Strategy Strikes Back: How Star Wars Explains Modern Military Conflict. Max Brooks, John Amble, M.L. Cavanaugh, and Jaym Gates (eds). Lincoln, NE: Potomac Books, 2018.
These are the thoughts on strategy you were looking for…now read it, you must. There is no skimming.
Fans of all varieties should easily recognize this play on well known comments made by two of the most notable Jedi Knights in the Star Wars universe. Like Liam Collins, one of the authors featured in this book, I too saw Star Wars when it first premiered in theaters in 1977, which began my lifelong enjoyment of its characters, messages, and overall storytelling. When I saw the cover of Strategy Strikes Back: How Star Wars Explains Modern Military Conflict, I was immediately interested in learning what was inside. I readily recognized the intent of the editors and numerous, well-known, contributing authors to leverage my knowledge of the Star Wars canon as the basis for increasing my understanding of more difficult concepts.
Even without a lifelong appreciation for all things Star Wars, anyone with a basic understanding of the movies and their stories and an interest in better understanding modern military conflict will benefit greatly from reading Strategy Strikes Back. I have not found another collection of essays where the authors use their superior imaginations to explain and simplify complex topics so well.
Strategy Strikes Back is organized around four key themes. Part One, Society and War, “suggests aiming for balance” between “security [and]…other vital, societal considerations.” In my military career, I had few opportunities to apply my basic, classroom-only knowledge of broad topics, such as civil-military relations. As I read the essays in Part One, I envisioned the practical application of the concepts and ideas within the context of the various Star Wars-based scenarios I had only read about in my PME. With only a passing familiarity of The Soldier and the State, I easily recognized Huntington’s themes in U.S. Army Strategist Jim Golby’s “The Jedi and the Senate” and better understood how those themes fit into modern debates about civilian oversight of the military. Mick Cook, an Australian Army officer and host of The Dead Prussian podcast, deftly illustrated the criteria of just war theory in his essay, “On Destroying Alderaan.” Starting with an explanation of why the Empire’s destruction of Alderaan was not justified since the planet was not a legitimate military target, Cook then applies those concepts to bring out key point related to just war theory and America’s use of atomic weapons against Japan. Additionally, Cook notes the Empire’s shortsightedness in not considering the follow-on effects of using its newest technological wonder, the Death Star. As a former military officer involved in cyberspace operations and information security, I found his comments about a similar lack of consideration for the consequences of using the Stuxnet virus to be particularly valid.
When deciding on a strategy to prepare for war, Part Two, Preparation for War, “urges…careful prudence” and the essays within support this assertion. In “The Jedi and the Profession of Arms,” Steve Leonard compares the Jedi’s struggle to remain connected to the populace they have sworn to protect to the same struggle today’s U.S. military is having after years of deployments in support of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. I was chilled by Leonard’s comment, “when society demands more sacrifice of the profession than the society demands of itself” as I thought about my 25 years of service in the Air Force within the context of the ongoing debate about the growing divide between Americans who served and those who did not. B.J. Armstrong’s “The Right Fleet: Starships for Strategic Purpose” reminded me of both the historical debates about investing in long-range bombers versus aircraft carriers based on their respective vulnerabilities and modern debates about the use of carriers and stealth aircraft based on the continued development of advanced weapons to counter them.
In Part Three, Waging a War, the essays focus on the idea that the “aim of strategy should always be sustainable, relative advantage.” Retired Admiral and former commander of NATO, James Stavridis, and Colin Steele detail the concept of hybrid warfare in “Hybrid Star Wars: The Battle of Endor.” In this battle, the underdog Rebellion, aided by a deceptively tough race of tribal teddy bears, once again destroys the latest iteration of the Empire’s Death Star through the combined use of conventional and non-conventional forces and capabilities. Stavridis and Steele bring out the underlying characteristics of hybrid warfare and its successful application, while also extending these ideas to modern cybersecurity concerns. Having spent several years focusing on cybersecurity at a national level, their consideration of the Death Star’s shield generator as critical infrastructure and the high likelihood that hacking it would have been better than blowing it up truly resonated with me! The ingenious literary device of an embedded droid reporter filled in numerous holes in my own imagined account of what occurred during the Battle of Hoth in noted national security author, August Cole’s, “Dispatch from Hoth, When the Blood Runs Cold.” Cole’s essay is reminiscent of the imagination and detail from his book, Ghost Fleet, and serves as a poignant reminder of the human factor than can never be forgotten when thinking about strategy and the value of fictional accounts to reinforce those lessons.
Alas...Yoda’s strategic failures are useful lessons for us all.
The editors’ intent in Part Four, Assessment of War, was to use empathy as a means to practice “making actual strategic decisions…under challenging conditions.” Its essays aim to draw parallels between this fictional universe and modern scenarios so the reader is in a position to think through the decisions needed under realistic circumstances. Despite my lack of in-depth knowledge of Thucydides’ writings, Craig Whiteside’s “Suffer, the Weak Must: A History of the Galactic Civil War” triggered a vague memory of its style and messages as I read an exchange between Grand Moff Tarkin and Darth Vader. Finally, I felt a strong, inner conflict as M.L. Cavanaugh laid out a coherent argument for why Yoda, the wisest and seemingly most-capable of all the Jedi Masters, is not the truly talented leader he seems to be in “A Strategist, Yoda was Not.” Alas, I agree with Cavanaugh’s arguments, and Yoda’s strategic failures are useful lessons for us all.
In his Epilogue, M.L. Cavanaugh notes the editors’ desire to “make strategic studies relatable and interesting” in an “attempt to collect and harmonize some lessons for real-world use.” Strategy Strikes Back: How Star Wars Explains Modern Military Conflict certainly achieves their intended outcome. No new concepts or grand theories were intended to come from this book, but readers are sure to understand better some of the most notable and valuable concepts surrounding modern conflict currently under debate. Anyone with a basic knowledge of the Star Wars universe is sure to enjoy the creative parallels used by these esteemed authors to simplify complex topics. Avid fans with deep knowledge of this universe cannot help but embrace these parallels, think through them more deeply, and dig even deeper into them as they try to support or argue against the authors while also showing off their superior knowledge of their favorite series of movies.
Steve Luczynski recently retired after a 25-year Air Force career. The views expressed are the author’s alone.
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Header Image: The characters of Star Wars across Episodes I though VI (Lucasfilm)
 Strategy Strikes Back: How Star Wars Explains Modern Military Conflict, p.234
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 Ibid, p.234.
 Ibid, p.234.