  

For instance, BJ Armstrong’s “The Right Fleet: Starships for Strategic Purpose” considers how force design and architecture determines, to some extent, the kinds of operations on which a force, like the Imperial fleet, can embark. The adage, if all you have is a hammer everything you see is a nail, is an extreme instantiation of just this principle. Armstrong notes that most involved with force design focus on answering the question, “what type of force is needed to seize the initiative and dominate the enemy.”[1] This is mission focused, as it should be. However, Armstrong balances that question with another, what are the implications of “operations and responsibilities in peace” for force design and architecture.[2]

The nuance is critical to grasp. As we expect and seek to operate in the gray zone – or below the level of armed conflict, or whatever buzzword we’re currently using to describe skirmishes and shuffling that is not open, conventional (and/or nuclear) conflict between great powers – options are different from what they would be in easily identifiable and definable war. The Imperial fleet, according to Armstrong, failed to appreciate just this nuance. The Imperial fleet didn’t understand its responsibilities in peace – “[its] constabulary duties” – and, consequently, “created an improper architecture [that] resulted in vital gaps in capability.”[3] It is important to note that responsibilities in peace is a factor of particular naval character, à la Mahan. Naval operations uniquely scale from tactical to political (and diplomatic and economic). Recently, counter-insurgency has brought this scaling to fore for land operations, but its history is distinctly naval.

As the Marine Corps interrogates itself and its purpose again, it is worth remembering these two questions: what is the force design and architecture that is needed to defeat the enemy and how does that correspond to actions and responsibilities in peace? Though these questions may seem mutually exclusive, they need not be.[4] In another recent work by Armstrong, Small Boast and Daring Men: Maritime Raiding, Irregular Warfare, and the Early American Navy (which I highly recommend all Marines read) Armstrong underscores the challenge faced creating the force design that was necessary to embark upon guerre de razzia, a third form of naval war beyond guerre de course and guerre d’escadre.[5] He writes:

When navies create fleets based on their aspirational pursuit of glorious and decisive blue-water engagements, small ships fall aside as financial limitations make them appear superfluous. This combined with the political debates over the size, funding, and roles of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps during the era [the Age of the Sail] resulted in a lack of formal procurement policy that would support the small vessels needed for irregular success.[6]

What Armstrong highlights here, and what he noted with the Imperial fleet, is how conceptual gaps correspond to actual gaps. A full understanding of the kinds of wars on which are to embark, to paraphrase Clausewitz, balanced by responsibilities in times of peace, is crucial to ensure that the organizational structure is actually established to support. It resonates, too, as the Marine Corps reflects on what its own right force design should be given guidance from the National Defense Strategy and the reorientation towards great power conflict.

Armstrong’s article was insightful and clever as were the other chapters within Strategy Strikes Back. And like the debates over the proper order to watch the Star Wars series, given that each chapter is standalone, one can start in the middle before reading the beginning, or pick and choose as one pleases.

[1] BJ Armstrong, “The Right Fleet: Starships for Strategic Purpose,” Strategy Strikes Back: How Star Wars Explains Modern Military Conflict, ed. Max Brooks, John Amble, ML Cavanaugh, and Jaym Gates, (Potomac Books of the University of Nebraska Press: 2018), 81.

[2] Ibid., 82.

[3] Ibid., 86.

[4] See, LtCol Scott Cuomo, Capt Olivia Garard, Maj Jeff Cummings, and LtCol Noah Spataro, “Not Yet Openly at War, But Still Mostly as Peace: Exploit the opportunity to become the 21st century force that our Nation needs,” Marine Corps Gazette, February 2019, Web Edition.

[5] BJ Armstrong, Small Boats and Daring Men: Maritime Raiding, Irregular Warfare, and the Early American Navy, (Norman, University of Oklahoma Press: 2019), 13.

[6] Ibid., 194.

  1. Excellent post, Olivia! I particularly love the tie of exploring fiction, or
    fictional intelligence (FICINT) as August Cole likes to say, to Emily
    Dickinson’s quote. As you appropriately note, our service is seemingly in the midst of a modern-day interwar period, where we are sorting through who we’ve been and who we want to be in the future – all emphasized by strategic guidance. The recent rash of articles on the identity and purpose of the Marine Corps certainly substantiate these
    concerns. Almost always, we tend to point to force design and budget lines as the crux of issue. In the words of Jerry Maguire, “show me the money!” Initial “interrogations,” as you call it, do not appear to reveal a sensible force design and structure to adequately meet the needs of the future operating environment and our strategic guidance. …it is almost as if we’ve heard that before circa Sept 2016 in a key service document… Time to get busy!