Military history has long demonstrated that militaries are often matched against a known threat, built up and trained accordingly on the part of an organized, political entity, such as a nation or nation-state. When it comes to military science fiction, the same can be said for a number of works (even if a bit tangentially), and something struck me the other day as I was watching Star Wars: Return of the Jedi and Avatar over the course of the afternoon and evening: both contained excellent examples of where militaries or armed forces fail spectacularly.

Taking the two films with a grain of salt — they are movies, after all — they are actually two very good examples of where militaries fail because they have prepared for precisely the wrong contingencies: insurgency-based warfare.


Stand by for a bit of a history lesson, to put this into context.

In 2003, when the United States and coalition forces invaded Iraq, military leaders prepared for a maneuver style engagement in the desert, where Saddam Hussein’s forces would be taken apart and without a military to defend the government, ensure that an orderly transition of power would take place. As we’ve now seen, that simply didn’t happen, for the most part. Hussein’s military was defeated in the few times that they decided to take on U.S. combat troops, but for the most part, the major battles that were expected never happened as soldiers melted into their cities and communities and returned to their lives. With the government toppled, a very different style of warfare emerged, one that the U.S. and its allies were woefully unprepared to fight: an insurgency.

Rewind the clock thirty years, and the United States has come out of the Vietnam War: The military experience in the Asian jungles did not go over well for the military, and at the end of the war, the U.S. Army decided that they would never again fight an insurgency based warfare: it was too costly, in money, manpower and time. All training on counterinsurgency tactics and theory was destroyed, and until the 2003 invasion of Iraq, there was no counterinsurgency doctrine in place, just random bits and pieces from minor conflicts, such as Panama, that the special forces used.

Now, fast forward to 2008: coalition forces registered the highest levels of violence against their soldiers: the US has begun to roll out what has become known as a troop surge in Iraq. More than just more manpower on the ground, the surge was coupled with a new counterinsurgency manual that had been written up by General David Petraeus and other experts based on the recent experiences of the military in the country. The result was a drop in casualties and violence as new tactics and trainings took effect. The tactics took US troops out of major garrisons and into the communities – they essentially lived amongst the people that they were trying to protect and fight against, and worked on building community relations with the Iraqi people. Using such tactics, they were able to recognize who was out of place, who was an enemy combatant, and could effectively separate people accordingly. Thus far, it’s worked. US and Coalition forces were able to shift to meet their combatants, and as a result, they found far better results on the ground (for both sides).

So, what does this have to do with two space opera films?

As a member of the 501st Legion (I particularly like Storm Trooper armor), I cringe every time a trooper is downed by a small Ewok. For years, this bothered me: a military force that spans a galaxy, equipped with the technology to destroy planets, and they’ve overcome by a bunch of teddy bears? It didn’t make sense.

Watching this time, however, a couple of key points dawned on me, and that parallels exist between real life and fantasy stories. The first is that while technology is often important, it’s not necessarily a deciding factor in a battle, because of other factors. While the storm troopers were armed with armor, guns, heavy and mobile weapons, they were defeated. The exact same thing holds true in Avatar, where we see the Na’vi take on a technologically superior RDA security forces. Secondly, the Ewoks and Na’vi seem to have been an underestimated species – an indigenous race that had a lot of motivation (and, er…alien-power) to take on the Imperial military.

As we’ve seen in combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan, technology doesn’t always help. US and allied soldiers armed with the finest weapons and equipment that a first-world nation can buy, and were essentially ground to a halt by middle eastern fighters without comparable infrastructure, military expertise and equipment. Why? Because combatants found ways to undermine the efficiency of the technology deployed against them. They used older weapons, took on tactics that specifically targeted civilians and didn’t always face US forces where they didn’t have an advantage, and were successful at it until coalition forces began to adapt.

Similarly, we see the Ewoks and Na’vi as fairly primitive: and they’re assumed as such by the film’s antagonists. Presumably, the Empire paid little attention to the Ewoks, and the Pandoran natives were similarly dismissed as inconsequential because they lived in trees, and the tactics arrayed against them were put in to place accordingly. Think the Ewoks are cute and cuddly? Sure, until you realize that they live in trees, have a small stature and are able to throw spears, rocks and arrows in your direction. Monkeys here at home are tough animals because of their environment: imagine if they could do the same, and could coordinate their attacks.

However, when the gloves come off, it’s clear that this inattention caused major problems for both RDA and the Empire when it came to violence, for one simple reason: their armed forces weren’t prepared or trained to take on an insurgency-style war, but had been geared towards a different style of war: urban areas and open battlefields, where large numbers and group tactics could overtake weaker resistance movements. I’ve often thought that the Empire shifted gears after the fall of the Republic – they didn’t need to fight all the time – their soldiers were partially for show, mainly for security.

There’s an easier case to be made here for the Empire (slightly less so for what we see in Avatar – I’m writing some of that up to a number of years of experience). At points, we see that the Empire is a fairly disciplined military – they’re able to take down a senator’s ship and flush some rebels out of Tattooine and Hoth. When watching the Endor battle once again, it’s clear that there was a key point when the Empire lost control of the battle, right as it started: they scattered at the first attack, diving into the bushes and completely loosing unit cohesion: a death sentence for any armed force. Storm Trooper armor, as I can attest to, is not necessarily the most comfortable thing to wear, nor it is really easy to see out of or move around in. Taken up in a formation, where troopers can protect one another, a large number of them would be very difficult to take down. But, as we see on Endor, small groups or singular troopers are easily taken down by their enemies.

We see the same thing happen on Pandora: once the RDA forces scatter, such as when they’re charged by large, indigenous life forms controlled or influenced by the planet, they are going to have problems, especially when these life forms have carbon fiber bones, are several feet taller than you and have the ability to take people out despite their armor and weapons. (It also seems to help when you have some of the technology on your side, but this might not necessarily be the deciding point – clearly, the Na’vi were able to cause major problems before Jake Sully’s defection.)

The secondary element here is that the Empire and RDA were coming up against native residents that had plenty of reasons to dislike them and motivation enough to take their dislike and turn it into practical action. We see both the Ewoks and Na’vi use technologies familiar to themselves against their enemies: bows and arrows, rocks, trees, native life-forms, etc, to great effect.

In addition to their own technologies, they fought on territory that was utterly familiar to themselves, but unfamiliar to those that they were going up against. The same held very true for US forces in the Middle East, where cultural barriers, terrain and customs caused a number of problems. On Endor, when the Imperial forces scattered, they did so in a place that they didn’t know how to fight effectively in, and as a result, they were slaughtered.

Between Avatar and Return of the Jedi, there’s a divergence in resource management. The RDA soldiers clearly were geared far better towards Pandora, and seemed to do okay against the Na’vi. The Imperials, despite Emperor Palpatine’s believe that he was deploying a legion of his best troopers, clearly didn’t live up to expectations, because they were routed. This goes back to some of the training and equipment issues, but it also goes to show, your best resources for one type of mission might not actually be your best for another.

Therein lies a key lesson: change and adaptation are key elements on the battlefield, something that the RDA forces did slowly, and something that the Imperials simply didn’t do. Case in point: white armor might do well in a large group in urban settings, but not in a forest. More importantly, tactics against the native life forms simply didn’t do well. The Imperials scattered and fought in small groups against aliens that they had a hard time seeing, and who could surround them easily. The Na’vi could attack from the air and ground. Should either have realized that changing their tactics to better meet their enemy, rather than expecting that their enemies would conform to their fighting style, both movies could have played out in their favor. The United States could have understood similar lessons and been able to shift their tactics far sooner, which would have saved numerous lives on both sides of the line.

So, should you be thinking about starting up a major military operation against an alien, indigenous life form, there are two lessons here to be learned:

  1. Pay attention to your enemy, and don’t underestimate them simply based on local customs and their technological level. They’re likely still very determined, and very able to kill you.
  2. Understand how and where to change up your tactics; don’t expect that your enemy will fight to your level. This doesn’t mean give up your strengths to combat them on their level, but it does mean figuring out where your strengths lie when coming into contact with a different style.
  3. Don’t use white armor in a jungle setting. RDA understood this, the Empire didn’t.

Filed under: Movies

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