Now that America's long war is getting longer, it's worth getting some outside perspective on what that war's all about, with all its twists and pitfalls. In short, it's worth asking George Lucas.
They call it Star Wars for a reason. Lucas drew much of the inspiration for his sci-fi saga from the Vietnam War, which was winding down when he wrote his first rough draft in 1974. Four decades later, we find the Jedi locking lightsabers with "terrorists" and "insurgents" in Lucasfilm's animated epic, Clone Wars, which drew to a close after six seasons earlier this year.
Here are seven ways that cartoon universe highlights the messy intricacies and unintended consequences that characterize modern war.
1. Insider Attacks
One of the most greatly anticipated scenes in the prequel trilogy came in 2005's Revenge of the Sith, when Clone Troops turned their guns on their unsuspecting Jedi generals, ruthlessly murdering their former comrades in cold blood. 2014's Clone Wars: The Lost Missions revealed the sinister back story behind the Clones' treachery, when a "malfunctioning" Clone surreptitiously sneaks up behind his Jedi general, dropping her to the floor with a blaster shot at point-blank range.
In Clone Wars, Clones can't help but kill their Jedi generals; the Dark Lords of the Sith programmed them to do so. In Afghanistan, Afghan troops have turned on their mentors for a variety of reasons, many of which are purely personal.
2. "The Sinews of War"
Let's face it: Countering an insurgency isn't cheap, whether they be religious fanatics in far-flung mountain regions, or battle droids on, well, far-flung mountain planets. "Endless money forms the sinews of war," Cicero is reputed to have said.
If you're the US Congress, you can always continue to spend money you don't have by raising the debt ceiling. For the Galactic Republic, however, there's always the option of de-regulating the banks and ask the InterGalactic Banking Clan for a few trillion more credits, as we see in the episode "Pursuit of Peace."
InterGalactic Banking Clan? Sounds legit.
The Banking Clan's nefarious plot involves lobbying the Galactic Senate to deregulate banks, whereupon they can offer the Republic a loan with an exorbitant interest rate. Granted, it's not as diabolical as slaughtering every man, woman and child in the Jedi Temple, but it's still pretty evil.
Nevertheless, the Senate—despite being systematically bribed, blackmailed, and beaten into submission—still manages to defeat the bill, thanks to an impassioned plea from one of Padme's humble aides, who cites the financial burden working class has borne to finance the war.
As for us, we simply paid the banks $700 billion.
Lucas' early filmography—including THX-1138—was laden with anti-corporate screeds, a theme which continued through his later work in Star Wars. But by 2002's Attack of the Clones, his lackluster scriptwriting relegated that motif to ham-fisted references to entities such as the "Corporate Alliance" and the "Trade Federation." Coming from a man who made billions of dollars marketing Star Wars merchandise, the tirade is as off-putting as a Starbucks-fueled Occupy Wall Street manifesto typed on a MacBook Pro. Fortunately, Clone Wars—ostensibly written as a Saturday morning kids' show—does the topic justice.
3. Terrorists or Freedom Fighters?
Perhaps the best depiction of the war in Syria came not from the news, but from a four-part story arc from Clone Wars' fifth season involving a raging insurgency. Indeed, the dialogue in the scene above, which opens up the 2012 episode "A War on Two Fronts," could have easily been lifted from the pages of Foreign Affairs.
In the clip, the Jedi Council ponders the deteriorating situation on Onderon, a ruled by a Separatist-backed puppet regime. Anakin Skywalker, perhaps channeling his inner neoconservative, proposes a bold plan—igniting a proxy war against the ruling party in Onderon in an attempt to win the planet over to the Republic.
As a bonus, Anakin's plan would bleed valuable resources from the Separatists. (It's not dissimilar to the way Syria's dictator relied on heavy financial backing from Iran and Russia to wage its fight against anti-government forces, including some unsavory elements we're now combating.)
Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda, however, urge restraint: overthrowing a legitimate ruler would set a dangerous precedent in intergalactic affairs—besides the risk of escalation, it would also make the Republic potentially responsible for supporting intergalactic terrorism. That's never stopped the CIA, but hey.
Anakin dismisses Obi-Wan's concerns, noting that the insurgents on Onderon aren't "terrorists", but rather, "rebels"—harking to the heroes of the original Star Wars films. (Perhaps that's why commentators have occasionally referred to "good" insurgent groups in Syria and Libya as the "Rebel Alliance".)
Yoda finally concedes, allowing the Jedi, along with a handful of civilian-clad Clone Troops, to land on Onderon in an unmarked shuttle and contact the rebels on Onderon. Though the Jedi and Clones are armed, and their boots are definitely on the ground in Onderon, their mission is to simply advise the insurgents, not engage in combat.
It's a mandate that lasts all of about ten minutes of air time.
4. The Enemy Gets a Vote
The Jedi and Clones make contact with the insurgents and begin training them in small-unit tactics. Unfortunately, the insurgent base is located by one of those pesky drones—erm— probe droids. Soon, the rebels and the Jedi find themselves under withering fire from a battalion of battle droids. The Jedi and incognito Clone Troops are forced to halt the droid onslaught. For non-combat advisors, it looks an awful lot like combat.
5. An Insurgency in its Death Throes?
But while the rebels have begun to master tactics—proving adept at picking off dozens of battle droids—they can't come to grips with an overall strategy. Some favor more aggressive tactics; others caution that overwhelming military force, while successful against battle droids, may alienate the local population. It's like counter-insurgency in reverse.
Nevertheless, our heroes realize that they need a spectacular victory—which, according to insurgency theory, may persuade the local population that the insurgents are the more likely of the two sides to win, and thus bolster their support.
The episode concludes with a successful attack on a major power station within the city. Making the episode more poignant is the fact that it aired less than one month after Taliban forces infiltrated Camp Bastion in Helmand province, killing two U.S. Marines, and destroying or severely damaging eight Harrier jump-jets—the Marine Corps' largest loss of aircraft since Vietnam.
6. MANPADS are an Insurgent's Best Friend
Most insurgencies, successful or unsuccessful, end quietly. Unless of course you're in the Star Wars universe, in which your entire insurgency tends to concentrate itself in a secluded base. And as always, there's a giant death machine out to destroy that base. Unrealistic? Sure. Convenient plot device? You bet.
Such is the case with the final episode in our Syria story arc, " The Tipping Point," in which droid gunships pummel and harass the hapless insurgents. With the rebels losing ground, Jedi Padawan Ahsoka Tano sends an urgent message begging the Jedi Council for help.
Obi-Wan and Anakin discuss their options: How best to a) destroy the giant flying death gunships and b) disavow any Republic involvement?
Give yourself a cookie if you answered, by turning to an international black market arms dealer to smuggle a batch of shoulder-fired Man-Portable Air Defense missiles for the insurgents.
The analogy should be obvious:
Arming the Afghan mujaheddin against the Russians. What could go wrong?
7. Insurgents May be Bad, But Their Masters Can be Worse
But unbeknownst to both the Republic and the Separatists, the Sith secretly control both sides in the war, and they have no intention of letting it end. Darth Sidious and Tyrannus arrange for the entire Separatist peace delegation to be "accidentally" killed in a Clone Attack. After that, and a droid suicide-bomb attack on the Coruscant power grid, both sides double down on their war efforts.
What does this have to do with modern war? A few months before this episode aired, the Taliban's second-in-command, Mullah Baradar, was arrested by Pakistani intelligence services—along with half of the Taliban's ruling Quetta Shura. One theory is that Pakistan moved against the Taliban leaders because they were negotiating with the U.S. and Afghan governments to end the war— just not on Pakistan's terms.
If that was the goal of the arrests, it certainly worked. The Clone Wars series is over, but the Afghanistan war lives on.
Crispin Burke is a serving US Army officer who blogs on military affairs, Star Wars, and occasionally, military affairs in in the Star Wars universe. The author's opinions are his own and not those of the Department of Defense. Follow him on Twitter at @CrispinBurke.
[Photo credits: Wookieepedia]