CAUTION: SPOILERS AHEAD!
Crispin Burke is an active-duty Army officer stationed at Fort Bragg. Follow him on Twitter at @CrispinBurke. His views are his own and not those of the Department of Defense.
Star Wars producer Kathleen Kennedy says that Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, which opened in theaters last week, is not a political movie.
Clausewitz would disagree. The legendary Prussian military theorist wrote that war and politics were inextricably linked. (The series is called Star Wars after all)
George Lucas’ original films, written in the wake of Watergate and Vietnam, were stories of rebellion. But the two sides in Lucas’ original saga were comically one-dimensional. With director Gareth Edwards at the helm, however, Rogue One introduces us to a galaxy filled the dirty nuances of modern war, with ethical dilemmas ranging from collaborators to collateral damage. The film draws on the enduring character of conflict in three areas of particular interest to military professionals: over-reliance on technology, defense acquisitions and the politics of insurgency
Star Wars are Nasty and Brutish
A tank lumbers through the narrow streets of an ancient desert city as troopers scurry alongside on foot. Suddenly, insurgents spring from the alleyways, lobbing grenades and firing rockets. Bystanders scurry for cover, leaving a small child caught in the crossfire. After heavy losses, the troopers call for backup, scattering the rebels with heavy artillery.
It may sound like Mosul or Aleppo, but in this case, it’s the fictitious city of Jeddah, one of many exotic worlds in Rogue One.
Many pundits — both in our galaxy and in a galaxy far, far away — are seduced by the promise of quick and bloodless wars, putting their faith in drones, missiles, and space-based orbital lasers. The United States thought superweapons would make war obsolete in the 1950s — just as the country was becoming entangled in Vietnam. In the 1990s, advocates for “Network-Centric Warfare” invested in computer chips at the expense of ground troops. Meanwhile, Presidential candidate George W. Bush promised to steer US troops away from “nation building” missions. Yet by 2008, the US would have nearly 200,000 troops deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Even the most high-tech militaries inevitably find themselves bogged down in land wars against tenacious low-tech insurgents — whether they’re in the mountains of Afghanistan or the forests of Endor.
Defense Procurement in a Galaxy Far, Far Away
Star Wars ships have often resembled real-life aircraft. In Rogue One, the Rebel Alliance’s hot new ride is the U-Wing gunship. With its door-mounted laser cannons, sliding side doors, and mesh troop seats straight out of a Chinook, it’s an obvious nod to the Black Hawk helicopter.
That said, the Black Hawk, like nearly every other helicopter in the US military’s fleet, is beginning to show its age. Though the US Army fields a fleet of twenty-first century, dual-engine, glass-cockpit helicopters, each model has been around since at least the early 1980s.
The crew of Rogue One may be able to travel between planets in their U-Wing, but conventional helicopters have much shorter legs. Pushing further yet into the realm of science fiction, the Army has been looking at experimental designs to boost both the speed and the range of conventional helicopters. The Joint Multiservice Rotorcraft (JMR) is the US military’s first attempt to create a new helicopter since the introduction of the Osprey tiltrotor. But given Army Aviation’s track record of procurement failures over the past three decades, its new rotorcraft may wind up with more delays and cost overruns than the Death Star.
A Fractured Rebel Alliance
George Lucas’ good guys were just a little too good. Real-life rebellions may harbor idealists, but they also attract extremists and criminals.
So it is with the Rebel Alliance in Rogue One, where the Rebel Alliance reaches out to a guerrilla leader deemed too extreme for the mainstream alliance, Saw Gerrara. (If that name sounds a little like Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara, it’s probably not a coincidence — the character was initially referred to as “Castro” in early scripts). Saw is a throwback to a thought-provoking series of episodes in the Clone Wars children’s cartoon which eerily paralleled the rebellion in Syria.
There’s more compromise on the road to victory for the Rebels as Rogue One introduces us to an ethically grey Galactic Civil War. Garbled communications leads to a botched Rebel airstrike; the Rebels have no qualms recruiting criminals to join its ranks of rag-tags; and Mon Mothma struggles to keep the various Rebel factions united. In short, it’s every insurgency.
The Verdict? It’s a Lot of Fun
Despite a shaky first act, Rogue One finds its footing as the Empire and the Rebels square off in the most exciting battle of any Star Wars film to date. Yet the epic clash on land, air, and space nearly overshadows the real struggle, as two Rebels infiltrate an Imperial computer in an effort to pull off the greatest data exploit of all time – going after the plans to the Death Star. For all the laser blasts and explosions in Rogue One — and there are plenty of those — it’s a pair of pesky hackers who save the day for the Rebellion. Of all the elements in Rogue One, that may be the least fantastical of all – especially when it comes to war and politics in the twenty-first century.