I was recently faced with the task of reconciling the subject of real life military strategy with science fiction campaigns.
Before I go any further, this task felt like a duty sent to me from the gods, and one that I will happily engage in as time becomes available.
The conversation was broached by an attorney acquaintance who demanded an answer to just why the hell the armor of the white-clad bad guys in the world’s favorite space opera didn’t seem effective at all. The discussion that followed was brief, but solid and to-the-point. The words that follow will expand on that discussion, which followed the central problems in why the Galactic Empire’s force of stormtroopers on Endor (also known as the planet of the Ewoks) were unable to squash the comparatively primitive local forces they were up against.
The answer has multiple components. The main revolves around a saying from the youth of the English-speaking world:
“Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Or, in this case, your blasters won’t. The basic meaning as understood by young folks is that there are subtleties to take into account, but once accounted for can be defended against.
This will take some explaining now, which I assume is fine. The only reason you’re here in the first place and not doing your work or engaging in some personal hobby is that you’re bored and need something to do. Unless reading deconstructionist writing on the Internet is your job, or your hobby. If it’s the former, I commend you. If it’s the latter, I commend you.
I would give you the TL;DR version but then you wouldn’t stick around. Get it? Stick?
Here goes: Blunt force trauma killed the Empire. The reason that all that armor on all those stormtroopers on Endor didn’t amount to shit was blunt force trauma. In the middle ages the knights wore armor and everyone else just died relatively quickly by slashing, cutting, stabbing, and all the mean nasty stuff that went along with it. But, there was another risk of getting involved in medieval fights – crushing blows.
Heavy weapons such as broadswords, great axes and hammers were meant to pulverize as well – easily able to disable enemies by breaking arms or legs or necks. Swung well they could also shatter rib cages and skulls, or bursting organs. While even the wounds inflicted by the edges of weapons couldn’t be considered clean, those inflicted by blunt instruments were agonizing, brutal and long ways of dying.
Fast forward to current times. Or, if you prefer, rewind thousands or millions of years and cross the universe to a galaxy far, far away. In this place, the military largely uses armor to both protect itself and add some uniformity to its ranks. This white armor, much like metal stuff of Earth’s history, was generally made to stand up to the weapons of the time.
So it can follow that the stormtroopers of the Galactic Empire, however inept they’ve been shown to be in the movies, were at least able to stand up to regular fights. The reason we think they can’t is because we’re watching the Hero’s Journey play out. In this, the protagonists are equipped with generally more resolve and resource than the everymen they’re fighting on behalf of. So when we see Han Solo, Luke or Chewbacca blast a stormtrooper to death, it shouldn’t be considered ordinary. For them, the perfect storm of circumstances has developed that will take them on their journey past the scores of enemies they must deal with.
It’s also important to note that Chewbacca’s bowcaster, and presumably Han’s blaster, have been significantly modified because they are legends and scoundrels in their own right. Why wouldn’t they have increased their firepower to achieve maximum burn/penetration power over the typical armor rating of their enemy?
So the armor in itself is effective, but can be overcome by the outlying actions of others. And because this is a Hero’s Journey, there will be many outlying actions.
Fast forward to the battle in question on Endor. Here, we have a numerically inferior force inserted into a foreign (presumably hostile) geography with unknown intent for the primitive local population, against a numerically superior force outfitted with mass produced armor and weaponry and an Empire’s worth of resources at its disposal.
So what happened? Sticks, stones and hubris.
Emperor Palpatine readily admitted his own arrogance on the topic when confronted by Luke on Death Star II. Through precognition he had likely seen the future outcome, but dismissed it as a statistical outlier because he felt the small rebel force operating on information he’d allowed to fall into the hands of couldn’t possibly be ingenious enough to overcome his technology.
The command would have had access to all manner of battle tactics proven through the Clone Wars decades earlier. While fighting forces often adjust for the present based off the last battles fought, tactics from a war spread out over an entire galaxy would have had too many campaigns to keep track of successfully. So they took the average tactic – (white) armor and blasters and battle formation – and tried to apply it against an indigenous force that they hadn’t counted on in a hostile (green) environment.
So hubris of the supreme commander allowed an untested force into this environment on the hopes that it would succeed on technology alone. We can make the assumption that this was an untested force, because they were government shock troopers who were overcome in the course of a few hours by a primitively-equipped insurgency. Their lack of experience made them unable to react quickly enough to stave off murder at the hands of these diminutive fuzzballs.
Their armor would have protected them from basic blaster fire, but not against stones dropped on their heads by gliders 100 feet in the air or stick-built hammers to the rib cages. Shattered bones and internal bleeding would have finished the job.
So, hubris got them into the mess in the first place. Sticks and stones just finished the job. The supreme command had its eye on the prize, which was closer than ever – the Heroes were nearby, the ambushes were set both on the ground on Endor and in the space surrounding the now-operational Death Star II, and the loyalty test was about to pan out for the second-in-command.
With all those plans coming to fruition it only made sense to forgo any operational planning that dealt with the primitives. Except we saw how that turned out. In going for the Big Win, the Emperor focused only on the major outcomes and their preceding details, not the operational facets that ended up in his death.
Which is why sticks and stones can sometimes take down moon-sized lasers, even if the defense force is wearing armor. Or, when the odds are stacked in your favor, it’s sometimes most appropriate to get creative about where things could go wrong, even if that means looking as far or wide as the subtleties of a children’s message.