Tag: Star Wars (Page 1 of 2)

Friday Nerd Blogging: Presidential Edition

Twitter went nuts when President Obama said he could not get the Republicans to do what is right because of his finite powers, that he could not do some sort of Jedi mind-meld!

He mixed his space franchises–Jedis may have Vulcan-like abilities, but the mind meld thing is of Star Trek.  So, this sent twitter on a wonderful spiral for awhile.

Some of the highlights:

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The Lost Jedi Art of Reading Closely

I thought, mistakenly, that the Hoth symposium had run its course: Ackerman point, a bunch of us counterpoint both at Danger Room and elsewhere (here at Duck, and, if it’s not up yet it will be soon, over at Grand Blog Tarkin), and my tossing a little more fuel on the fire by arguing what I generally take to be a pretty obvious and I thought uncontroversial point: that Star Wars is a story about the struggle between Jedi and Sith about the nature of the Force, with other people and organizations (like the Rebel Alliance, and the Empire itself) getting caught up in the middle of what is, basically, a theological dispute. I thought that was pretty obvious because, well, the Star Wars universe is presented to us as one in which the Force exists and is efficacious, in which some people have Force-sensitivity and others do not, and in which the greatest of galactic events derive their importance from their connection to the Jedi-Sith struggle, whether we are talking about Palpatine’s election as Chancellor or Luke’s decision to leave Tatooine with Ben Kenobi.

Then I chanced (or maybe it was the will of the Force?) to glance at twitter as I was waiting to board a plane, and found this gem from Robert Farley: “The real story in the Star Wars universe is about whatever we find theoretically interesting and relevant.” What then ensued was a flurry of thrust-and-parry twitter jabs, a kind of miniature lightsaber duel carried out mainly through 140-character quips (although as Rob pointed out I did break that rule by producing several linked tweets that continued a thought past that limit; whether this is deserving of a penalty or not I leave for the general audience to decide). It was temporarily halted, not as in Episode I by a series of functionally-opaque force fields that impose a break in the action, but by the announcement that we had to turn off electronic devices in preparation for takeoff. Taking the time in fight to gather my thoughts and prepare a reply for posting, here is my contribution to a possible next round. Continue reading


It’s a trap. No, really, IT’S A TRAP.

Change you can believe in. Or is it a trap?

So our little geekfest-in-a-teacup has provoked, among other things, some additional contributions by members of The Duck focusing on additional ways that the Empire’s command structure and Imperial strategy towards the Rebel Alliance doesn’t make a lot of sense. The Imperial troops are feckless, letting the rebels escape on occasions when they should have been able to stop them easily. Opportunities to wipe out the rebels are missed through various kinds of incompetence, tactical or bureaucratic or otherwise. The Empire as a whole is riddled with inconsistencies and incoherences, clashes between divisions, competing goals, unclear budgeting priorities. And so on.

To all of that I say, along with my main Mon Calamari, Admiral Akbar: IT’S A TRAP. Really. The whole damn thing is a trap, not just specific instances of deception like the one that his most famous exclamation seems to refer to. Yes, it’s a trap that the shield generator is still working and the Death Star is operational when the rebel fleet jumps into the Endor system, but more to the point, the entire interstellar-galactic-political situation is a giant trap for the unwary, and by “the unwary” here I mean not just the various denizens of the Star Wars universe who are focusing on the wrong thing if they think that the main game in town is Empire-vs.Rebel Alliance, but also and perhaps even more profoundly the analysts who keep mistakenly treating anything that the Empire does as animated by the strategic goal of securing political rule and defeating insurgents. All of that is a sideshow, because the actual story here has nothing do with political rule; the contest is and always has been Sith vs. Jedi, which is more of a theological contest despite what misguided strategic analysts who don’t respect the conditional autonomy of constitutive ideas might think about it.

So, let’s review a little basic Star Wars history (and I am going to give the grade-school textbook version here, not the C-canon version). Once upon a time there were Sith engaged in an epic battle with Jedi, but the Jedi prevailed, set up their Temple on Coruscant, and proceeded to be the guardians of peace and justice throughout the galaxy for a thousand generations, including their cooperation with the Old Republic. The Jedi order is based on the notion that the Force has two aspects, the Dark and the Light, and that only the Light has merit: they are, pretty directly, Manichaean dualists. Meanwhile the Sith bided their time, adopting the Rule Of Two — always two there are, a master and an apprentice, no more, no less — and managed to survive in the shadows, waiting. Palpatine, a.k.a. Darth Sidious, after killing his master Darth Plageous, becomes basically the single most powerful Sith Lord ever, with a command of the Dark Side of the Force to make anyone quail in terror. But even this isn’t enough against an entire galaxy that thinks of the Jedi Order as a good thing, so he launches a cunning plan to utterly destroy the Jedi by corrupting the Jedi Order (getting them involved in the Clone Wars as generals) and then turning the galaxy against them (declaring them traitors, blaming the war on them) and then killing off most of them (issuing Order 66, Vader’s rampage in the Temple). Vader then proceeds to hunt down and destroy the rest of the Jedi that he can find, and only misses Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda because they go into deep-cover hiding and lie very low for almost two decades.

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Delegation Leads to Shirking, Shirking Leads to Failure …

and Failure leads to Fear, Anger and all that Stuff.  In the renewed discussion of the Battle of Hoth and other failures of the Galactic Empire, there is a running theme throughout many of the posts: how does a leader get the underlings to do what they are supposed to do.  Given the affinity between the dark side of the force and Principal-Agency theory,* it is somewhat surprising that nearly all of these analyses have been atheoretical and have ignored the most applicable framework.

As the great Jedi Mace Windu once said, it is principals and agents all the way down.  The Emperor is the boss, who delegates to Vader.  Vader often serves as the proximate principal, delegating some of the authority delegated to himself to various agents, including Admirals who he subsequently force-chokes, and on and on.  The basic problem in P-A is that the agent often has more information about what is going on than the principal.  When the principal is running a galactic empire, this is more likely to be the case.  Sure, the Emperor can get some information via the dark side of the Force, but there are limits to this.  As a result, his agent could be (and often is) conspiring against him.  This problem of hidden information facilitates shirking–which does not always mean doing less than what the principal wants but often more.

How do principals address this challenge?  Well, there are four primary means: selecting compatible agents, defining the discretion they have, engaging in oversight and providing incentives/sanctions (see forthcoming book on NATO-Afghanistan in late 2013).

As the previous entries in this discussion at Wired and now at Duck indicate, the principals here often have limited choices of agents.  How many folks are left that can use the force well and might be bent to the dark side?  Given how well Order 66 was carried out at the end of the Clone Wars, not too many potential agents remain for Palpatine to employ (he was also pretty willing to sacrifice his previous apprentices–Darth Maul and Darth Tyranus).  Vader is pretty much the only game in town until the younger Skywalker can be converted.  So, the Emperor has to go to war with the agent he has, rather than the agent he wishes he had.

Over the course of the movies, the Emperor alters how much authority Vader has.  After his repeated failures at Hoth and Bespin, he finds himself restricted to overseeing the second death star’s construction (see Crispin’s take).  This shows that the principal has learned to change the “delegation contract” to restrict the discretion the under-performing agent has.

The Emperor and Vader demonstrate very different patterns of oversight.  The Emperor is in frequent contact with his agents, making sure that they stay within his intent.  Vader, on the other hand, is actually quite lax.  While Admiral Ozzel is planning the attack on Hoth, Vader is snoozing away.  Only when he checks on the plans as the attack is begun does he realize that Ozzel planned poorly.  Why did Vader not oversee the operation, ask questions about the plan, and revise accordingly?  Perhaps the classic P-A analogy of police patrols vs fire alarms is apt, as Vader responded to problems after they arose, whereas the Emperor was constantly trying to watch his agents (including sending Vader to oversee other agents).

Imperial oversight illustrated here.

The last remaining tool are incentives–do the principals provide rewards for agents who behave well and penalties for agents who behave poorly?  This is where Vader does better than the Emperor.  The Emperor repeatedly kills good behaving agents because of his long game–Count Dooku to help Anakin along the dark path, he tries to sacrifice Vader to get Luke on the dark side, and so on.  Why should his agents do the Emperor’s bidding if they know that they will be killed regardless of performance?   Vader, on the other hand, may overreact a tad, but he saves his force-choking for those that have already under-performed.

To be sure, the Rebels had their own P-A problems: they could not be choosy about agents, so farmboys and smugglers were welcome.  Consequently, their agents were a bit hard to control, especially Luke who would fly off to unauthorized locales to meet with strange disseminators of old-school training and then quit training early to hang out with his friends.  However, Oversight was easier as well for the Rebellion, since there were far fewer rebels to oversee, especially after the Battle of Yavin reduced the number of pilots most dramatically.  The Rebel Alliance did manage to provide incentives to encourage agents to behave well: cash, pretty princesses (yes, I am suggesting that Leia manipulated the men around her with her pulchritude, handing out kisses to any nearby aspiring hero, related or not), quick promotion (Commander? Skywalker, General? Solo, etc.), and shiny medals (well, to the humans, Chewie is still owed a medal).  Moreover, forgiveness can sometimes work better than harsh penalties, as the formerly traitorous Lando Calrissian performed above and beyond the call of duty at the Battle of Endor.


* In a grad school in a time long ago and far away (UCSD in the early 90’s), the students considered the main proponent of P-A theory to be of the dark side, so much so that this professor once wore a Darth Vader mask to a defense (dissertation or comprehensive exam, I forget which).





5 Biggest Strategic Errors of the Emperor: a Contribution to the ‘Battle of Hoth’ Debate

You can’t win a counter-insurgency with a military like this


The Duck has gotten into an excellent debate with Ackerman on the Empire’s blown opportunity to stamp out the Space Vietcong Rebellion at Hoth. Westmoreland spent 5 years trying to nail down the VC in set-piece battles where US firepower could be brought decisively to bear and end the war. Here was the Emperor’s similar chance, but Vader and Admiral Ozzel blew it (mostly because the Empire’s officer corps was filled with grandstanding self-promoters, as Ackerman rightly points out).

But as the respondents noted, the larger context does a better job explaining why the Empire’s massive advantages seem to fail again (Yavin 4, Hoth, Bespin, Endor), beyond just the poor tactical leadership at Hoth. The larger strategic context is counterinsurgency, and obviously the Emperor spent too much time cackling in the Senate to watch The Battle of Algiers. So here are the five big structural problems in the background:

1. Trusting the Bloated, Showboating Navy to do Counterinsurgency

Navies are big, blunt instruments with hugely expensive platforms vulnerable to swarming, as at Yavin and Endor, and useful for large, ‘target-rich’ enemies. They scream national vanity, and they’re terrible for hunting rebels. Why does the Empire need a massive, and massively expensive, fleet after the Clone Wars? Probably because the army was staffed by mentally-hamstrung clones who couldn’t push their bureaucratic interest, while the navy had lots of fully human, showboating egos like Tarkin’s Death Star council.

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The Force is strong with this one

Episode I: Spencer Ackerman over at  Danger Room posts this analysis of the Battle of Hoth.

Episode II: 90 e-mails and twelve hours later, this symposium goes up on the Danger Room website including a contribution by our own Dan Nexon. Unfortunately, not all of us involved in the furious e-mail thread made the cut or the deadline, so not all of our replies were posted. Which brings us to:

Episode III: my piece, sadly not included in the Danger Room symposium. Below the fold.

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