Of course we are all familiar with the Battle of Yavin, the heroic triumph of the fledgling rebel alliance over the Galactic Empire during which the first Death Star was destroyed. This engagement allowed the rebels to demonstrate that they were more than a simple band of malcontents but rather a true force to be reckoned with that could deal real and significant damage to the empire. Surely, this victory served as a tremendous propaganda boon to the rebellion as well as a source of legitimacy and credibility in the minds of the Empire’s many dissidents. This along with the destruction of the Death Star placed the first crack in the Empire’s facade of indestructibility. But was the victory worth it? Sure, the rebellion dealt a high profile blow to the empires image and avenged Alderan but what damage did they do to its actual ability to govern or conduct counter-insurgency operations? And at what cost?
To determine whether the Battle of Yavin was folly or genius we must consider the aims and structure of the rebellion at the time of the battle . Clearly the newly formed rebel alliance was not an organization capable of waging protracted war or even fighting pitched battles with the highly professional Imperial Navy and Army. Judging by the composition of their standing force they were geared toward raids and quick interdiction missions. A Squadron of fighters and a squadron of fighter-bombers were all they could muster at Yavin, hardly a force capable of taking on an imperial fleet. As such I think it is reasonable to assume that the Rebellion at this stage was organized along the lines of a classic, three phase Maoist guerrilla force. They had certainly surpassed phase one in which the guerrillas earn popular support by distributing propaganda and attacking the organs of government. They appear to have achieved phase two; escalated attacks launched against the government’s military forces and vital institutions (ie. the Death Star), yet were struggling to achieve phase three, conventional warfare and fighting used to seize cities, overthrow the government, and assume control of the country.
As well as operating along the guidelines very similar to Mao’s they seem to have subscribed to a school of thought similar to Che Guevara’s Foco theory. According to Foco theory a vanguard of cadres moves from location to location fermenting rebellion and garnering support. This describes the role Princess Leia plays perfectly in A New Hope. When we first meet her she is shuttling information vital to the Alliance along with another rebel leader Bail Organa. It doesn’t seem like a big stretch to imagine that her and Bail traveled widely influencing senators and portential financiers to support their cause. It’s clear from the film that she is a known member of the Rebel Alliance in A New Hope. She must have continued in this role after the Battle of Yavin as well into the future.
Having established the modus operandi of the rebellion we can properly evaluate the success of the Battle of Yavin. Without a doubt the battle appears to be a tremendous victory on the surface but did it help the rebellion advance itself to the next phase of guerrilla warfare? I believe the answer is categorically no. Consider what the rebellion lost and how long it took them to regain their position. They threw everything they had at the Death Star and lost not only 90% of their fighter forces but also the entirety of their ground operation. The secret base on Yavin had to be abandoned along with whatever logistical, and command and control equipment had been established there. This essentially pushed the rebellion back to phase one. They had to regain everything and it would be four years before they achieved their former strength at the Battle of Hoth where again the rebellion almost lost everything. Indeed the doctrine of operating from secret bases must have been flawed from the very outset. Thankfully the Alliance abandoned this method after the defeat at Hoth and moved to a strategy of operating from a moving headquarters in space. A moving target is much harder to hit than a stationary one.
By the Battle of Endor, a good five years after the Battle of Yavin, the Alliance had obviously just reached phase three. They had accumulated a fleet capable of taking on the imperial Navy in a direct engagement as well as the logistical and financial support necessary to keep such a fleet in supply suggesting they had the backing of several worlds and very wealthy financiers. But could this have been achieved sooner? Did the Battle of Yavin delay the inevitable fall of the empire? Had the Rebellion not lost everything it had that day might have they been able to organize themselves and achieve critical mass earlier? Perhaps, perhaps not. Yes the rebellion was set back materially for years but it is entirely possible that the destruction of the death star was what spurred the Alliance’s future backers to support their movement. Additionally, having achieved such a powerful propaganda coup against the empire must have drawn recruits to their banner from across the galaxy. In the battle of men and materials Yavin was surely a pyrrhic victory for the rebellion but in the battle of hearts and minds it may have done more for their cause than even the largest battle cruiser ever could.