Systems, Not Sith: How Inter-service Rivalries Doomed the Galactic Empire

So I’m a regular contributor now over at Overthinking, with my own byline and everything. My latest post is up today, so if you’re interested in reading 2500 words on Star Wars, read on:

“There’s no reason for having a Navy and Marine Corps… We’ll never have any more amphibious operations. That does away with the Marine Corps. And the Air Force can do anything the Navy can do nowadays, so that does away with the Navy.”

—Secretary of Defense Louis A. Johnson, December 1949

Dangerous to your Star Fleet Commander, not to this battle station… This station is now the ultimate power in the universe. I suggest we use it.

—Admiral Motti, Imperial Navy

In Star Wars, the Empire is presented as a monolith. Storm Troopers, TIE Fighters and even Star Destroyers are supposedly just indistinguishable cogs in a massive military machine, single-mindedly pursuing a common goal. This is, of course, a façade – like all humans, the soldiers and Officers of the Imperial Military will each have their own interests and loyalties. The Army is going to compete with the Navy, the Fighter jocks are going to compete with the Star Destroyer Captains, and the AT-AT crews are going to compete with Storm Troopers.

In fact, our very first glimpse of the Imperial High Command is an argument between the Army and the Navy about the strategic vulnerability of the Death Star. The stakes are high: For the Navy, the Death Star represents the ultimate in bureaucratic power-grabs, a guarantee of perpetual dominance on top of the Imperial pecking order. For the Army, the Death Star represents the potential death of their service as a viable political force.

This type of rivalry isn’t unique to the Empire—the argument between General Tagge and Admiral Motti isn’t even specific to the Death Star. In the aftermath of World War II and the dawn of the nuclear era, the newly formed US Air Force made a concentrated effort to become the foremost military service, arguing that between long-range bombers and nuclear weapons, there would be no further need for the Navy or Marine forces. Like Admiral Motti, they argued that any military problem could be solved by flying to the scene with the biggest weapon available and blowing the problem up – thus making the other services irrelevant.

Inter-service and intra-service rivalries are just an expression of the office politics that plague every large organization. The way that those systems are designed determine the effect of those rivalries on the organization’s effectiveness. The high-stakes of Imperial rivalries and lack of checks and balances in the Empire’s political system ensures that petty personal and inter-service politics would have dramatic negative effects on the overall effectiveness of the Imperial military. This resulted in myopic strategic thinking, shoddy acquisitions and ineffective tactical operations that combined to doom the Empire.

Systems, Not Sith

Nowhere is inter-service rivalry more apparent than in the lead up to the Invasion of Hoth in Empire Strikes Back. After coming out of light speed, an Army General reports to Vader that the Navy fleet has come out of light speed – a clear attempt to cut Admiral Ozzel off at the knees. Vader’s view of the situation is completely colored by the Army’s spin on the situation. Instead of allowing the Navy to give a report (and a possible justification for the strategy), the Admiral gets killed, the Army gets the glory, and CAPT Piett moves up a slot after learning a valuable lesson about the utility of throwing his Army colleagues under the bus.

I’ve made a terrible mistake.

The US military isn’t necessarily different – individuals are still heavily motivated by their own ambitions and interests. 1-star Generals still want to be 2-star Generals, and Navy officers still have personal and professional incentives to skew things against the Army. That advancement, however, doesn’t carry the same weight as it does in the Imperial military. Becoming a Grand Moff in the Imperial Military means a governorship and dictatorial power over an entire planet—failure is punishable by a painful, public death. Getting on the Joint Chiefs of Staff means a hefty retirement check and a gateway into a cushy civilian job – failure is punishable by early retirement with a slightly smaller check and gateway into a slightly less-cushy civilian job. The stakes of Imperial inter-service rivalries are devastatingly high.

Even more importantly, there are a variety of checks and balances inherent in the US system that prevents the worst effects of inter-service rivalry on mission accomplishment. The different branches debate their strategic priorities publicly with oversight by elected officials; an independent media can critique ill-conceived procurement plans; and public pressure in response to casualties force reforms of ineffective tactics and operations.

The decision making process in the Empire is “efficient” in the sense that decisions can be made quickly, but utterly inefficient in the sense that it relies solely on the Emperor and his cronies to make perfect decisions 100% of the time. Because of the high stakes, the only objective of an Imperial Admiral or General is remaining in the Emperor’s good graces – and the lack of independent oversight means that their own mistakes will be covered up and rival services will be undercut whenever possible. This is not unique to the Galactic Empire. In World War II, the rivalries between the Imperial Japanese Army and Imperial Japanese Navy were so intense that they had a special name, “Gunbatsu.” At one point in in the 1930s, factions within the Army  even tried to assassinate Admiral Yamamoto to prevent him from interfering with their plans for war (a feat which they later accomplished by having terrible, terrible, cryptography).

In the United States, the decision making process is a multipolar system with extensive checks and balances. When the Air Force tried to establish long-term dominance over the Navy, Air Force Generals successfully convinced both the President and Secretary of Defense of their strategy. In the Empire, that would have been the end of the discussion. In the US however, the Navy fought back in the media, leading to the so-called “Revolt of the Admirals” and Congressional hearings on the future of military spending. When war broke out in Korea, nuclear weapons were never used due to a fear of public outcry and Soviet retaliation – and the Navy was still around to provide the crucial amphibious invasion at Inchon.

Myopic Strategic Thinking

The Death Star is the apotheosis of the Imperial Navy’s drive for dominance of the Imperial Military, and the Imperial Navy’s single-mindedness about their “Technological Terror” is evident throughout the series. With it, they guarantee that an Admiral will always be at the helm of the “ultimate power” in the universe. Despite the Army’s (accurate) objections that the station is vulnerable, the Navy convinces the Emperor to build not one but TWO different battle stations that can be destroyed by a small fighter shooting a single shot.

The Navy’s fixation is almost pathological—when Leia gives up the supposed location of the Rebels on Dantooine, the logical next step would be to go to Dantooine and blow up the Rebels. If Leia is lying, they can always come back to Alderaan and threaten to blow it up again. To Tarkin and the pro-Death Star faction, however, demonstrating the “full power of this station” is the most important objective of all. Dantooine is “too remote to make an effective demonstration,” so they blow up Alderaan and lose whatever leverage they might have over Leia.

Even a fully operational and non-vulnerable-to-proton-torpedo Death Star is not a sustainable plan for long-term governance. “Fear of this battle station” will not keep the systems in line – as Leia points out, “The harder you squeeze, the more systems will slip through your fingers.” Just like the Soviet Union found it couldn’t just nuke all of its problems away, rebellion would be a constant fact of life in an Empire dependent solely on the threat of planetary destruction. The Empire’s strategic thinking surrounding the Death Star is woefully inadequate.

(Click here to be redirected to for Page 2….)


About thinklikeafox

I'm a Naval Officer living in Southern California. I hope to be attending law school in the next year or two, and I started writing this blog out of a desire to improve my writing and critical thinking skills after a couple years outside of academia.
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One Response to Systems, Not Sith: How Inter-service Rivalries Doomed the Galactic Empire

  1. This was great. Really fun. And you plugged more plot-holes in the original trilogy than Lucas himself could have done. Best line: “It’s not surprising that Storm Troopers never hit anything – their blasters are made by whichever contractor has the most political clout with the Imperial Command.” Hah!
    Now if you’re really up for a challenge, try explaining away the zillions of problems Red Letter Media found in the prequel trilogy.
    Thanks for a great read. This is what the Internet is supposed to be.

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