It’s been a really big week for the Battle of Hoth. First, Spencer Ackerman laid into the faults of all sides fighting the battle at Danger Room. Immediately, insurgents responded with guerrilla strikes on twitter. A combined arms effort from the Duck of Minerva, Lawyers Guns and Money, and Grand Blog Tarkin succeeded in breaching Wired’s security and launching six counterarguments. More posts appeared, notably at Duck of Minerva, with a list of 5 imperial strategic errors and Sith religious objectives. Finally, the debate has returned home to Blog Tarkin, where we present three more takes on the battle today, before a symposium conclusion tomorrow. Enjoy!
In 1940, French historian Marcel Bloch wrote a slim volume entitled Strange Defeat, on the incomprehensible defeat of the superior French Army at the hands of the Wehrmacht. 60 years later, Ernest May wrote the complementary version in Strange Victory, an account of the improbable German success in defeating France. Many have written on the utter failure of the Imperial Navy to successfully crush the Rebellion once and for all at the Battle of Hoth, but few have bothered to explore the rather unlikely escape the Rebels made from their icy fortress. “How did they not lose?” Contrary to Spencer Ackerman’s view, the Alliance was faced with dire options and chose mostly the best available.
Ackerman critiques the Alliance for keeping virtually all of their key military players in the same location at Echo Base, but ignores the value of face-to-face, instantaneous communication among Rebel leaders. Collaboration is key to any successful insurgency, and while distributed cells might have a better chance of survival, they still require a core group to perform key coordination and planning functions. This is most effectively provided through close, personal cooperation.
The relative inconspicuousness of the base also worked in its favor. Recall that Admiral Ozzel in fact dismissed the Hoth probe droid’s reports – “My lord, there are so many uncharted settlements. It could be smugglers; it could be pirates; it could be…” – only to be overruled by Vader himself, because “the Force tells [him] so.” An insurgency can plan for only so many contingencies, and presumably an extrasensory religious detection of their base was perhaps not in the scenarios constructed by the Alliance.
Ackerman also criticizes the decision to build only one base on the planet, but Hoth, of course, is inhospitable, and presumably has only a small area of habitable terrain. As the base is located at the end of a valley, without room for maneuver, a Maginot-type static defense makes the most sense, and the Rebels are not seeking to crush any attacker; merely to fight a delaying action. This, in fact, explains the choice of most of the defensive weaponry: the ion cannon can disable enemy ships and hopefully cause additional collisions; what artillery the Alliance can even afford is designed to slow an attacker and buy time to fully evacuate. Ackerman describes the planetary defense shield as one “that can’t keep an invader out and complicates their own escape.” It’s certainly better than no shield. The small, limited openings are for the benefit of the ion cannon shots, not the transports and escorts, and in the sense of preventing an immediate and total bombardment from the Imperial Fleet is most certainly a wise decision.
If the Rebels failed anywhere, it’s in not predicting the “unknown unknowns” – that Vader was more concerned with in-person victory than annihilation and that he would be able to sense a Rebel presence from parsecs away. Mitigating Force-based black swans might be a nice idea for the armchair analysts, but faced with the prospect of frightening devastation, the Alliance’s strategy of delay and withdraw was virtually their only option.
The Battle of Hoth and Grand Strategy
The key to understanding the Battle of Hoth is not in tactical minutia on the icy surface of the planet, nor in confused imperial strategic objectives or even in the quixotic leadership of Lord Vader, but in grand strategy. As a self-contained polity facing no external foes and only a scattered and poorly armed insurgency, the greatest potential threat to the Empire’s two-man Sith regime would likely emerge from the ranks of the imperial military itself. It was not that the Galactic Empire could not have fielded a vast, overwhelmingly powerful and incomparably competent armada against the Rebellion, it was that Darth Sidious did not dare to do so.
What is most remarkable in the Star Wars-Clone Wars saga is not the size and might of the military forces of various belligerents (Separatist, Republican and Imperial) but their relative paucity and weakness for a galactic-scale political community. On Hoth we see underequipped Rebels numbering in the thousands, perhaps tens of thousands facing off against an Empire fielding six At-Ats, a division or two of stormtroopers and a small flotilla of Star Destroyers. Compared to the forces on Hoth battling to decide the fate of the galaxy, the tiny European armies of the 18th century cabinet wars were akin to Genghis Khan’s horde. This is curious. Certainly a Galactic Empire composed of thousands of star systems that in a short span of years built two incredibly expensive Death Stars, could have alternatively fielded a fleet of fifty thousand Star Destroyers and a ten billion-clone army to crush the Rebellion. That they did not was a strategic choice by Emperor Palpatine.
The closest historical Earth analog to the Empire in Star Wars was the Roman Empire, which was utterly dominant in the West between the conquest of Gaul and the migrational invasions of the Goths in the 4th century AD. During this time, the greatest threat to peace wasn’t the Parthians or barbarians but mutiny by provincial legions and Praetorian coups, which removed and installed Caesars, often in blood. Only when the legions were stretched thin and kept busy defending the frontiers did the Empire and Emperors enjoy peace and security. By extravagantly building Death Stars, Darth Sidious kept his military forces small and on a tight budget and drained all the major systems of the credits needed to build their own military forces with which they might have mounted a challenge to the Sith regime.
The poor performance of the Empire on Hoth against the Rebellion was a strategic feature, not a bug.
Mark Safranski runs Zenpundit.
May the Tech Be With You
The Star Wars world is a bleak one. Aside from the standard strata of humans, the aristocrats like Leia to the paupers like Solo, there exists a more distinct separation. The Force-enabled and the not. Able to summon electricity from thin air, jump great heights, wield weapons of light, it is no surprise that the Empire is run by those able to use the Force. Or that the Rebel Alliance, filled with battle-hardened veterans who fought day in and day out, for days, months, years in some of the most challenging environments the universe has to offer, suddenly promote the Force-empowered Luke Skywalker despite his lack of combat experience.
In a world where a wave of a hand can change minds, it is hard to say technology matters. But as the Battle of Hoth demonstrates, it invariably does. That particular engagement was an exercise in terrible technology decision making. Tanks with weapons that don’t rotate, raised onto legs reminiscent of ostriches, and move with all the finesse of an overweight wampa. Laser blasts that detonate on impact without consistent grouping. A lack of even basic infrared overlays on a ice-covered planet. The Empire’s foot-soldiers, otherwise decent men pulled from their homes and families to wage war in forsaken lands, were abandoned to the tools provided by the lowest bidder. Minor modifications could have addressed a vulnerability to harpoons. Major platform changes could have wiped out the rebel force in minutes.
But in a world that bleak, what else can we expect? A geriatric Force-abusing Emperor can hardly be expected to understand weapons systems or platforms for lowly foot soldiers. His primary advisor, however, a man/machine that relies on an advanced medical chestboard apparatus to stay alive, should have a deeper appreciation for the technology that enables him to continue breathing (albeit in a more belabored kind of way than one would want). Without getting too much into Darth Vader’s childhood trauma, suffice it to say, the man/machine took a young Obi Wan Kenobi’s advice to never give up the high ground too literally, in the form of two moon-like weapons of mass destruction. Vader’s Force-receptors blinded him to making quality technology choices, ultimately resulting in the loss of his mentor, son, men, and empire.
Shlok Vaidya is a New Orleans-based tech entrepreneurs with a counter-terrorism background.