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Military SF: Fighting a Losing Battle

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.
About Andrew Liptak (180 Articles)
Andrew Liptak is a freelance writer and historian from Vermont. He is a 2014 graduate of the Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop, and has written for such places as Armchair General, io9, Kirkus Reviews, Lightspeed Magazine, and others. His first book, War Stories: New Military Science Fiction is now out from Apex Publications, and his next, The Future Machine: The Writers, Editors and Readers who Build Science Fiction is forthcoming from Jurassic London in 2015. He can be found over at and at @AndrewLiptak on Twitter.

27 Comments on Military SF: Fighting a Losing Battle

  1. Well if they are not going to use anything that appears in the visual dictionaries yes they loose, go tell that to George 😉

  2. Yessss, it was *incredibly* realistic, that Return of the Jedi. I mean, not only did those Ewoks make total evolutionary sense they also employed really advanced military tactics.

  3. I note that in TESB, the Rebels basically anticipate Ewok strategy by tripping the Imperial Walkers with cables.  And in ANH, the strategy for destroying the Death Star depends on the station’s being designed to repel a “direct, large-scale assault,” rather than small one-man fighters.  So this is certainly a theme of the original trilogy.  (Also, I do recall George Lucas stating publicly, early in the [second] Iraq War, that the parallels between what we were doing in Iraq and what we’d been doing in Vietnam were “unbelievable.”)

  4. @Jeff – that’s why we’re taking this with a bit of a grain of salt. 🙂


    However, advance tactics don’t necessarily need to be used against advanced technology. An example our of Iraq would be a small kid with spray paint to go up against a combat robot. 

  5. The salient points about Vietnam and Afghanistan (and… fill in more names) are that 1) the native people were/are defending their homes against invaders and 2) the invaders do not use technology and tactics appropriate to the terrain, climate and culture.  The first applies to SW and Avatar but not the latter.  There is no way, as Jeff pointed out, that stones can bring down nuclear shuttles — or that an untrained kid, eyes shut, can guide a missile down a narrow chute.  For that, you have to invoke the gobbledygookiness of mystical forces.

    As for the SW universe and its frankly horrific philosophy:

    P. S. And if you think white shellack uniforms were dumb, try the red coats of the British army through most of that Empire’s history.

  6. I would point out that the comander of the avatar lot was also a complete retard… why on earth do you need to land a ground force to ‘protect’ an airstrike and what did he have against orbital bombardment?

    At least in Jedi there was a reason for the base to exist, and as it was in the arse end of nowhere on a planet of ‘primitives’ who weren’t hostile I can get that the few forces stationed on guard duty (all they had to do was guard a smallish compound) there got complacement and fell to peices under assault, I just can’t help but feel that maybe the fact they were getting attacked by overgrown teddy bears might have also freaked them out a bit… nevermind they were more than likely top of their food chain and living in fairly organised socities.


  7. William O'Brien // February 28, 2011 at 6:57 pm //


    I think I’m following your points and can comment without getting into the weeds too much with dates and places.

    One thing that I think is worth addressing is that, more often than not, the Imperial / “Evil” forces in military SF are engaged in a war of annihilation.  In other words, limited warfare is rarely a consideration or limitation. Yes, there’s the occasional capture of an objective as a “nice to have” goal, but at the end of the day total destruction is a viable option.

    So that’s one consideration.  Another is that the Rebels / “insurgents” are frequently the heroes. Given the volume of military SF writers residing in the US, this isn’t that hard to understand.  The American spirit of revolution is an easy theme to sell.

    Given these points, counterinsurgency in military SF is sometimes present, but the stories are rarely told from that perspective. What little we do encounter supports the most effective method for dealing with insurgencies… kill them all! Rebels operating out of Alderaan? No problem! Blow the planet up! Problem solved!

    Maybe what makes the analogy to current military affairs hardest to digest properly is the need to reclassify the Empire as “good” and the Rebels as “evil”. 

    As far as a recommendation for military SF that addresses the challenges and complications of counterinsurgency from a “hero” perspective is possibly the Starfist series, but it’s definitely an area in which a gap exists.

  8. There is a fantastic scene in the third book of the Wheel of Time, The Dragon Reborn, that I think supports the core of what you are saying.

    Mat Cauthon goads Galad Damodred and Gawyn Trakand into dueling with him (for money, of course).  Both are being trained in sword fighting by the Wardens and feel that the two of them against him, a ‘farmer with a staff’ would be unfair.  They think that the two of them would easily overwhelm him, might even hurt him, so at first, they refuse.

    Their instructor orders them to do it (and covers the wager).  They’re attitudes change quickly as Mat beats the hell out of them and wins the duel.  Their instructor reminds them of a simple fact (paraphrasing):

    A farmer defending his/her land will fight harder, stronger, longer than someone trying to take it from them – they have more invested, more to lose

    If you don’t account for that, you won’t win.


  9. antares // March 1, 2011 at 1:43 am //

    David slays Goliath.  Makes good theater, I guess, but history says Goliath usually wins.  If Goliath has discipline and commitment.

    In the Indian Wars, the Indians played David against the Goliath of the U.S. Army.  The Indians won some battles — for example, Little Big Horn — but they lost the wars.  For lack of courage?  No.  For lack of discipline.  The Army marched in winter.  The Indians did not.  But, hey, the Indians were fighting on their home turf.  Didn’t help.

    In the Punic Wars, the Romans exterminated the Carthiginians.  We know the Carthiginians existed because the Romans bragged about beating them.  And the Romans beat them without superior weaponry.  They just had better discipline and more commitment.

    I prefer to read them as know for my insights into military strategy.  But you keep watching Lucas’s and Cameron’s movies for yours.  Good luck with that.

  10. On the one hand, this was kind of fun to read and play around with.

    On the other – utterly ridiculous, as the “military tactics”  on display in these movies have nothing to do with military tactics and everything to do with making cool video.

    Hoth:  absolutely no reason whatsoever to land ground forces.  The stated objective is to wipe out the rebel alliance.  The alliance either never had or lost whatever heavy ships they had protecting the planet, likewise planetary defenses.  Bomb from orbit, interdict the “air space”, send down droids to inspect afterwards.

    Ewoks.  Slightly more problematic as the Empire needs the shield generators on the planet (But why?  why not around a lifeless moon.  Because then we wouldn’t have the battle with the Ewoks.)

    So far as we can tell from the movie, the Empire built their base and largely ignored the Ewoks, who largely ignored the Empire.  It was only the intervention of the Rebels that drew them in.  And yes, a sudden native uprising would tend to take a caretaker force by surprise – temporarily.

    Given the supposed ruthlessness of the Empire, the more likely outcome would be:  lose the ground forces.  Defoiliate the planet and reestablish the base.  End of issue.  (No story either).

    (If the Empire can build two Death Stars, it can build five or ten or twelve thousand.  If it is willing to destroy an entire world, it’s willing to destroy twelve thousand.)

    Avatar I won’t even bother considering. At the beginning of the movie the Na’vi spears and arrows bounce off the armor of the walkers.  Later on, when the Na’vi forces need to be effective against high tech, the same weapons can suddenly breech the armor. 

    Not to mention the propensity for mechanized forces in SF films (belonging to the bad guys) always bunch their forces up in ridiculous manners (for the camera), allowing one lucky shot (hey, fog of war, unbelievable coincidence does happen:  a British Sgt was able to take out several Tiger tanks with a PIAT by having the balls to get close enough AND bouncing the round off a road surface so that it would penetrate the only armor on the tank that it stood any chance of penetrating) to turn into a force devestator.  (Shades of the Roger Young disaster in yet another terrible SF movie depiction of military tactics.)

    There aren’t too many planetary issues that can’t be solved by dusting the entire planet, and in a galaxy spanning empire, losing a few out of millions in order to set examples and ‘keep the peace’, there’s nothing stopping you from doing it.  Ground pounders in the empire would be a way-underutilized asset.




  11. This reminds me of something I read a long time ago (cant remember exactly where)…about how the battle of Endor would have really went down.

    Palpatine, Vader, and Luke are in the throne room of the DS2.

    Palpatine: I sense a disturbance in the Force.

    Luke: Like thousands of exploding teddy bears…

    Vader: Exactly!

    Luke: Why are the stormtroopers slaughtering teddy bears?

    Palpatine: BBQ?



    (ok, ok I added the BBQ line…)

  12. @Athena – Some very good points here, and it’s certainly been seen throughout history – adaptation is generally key, or at the very least, an understanding of who you’re fighting. Typically, it helps when the military is similarly armed and organized. 


    Still, the red uniforms? High technology at the time – uniformity in training and armaments helped militaries immensely, while uniforms helped to provide a unit cohesion that hadn’t been seen before when first introduced. It’s not a bad idea – they weren’t aiming to not be seen – but it didn’t work in *this* instance.


    @Andy W – Actually, it’s not a bad move on his bit – they didn’t send soldiers into harm’s way (ie, where the bombs were falling), but outside, where they were hoping to contain the Na’vi and prevent them from attacking from below. In similar situations, we see soldiers under planes all the time – they either need to secure the ground below from weapons and personnel that can directly affect their air superiority. 


    @Will – I feel like we’re back in class again. 🙂 


    There’s an element to which I’m taking this with a grain of salt. War doesn’t have to conform to what people will buy as a book does, so there’s a lot of simplification here. 


    I don’t see the Empire as a force for good in the movies – they’ve got bad stuff going on. BUT, in a realistic world, I’d expect to see them act as a rational military power that works to achieve some certain goals – preservation of their own forces, and preventing their own assets from falling into enemy hands. There might be some minor changes due to morality and ethics on the part of the Empire, but each side has their own advocates and detractors. In this world, it shouldn’t be as clear cut as it is – and maybe any particular film that came out now would have the same ambiguities. (Although Avatar was pretty cut and dry at points)


    @Patrick – That’s not a new idea to military history, at all. Military theorists have long said that defensive warfare is typically a stronger one, on a tactical and strategic level. Some authors recently, such as Victor Davis Hanson, have applied that to a societal level as well – democratic and free societies typically fight better. I have my own issues with Hanson, but there’s some good ideas there. 


    However, it doesn’t equate victory: the Romans were crushed by the Cartheginians (quite literally), and I’m sure that there are a lot of other examples. War is complicated, and there’s never a single factor that leads to victory consistantly. 


    @Antares – Well, yeah, this is theater, but parallels can be drawn to certain conclusions. As a military historian, I can also say that it’s always best to go to the original source. 


    @Steve – Yep, it’s theater, and a fun exercise to look at. Star Wars / Avatar / otherfilmnamehere aren’t going to be detailed examinations into how tactics should work in X situation – that’s not why people go to see films. It’s entertainment, but that doesn’t mean that parallels can’t be drawn to certain things. Personally, I’d love to see a military SF book or film that really pays attention to tactics. There’s not a whole lot out there. 


    @TW – Hah! 

  13. First:  I opened up a discussion thread on this topic over on the community site here


    The “red coats” wore the uniforms they wore for unit recognition purposes.  Those uniforms came out of an era of large standing armies fighting set-piece battles and when you’re standing on a field amidst a cloud of gun smoke, it’s very important to be able to see the affiliation of the ‘shapes’ moving around out there.

    Commanders often observed battels from horses, atop elevations adjacent to the battlefield, communicating with flags, runners and sound-making devices.  Again, very important to be able to tell which block of men was yours and which the enemy’s.  (Wellington at Waterloo was observing French lines that were a minimum of about a mile away at the start of hostilities.  At most he had a spyglass)

    Third – Pournelle and Drake are pretty darned good at tactics, check them out.

    Fourth: if you think about it, there is really very little reason or need to ever “invade” a planet.

    Resources?  no – cheaper to obtain them in unopposed locations

    Population? no – we all know you can’t solve one world’s population problems by colonizing another world

    Politics? maybe, in extreme circumstances.  Interdiction/blockade, calumny would be for more cost-effective

    Galactography? (location, location, location) no;  if you have the technological and economic resources to build a star fleet that could conquer a solar system, you have the wherewithal to build a base in the middle of space that can serve the same purpose and again – war is costly, unexpected things occur and the outcome is not sure, so why risk it?

    The planet has some special signifigance (like you can only grow spice there) maybe.  Me – I’d let the Duke do all the hard work at mining the spice and then just pirate his ships.  Giving the Guild a nice portion of the take would keep them off my back. (and when the Lansraad objects I’d blow up their planets with the uber weapons I’d acquired with my spice assets.  Better yet – see the next paragraph:  in the greater scheme of things the BEST gaming strategy would be to destroy Arrakis and let the chips fall where they may – no more guild monopoly, the Emporer is cut back and no one else can do anything about it because – no FTL without the guild.)

    There’s something unique and destroyable on that one planet in the entire galaxy (like spice or the plans for the new FTL drive).  Check out the risk/benefit analysis.  You want the thing because it threatens your power base.  More than anything that means you don’t want anyone else to have the ‘thing’.  Ok – I can’t have it, no one else can.  Slag the planet.

    “Enslave the population”.  Yeah, but.  If planets are a dime a dozen, what’s a person worth? Cheaper and easier to raise an army of mindless zombies.  (Except if it’s Orion and its green slave girls.  In that case we simply obtain a genetic sample, slag the planet and grow our own.)

    About the only justifiable reason would be to retain infrastructer but put it under your control as opposed to someone else’s.  Chances are, though, you’re going to beat the hell out of the infrastructure in the process of taking it.

    In reality, if “space war” ever came to be, there would be every reason to conduct it in a Sherman-like “total war” manner:  completely terrorize the enemy population, indiscriminately totally destroy all of their assets, eradicate them.  Which means – destroy their planets. This is also probably the most cost-effective, the shortest term and the most secure method;  you leave nothing behind to fester in your rear (yeah, bad image, lol) and you can always go back and reclaim the remnants as spoils of war.



  14. When it comes to war in space, it’s impossible to make predictions as to how that might be carried out, much as it’s impossible to definitively say how a war in China would be carried out: there are so many uncertainties on the tactical and strategic levels, especially considering that we don’t have the technology or ability to actually invade or even travel to a planet at this point. 


    Will warfare go away in the future? Not on your life – the reasons for breaking down conflicts are likewise immensely complicated. This is where the 2nd World War does us a disservice, in my opinion – we focus on the larger, clear cut conflicts and not necessarily on the smaller ones that don’t have as clear motives. War is a political element, something that’s largely ignored, I think, with things such as resources, populations or land being parts of the whole – but not the entire picture. Similarly, the mechanics of war – the actual tactics and strategy will be contingent upon the individual locations, leaders, respective populations and tools avaliable to them at the time. Bombing a planet from orbit might be a great idea if you’re looking to do a lot of damage, sure, but typically, wars don’t aim to completely exterminate targeted populations, just make them bow down under a bit of destruction. 

  15. Andrew,

    the study of war is the study of logistics:  “he who gets there fustest with the mostest wins”.

    As such, war is therefore an economic enterprise more than just about anything else (a viet cong guerrilla was much cheaper to put and retain in the field than a US GI).  (US determined on a strategy of attrition during WWII because it could afford to build more, cheaper, than the Nazis:  so what if it took six shermans on average to take out a tiger ((and so what if each sherman had a crew of 5 PEOPLE), it costs us far less to build those tanks than it does the Nazis to build one of their monsters;  we concentrated on shipping with Liberty ships, muting the threat of U-boats, etc., etc – people are CHEAP when it comes to war)

    The logistics of maintaining a fleet at any distance is orders of magnitudes greater than keeping it in port;  using it for combat operations increases that cost even further, while at the same time putting those assets at risk, no matter how minimal.

    With the basic law of supply and demand in effect no matter where you go or no matter how far into the future you project, the more inhabited planets there are, the less “valuable” each individual planet becomes, and even more so for the beings that inhabit that planet.

    It therefore seems pretty logical to me, both on an economics/logistical level and a cost/benefit level that invasion of a planet is just about the last thing any commander would recommend.  You are voluntarily reducing your fighting power to be almost on a par with the indigenes and at the same time there is NOTHING on that planet that you can’t get cheaper, with less risk, elsewhere.

  16. That’s only somewhat correct – the logistical elements are important on a tactical level, but it doesn’t take some of the larger strategic elements of a conflict into consideration: politics matter – quite a bit. We can argue the logistics of planetary invasion until the sun goes down, with nobody budging on either way. 


    Now, planetary invasion as a whole? Not really feasible, because typically, defensive war tends to be far more effiscient (shorter supply lines, etc etc). The entire thing is hypothetical because with planet A, we never take into consideration the background motivations for going to war. As with any hypothetical, the cost-benefit ratios can’t be determined, because we can’t take all of the variables into consideration. The political element of the conflict needs to be taken into consideration, and then, you have the strategic, logistical and tactical elements to consider. 


    In my mind, the idea of invading a planet is likely to be a moot point because I doubt that we’d ever see a completely unified colony world for any long point in time before people begin to have their own issues with their neighbors. It only took a couple of hundred years after the discovery, and less time after the introduction of the US before it tore itself apart during the Civil War. 


    This leads me full circle back to my main point in the article (why do all MilSF arguments devolve into planetary invasion?) that militaries need to learn and adapt in whatever situation they find themselves in – real or imagined. If an armed force is going to invade a planet (regardless of the reasons) they need to learn the mechanics of how to fight over there, rather than expecting their enemy to conform to how /they/ want to fight. 

  17. @Andrew – Name one bombing run carried out by either the Brits/Yanks or the Germans in WW2 where they landed ground forces in hostile territory to defend the air forces… and that was when the defenders actually had ground based air defence… of which the Navi had none. Its pure gibberish and trying to defend it or make excuses to justify it does no favours… Avatar is just a terrible movie and really it has nothing to do with military scifi beyond the conceit used in the movie to get a mix of pretty and explosions.

    Jedi on the other hand is actually worth considering from the respect of military Scifi because there is a legitimate reason why that base exists, why its being defended (lightly). Yes the Empire could have landed 100,000 storm troopers and used them to control hundreds of square miles around the shield generator but that would have actually been counter productive. The whole operation was meant to be secret, the Ewoks were ‘just’ a primitive species with no apparent capabilities for space travel… there was no conflict between the Imperial forces and them until Leia and C3P0 stirred up the natives and set them on the war path. Yes the Imps were probably complacent, they did under estimate the Ewoks and they did get their asses handed to them when they came under surprise attack from overwhelming numbers.

    At the end of the day it really doesn’t matter if you have your brains bashed in with a stone axe or boiled with a laser beam…. either way you are dead.

  18. Examples? Sure – Operation Overlord, which saw a massive bombing and followup airborne invasion, with followup ground forces. The Germans around Normandy were very well entrenched, and airborne / navel attacks helped to destroy emplacements. There’s others out there. 


    The point isn’t whether Avatar is a good film or not – It’s a popcorn film, one that’s not really intended to be thought provoking to the level of something like Moon or Primer – this specific element of the film. There’s some elements there that work well for my purposes, and it does fall into the military science fiction realm, in that it uses the military and explosions. 


    Again, we’re looking at these stories within their respective worlds, something that doesn’t necessarily conform to our ‘real’ life, save for a couple of specific elements that we’ve pulled out for examination. 

  19. Tom Finn // March 1, 2011 at 6:24 pm //



    Are you saying that the ground component of Operation Overlord existed to defend the air component?  I ask because the question you answered was:

    @Andrew – Name one bombing run carried out by either the Brits/Yanks or the Germans in WW2 where they landed ground forces in hostile territory to defend the air forces…

  20. I think the RDA have less of an excuse. If you watch the director’s cut of Avatar, they’d definitely seen a lot of the Na’vi fighting style and even chased them back to Grace’s school and destroyed them. They were very willing to get down and dirty in the native terrain and for a future military that, presumably, could learn from the past (our present – Quarritch even refers to Jake’s experience in Venezuela where one presumes they fought against jungle tactics similar to Vietnam), it would’ve been really interesting if those mercenary troops met the Na’vi head on, in a capable manner, and then seen what would’ve happened.

    The Empire not paying attention to mini-Wookiees makes sense for them. They’re so huge and rely on fear tactics just as much as anything else, they definitely wouldn’t take teddy bears seriously or think they’d have to go above and beyond to fight within a native’s terrain tactics.

  21. @ Andrew – as Tom already pointed out Operation Overlord was not a bombing run, it was a use of combined forces in an attempt achieve a military objectives… It was not a ground force dispatched to ‘protect’ a bombing run which is what happened in Avatar.

    If you want to try and defend Avatar as ‘military scifi’ then you have to understand that people are going to cry bullshit and tear your arguments to bits because you are trying to defend the undefendable, and that some people are going to think you an idiot for doing so*.

    In Avatar the military comander is a retard who should not even be left in charge of making the tea and coffee, his ‘tactics’ are a complete joke his response to situations and ‘plans of attack’ are about as retarded as they come… I can’t think of any real world examples that are as retarded…. The marching of lines of troops across the killing feilds on the Somme (and other WW1 battles) into machine gun fire is genius in comparison, when you take into consideration of why those horrific orders were given…. because there was actually a legitimate reason to want to present unified military force and not have the military might of the advance broken and splintered….

    In Avatar huge military force was used to destroy fixed targets… something that could have simply been done by use of orbital bombardment, something that we were given no indication the navi could counter. It would have been a simple and cheap oporation to find and drop a large rock (or other object) onto the navi tree, this would presumably have convinced the Navi that they were completely defenceless and that unless they wanted more rocks falling from the sky they should let those little humans mine whereever they wanted.

    In the 2nd attack on the glowy thing there was a slight problem of floating mountains but really orbital bombardment would quickly solve that problem… This was made even easier because there was no unobtainum underneath the glowy thing (which might have been a reason why he didn’t OB the tree, but as nothing was ever mentioned regarding this its pointless to argue the point either way… mind you they had no problem firing huge amounts of ordinance into the tree and bring all of that crashing down on the unobtainium underneath so maybe it wasn’t a concern), instead he chooses to fly in and bomb it… fair enough in conventional terms it makes sense (maybe there was a reason why OB was unsuitable) but why drop ground forces?

    Why not keep those guys in your flying vehicles that have large doors that could have allowed them to sit in relative safety and play those big guns over the hordes of navi stuck defenceless on the ground? Why not use those gunners as defence against the flying things? Why load a spare exosuit (with oversized combat knife) into your comand ship just incase it crashes, why not have that filled and stood in an open door unleashing unholy hell with a chaingun at any navi that you can see?

    The simple reason for all of these has got sweet FA to do with military tactics or military scifi, and everything to do with it being a shitty action movie where characters behaved in ways that progressed the ‘plot’ from one spectacular action sequence to the next, where the ‘plot’ was contrived to allow Cameron to have the fight sequences happen that he wanted to happen.

    If you want to draw any conclusions regarding military scifi from Avatar they have to be really very basic… don’t put a cretinous retard in charge who is more interested in making things go bang in a spectacular way with no regard for a) his troops’ b) utilising the strenghs of his forces’ and most importantly in terms of achieving military objectives c) actually achieving the military objective. To go back to the killing feilds of WW1 the equivalent orders would have been not only to march in rank across no-mans land but to stop every 5 paces and perform the can-can.


    * in the terms of this topic at least, I have read many of your posts and articles here on SF Signal and know you are just arguing a point here.

  22. @Tom – That’s not what I was saying. 

    @K Lo – Indeed – I think it’s a good example of how military advisors likely worked with the films. (Return of the Jedi, nil. Avatar, at least someone to get uniforms right.)

    @ Andy – Tom doesn’t point out anything, he asked a question. You need to understand that there’s a difference between strategic and tactical elements. Operation Overlord utilized bombing tactics as part of a larger strategic goal to invade the Normandy region. 

    As such, you also need to learn that there is a difference between a movie’s quality and the points that are in it. Both Star Wars and Avatar contain the elements – defense of such doesn’t necessarily advocate for movie quality, or the fact that it’s got said military elements, regardless if they were effective – this is the point that I’m trying to make – his tactics were a joke – they didn’t work, for reasons outlined above. You’ve essentially argued my point for me below. Remember, when you’re trying to be pedantic about an argument, don’t lose your sight so much to the original point here. 

  23. Andrew – guilty as charged, but you were doing the same thing mate 🙂 I will stand by my point thou that avatar can’t really be considered military scifi in anything but the most basic terms… it has fighting and explosions in it and thats it. I might even go further and say that avatar is some sort anti-military scifi, but then its an action scifi movie in 3d.

    Starwars is more interesting to discuss because of the flaws in the 1st two movies from a military perspective, why didn’t they shoot the gas giant in New Hope, that would have done for the rebels on Yavin… and the beam could have been recharge to finish anything that survived… they are quibbles that are minor. Empire is more questionable in why did they invade Hoth, if they wanted to capture the rebles then maybe some interdiction efforts might have been a good idea, if they wanted to kill them why not just OB the base with an asteroid… we already know the Empire is evil enough to destroy Alderaan just to intimidate Leia and that was a populous and relitavely important world.

    Jedi on the otherhand I think deserves a deeper look, I can see why the base was setup the way it was, it makes logical military sense that it was a relatively small base, all it needed to do was guard the sheild generator from a bunch of primitives that didn’t seem that interested until Leia and C3P0 got them on the war path. The system itself was in Imperial control and was also a minor ‘off the map’ planet, The Rebels had to insert a small tactical unit to do a sepcific task… such as when the allies sabotaged the production of heavy water in Norway at the Norsk hydro plant. I think its interesting to think that maybe the Imps got caught with their pants down, and I agree they didn’t take the primitive Ewoks seriously and were surprised by the ingenuity and skill of the ewoks that acted as more than an equaliser for the advanced tech and combat skills/tactics of the stormtroopers.

  24. Both movies were lightweight entertainment where the action was subordinate to an outcome calculated to satisfy their audiences.

    Both movies, like the great majority of cinema & TV portrayal of war, ignore the likely character of war between species.  Without politics to restrain them & physical similarity to stimulate the conscience, combatants will be utterly ruthless.  So whether it’s Ewoks or Navi, low tech natives stand no chance if their high tech enemies do the logical thing – liberal use of poison gas.

    A movie that realistically portrayed what would really happen if different species went to war was the Battlestar Galactica mini-series.  40 billion dead & 12 colonies depopulated in a first strike.

  25. @Will – I agree with you about using gas, but would point out that Imperials weren’t at war with the Ewoks, they seem to have been peacefully co-existing for years(?) whilst the Deathstar was being built. I suspect that the Imperials probably had more sense than to antagonise the Ewoks for no reason…. There is also the fact that the Emperor and Vader knew that there was a Jedi knocking about in Luke and that mass exterminations of people are detectable in the force… so commiting genocide on a planet they wanted to keep secret would probably have been a bad idea.

    I agree with you that Jedi is entertainment, but at the sametime you only have to think a bit about the situation to see that whilst its creaky it is actually coherrent and does withstand a level of critical thought that is enough to allow me to suspend disbelief.

  26. I can’t find my original post, but that may be just as well as I was obviously far from my “happy place” when I typed it.

    My point, however, stands – if an author wants to be intellectually honest in depicting war between species, the combatants are likely to conduct it without restraint.  The circumstances that led to restraint in the conduct of war in the real world, culminating in international agreement to enforce the Geneva Convention, would not apply.  I don’t have the time to expound on that at the moment.

    On the other hand, SF is often about the present, in the form of a story set in the future (or some other form of elsewhere).  It would then be perfectly fine to have your natives defeat your better armed invaders in the process of making your point.  It would the fault of the readers/audience if they took it too literally.

    And that’s how I see both ROTJ & Avatar.  Lightweight entertainment that wasn’t intended to be realistic portrayal of either a “a long time ago in another galaxy” or our own future.  It then follows that those aren’t good starting points for an honest depiction of a native vs invader war.  If you want to go in that direction, I would point you toward early Hammer’s Slammers stories by David Drake.  Whatever you might think of him or his work, he had his Vietnam War experience to draw upon.


  27. Will – but in Jedi there was a reason not to destroy the Ewoks… Luke might have been able to sense such a massacre and that could have drawn attention to Endor… which would sort of defeated the point of it being a secret that they were building a 2nd Death Star.

    Its also possible assume that it probably took at least a few years to build a moon sized space station, and it didn’t seem that the Imps had had any trouble with the natives prior to the time of the attack. The Ewok village can’t have been more than a couple of days march if that, and it was untouched which makes me think…

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