Darth Vader’s failure at the Battle of Hoth:
How did the Galactic Empire ever cement its hold on the Star Wars Universe? The war machine built by Emperor Palpatine and run by Darth Vader is a spectacularly bad fighting force, as evidenced by all of the pieces of Death Star littering space. But of all the Empire’s failures, none is a more spectacular military fiasco than the Battle of Hoth at the beginning of The Empire Strikes Back.
From a military perspective, Hoth should have been a total debacle for the Rebel Alliance. Overconfident that they can evade Imperial surveillance, they hole up on unforgiving frigid terrain at the far end of the cosmos. Huddled into the lone Echo Base are all their major players: politically crucial Princess Leia; ace pilot Han Solo; and their game-changer, Luke Skywalker, who isn’t even a Jedi yet.
The defenses the Alliance constructed on Hoth could not be more favorable to Vader if the villain constructed them himself. The single Rebel base (!) is defended by a few artillery pieces on its north slope, protecting its main power generator. An ion cannon is its main anti-aircraft/spacecraft defense. Its outermost perimeter defense is an energy shield that can deflect Imperial laser bombardment. But the shield has two huge flaws: It can’t stop an Imperial landing force from entering the atmosphere, and it can only open in a discrete place for a limited time so the Rebels’ Ion Cannon can protect an evacuation. In essence, the Rebels built a shield that can’t keep an invader out and complicates their own escape.
When Vader enters the Hoth System with the Imperial Fleet, he’s holding a winning hand. What follows next is a reminder of two military truths that apply in our own time and in our own galaxy: Don’t place unaccountable religious fanatics in wartime command, and never underestimate a hegemonic power’s ability to miscalculate against an insurgency.
I’ve probably given the art of attempting to describe fictional battles in a realistic manner a little more thought than most, given the heavy military elements in my current series. What I find interesting is how little thought goes into most such portrayals, and how obviously unfamiliar with the various military strategists most authors and filmmakers are. Now, obviously some things are just there because they look cool or allow the hero to do something heroic; the Imperial Walkers are totally ridiculous in literally every single way.
Most “military” science fiction shows no sign of having ever encountered even the most basic military concepts such as unit cohesion, leadership, and morale. This is fine in today’s SyFy world, where the readers are inordinately female and more interested in the vicissitudes of the romances of the beautiful and tactically brilliant United Nations of Earth major with naturally curly hair, who has never lost a sporting competition, a fight, or a battle, and is torn between her attraction to the handsome enemy general with executive hair and her affection for her rugged, loyal, African company commander.
The amusing thing is how these “military” writers don’t even pay attention to the most fundamental facts of militaries in the real world. For example, over 10 percent of the women in the U.S. Navy have to be shifted to shore leave every year due to pregnancy, and then receive a one-year reprieve from ship deployments or combat zone assignments after giving birth. But when is the last time you saw or read about a single female warrior getting pregnant in order to escape a deployment?
The worst example of pseudo-military action I can recall seeing was in The Return of the King, when Faramir leads a cavalry charge against Osgiliath. Now, as a general rule, even the charge of the Rohirrim against Saruman’s Uruk-Hai at Helm’s Deep was more than a little dubious, since horses resist charging towards disciplined bodies of infantry bristling with long pointy objects. But horsemen charging towards archers safely ensconced in a fortified position could only be topped by a naval invasion of Topeka by the Imperial Japanese Navy. In military history terms, it is a straightforward category error.
One of the things I’m enjoying about writing A Rash of Blings is exploring the different military doctrines, especially in light of how the availability of magic and other elements affects them. The Amorrans were obviously based on Vegetius, with just a dash of Maurice, but I will be very impressed indeed if anyone is able to identify the historical model upon which the elvish doctrine has been built.