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Stormtrooper hitting his head

Why the Empire always loses

Seven-minute read

It’s really all TK-421’s fault.

He wasn’t at his post, a mistake that led directly to the destruction of the Death Star1. Abandoning an assigned post is a fundamental violation of military protocol.

It’s similar to “I forgot to bring any bullets” in its forehead-slapping stupidity. It’s a court martial offense.

While the temptation might be to personally blame Mr. 421 for the error, his actions are really a sign of greater underlying problems in the Empire’s military training regimen. A certain sloppiness is evident.

It’s the kind of thing that allows a legion of the Empire’s best troops armed with lasers to be defeated by teddy bears throwing rocks. Or that allows the Empire to lose despite the Rebels’ tactical genius admiral leading his entire starfleet into an obvious trap.

One could blame these failures on the Empire’s ego-feeding need to make a big show of crushing the Rebellion in a single battle, which fails repeatedly. But we’ve only ever seen the broad strokes of these embarrassing military campaigns. We never saw the Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead view of events.

George Lucas intentionally left stormtroopers as vague, faceless enemies,2 mere tools of a remorseless Imperial machine. He even went so far as to make them easily replaceable clones in the prequels.

Even after six movies in which Stormtroopers were featured heavily, we knew little about them other than:

  • They’re usually taller than Luke Skywalker
  • They can’t aim for shit
  • They bonk their heads on things a lot.
  • They’re aware that the new T-17 is finally coming out

The two most recent movies, The Force Embiggens and Rogue One Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, are the first to give us a more grunt-level view of military life in the Empire and First Order. FN-2187 – aka Finn – and Bodhi Rook.3 are the first Empire/First Order foot soldiers given any kind of major role.

While it is true that Finn (John Boyega) isn’t an original trilogy Stormtrooper, the First Order is a direct descendant of the Empire and clearly holds to its military traditions4. It’s made clear that the Stormtrooper training program was revamped in response to earlier failures, but seemingly not for the better.

Finn, who has been trained as a Stormtrooper since childhood, shows almost no military discipline or ability. His counterpart Mary Sue (Daisy Ridley), despite her background as a dirt-poor orphaned peasant, shows far more acumen at planning and escaping, not to mention calm under fire.

Finn scores poorly for weapons and trigger discipline and doesn’t seem to have much in the way of fighting skills. TR-8R5 kicks his ass easily despite the fact that Finn has a goddamned lightsaber. Mary Sue, who has no military training, uses the same lightsaber to fight off a Sith Lord. Overall, it’s a very poor showing showing.

Rogue One’s former Imperial star fleet pilot Bodhi (Patrick Swayze) doesn’t fare all that well either.

While Top Gun has led us to think that being a military pilot is mainly about making furtive, longing glances across the locker room at fellow pilots, actual flight training and operations involve a lot of careful procedures that must be followed precisely to avoid disaster. Even a cobbled-together band of rebels pilots knows the importance of protocols such as radio discipline, as Wedge Antilles is chided to “cut the chatter” during the Battle of Yavin.

Bodhi is a graduate of an Empire military academy and flight school. He’s a junior officer with the rank of ensign. He’s not only a stick and rudder man. He would serve as commander of whatever craft he was flying.

In Star Trek terms, he’s Wesley Crusher to Finn’s redshirt. He’s a far more trained, far more educated, far more responsible individual than cannon fodder like stormtroopers. Or, you’d think.

Yet he’s an even bigger hot mess than Finn. He’s a ditzy scatterbrain who, like Finn, doesn’t seem as if he received any military training or discipline. He’s nearly useless in planning the assault on Evil Space Google that ends the movie.

Snarky Robot Slave K-2SO (Hoban Washburne) does most of the flying and is responsible for saving the crew from the exploding remains of Jebbush City 6 by flying way from the scene much like a leaf on the wind might.

What’s notable in both Finn and Bodhi, though, is not lack of skill but a decided lack of loyalty.

Finn is shaken by the death of a stormtrooper who was his – BFF? BAE?7 – and promptly deserts, only to, a few hours later and without hesitation, drill blaster shots into his former comrades’ chests. His lack of loyalty shows up again when, after finding out the stakes of Mary Sue’s mission, he decides to bolt the scene and sign onto a freighter.

Bhodi decides to join the Rebellion “because reasons,” although giving characters things like “motivations” or “story arcs” or “dimensions” didn’t seem to be a strong point for the Rogue One writers.

Such unmotivated disloyalty points to deep problems in the Empire and First Order’s lower ranks. Traitors commonly feel that whoever or whatever they have turned against betrayed them first. Paying back this original slight is how they justify their own betrayals. For example, Mark Felt, a.k.a. “Deep Throat” began leaking to The Washington Post after being passed over as FBI director.

But that doesn’t seem to be the case here. Finn and Bhodi are just untrustworthy.

Military training is supposed to use our innate, evolutionary propensity to form tight social bonds – tribalist, really – in small groups. It’s said you don’t fight for a cause, you fight for the guy next to you. Finn and Bodhi don’t even do that. They head for the exit.

Even if we set aside poor skills on display, the Empire’s military training seems to be fundamentally flawed at turning men into soldiers.

It’s why TK-421 didn’t see a need to stay at his post. Or Finn put his own wellbeing above that of others. Or Bodhi turned so easily. Or Stormtroopers are chatting about spaceships instead of guarding the important tractor beam controls right at a key moment. Or your chief deputy you saved from a lava pit throws you down a 10,000 story reactor shaft.

Poor training is why the Empire fell. Well it didn’t actually fall. It underwent liquidation wherein it sold its core assets to Supreme Leader Snape then followed that up by a rebranding and relaunch. Kinda like AOL or Yahoo.

  1. Some blame also lies with the guy who let the blockade runner’s escape pod go. Dude, they’re not paying you to bring back ammunition.
  2. It’s worth noting that Lucas here is doing what propagandists have been doing for years. By depriving the enemy of identity and playing to prejudices he can kill them by the thousands onscreen and no one cares.
  3. Real subtle character naming there, Star Wars writers. Why not just name him Knowthings McDoomedguy?
  4. Such as getting its giant space lasers blown up. Amiright?
  5. Who, by the way, is a ginger.
  6. An explosion that, unlike all other explosions large and small, seems to have no explosive wavefront moving at supersonic speeds that would have crushed the escaping ship like a bug.
  7. All those young stormtrooper dudes and the only woman is Capt. Phasma. Situational homosexuality in the Stormtrooper corps must be rampant.