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

You can’t defeat a rebellion with counter-insurgents like these


Technically, I am supposed to be on vacation, but I couldn’t miss this.

An international relations theory website I also write for has gotten into an excellent debate with Wired’s Spencer Ackerman on the Empire’s blown opportunity to stamp out the Space Vietcong Rebellion at Hoth. William 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 Vietnam war. Here was the Emperor’s similar chance, but Darth 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 repeatedly (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 only 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 clones – genetically-designed to be dull-witted – who couldn’t push their bureaucratic interest, while the navy had lots of fully human, showboating egos like Tarkin’s Death Star council.

As early as the Battle of Genosis, the navy got a huge white elephant project (the Death Star – DS), which signals powerful inter-service rivalry. Inexplicably Sidious green-lights it, even though he knows it will never be used in the Clone War, because he is manipulating the Separatists. After the destruction of the Jedi Order, when the DS has lost any possible justification, it is still under construction. This is 3 years later, and it doesn’t finally check out for another 19 years. 22 years to build a ridiculously over-budget super-weapon, twice vulnerable to the same asymmetric attack strategy, is the very definition of an incompetent, bloated, dysfunctional, overconfident military-industrial complex. Someone call Lockheed Martin…

By contrast, the Imperial army is filled with clones who are so weak-minded, that they are manipulated by the most basic, first-year-of-padawan-school mind trick. They scarcely recognize a light saber, even though Order 66 is hardwired into their DNA. Their super-cool AT-ATs can be taken down by a hand-grenade. Their special ops guys can’t even defeat the Care Bears, and their marksmanship is appalling. How can you pull insurgents out the larger society with a force like that? Hence the huge value of the missed opportunity for brute force at Hoth.

2. Tapping an Emotionally Volatile, Manic-Depressive with a Known History of Free-Lancing Insubordination as his Number Two

Darth Vader got the number two slot in the Empire, for the same reason Obama gave Hillary secretary of state – a consolation prize to keep him from causing havoc. But Vader is a terrible subordinate.

His passion for Padme has made him emotionally deranged as early as the Battle of Genosis; is it surprising that he defects to their son at the big moment? ‘Noooooooo!’ And Palpatine lied to this guy about his wife’s death to boot; is that the kinda guy you want around? If he learned the truth, he might flip out and kill you.

As a Jedi, Anakin was a reckless showboat in the field, at Coruscant and beyond. As Vader, he slows the takeover of Hoth by personally marching into the rebel base, like some bad-ass SS officer there to tear the place up, and he then flies the Starfleet straight into an asteroid field, continuing an egoistic, risk-seeking pattern dating from childhood. Later, Sidious has to check up on the clarity of his feelings, and Vader disobeys a direct order to stay on the command ship before Sidious’ climactic trap of the rebel fleet at Endor. Vader would have force-choked a lieutenant who did that.

Finally, the Sith have a known propensity to rebel against their superiors and murder them. At two points, Vader talks of overthrowing Sidious, as Sidious deposed Plageuis. So giving Vader big-ticket, high-profile gigs like command of the the Starfleet and finishing the Death Star II is the last thing a dictator fearful of a powerful subordinate should do. It’s hard to share the Emperor’s optimistic appraisal of Vader’s utility; better to give him a desk job, whatever the Imperial equivalent of the Roman grain inspector was. Can he type in that outfit?

3. Running the Empire Explicitly as Personal Vanity Project

Nakedly awful dictatorships provoke opposition. All good empires have some kind of ideology that ‘binds the galaxy together,’ or institutions that at least pretend to constrain the leadership. But Sidious has no identifiable ideology, other than ‘absolute power,’ (which he screams as he kills Mace Windu). Instead Sidious puts up statues of himself even though he looks like Satan, cackles evilly, broods with his creepy priests in the throne room, and then, unsurprisingly given his semi-theological isolation, blows up a planet on a whim. That sort of monomania, unvarnished by even a shred of legitimacy or justification, will pretty much guarantee a backlash. And no, ‘Sith-ism’ is not an suitable ideology/religion. If it can only apply to two people, and if it’s all about your own will-to-power, than it hardly fits the social need of binding people to your tyranny. Even North Korea has an ideology, even if it’s a just a gimmick.

Similarly, eliminating the Senate was a terrible idea. As with Rome’s, it gave at least the pretense of consent and helped outsource the bureaucratic hassle of daily management to others. And think how easy it is to manipulate. If Jar-Jar and E.T. can be senators, then anyone can. Jar-Jar sponsors the military creation bill and addresses the deputies as ‘dellow felegates.’ You couldn’t ask for pawns more manipulable than that. By contrast, the DS replacement is the equivalent of massive retaliation over Quemoy and Matsu. If your planet steps out of line a bit, we might have to nuke you completely. As an all-or-nothing option though, the DS has an obvious credibility problem, will terrify almost everyone into resistance if you do have to use it (Leia’s point about systems slipping through the Emperor’s fingers), and removes entire economies from the imperial tax base when planets are blown. Even the Romans reconstituted Carthage. Surely some sort of middling institutions/strategies would be a lot cheaper and less likely to provoke opposition.

4. Switching from Robots to Clones (yes, really)

Yes, the Clone Wars go very well for the clones. But the droids were slowly improving and up-armoring as the war dragged on, while the clones get noticeably worse. By the Battle of Endor, clone performance, by an entire legion of crack troops no less, was awful. But as early as the start of the insurgency, the clones were already showing their problems of poor marksmanship and fatigue with drills. Perhaps they were depressed by the new storm trooper uniforms and the switch from actual names like ‘Cody’ to slag like ‘TK 421.’ As noted above, the clones/stormtroopers are also uniquely vulnerable to Jedi mind techniques, which is likely the worst tactical weakness possible when you are explicitly hunting Jedi. Finally, clones, as biologically living entities, require huge a logistical train that probe droids and robots never will. Swarming the battlespace with drones is a lot cheaper than boots in Afghanistan Tatooine.

5. Letting the Dark Side Cloud his own Judgment: the Arrogance of Sith Power

This isn’t exactly ‘structural,’ but the arrogance of Sith power cripples the imperial leadership, and not just at the officer level. Luke’s critique of the Emperor’s overconfidence is spot-on. Sidious makes several painfully obvious errors that suggests succumbed he did to the temptations of the dark side:

Missing that baby Luke is on Tatooine. How hard is it to think up that Padme’s kids are with their uncle? Lars and Beru even had a rap sheet for a domestic dispute. Come on.

Building the same, nearly unusable super-weapon, complete with the same weakness, twice. The Death Star II is the Maginot Line of the Empire.

Sending Darth Maul to hunt two Jedi alone. There are no other conspirators, hangers-on, bounty hunter PMCs, etc. who might have helped? Where were General Grievous and Jango Fett at the time? Same with battle with Yoda. Call the entire clone army into the Senate chamber to shoot that bouncing, green Che Guevara!

Missing the obvious tactical advantages that a well-cloaked, indigenous force using dense, native woodlands for local advantage, would have over brightly-clad foreigners with no local knowledge, who insist on marching away from their defensive objective for another unnecessary, showboating, commendation-seeking engagement. If there is any officer who deserves to be force-choked, it’s that Endor ground commander, the General Custer of the Empire and yet another example of the appalling generalship of the over-cloned army

5 thoughts on “5 Biggest Strategic Errors of the Emperor: a Contribution to Spencer Ackerman’s ‘Battle of Hoth’ Debate

  1. One quibble with this excellent analysis:

    In fact, after the Clone Wars officially ended, the Empire started to incorporate “true” human recruits as well as clones from different donor temples. This act may have been a mistake on the part of the Empire (perhaps they decided to cut costs in the Imperial budget – the apparently state-of-the-art Kaminoan cloning facilities, and the provided training services, did not look cheap) may have led to a deterioration in the quality of the military.

    However, since the Jedi Order had been destroyed, this deterioration may not have been quite as noticeable, as normal lifeforms are much easier to fight than Jedis.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s