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Book Reviews Concepts and Doctrine Military History

#WavellReviews ‘Strategy Strikes Back: How Star Wars Explains Modern Military Conflict’ edited by Max Brooks, John Amble, ML Cavanaugh and Jaym Gates

Experimental Feature: Audio Read Version

Available here from Potomac Books

“The problem with classic military texts like Clausewitz and Sun Tzu is that they’re total snooze-fests 1

In the opening pages of ‘Strategy Strikes Back’, Max Brooks highlights how traditional texts used in Professional Military Education are not engaging to the modern reader.  ‘Strategy Strikes Back’ tries in part to offer a solution through example.  In over 28 anthologies written by subject matter experts, examples from the fictional universe of Star Wars are used to educate the reader on the key aspects of strategy and the challenges facing the modern war fighter.  The essays are split across four thematic sections: ‘Society and War’, ‘Preparation for War’, ‘Waging a War’ and ‘Assessment of War’. These in turn walk the reader through the impact of society on strategy as well as its purpose, implementation and review.

At first glance it may be challenging to dispute that Star Wars is firmly rooted in fiction.  As the US Space Force’s capstone doctrine points out, space warfare is dissimilar to the 2nd world war style aerial dogfights portrayed in a galaxy far far away.  Neither do sticks and stones overcome the revolution in military affairs that are bipedal armoured fighting vehicles and consumer off the shelf directed energy weapons.  Despite this, 30 writers ranging from Stanley McChrystal to Colin Steele have managed to inform on very real and serious topics.  Even though “The case for planet building on Endor” delivers an impassioned speech that warns of insurgent Ewoks, it highlights many of the arguments that have been raised by NGOs and academics ranging from Chatham House to Stein Rokkan in an accessible way.  It does this by building off of a common knowledge surrounding the first Star Wars trilogy, rather than the multiple case studies (ranging from Bosnia to Namibia) that RAND’s “Nation Building 101” relies upon.

Obviously the 7 pages of Chuck Bies’s “Han, Greedo and a Strategy of Prevention” struggles to deliver the same level of insight as Kissinger’s almost 500 page “Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy”.  Like most of the anthologies, however, Bies manages to get across the key takeaway points of landmark works (in this case the importance of conventional and strategic deterrence).  Importantly, as ML Cavanaugh points out early on, teaching strategy requires an in-depth knowledge of events that can either be gained through the 700 page “History of the Peloponnesian War” or the 2-hour 16 minute “Return of the Jedi”.  Any nuance that Strategy Strikes Back may have lost is made up for by its ability to engage with the modern reader.  Nevertheless, if you are undertaking Professional Military Education ‘Strategy Strikes Back’ may not prove to be a comprehensive replacement for “On War”.  If however, you are seeking an introduction to military strategy or the reasoning behind modern conflicts, ‘Strategy Strikes Back’ will serve you better than similar works such as “ Military Strategy: A Very Short Introduction” and may be easier to understand in depth than stalwarts such as “Strategy: A History”.

‘Strategy Strikes Back’ walks a fine line in its uses of fiction.  The anthologies which focus on set pieces from Star Wars such as the battle of Hoth or the rise of the emperor, but make visible their real-world counterparts, are able to inform on traditionally dry subjects like the relationship between civil and military leaders very effectively.  Unfortunately, several of the articles are less adept at following this fine line.  Either they name drop examples from Star Wars into an insightful but conventional article, or they rely heavily on obscure or easily overlooked aspects of the films, not pausing to explain their content.  Together these articles, whilst few in number, have the potential to confuse a reader not intimately familiar with the “Star Wars Cinematic Universe” and undermine the lessons learned.  Nevertheless, on balance ‘Strategy Strikes Back’ walks the fine line well, even when relying on obscure points from fiction.  For example, “Tarkin Doctrine, The Empire’s Theory of Victory” manages to take a minor aspect of the films (by the author’s own admission, only 23 lines of dialogue) and explain the importance of understanding the problem when conceptualising grand strategy, whilst implicitly giving the reader the tools to understand why some recent counterinsurgencies may have failed.

Furthermore, the breadth of collective experience amongst the 30 writers ensures that whilst ‘Strategy Strikes Back’ does not advance the critical study of military affairs, it provides a concise and accurate introduction.  Each anthology is written by a subject matter expert.  For example Jim Golby in “The Jedi and the Senate” is able to authoritatively comment on political-military relations but seeks not to comment on the challenges of arms at peace, which is discussed by Steve Leonard in “The Jedi and the Profession of Arms”.  This expertise in combination with an interesting use of fiction has resulted in a good introduction to military affairs for the uninitiated and may serve as an engaging overview of the principles behind military strategy to those with more expertise. 


Lorne

Lorne dryer is an undergraduate Politics and International Relations student at the University of Exeter. He has worked on defining hybrid wars and presented research at the RUSI Project on Nuclear Issues Annual Conference.  Follow him on twitter @mower_lorne

Footnotes

  1. Max Brooks, Strategy Strikes Back p20

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