Star Wars and the Limits of Counterinsurgency

I think this discussion of Star Wars and counterinsurgency at Andrew Exum’s Abu Muqawama blog is ultimately emblematic of the somewhat smug and insular nature of the COIN community. One ought to simply consider the possibility that Star Wars characters don’t employ insurgent/counterinsurgent tactics because Star Wars is telling us that COIN dogma is wrong. To say that the Rebel Alliance “ simply staged two conventional assualts on the Empire’s center of gravity: the Death Star” is, I think, to misconstrue the situation. What’s going on is that nobody on either side of the war seriously disputes the notion that “fear will keep the local systems in line. Fear of this battlestation.”

Leia, in a very COINish moment, does say “The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers.” But that’s before the full capabilities of the Death Star are apparent. Once it’s clear that the Empire can destroy planets wholesale, the rebels are in agreement with Tarkin and the Emperor that sufficient firepower, deployed without conscience, can, in fact, win the war. Thus, the rebels only hope for staving off defeat is a bold attack on the Death Star itself. As Exum’s correspondent notes, “they got lucky” in terms of destroying the Death Star so it made perfect sense for the Emperor to simply respond by trying to build a new one. Here, again, both sides agree that a fully operational Death Star can end the war, so again the rebels need to mount a somewhat desperate attack. And they win!

But the lesson here isn’t that the rebels are being irrationally conventional; the lesson is that there are limits to the logic of counterinsurgency doctrine. Overwhelming force and brutality really can be applied to good effect if you’re really willing to unleash it in an evil way.


Alert reading A.R. observes that Coruscant, rather than the Death Star, is the true center of gravity of the Empire. This, I think, re-enforces my point that the Death Star should be understood as a truly game-changing tactical objective. The Rebels aren’t instinctively inclined to try for a conventional attack on the capital, but the potency of the Death Star is so great that they have no choice but to try to destroy it.