Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Military Science of Star Wars

George Beahm

Tor Books


The officially published books covering the Star Wars universe arenecessarily general in nature. Written by pop culture writers, these booksunderstandably lack the technical expertise that specialists in theirrespective fields can bring to bear in any discussion. Thus, there is a growingbody of unofficial books written by specialists—philosophers, English professors, scientists, and, with this book, a military officer—that add uniqueinsights about the Star Wars universe.

As a Star Wars fan who owns dozens of books published about the StarWars universe and who happens to be a former major in the US Army Field Artillery, I see the military aspects of Star Wars in a way that a civilianunschooled in the operational arts cannot. I see how to plan, fight, and,afterward, critique battles with a critical eye and to apply those strategicand tactical lessons learned to future combat operations.
In other words, the civilians who have written official books havecompiled useful encyclopedic texts and plot summaries, but for lack ofspecialized knowledge, they have generally been short on analysis.

For those reasons, I am not repeating what the official writers have covered.(Military personnel prefer not to retake the same ground twice.) I assume youare sufficiently familiar with the Star Wars movies that I need not coverwell-trodden ground. Instead, my transformational use of subject matter fromthe Star Wars universe covers what the generalists hired to write the officialbooks do not offer: analysis, speculation, and recommendations as they pertainto the operational arts. In other words, my impartial perspective, seasoned views unencumbered by outside influences, candid and often critical analyses.

The official writers chronicling the Star Wars universe have animportant role to play—and so do unofficial writers, who bring fresh, newperspectives to the ongoing exploration of the Star Wars universe. Together,all of our books give a rounded and more comprehensive understanding of afictional world created by filmmaker George Lucas, which has amused,enlightened, and most of all, entertained us since 1977.

Command Climate: Leadership in the Galactic Empire
Although the Galactic Empire is military in organization, with anestablished chain of command, its leader, Darth Vader, is a Sith lord and, assuch, is considered above and beyond the military rank structure. He reportsonly to Emperor Palpatine, who is also known as Darth Sidious.

In other words, Darth Vader holds no military rank, but he does commandtroops. His leadership and command at a senior level means that hissubordinates will watch his every move, assessing, gauging his moods, and mostof all, being on guard and hoping they haven’t upset him, because he is quickuse to use his signature weapon against them—the infamous Force-choke.

We must ask ourselves: Is Darth Vader an effective leader? And what can we learn about his management style?

A Perspective on Leadership
The US Army defines leadership as “the process of influencing people by providing purpose, direction, andmotivation to accomplish the mission and improve the organization. . . .Confident, competent, and informed leadership intensifies the effectiveness ofthe other elements of combat power. . . . Influencing entails more than simplypassing along orders. Through words and personal example, leaders communicatepurpose, direction, and motivation.”

As an officer and unit commander, I’ve had the good fortune—andmisfortune—of serving under officers of varying competence. In the end, it allboils down to this: as Xenophon of Athens observed, in 400 BC, “The true testof a leader is whether his followers will adhere to his cause from their ownvolition, enduring the most arduous hardships without being forced to do so,and remaining steadfast in the moments of greatest peril.”

An Outstanding Commander
I recall one officer who took command of our battalion after hispredecessor had been ignominiously relieved. Because I previously had servedunder the incoming officer, I knew him fairly well. He took over our battalion,which was suffering from low morale, and as soon as he came on board, heimmediately took charge of the unit to turn it around.

Had it had been wartime, I would not have hesitated to follow him to thegates of hell. I would willingly follow him, because he inspired us, believedin us, and would do everything he could to get the mission done and get as manyof us as possible back home alive.

An Incompetent Commander
In contrast, I can think of another commander who was so thoroughlyincompetent in every possible way that it recalls an officer whom General H.Norman Schwarzkopf singled out for much deserved criticism. He was a “short,fat, lazy, forty-year-old first lieutenant” commanding an Airborne company, whowould make excuses about jumping—because he was afraid—and then show up at thedrop zone to put on his act:
So we’d take the company through the jump, and as we floated down thelieutenant would be standing right in the middle of the drop zone. If someonefrom battle group headquarters came to inspect, he would make a show ofbrushing dirt off himself. The inspectors bought it, but the troops didn’t;they knew he was afraid. If those men had had amoebic dysentery they wouldn’thave followed him to the latrine.

In a perfect world, all of our military leaders would be inspiring. They would be technically and tactically proficient. They would set the example forthe officers and troops. They would lead the way. They would, in short, earntheir pay by earning the respect of those who serve under them. Their rankwould be earned.
Unfortunately, we don’t live in that fantasy world. The US military,like any large organization, has its share of incompetent leaders who somehowmanaged to obtain high rank with no discernible aptitude or inherent talent.

In my case, the commanding officer, who shall remain nameless, was sothoroughly despised that he earned the enmity of all who served under him. Hewasn’t technically or tactically proficient; he was wholly ignorant in everypossible aspect of military knowledge. One example should suffice.

Because my firing battery was providing twenty-four-hour fire support toan infantry unit, our standard operatingprocedure (SOP) spelled out a sleep plan to ensure that, at all times, we couldman the guns around the clock; thus, atany given time, up to half the gun crew were asleep.

Early in the morning, the clueless officer, who loved springing surpriseinspections in the field, showed up at my firing battery location to “inspectthe troops” and saw dozens of men in my unit sleeping. He immediately camelooking for me and proceeded to chew me out before I could explain thesituation. Finally, after he gave me a piece of his mind, he asked, “Why thehell are these men sleeping during the day? Get their butts off the ground andget them to their duty stations!”

“Sir, we are in a twenty-four-hour field problem. We’re supporting theinfantry, and to do that, we have to exercise a sleep plan. It’s in our SOP. It’s doctrinal, and it’s tactically sound.”

“Lieutenant,” he said, “what are you talking about? Sleep plan? What’s asleep plan?”

As I said before, he wasn’t technically or tactically proficient, and hehad no idea what I was talking about. So I patiently explained it, and heharrumphed and finally said, “Carry on,” and left immediately to harass anotherhapless battery commander. I saluted him, but I wanted to do so with my raisedmiddle finger. I was not alone in thinking so; the other battery commandersfelt the same way.

Time has flensed from my memory of countless other examples about him,but he continued to wreak havoc with every unit he visited, in the field or ingarrison. He was a son of a bitch.

No officer or NCO I knew spoke well of him, especially after theyexperienced one of his frequent rages—not unlike those of Darth Vader. He was,in short, technically and tactically nonproficient. He was the antithesis ofwhat officers should strive for.

Note to junior officers and young NCOs: If you are going to chew out asubordinate, do it in private. Don’t do it in front of the troops, and don’t doit in front of your own staff, because it makes you look like an idiot.Instead, take him or her aside or go ona walk and talk with your subordinate. Calmly point out what’s wrong, aftergetting his side of the story. Advise her on some alternatives she should haveconsidered. It’s easy to give someone hell, but it’s much more useful to lend ahelping hand instead.

I am happy to say that “Bozo,” as I termed him, was passed over forpromotion. He retired soon afterward, but by then irreparable damage had beendone: all the units under his command had suffered needlessly because of him.

He made me think of another officer about whom Schwarzkopf wrote aboutin It Doesn’t Take a Hero:
Instead of executing the flanking attack the situation called for, heordered a full frontal assault. When it became obvious this tactic was adisaster, the colonel came unglued. He started running up behind troops andshaking their canteens, saying, “Soldier, why don’t you have any water?” . . .

I’d have felt sorry for him, except that if we’d been at war, his brandof leadership would have gotten us all killed.


The acid test: Does the leader inspire leadership, or do hissubordinates do his bidding because they fear him? In Darth Vader’s case, it’sfear. To make a mistake means risking instant death, because he often uses hisForce-choke against those who displease him.

Case in point: In A New Hope, Darth Vader is on the Death Star, in ameeting with high-ranking military officers overseen by his boss, Grand MoffTarkin. When Admiral Motti gives Vader the sharp edge of his tongue, belittlinghim in front of the other high-ranking officers on the Death Star, Motti hasapparently forgotten that Vader’s “sorcerer’s ways” include the infamousForce-choke. Motti would have been well advised to get a grip on himself ratherthan have Vader do it for him. To his dismay, Motti finds himself beingForce-choked by Vader, until Tarkin orders Vader to stop.

In another instance, in The Empire Strikes Back, Admiral Ozzel issubjected to a Force-choke, as others look on in horror, wondering which ofthem would later suffer the same ignominious fate.

The command climate created by Vader is such that no disagreement isallowed, and mistakes are dealt with too harshly. One wrong call on your part,and you’re in deep Bantha poo. Better tohold your tongue than to speak and have your tongue protruding from your mouthas Vader chokes you.
That was the unspoken wisdom among Galactic Empire officers, who livedin perpetual fear when Vader was around.

Vader’s officers were not the only ones who came to fear him. No matterwhere he went, his reputation, like his black flowing cloak, followed him. In ANew Hope, for instance, Vader interrogated a rebel ship’s officer and demanded,“Where are those transmissions you intercepted?” The officer’s responsedispleased Vader, and he soon felt Vader’s strong fingers around his neck, hislife slowly squeezed out of him.
The lesson was not lost on Vader’s men.

Kylo Ren

In The Force Awakens, Kylo Ren, who serves Supreme Leader Snoke, is seencontemplating the smashed and melted helmet of Darth Vader, like Hamletconsidering Yorick’s skull. Ren reveres Vader, so it’s not surprising that hewishes to follow his example. Thus, in one scene, when Ren gets unwelcome news,goes on a rampage, attacking everything in sight with his lightsaber while asubordinate looks helplessly on, silently thankful that he’s not on thereceiving end of Kylo Ren’s wrath.

Like Darth Vader, Ren cannot control himself. And, like Vader, he holdsa unique leadership position, answering only to his master, Supreme LeaderSnoke. Both Vader and Ren are in control of legions of troops but often can’tcontrol even their own selves.

That goes a long way toward explaining why neither of them got theoptimum performance from their subordinates, who feared them.

Fear Trumps All: Desperate Despots

Regardless of how they came to power, despots share one fundamentalflaw: they use fear to rule. North Korea’s supreme leader Kim Jong-un comesreadily to mind, as does Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and the deceasedIraqi president Saddam Hussein.

The Galactic Empire’s strategy of ruling by fear ultimately provescounterproductive. In Star Wars: A New Hope, Grand Moff Tarkin told the othersin the conference room on the Death Star, “Fear will keep the local systems inline. Fear of this battle station.” Instead, the rebels’ fear was transmutedinto hope, and even before the countless people on planets throughout thesystem were even aware of the existence of the Death Star, the Rebel Alliance destroyed it.