Author’s Note: What follows is an article I wrote for the comedy website Cracked. It was eventually rejected, but I’d put so much work into it, I decided I should post it somewhere else.
Let’s face it—ruling a galaxy-wide empire is pretty hard, even with an army of automatically subservient clone soldiers who can’t hit anything. Here on Earth we’ve never managed to pull off a single truly global empire. The Star Wars universe has HUNDREDS of worlds it has to keep in line. Granted, it helps that apparently those worlds each have only one climate for the entire planet, but still, at the end of the day, you’ve got to admit that the emperor has a pretty tough job.
Now, far be it from me to suggest I have any experience in the business of galactic rule. I mean, I may have studied how to become a global dictator in my spare time (and who hasn’t?), but when it comes to maintaining that totalitarian state… well, I’ll admit I’m a little fuzzy on the details. But even so, it seems that there are a number of points where the Sith leadership repeatedly screws up.
(Note: for the purposes of this discussion, I’ll be relying on the movies, and not on the EU, as even Lucas himself views them as two separate canons
6. Poor Management Practices
The utter lack of safety protocols weakens underling loyalty. The discouragement of personal initiative keeps officers from making quick decisions in critical moments. The apparently abysmal workplace training renders their soldiers incapable of hitting anything.
And the blatant nepotism renders ambition meaningless, as there’s no way you’re rising to the top unless you’ve got freaky mind powers. But then, nobody wants to be promoted anyway, because that exposes you to the worst Imperial management practice: Vader’s annoying habit of choking his underlings.
We get that randomly sacrificing minions is part of being an evil ruler. No, really, we do. Every mastermind worth his salt has killed at least one hapless messenger on a whim, just to keep things interesting. It keeps the troops in line, it shows that you mean business, and it keeps people from making fun of that ridiculous mask you’re wearing. And when it comes down to it, it’s not as though the Empire is running out of stormtroopers.
Except here’s the thing. Vader and Palpatine never kill stormtroopers. The most readily replaceable of their minions, people who are practically by definition expendable, and they instead waste their killing chi on talented, high-ranking officers with years of irreplaceable experience.
In A New Hope, Vader half-strangles Admiral Motti, the Death Star’s Second-in-Command.
Various people have pointed out what an idiot Motti had to be to mouth off to Vader like that, but that doesn’t change the fact that Vader practically kills one of top experts on the station they’ve been building for years, probably one of the best people to discover the fatal flaw that destroyed the station—at least, if Vader hadn’t scared him shitless.
In The Empire Strikes Back, Vader remote-strangles the incompetent Admiral Ozzel, who screws up the invasion of Hoth. (although he’s hardly alone in that, but we’ll talk about that later.) But so far as Adm. Ozzel’s failures go, they largely consist of contradicting Vader’s unqualified assumption about a random droid picture, and coming out of light speed a little too late. And unquestionably, he knows a lot mo re about handling a fleet and keeping troops in line than a clone soldier fresh out of his vat does. If he’s not up to being an admiral or making surprise attacks on Rebel Bases, demote the guy to a position where his experience will be more useful and his incompetence less important. Unless, of course, he’s going senile and crapping in his uniform all the time.
Killing Ozzel, as pointed out by a little magazine called Forbes, completely restructures the entire command structure of the fleet during the very process of the Imperial assault, which might explain why five Star Destroyers are unable to catch a single rebel transport. It’s only one of the mistakes on Hoth (more on that later), but it’s a very avoidable one.
And in Return of the Jedi, Vader responds to the Death Star Commander’s request for more resources with an utterly uninsightful threat.
Threats do not effective leadership make. In this particular case, Vader’s threats almost certainly caused the poor Commander to skimp on critically important parts of the Death Star, like railings on bottomless pits, reactor safety protocols, and a proper defensive shell around said reactor.
What Vader doesn’t seem to realize is that, by killing experienced and valuable officers either for disobeying him, making mistakes, or just dissing his religion, he’s destroying personal initiative and any sort of personnel review, to say nothing of any desire to be recognized for service. Hence why no officer ever dares to question or improve on the Empire’s…
5. Poor Tactical Thinking
Presumably, the Empire was once good at tactics. Hey, they took down the Separatists and won the Clone Wars, right? Except that wasn’t them. That was the Jedi. For some reason, Palpatine ensured that the only people who’d gain any experience in battlefield tactics were the folks he was planning to kill (thus setting a dangerous precedent for his apprentice.) Palpatine is a politician, not a general, and Vader is little better, as they show by a series of terrible mistakes.
It’s pretty well acknowledged that the Empire should have blown up Yavin, and also probably not put their shield generator on a planet full of hostile teddy bears. But that’s just the start… there’s also the inexplicable lack of any sort of defensive fleet around the first Death Star,
See, a WMD like the Death Star is pretty cool, so long as you have one gigantic target that needs being destroyed. If you have a thousand smaller targets that are flying all around, it’s actually pretty useless. That’s why you back it up with a few Star Destroyers, so rebel scum can’t just fly up to those exhaust ports and dump in a photon torpedo.
The Death Star is a huge commitment of time and resources. Any good strategist would know to protect said resources with more than just an easily permeable deflector shield and a half-dozen anti-spacecraft towers. These days we have things called “carrier groups,” which consist of one enormously powerful aircraft carrier and several cheaper, more expendable combat-oriented ships to ward off pesky rebel scum.
The Death Star is just the beginning. There’s also Vader’s boneheaded decision to send huge hulking gunships into an asteroid field in pursuit of a smuggler’s vessel, Palpatine’s equally thick choice to NOT FIRE on the rebel fleet attacking the second Death Star, and, to crown it all, the disastrous battle of Hoth. The first two are emblematic of larger problems that the Empire has, so we’ll get to them further down. Hoth, though, is a purely tactical scenario, and the Empire bungles it terribly, just managing to stumble to a Pyrrhic victory that gains them very little.
Vader’s plan starts out sound. His intuitive jump that a random probe image is a rebel base is a bit much, but whatever, he’s a space-wizard. On arriving at Hoth, and finding the planet covered by a shield, he follows the reasonably tactical plan of sending in the ground troops to take out the shield so that the Destroyers can unleash orbital bombardment and grind the base into snow powder. This makes sense–although others have pointed out that he could have simply covered the lone exit point while using the ground forces to force the Rebels off. Still, hindsight 20-20, right?
Here’s where things get less excusable.
First of all, the troops apparently all land in a single line and come straight at the base from the same direction. That’s the sort of battlefield tactics that went out with Napolean. Second of all, the Walkers have no air cover. Some TIE fighters could have severely messed up those Snow Speeders and saved dozens of Snowtrooper lives. A few squads of guys in trenches, with only a few laser artillery cannons and a couple harpoon-speeders, manage to hold off five enormous walking tanks.
Third, once the shield is down, VADER comes down and personally assaults the base.
The reason why this is so ridiculous is it counteracts THE STATED PURPOSE of the assault. The whole reason Vader choked Ozzel was because the rebels saw him coming and raised the shields so the Destroyers couldn’t do their orbital bombardment thing. The whole point of the ground assault was to destroy the generator so that the Destroyers COULD do their orbital bombardment thing.
So why, once that has been achieved, does Vader personally come down into the base, completely preventing any of the destroyers from doing their orbital bombardment thing?
If he was going to do that in the first place, why not go on board with the AT-AT Walkers? Why choke Ozzel if the plan was always to go through on foot and seek out Luke’s friends personally. Literally the only purpose it serves is for Vader to enter the hangar bay, glare at the Millenium Falcon, and then walk back out. It even ensures he’s not there to direct the “blockade,” which doesn’t actually seem to prevent anyone from leaving.
Wired’s excellent appraisal of Hoth says it best.
What did the Empire gain at Hoth? It had the opportunity to deal the Rebel Alliance a defeat from which the Rebels might not have recovered: the loss of its secret base; the loss of its politically potent symbol in Leia; and most of all the loss of its promising proto-Jedi in Luke. Instead, Luke escapes to join Yoda; Leia escapes with Han to Cloud City (where Vader has to resort to Plan B); and the Rebel Alliance’s transport ships largely escape to join up at a pre-established rendezvous point, as we see at the end of the film.
At the very most, the Empire’s assault on Hoth killed a couple of low-ranking Rebels and destroyed a few transit ships — which we don’t even see on screen. Instead of crushing the Rebels, it scattered them, leaving them to survive for the additional successes they’ll achieve in Return of the Jedi. It’s a classic fiasco of overconfidence and theology masquerading as military judgment — and the exact opposite of the Empire striking back.
4. Poor Engineering
Of course, the battle of Hoth was a crapshoot to start with, because of how heavily it relied on AT-AT walkers. These unstoppable machines of destruction have a crucial flaw in their design–they can only fire in one direction. If anything comes at them from the side, or runs circles AROUND THEIR LEGS, they’re basically helpless. This is an especial problem because it’s also a really, really bad idea for anything, no matter how heavily armored, to be that easy to spot on the battlefield. It opens them up to artillery and laser cannon fire and all sorts of things.
Then again, this sort of poor engineering seems to be something of a theme in the empire.
Basic utilities like trash compactors move with abysmal slowness. Their shield generators go up from a single tiny charge. Storm trooper armor breaks down under simple blunt trauma. They leave gaping holes in their space stations. Some people have even claimed that the infamous stormtrooper inaccuracy is not the fault of the troopers, but the terrible guns they’ve been given (or the terrible helmets–theories vary)
What’s especially baffling about this is that not only do the cash-strapped rebels seem to have EXCELLENT engineers (ref. the X-Wing), but also that the Empire started with such wonderful prototypes. Look, here’s the first draft version of the AT-AT walker.
It is literally better in every single way than the AT-AT walker. Lower to the ground. Sneakier. It can shoot in more than one direction. The main gun is a bit more vulnerable, maybe, and it doesn’t look as impressive, but this thing isn’t going to get tripped up by some punk in a speeder with a harpoon gun.
How did the Empire get WORSE at war machines?
Worst of all, the empire can’t build a stable reactor to save their lives. Literally. Every one they make seems to spontaneously explode from a few missiles. When Lando and his men fly into the reactor, all they have to do is shoot two sparkly bits to send the whole base in a giant fireball. Apparently there were no safeguards in place to handle a reactor meltdown.
Which is weird, because a reactor meltdown is precisely what destroyed the last Death Star. There, the engineering was so bad, a single exhaust port destroyed the entire base. At this point, we’d be prepared to believe that the Empire’s Engineer corps are actually secretly on the side of the rebellion, maybe because of how their representatives are treated.
3. Obsession with Destroying Planets
Actually, though, the thermal exhaust vent is fairly realistic… with a project that big, a few flaws are unavoidable. But that underlines the central problem with the Death Star… it’s way too freaking big. Chickens may (apparently) not exist in that galaxy far, far away, but still the emperor should know the danger of putting all his eggs in one basket. If all that funding had been spent on more Star Destroyers, better fighters, or more accurate firearms, things might have turned out very differently.
Destroying planets is undeniably a major part of how the Empire operates. Palpatine gets started on the whole Death Star business practically before he even really starts to take control, and the rebels no sooner destroy one than the Empire builds another to take its place. I know we said we were ignoring the expanded universe, but it’s worth noting that this apparently goes on even post movies, involving planet-eaters and a friggin “GALAXY GUN.”
Except… what’s the point of destroying a Galaxy? Or even a planet? Particularly a planet you own? To some extent, the Death Star makes sense in the Separatist War, but once the Empire is running the show, blowing up one of their own worlds makes about as much sense as Russia nuking Chernobyl on purpose.
Planets, even ones with globally uniform climates, are generally recognized as being pretty valuable. They’ve got rocks and metals and chemicals and things. And a habitable planet, which is what the Death Star is more or less designed for, is even more valuable, given how they have plants and food and oxygen and stuff.
The Grand Moff Tarkin seems to think the Death Star is wicked cool because it gets everybody scared of the Empire so they’ll obey them. Machiavelli! Ruling through fear, right?
Nope. Actually, sustained use of the Death Star (which is the only policy that makes sense, given the expense) is too extreme for Machiavelli’s Prince, even if you ignore the fact that the whole work is a parody.
Cruelty, which is itself evil, can be used well if it is applied once at the outset, and thereafter only employed in self-defense and for the greater good of one’s subjects. Regular and frequent perpetration of cruel actions earns a ruler infamy.
But here’s the thing, Moff. That sort of thing works only if you manage to draw a clear connection between loyalty and survivability in the minds of your subjects. For instance, if you want to drive home the point that traitors die, what you DON’T do is kill the planetful of people who weren’t bothering anyone.
Anyone with a master’s degree in political tyranny should be able to explain to Palpatine or Vader why killing Leia is more worthwhile than destroying Alderaan. But no one does, because hey, Force choke. And that’s too bad, because this whole issue also underlines…
- Prioritizing Targets
Quick question. You’ve just personally led an assault on a rebel base hidden on an iceball of a planet. Due to your incompetent admiral, the rebels were warned before you arrived, and due to a series of incompetent officers that have NOTHING to do with you killing their admiral and throwing their ranks into disarray, all of the rebels have escaped.
Do you a) follow after any of the major transports that flew right past your Star Destroyers, b) torture the survivors on where the rebels were supposed to meet up, or c) send the whole fleet after the three-man, two-droid crew on the rickety smugglers vessel with a knack for outwitting Imperial officers?
If you chose c, congratulations! You get to live another day without the cold grip of the force around your throat!
Chasing after Han freaking Solo is a bad enough idea to start out with, but Vader sends Star Destroyers into an ASTEROID field after them. C-3P0 calculated the odds of Han’s tiny, manueverable ship making it out of the field, what do you suppose the odds of a big bulky Star Destroyer are? Shouldn’t TIE fighters have marginally better odds? Can’t those fighters be deployed from outside the field? Isn’t having big bulky star-cannons inside an asteroid field kind of self-defeating?
Sure, that means that when Han finally DOES make a run for it, there’s a Star Destroyer right on top of him. But that just underscores how ridiculous a plan this was from the start. Han has already outmaneuvered three Star Destroyers. Whaddaya know, the tiny smuggler’s vessel turns faster than the oversized gunboat, and before you know it, Han’s turned Vader’s poor fleet management into his hiding spot. Vader, meanwhile, instead of reflecting on this experience and learning from his mistakes, vents his rage on the hapless captain following his orders.
Meanwhile, bounty hunter Boba Fett finds Captain Solo on his way to Boba Fett, practically minutes after being hired by Vader. Hey, Darth, maybe you should have hired the expendable private contractors earlier, you know? Because your earlier plan… GARRGKRERRRGH…
With all this loss of men and equipment, Vader better have a damn good reason for hunting down one rebel princess, one smuggler, his furry companion, and two wisecracking droids. He’ll have some explaining to do to the Big Hood. So what’s Vader’s great excuse for wasting half a fleet on someone he could have sent a bounty hunter after? Oh, that’s right, the great Imperial catch-all…
1. Sith Religious Bias
But of course, the reason for these messed up priorities is the Sith war against the Jedi. And that’s hardly surprising, because when you look at it, all these messed up policies come from the Sith religious bias. Their tactics are centered around their belief in their own “visions” and non-existent tactical skill. They kill their underlings freely because they don’t consider none-Force-users important. They’re unimpressed and careless about maintaining the technological edge because lightsabers are the only tech they think they need. Except for Death Stars, of course, because… actually, that still doesn’t make sense.
Because hey, if the Force is the ultimate power in the universe, why bother with the whole technological terror in the first place? Surely the emperor and Vader can do stuff like that with their eyes closed, right? Right?
Remember that guy we were talking about at the beginning? Head Engineer of the Death Star, probably the best person to find and detect that fatal exhaust port? Guy who Vader nearly kills? Remember why exactly Vader nearly killed him? Oh, right, for claiming that the Death Star was more powerful than the Force.
First of all, we’d like to point out that at no time in the series does any Sith OR Jedi destroy a planet with the Force. Not even close. Super-Jedi Yoda moves a dinky spaceship with the Force, and THAT’S supposed to be a huge deal.
Second of all, this sequence underscores a major problem with the Sith Imperial Leadership… namely, the fact that they’re Sith. And it doesn’t matter how stupid the project is, if it’s a Sith thing, you can’t even suggest that maybe your big planet-killing laser is better.
Vader’s big excuse for that hugely wasteful pursuit of Captain Solo and Company was basically just to recruit his not-yet Jedi son into the Empire. That’s pretty extreme nepotism, and not at all a sound use of resources. But it gets worse. To convert Luke to the Dark Side, Vader and the Emperor both BRING Luke into the command center, UNCUFF him, and GIVE him a freaking LIGHTSABER. They thought about handing over a couple thermal detonators too, but they were worried he might hurt himself.
It’s really not a surprise to learn Palpatine wanted Vader to die the whole time. Heck, at this point we’re surprised the emperor wasn’t trying to get HIMSELF killed. Basically, for the sake of gaining one wimpy teenager with some fancy tk powers, Palpatine is risking the Empire’s high command. But oh well, it’s not like he’s staking the fleet on this gambit or…
Let’s be clear. If the imperial fleet had been allowed to go nuts on the rebels from the minute they had them surrounded, Admiral Ackbar and his people would be toast. Lando Calrissian and his chubby little dwarf friend would be scattered all over some TIE fighter’s windshield. X-wing-shaped bits of debris would have been raining down all over Endor long before Han could have come up with his clever little idea. Basically, we’re saying the Empire was all set up to triumph.
Now, we get that villains gloating in their hour of triumph is mandatory. We also get that it’s what causes them to lose, 90% of the time. Palpatine sets all this up, traps the main leadership of the last pocket of rebels in a desperate strike against his entire fleet and then… blows it. To impress his buddy’s son.
What’s worse is that it doesn’t even make sense. How does sparing the rebel ships help to turn Luke to the Dark Side? Seems like watching all your friends die in front of you would do a lot more to set your average hero on the road to evil than watching them just… sit there. And fight.
Palpatine’s tactical thinking here is extremely poor, and when you reflect that he killed all the military leaders from the last war, it’s not hard to see why. Especially since he’s presumably spent the last 20 years surrounded by yes-men too scared to point out the flaws in his own ideas. Probably anyone actually IN the Emperor’s fleet could have done a better job of leading the fleet than the Emperor. Unfortunately for them, by the time his misguided practices catch up with him and he kicks the bucket, things are too far gone for any sort of recovery.
Guided only by an exceedingly unclear and ineffective religious code, Palpatine and Vader have both failed to build sound governing policies and pursue logical strategic thinking, wasting myriads of resources on insignificant ends. In fact, when all is said and done, it’s less surprising that the Empire collapsed, and more surprising that it lasted as long as it did.
Turns out Motti was right all along, and if Vader wasn’t angrily rage-choking anyone who said boo at him, he might have realized that the man had a point… fun as the mind-tricks and the lightning and the TK abilities are, they’re actually NOT as strong as the planet-destroying laser, or the thousands of soldiers, or common sense in the battlefield.