Star Wars has been a cultural behemoth for over forty years. As fans of the series well know, in its origins, George Lucas’s original trilogy of films drew heavily from preceding works. Its plot, themes, and even individual characters were significantly influenced by the Flash Gordon serials, as well as the films of Kurosawa. Indeed, its cinematic ‘inspirations’ extend even to the way individual scenes are framed and shot. Entire set pieces in A New Hope, such as the attack on the Death Star, serve essentially as science fiction remakes of World War II epics, most notably The Dambusters, 663 Squadron, and The Bridges at Toko-Ri. So striking are these similarities that shot for shot comparisons demonstrate how Lucas took raids by Mosquito and Lancaster bombers, in essence replacing the World War II aircraft with X-Wings and the Millennium Falcon – to undeniably thrilling effect.
While these cinematic comparisons are well known, perhaps more interesting are the ways in which the films also parallel real life historical events. Sadly, there are no recorded examples of Jedi knights in the annals of history. What is striking, however, is the extent to which the rebellion depicted in the original trilogy of films resembles, in both its form and its underlying strategy, the Maoist model of insurgency, as developed and popularised by Mao Zedong. Specifically, the manner by which the Rebel Alliance challenges the dominance of the Galactic Empire follows an essentially Maoist model of insurgency, beginning with political infiltration at the local level before proceeding through to guerrilla warfare and, ultimately, direct mobile engagement.
That Star Wars contains such similarities is not entirely surprising. Authors of science fiction typically reflect the concerns of the society in which they live and, writing in 1973, George Lucas was no exception. Much has already been written about the ways in which the films were shaped by the politics of the Nixon era White House – particularly their depiction of a centralised authority abusing state power. Equally, after spending years preparing to direct Apocalypse Now, Lucas was by all accounts personally affected by the Vietnam War, then still raging in the Far East. Not least, the war appeared to demonstrate how a relatively small band of insurgents could hold at bay the much larger and better-provisioned forces of a superpower, despite the latter’s best efforts to eradicate them. Whether consciously or not, the films thus reflected their origins in revolutionary war as much as the Flash Gordon serials that set their tone.
Soon a new trilogy of films will arrive, ready for fans to over-analyse. Before this occurs, however, it is worth revisiting the trilogy that inspired the phenomenon, and the popular insurgency it depicts. What are the strategic underpinnings of the Star Wars universe, and how do the films sit alongside other cinematic depictions of revolutionary war?
A People’s Revolution
As its opening text famously declares, Star Wars is set both a long time ago and in a galaxy far, far away. Through the course of the original trilogy we are introduced to aliens, epic space battles, and characters empowered with effectively magical capabilities. That one may seek to draw parallels between the world inhabited by Luke Skywalker and our own history may appear far-fetched, therefore; not least with the insurgency fought by Mao in mainland China between 1927 and 1950.
Scratch beneath the series’ science fiction trappings, however, and what soon emerges is a story with far greater worldly significance. Indeed, parallel to Luke Skywalker’s personal journey is that of the Rebel Alliance – an aspiring insurgent movement, formed with the goal of toppling an authoritarian central government. Its character is clearly that of an armed insurgency. By the time Luke Skywalker joins the rebellion it has already grown to assume the trappings of a traditional military force, complete with regular ranks, insignia, and significant military capabilities of its own. Most importantly, it is also unmistakably a popular insurgency. By this it is meant a movement that draws its members from across society, utilising the population as a key strategic resource in its goal of overthrowing the government. While the weapons with which the rebellion is fought may be alien to us, its essential character is one that would thus be familiar to observers of many of the insurgencies of the 20th Century – be they in China, Malaya, or beyond.
Key to a popular insurgency is the possession of a cause capable of inspiring support, and it is in this that we find the first key similarity between the Rebel Alliance depicted in Star Wars and the concept of insurgency described by Mao. More than any other factor, Mao stressed the critical importance of a popular cause in staging a successful insurgency. It is only by possessing such a factor that the insurgent may begin to prise the population away from the government, effectively turning them into a resource to be exploited by the insurgency itself. Through such successful manipulation the population may increasingly be induced to provide material aid to the insurgency – for example in funding, in armaments, or in manpower. Equally, by becoming the people’s champion, the people may in turn provide crucial shelter to the insurgent, allowing them, in Mao’s famous dictum, to ‘move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea.’ This is crucial at all stages in the insurgency, but particularly so in its earliest phases when the government maintains a vast advantage in material strength, and the insurgent is only beginning to build up its power base.
What form a popular cause may take is open to interpretation. Mao defined it merely as ‘an unresolved contradiction’ in society, and across its 20+ years his own campaign championed many issues. The fact that the Rebel Alliance possesses such a cause, and that this cause is instrumental in providing both cohesion and support to the movement is, however, beyond doubt.
Our first introduction to the Rebellion’s popular appeal comes almost at the very beginning of the Star Wars universe. In the opening act of A New Hope Luke’s adopted family are murdered in a clear example of extra-judicial killing. This is but one of numerous demonstrations we are privy to of the brutality of the Empire’s system of government, and the manner in which its rule creates fertile ground for the Rebellion to grow. While it may have originated within a democracy, by the time Episode IV begins the Empire has grown to take on its full authoritarian form. Power is centralised in the hands of an all-powerful Emperor and exercised through a system of local governors. Order is brutally maintained, including through the routine use of torture. And while there is a pretence to the rule of law, it is a system that is ultimately safeguarded by the instrumental use of terror. Note how the Death Star – very much the ‘MacGuffin’ of the original trilogy – is described by its commander not as a weapon of war, but primarily as an instrument to maintain political control through fear. It is for this reason that Alderaan is destroyed, and it is in direct response to the Empire’s system of brutal rule that Luke, Leia, and even criminal elements such as Han Solo are inspired to pick up arms in rebellion. Faced with such ruthless oppression, even scoundrels may become freedom fighters.
Revolution In Stages
To possess a popular cause is one thing. To successfully overthrow a government is another matter entirely, however. Fortunately for the would-be insurgent, Mao also outlined a strategy for achieving precisely this aim. Based on his own experiences in mainland China, Mao’s approach envisages taking an insurgency from its humble beginnings through to supplanting the government as the main political authority. It is a strategy that influenced not only many insurgencies of the 20th Century but, judging by their actions, evidently the leaders of the Rebel Alliance as well.
At the centre of Mao’s strategy is the concept of a revolutionary war fought in stages. Mao recognised that during the early stages of a rebellion the odds are stacked heavily against the insurgent. The government holds the advantage not only of superior forces but, whether through loyalty or coercion, also effective control of most of the territory. It would thus be foolish for a fledgling insurgency to assault the government head on. One failed battle and the movement could be snuffed out entirely. Rather, the insurgent must start small, building support at the local level while simultaneously avoiding the government’s counter-insurgent forces.
This is precisely the approach taken by the Rebel Alliance. Though the films offer only tantalising clues as to the movement’s origins, recently, a new animated series, Star Wars: Rebels, has begun to fill in the missing details. Set 20 years before the events of A New Hope, the series follows a small group of rebels as they attempt to subvert the Empire’s hold over a backwater planet. Tellingly, the tactics employed by the rebels are precisely those advocated by Mao. The rebels are organised into a small resistance cell, with contacts to other insurgent groups deliberately limited lest the wider organisation be infiltrated by counter-intelligence forces. Outmatched by the government’s military might, the rebels limit their actions to staging hit and run attacks, targeted acts of sabotage, and political subversion. While their resistance is often armed, importantly, at no stage is the goal of such acts to overthrow the government directly. Rather, the intention is to spread the Rebellion’s message of resistance, growing the insurgent movement over time and, with it, its political and military strength.
Revolutionary Endgame: The Battle of Endor
Clearly the Rebellion’s strategy is one that bears fruit. By avoiding engaging the government’s forces directly and subverting the regime politically, the Rebellion builds up its strength to the point that by A New Hope, small bands of fighters have grown into a semi-regular military force. It is at this stage that, according to Maoist theory, the revolution enters a perilous but potentially decisive stage. Having built up its military capabilities into that approaching a regular army, Mao argues that the insurgency should abandon guerrilla warfare in favour of launching a conventional military campaign. In essence, after years of operating in the shadows Mao advocates that the insurgency step into the open and engage the government head on.
As a strategy this is not without risk, and many of the insurgencies that attempted to follow Mao’s model floundered at precisely this stage. The problem is easy enough to anticipate even if its solution is not so readily apparent. By stepping into the open too soon the insurgency risks a military defeat that may set it back years, or even decades. Mao himself suffered numerous reversals in his campaign against Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government, at one point losing so badly that he was forced to retreat to a rural hinterland – an episode better known as the ‘Long March.’ Yet by remaining in its safe areas for too long the insurgency risks losing the support of the people, or suffering at the hands of the government’s counter-insurgent efforts. In insurgency, as in comedy, timing is clearly everything.
For its part the Rebellion appears aware of this dilemma. Throughout the original trilogy we see the Rebellion opt to retreat rather than engage the Empire’s forces in the field. This occurs after its base is discovered at the end of A New Hope and, more spectacularly, at the beginning of The Empire Strikes Back. From a tactical point of view this makes sense. For all the jokes about Stormtroopers’ inability to shoot straight, the Empire’s forces are clearly superior, both on the ground and in the air. Yet in order to win the war the insurgency must clearly do something to break the Empire’s political control. Like Mao, the Rebel Alliance’s solution is to seek a military victory, confronting the Empire in a dangerous but ultimately decisive battle at the end of Return of the Jedi.
It should be noted that, as far as engagements go, the Rebellion is exceptionally lucky in the outcome of The Battle of Endor. Recognising that military defeat would be a catastrophe for the Rebellion, the Emperor deliberately tempts the insurgents into amassing their forces in one location, so that they can be destroyed. The fact that the subsequent battle turns ultimately in the rebels’ favour owes as much to the insurgents’ luck as it does tactical skill.
Yet it is in the strategic consequences of the battle that the Rebellion is most fortunate of all. By the close of Return of the Jedi the Emperor and Darth Vader are dead, the Empire’s (second) Death Star is destroyed, and with it we can presume a sizable portion of its fleet. To employ the language of strategic studies, this is a hammer blow against the Empire’s ‘centre of gravity’. In one battle the Rebellion has destroyed the very thing that the autocratic Empire cannot survive without. In this case its political leadership, as well as a significant portion of the fighting power that underpins its authority.
It is worth noting that as decisive as the battle may be, the Empire is not completely destroyed in this encounter. The trailers for The Force Awakens indicate that some sort of rump imperial state survives the rebellion, much like the Chinese Nationalists themselves survived after retreating to Taiwan. Nevertheless, for an autocratic, essentially dynastic state to lose its political leadership is a defeat that cannot readily be compensated for. The Rebellion may have stumbled into a trap, but they mange to emerge with a more decisive victory than could possibly have been hoped for. Mao, ever the advocate of a final ‘annihilation campaign’ against one’s opponents, would approve wholeheartedly.
Lessons from Cinematic History
Any comparison between the cinematic universe of Star Wars and our own requires taking a degree of creative licence. The fact remains however that, as a representation of both the challenges and strategy of insurgency, Star Wars deserves consideration alongside such other cinematic classics as The Battle of Algiers and The Wind that Shakes the Barley. As well as echoing many Maoist principles, the films provide an exemplary demonstration of how not to conduct a counter-insurgency campaign. While considerations of length prevent this article from considering the issue in depth, the Empire’s strategy throughout is to seek military solutions to a problem that is essentially political in nature. Of Mao’s many legacies, it was his recognition that an insurgency is first and foremost a political endeavour that was arguably his most influential. A government may attempt to employ force to eradicate its opponents, but unless it addresses the underlying political grievance that gives it force, the movement will continue to grow. In this as in other areas, the films provide a lesson as relevant today as when A New Hope first entered theatres over forty years ago.
Timothy Collins is a PhD candidate in the War Studies Department at King’s College London.
Timothy Collins is a PhD candidate in the War Studies Department at King's College London.