New Empire, Old Problems

Dragon Con 2018 Recap: First Order vs. the Empire: Military Themes panel

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My biggest shock on arriving at Dragon Con’s First Order vs. the Empire: Military Themes panel was that they assembled actual U.S. military officers and soldiers/former soldiers to do analysis. The credentials present: two Air Force officers (at least), an Army/Jag officer, a rocket scientist that has supported NASA missions, and another whose resume I missed in the quick intro.

This lineup meant Dragon Con had officially assembled more military expertise for a panel on Star Wars films than filmmakers had when making all the Star Wars films. Ok, I kid, but it wouldn’t surprise me if that were literally true; as much as I love these films, SW military battles always struck me as being more cinematic designs than representations of realistic combat.

The panel tackled two broad questions during the hour, asking (in various ways) “what’s the difference between the Empire and the First Order?” and “has the First Order learned anything from the Empire’s defeat?” I’ve been curious about this very thing ever since seeing Star Wars: The Force Awakens for the first time and thinking so…the First Order is the Empire with a new fashion designer?

We start with military tactics. The panelists mentioned a couple of ways the First Order managed to improve. The shields over each individual tie-fighter was a welcome innovation, ending the Empire’s wasteful practice of throwing away hundreds of TIE-fighters in each battle as if they were entirely disposable. One of the AF officers mentioned that as much as he loved the Battle of Hoth, he wondered why the Empire’s ground forces had no air support—a tactical oversight the First Order seems to have rectified.

But the First Order has military weaknesses too, failing to learn some desperately needed lessons from the Empire’s defeat. Just like the Empire, the First Order chooses to put almost its entire command structure on a single ship IN an actual battle, practically begging to have it decimated all at once. Also like the Empire, it relies on technological superiority to win all its victories, hoping that fleets of gigantic ships will smash anything in its way—and thus failing to innovate in the process.

The panel argued that in some ways, the First Order even represents a downgrade in capabilities. While the Empire had many decades—or longer—to develop a stable, merit-based hierarchy and leadership structure, filled with many levels of experience, the First Order has a less cohesive and more slap-dash command. The inexplicable generalship of General Hux seems to confirm this assessment.

Speaking of Hux…he was a constant punching bag for the panel and the day’s best source of humor, referenced with a simple “Hux!” every time the weaknesses of the First Order were brought up. It always got a laugh.

Hux delivering a speech
Hux delivering a speech

So how did the panel consider the Empire and the First Order to be similar? For one, both are clear visual/thematic allegories for the Nazi regime. The panel even seemed to believe the filmmakers had doubled down on this inspiration for the First Order, especially in officer uniform design and in Hux’s big speech in TFA. Moderator Bethany Blanton and her co-panelist/brother Riley, both Air Force officers, brought a nicely edited slideshow to illustrate parts of the discussion, and it included side-by-side pictures of a uniformed Nazi officer and a First Order officer. They were practically twins; I think the main difference was that one was in color and the other in black-and-white. Another panelist suggested the Empire’s leadership felt closer to a royalty/imperialism model (perhaps like Germany before the Nazis), while the First Order looked more like classical fascism.

Some continuity between the two is practical—only 30 years passed between the fall of the Empire and the beginning of TFA, so many of the Empire’s officers and soldiers have naturally transitioned from one organization to the other. Perhaps as a natural consequence, the leadership of the First Order also gets very personally and emotionally (often irrationally) involved in the conflicts with rebellion forces (to their downfall). Neither seems very good at merit-based promotion policies, an issue that is particularly problematic for the First Order (Hux!).

For all the First Order bashing, one thing stands in their favor: their victory at the end of TLJ is much more complete than the Empire’s victory at the end of ESB. This could be as much due to weaknesses on the part of the different rebellions than strengths of the First Order, but the disparity can’t be denied. At the end of TLJ, the rebellion is down to a single ship full of individuals.

Final recommendations from the panel to the First Order: get a clearer command structure. Don’t put all your top guys on one ship. Invest in better communication practices. Can the First Order actually implement these nuggets of advice? Given that Kylo Ren is now in charge—a guy neither rational nor particularly sane—the prognosis is bleak.

That’s a good thing, remember. These are the bad guys.