Analyzing Star Wars Through An Insurgency Theory Lens

As insurgencies have supplanted great power conflict as the prime mode of warfare, a number of classifications have evolved in an attempt to better understand how insurgencies function. Rather than re-litigating an existing insurgency, this paper aims to understand the Alliance to Restore the Republic (or, simply, the Rebellion) from George Lucas’ Star Wars franchise through the lens of Brad O’Neill’s protracted popular war framework.

Briefly, there are three stages to a protracted popular war. In O’Neill’s work, these stages are based on the Chinese insurgency led by Mao Tse-Tung between the 1930’s and 1950. First is what he calls the strategic defensive stage. At this point in the insurgency’s life cycle, the goals are simple: survive and, where possible, organize. Eventually, the strategic defense morphs into a strategic stalemate. According to O’Neill, this period is “characterized mainly by guerilla warfare.” If the insurgency is successful in their campaign and growing their numbers and popular support, they transition to the final stage: strategic offensive. By this time, the insurgency group should resemble a more conventional military force. As such, tactics switch away from guerilla warfare to a fuller offensive.

By the time the viewer meets the Rebellion in A New Hope, they have already entered the strategic stalemate stage of a protracted popular war. They have achieved the capacity to carry out attacks against the Imperials beyond small scale violence–most significantly, an attack against the Imperial base on Scarif, which occurs directly before A New Hope’s opening scene.

During the battle, the Rebellion was able to capture the Death Star plans, which ultimately leads to the superweapon’s destruction at the end of the film. These two attacks, separated by a matter of weeks at most, deal significant blows to the Empire. The reasons for their victories are quite close to the reasons many real life insurgencies are able to combat far larger forces. For instance, the Death Star’s sole structural weakness is vulnerable only to small, nimble Starfighters. In a conventional battle, in which fleets of Star Destroyers would go up against opposing capital ships, this simply would not matter.

The same can be said of the battle on Scarif, portrayed in the final act of Rogue One. Rather than a conventional invasion, the Rebellion leans on small strike teams to harass Imperial military installments, thus distracting them from their true objective. Additionally, the Rebellion takes advantage of relatively light orbital defenses–a symptom of the Empire underestimating the Rebel’s capacity for intelligence gathering. In fact, intelligence gathering, one of the key elements of a successful insurgency, is one of the Rebellion’s strengths.

In addition to guerilla warfare, the strategic stalemate involves increased levels of organization within the insurgency. Again, the Rebellion resembles Mao’s movement. When the Millenium Falcon arrives on Yavin IV, they are met by a structured organization with a defined hierarchy. There are clear leaders the rest of the organization is willing to follow–Mon Mothma, General Jan Dodonna, and Princess Leia Organa. Similarly to intelligence gathering, this is an example of the Rebellion meeting another of the elements of a successful insurgency.

Prior to A New Hope, the Rebellion was a far less structured group. Some of these leaders were present; however, the group operated in cells, rather than as a coalesced unit with an established government. Though the films do not establish this, expanded fiction delves into the birth of the Rebellion and the process through which it became more organized.

Take Star Wars: Rebels, a TV show focused on a Rebel cell, loosely aligned with a larger group, carrying out attacks against the Empire on a single planet. As the show progresses, this group comes into contact with other, similar cells. Slowly, they coalesce into the organized fighting force followed in the original films.

A key element of Rebels is the focus on political mobilization. The characters are inspired to take up arms against the Empire by propaganda, broadcast throughout the galaxy on encoded channels. In turn, the characters inspire more small-scale uprisings against the Empire. Often, this involves inciting violence by exposing the abuses and wrongdoings of local governments. Similarly to Mao’s movement, many of their operations address material grievances, either by securing much-needed supplies or by offering an alternative to the lack of social services provided by the Imperial government.

Years later, following the events of A New Hope, the Rebellion struggles to enter the strategic offensive phase. They do, eventually, but not until the Return of the Jedi, the final film in the original trilogy. Rather than shift directly from phase two to phase three, the Rebellion is forced into retreat during the events of The Empire Strikes Back. The full retreat closer resembles the Long March than any later components of Mao’s revolution. O’Neill does broach the possibility of reverting from phase two to phase one; however, these events still fall squarely into phase two.

This conclusion is due, in large part, to the Rebellion maintaining their structure and hierarchy, despite being relatively scattered. Their government remains intact, and despite a significant loss during the battle of Hoth, they retain strong support and a critical mass of participation. By the end of Empire Strikes Back, which occurs over the course of a couple weeks, the Rebellion has rendezvoused with one another.

By the time of Return of the Jedi, a year later, the Rebellion has completely regenerated and transitioned into phase three. The Rebellion now possesses a large fleet, and controls entire planets, including a safe haven on Sullust. When they do employ insurgent tactics, they are utilized to confront lower level opponents–crime lord Jabba the Hutt, for instance. When it comes to combating the Empire, they have the forces necessary to fight a conventional war.

The film’s climax, a sprawling space battle above one of Endor’s moons, is indicative they are no longer interested in small scale attacks. Even the strike team sent to disable the shield on the ground ends up pivoting from guerrilla tactics by making inroads with the local Ewoks, who launch a full attack against the small garrison of Imperial troops. As with Mao’s strategy, the Rebellion’s victory proves to be a decisive one, and all but the ends the Galactic Civil War.