The Jedi Way of War

Posted: July 31, 2012 by blogtarkin in Uncategorized
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Editor’s Note: Today’s guest post come from US Army officer Jon Jeckell, who studies complex adaptations to war and has been analyzing science fiction since the days of usenet. Here he takes a close look at disruptive conflict long ago and far away.

Chancellor Palpatine’s conspiracy to seize control of the Republic is central to the plot of the Star Wars series. Clearly a key part of his plan involved confusing, misleading and preoccupying the only other institution in civil society capable of recognizing and countering the usurpation and centralization of power—the Jedi Order.i

Palpatine deflected Jedi skepticism of the war by manipulating them to agree to lead it, with the premise they would avoid the need for war through their traditional role as diplomats and peacekeepers. By taking part in the government by leading the war, they devolved to just another interest group within the government, gradually ending their immunity to political infighting and culminating in charges of treason. The Jedi were not only distracted from their role in upholding the rule of law during Palpatine’s political plot by taking a leading role in the war, but cognitive biases inherent being part of it prevented them from taking a wholly objective, critical view of it. Veneration and respect for the Jedi institution, their powers and skills, their selflessness and wisdom placed their reputation among society beyond reproach. No one questioned or criticized Jedi performance in the war, even when the war raged directly above the capital at Coruscant. Surely the casualties from huge pieces of spacecraft and debris falling into a heavily populated city seen at the beginning of Revenge of the Sith would’ve prompted some public curiosity about the war. Even if some technology, such as shields or point defense systems deflected or destroyed debris before it fell on the city, the spectacle would’ve been impossible to ignore. Yet life seemed to go on as if it never happened. Lack of public involvement and discourse deprived the Jedi of badly needed outside perspectives and diversity of ideas. Public faith in the Jedi institution, their supernatural skills, and the vast resources provided by the Clone Army obviated the need for citizens to fight in the war and lulled them from even paying attention to it at all.

While it seems the Jedi would be the only institution competent in warfare after thousands of years of peace, they were the worst possible choice on many levels. What institution within the Republic retained any practical knowledge of warfare? Some private institutions and individual planetary governments, such as Naboo, had their own modest security forces, but the Republic seemed to lack any other institution capable of employing coercion on behalf of the state. This study will elide the political, policy and civil society aspects and focus on explaining why the Jedi Order were a uniquely poor choice to lead the Grand Army of the Republic. Although it superficially appears the Jedi are the only ones capable of taking on this burden, they suffered from numerous institutional biases and a philosophy that impeded their ability to understand what was happening or adapt to realities of their new role. Leading a massive Army was not a linear extension of the skills the Jedi possessed, and they lacked the ability to gain those skills.

Although the Jedi were renowned diplomats and keepers of the peace, they were not politicians or strategists, and never critically examined the Separatist’s grievances to identify the root causes of the conflict. Without understanding the causes of conflict, they failed to develop a theory of victory. Without this, they merely continued to pursue of the Separatist leaders and the destruction of their army after the first engagement. They failed to reframe from their roles as individual combatants to leaders of an Army for a multitude of reasons explored below.

The Jedi had become arrogant (Yoda says as much), complacent and convinced they possessed all knowledge worth knowing. The librarian at the Jedi Archives dismissed Obi-Wan Kenobi’s query about a planet he heard about that was not in the archives by briskly declaring it does not exist if it is not in the records. As Obi-Wan’s friend told him earlier, the Jedi have forgotten the difference between knowledge and wisdom. The last indication that the Jedi recognized their limitations was when Mace Windu told Palpatine they were keepers of the peace, not soldiers and that there were too few Jedi to fight a war. Even this last shred of self-doubt was swept away after the fortuitous arrival of the Clone Army to rescue a Jedi commando raid gone horribly wrong. Mace Windu led a large team of Jedi on a mission to rescue hostages(of Obi-Wan Kenobi, Padme Amidala and Anakin Skywalker) and to capture Separatist key leaders on Geonosis. Although he launched the raid hastily in desperation to save hostages from an execution already underway, they blithely ignored strong intelligence indicators that the Separatists had a large conventional force in the area. The Jedi were flushed with a false sense of victory by the providential arrival of enormous resources that turned the tide of the battle in their favor. Fortune forestalled further doubts about their abilities and the Jedi failed to learn lessons on how to use this new army wisely. Even though the battle entailed profligate losses, Yoda alone seems to recognize that this was just the beginning of the war and not a final victory, but fails to implement any institutional changes to adapt to their new role to lead the Army. Absence of outside skepticism and suppressed internal dissent, doomed this closed, oligarchic organization to fall prey to groupthink and fail to see broader implications of the battle. Lacking a diversity of ideas to draw from impaired their ability to comprehend what was happening and made them ill equipped to adapt.

Planning and strategy are anathema to Jedi philosophy, which relies upon using the force to guide them.ii . Daniel Kahneman provided an extensive look at different forms of thinking, both deliberate (rational) and instinctive in Thinking Fast and Slow.iii While instinctive modes of thought (without the force) can provide superior results in their proper context, particularly if instincts are honed and refined with experience, they can also be dangerously misled and lead to biases and dangerously bad results in others. Perhaps the Jedi can normally get by without calculating, planning, or developing deliberate strategies through their use of the force to foresee the future. However, although they are all aware someone using the dark side is deliberately clouding this ability, they continued to rely on it exclusively, disregarding solid intelligence and credulously acting on false information fed to them. They failed to develop alternative intelligence, decision-making, and planning models to compensate for their degraded senses. Clearly they have not faced a Sith in a very long time, or these battles involved were more directly focused among force users.

On the tactical level, they failed to evolve beyond the familiar individual fighting styles and develop basic tactics or lead the Clone Army. Yoda appropriately exploited the speed, shock, surprise and firepower provided by the Clone Army to air assault extract Mace Windu’s failed Jedi assault force at Geonosis. What followed, however, demonstrates the Jedi failed to understand the fundamental shift in warfare and their role in leading it.

The Jedi have a penchant for melee combat with lightsabers, and at first blush, leading from the front and setting the example are admirable qualities. But because they were too busy fighting, they failed to step back to organize, coordinate, and lead using anything resembling acceptable military tactics.

The Jedi value complete selflessness and acceptance of fate in battle, and view attachments as dangerous. Perhaps this is why they were undaunted by the grievous casualties suffered among the clones. Lab grown soldiers programmed for obedience and lacking ties to the rest of society obviated the need for accountability, outcry over casualties or the need to use them wisely. Were clones even considered people, or merely replaceable tools?

Of all the frontal assaults in science fiction, this is the most egregious. The leaders possessed values that should have caused them to recognize and value the well being of their troops. The organization valued reflective thinking and wisdom above all else. They had vast resources, time, and the option to do it differently.iv Once they recovered the hostages and the enemy leaders fled, why didn’t they commence an orbital bombardment of the enemy ships concentrated neatly on an open plain? Shields? How about a blockade to trap them and place them under siege? Perhaps the Separatists had local space superiority preventing a successful blockade? Even if a ground assault was the only option, the execution was ghastly.

Clone Troopers at Geonosis "Thumbs Up, let's do this...Leeroy Jen..GAH"

Clone Troopers at Geonosis “Thumbs Up, let’s do this…Leeroy Jen..GAH”

Not only did the clone troopers literally wade slowly forward into battle without using any cover while firing their weapons from the hip, there was no sign whatsoever of any coordination among them. It was a vastly scaled up brawl of millions of individual fights rather than a cohesive battle. They continually inserted fresh troops directly into the middle of the battle rather than in a safe landing zone or better yet, to maneuver for the enemy flank. Even when Yoda or others give commands, they are directing individual weapons systems to fire on a particular target, not to establish the synergy of combined arms and maneuvering units. A special team of commandos linked up with Mace Windu and he led them on a charge directly into the center of the battle! Countless clone troopers marched into a the machine onslaught. Every droid they destroyed could be easily replaced on an assembly line at a comparable rate. The only attempt to break with attrition style warfare was led by Obi-Wan Kenobi by pursuing the escaping leaders, but again is attributable to the Jedi’s preferred individual role and not an attempt to guide the army.

Why didn’t the clones organize themselves into units and fight cohesively? The Kaminoans claimed that clones can think creatively, giving them a decisive edge over droids…so why didn’t they? They were programmed with accelerated learning and genetically modified to make them totally obedient. Rote instruction styles and authoritarian models do not foster creative problem solving. Their programming and training regimen probably included some organizational and fighting techniques, but since no one had recent combat experience, where did those concepts come from? It seems they were merely copied as a symmetric response to the observed tactics used in the last war by the droid army, comprised of expendable, non-living combatants. No sign of anyone revisiting the logic predicating those tactics, nor to take advantage of capabilities the clones possessed. The clones also probably had their sense of fear and self-preservation suppressed as part of their programming, which further reduced their incentive to develop safer, more effective combat skills. Even if the clones had the capacity to develop and employ tactics, perhaps those thoughts pushed aside when they were ordered directly into the fight, particularly when they saw the Jedi wade directly into battle in front of them. The Jedi, suffering from the curse of expertise, probably never gave it a second thought that the clones were aping their fighting style without access to the required supernatural abilities to match (like the ability to deflect shots with a lightsaber).v

George Lucas undoubtedly intended to convey lessons regarding democracy and civil society, but the implications for warfare were no less profound. Forsaking their role outside the government and taking part in its actions, they lost their outside view and objectivity, and compromised their ability to enforce the rule of law. Worse, they made coup charges by their enemies plausible when they appeared to become just another interest group. The Jedi had fatal cognitive and institutional biases born from their abilities and their reliance on those abilities limited their ability to adapt. This perversely resulted in the Jedi blithely inflicting unnecessary and grievous suffering and exploitation on disenfranchised living beings rather than leading them. The Jedi completely misunderstood the cause of the conflict, leading to a faulty theory of victory and subsequently a poor strategy to end it effectively. Vast resources to fight the war, free from outside encumbrances or accountability, forestalled the need to think how to use them efficiently or adapt to profound changes on the battlefield. They continued to rely on cognitive models they knew had been compromised by the enemy, and failed to adapt their model of warfare. The Jedi bravely led the men under their command on repeated campaigns of profligate, epic attrition predicated on faulty strategic aims. While the Jedi superficially seemed like the only, if not the ideal choice to fight the war, their values and abilities defined their uniquely fatal disabilities.

Special thanks to @GWG, @Starbuck_WOI, @Aelkus, @Mims, @Exolyrical, @SMSaideman, @Neilbhatiya and @zenpundit for inspiration and discussion on this topic 23 July 2012.


i The Jedi Order seems to be an institution outside the government, yet with a role in keeping it accountable, limiting power, and fostering the rule of law, similar to the role the Catholic Church had in post-Roman Europe. Francis Fukuyama discusses this in detail in Part III of The Origins of Political Order. http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/12034932-the-origins-of-political-order

ii This makes nicknaming graduates of the U.S. Army School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS) after the Jedi since at least Operation Desert Storm rather ironic.

iii Kahneman, Daniel, Thinking Fast and Slow, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011 http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/11468377-thinking-fast-and-slow

iv One discussion prompting this article nominated the climactic battle from Avatar as the worst frontal assault in science fiction. However, the opposition leader was a young former Marine corporal leading pre-technological indigenous tribes. He could have made much more effective use of the abilities and skills of the indigenous population in, say, a guerilla campaign. However, his limited military experience and mild influence with the tribes limited his ability to change the way they fought.

v Curse of expertise describes how experts often grossly underestimate the time and effort required by novices to acquire skills they possess, particularly when these skills involve large amounts of tacit knowledge the expert assumes they have. (Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting it Right When You Have To, Sian Beilock, 2010, Free Press, Ch1) http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/9309079-choke

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Comments
  1. [...] So what does a Jedi Knight think of the George Lucas’ Clone Wars? Not only did the clone troopers literally wade slowly forward into battle without using any cover while firing their weapons from the hip, there was no sign whatsoever of any coordination among them. It was a vastly scaled up brawl of millions of individual fights rather than a cohesive battle. They continually inserted fresh troops directly into the middle of the battle rather than in a safe landing zone or better yet, to maneuver for the enemy flank. Even when Yoda or others give commands, they are directing individual weapons systems to fire on a particular target, not to establish the synergy of combined arms and maneuvering units. A special team of commandos linked up with Mace Windu and he led them on a charge directly into the center of the battle! Countless clone troopers marched into a the machine onslaught. Every droid they destroyed could be easily replaced on an assembly line at a comparable rate. The only attempt to break with attrition style warfare was led by Obi-Wan Kenobi by pursuing the escaping leaders, but again is attributable to the Jedi’s preferred individual role and not an attempt to guide the army. [...]

  2. Michael says:

    “While it seems the Jedi would be the only institution competent in warfare after thousands of years of peace, they were the worst possible choice on many levels.”

    This hints at a reason for the passivity of the populace at-large. A thousand years from the last war, how many civilians would have counted themselves capable of participating in warfare at any level?

    It should also be noted that Palpatine’s position as Supreme Chancellor put him in a perfect position to keep the Jedi from thinking too much about these things simply by keeping them (and everyone else in the government) on an emergency footing–reacting instead of proacting, so to speak.

    • aelkus says:

      I wouldn’t necessarily say that there was a thousand-year peace, it was just that warfare and violent disorder was generally kept at a minimal level. Paradoxically, even low intensity warfare might work against the Jedi. Low-intensity ops and the style of small-unit leadership they prize present contrasts from other manifestations of warfare. Lawrence was tolerated by the British because he was operating in a marginal theater, carrying out a task viewed as secondary even within the framework of that theater. It was Allenby who led the decisive engagements in Palestine, and Lawrence’s eccentricities and disinterest in conventional military doctrines would have likely made him a poor commander on the Western front–where victory depended on synchronizing artillery, infantry, and early aircraft and tank units together in highly scripted operations.

      The Jedi were used as police forces and commandos. Using them as commanders in large-scale warfare would be like placing SWAT team commanders or Orde Wingate’s Chindits in charge of the US Pacific Fleet in World War II. Might they eventually adapt to synchronizing USMC forces, carriers, subs, Army ground trips, and all of the aircraft together? Sure. But at what cost?

      • Michael says:

        I wasn’t disagreeing with blogtarkin’s ideas so much as thinking about why they are true. What, for example, would keep the Jedi from sending some of their Knights and Padawans to a military academy to learn how to be effective military officers? An emergency situation that puts pressure on them to devote all their resources to the immediate crisis at the expense of longer-term thinking is what–along with a Chancellor who has a vested interest in keeping them in a short-term, emergency mode. Such an situation would also hinder any efforts to keep an eye on the public’s perceptions of them and to figure where that pesky dark-side source is.

        BTW, like your avatar. Ghost In The Shell is one of my enduring favorites.

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  22. What are the other ‘worst frontal assaults in the history of science fiction’? That’s a tough question. There’s probably a few in Halo or all those aliens-invade-the-earth movies. But I’d be curious to see the list if it’s out there.

    This was fun. Thanks.

  23. [...] Editor’s Note: Today’s guest post come from repeat contributor Jon Jeckell, who previously wrote about the Jedi Way of War. [...]

  24. […] the first post in this series, The Jedi Way of War, we looked at the tragic entangled fall of both the Jedi Order and the Old Republic. This study […]

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