Star Wars and Genre: Military Fiction and the War Story

The Dam Busters inspired the fighter and bomber action seen in A New Hope

In a series named Star Wars, it’s inevitable that war stories will influence the universe. From the beginning, Star Wars has been a universe of war and battles. The films, however, did not go into “war story” mode that frequently. A New Hope focused on the individual adventures of its heroes, only widening its scope to focus on the war being fought between the Rebellion and Empire in the final raid on the Death Star, which drew heavily from the World War II aviation film The Dam Busters for inspiration. The Empire Strikes Back opened with the frenetic ground action on Hoth, but from there became a story of Luke’s Jedi training and Han and Leia’s flight from the Empire. The prequels gave us the opening and closing battles of the Clone Wars, but declined to become simple “war films.”

The films borrowed techniques and tropes from war films when it was time to depict the big battles (the pre-battle briefings, the comms chatter during battle heavy with military-sounding lingo, the visual storytelling used to depict a battle beyond the experience of simply a few lead characters), but they did not exist simply to tell the stories of their wars. They borrowed from, but were not themselves military fiction, a term I like as it suggests slightly more specifically the defining characteristics in which I am interested: fiction that is about the military itself and concerned with military actions.

The X-wing series is the most prominent Star Wars military fiction

The Expanded Universe has followed that lead. There is usually a war, or at least a battle, and the battles often borrow from military fiction for their telling. Various historical military influences, especially as filtered through fiction, have had their own impact on the nature of the universe — the mixture of Age of Sail and World War-era naval warfare that informs the franchise’s space combat, its World War II dogfighting, large-scale ground combat that owes more to the Civil War and World War II than a realistic consideration of combat tactics in an advanced-technology setting, the medieval clashes between Jedi and Sith in sources like Jedi vs. Sith and Tales of the Jedi. Since that observation is not particularly revelatory, however, that’s not the aspect I want to focus on here.

The unique opportunity offered by the greater variety of the Expanded Universe is the chance to do “pure” military fiction, stories that are entirely or significantly about the military, interested in military details, and follow military characters and actions. The X-wing and Republic Commando series are perhaps the most readily notable military science fiction, following protagonists in military units. In the case of the Republic Commando series, the protagonists are clone commandos operating within the military sci-fi “space marine” tradition of grunts in ground combat. Michael Stackpole’s X-wing novels and comics follow the flyboys of Rogue Squadron, while Aaron Allston’s Wraith Squadron X-wing novels blend commando and aviation action.

Zulu inspired the To the Last Man storyline in the comic series Empire

These are not the only military fiction on display, however. The video game Republic Commando, as well as the X-wing and TIE Fighter video games drew from the same well for interactive Expanded Universe action. The Black Fleet Crisis trilogy prominently followed a fleet, and the politicians and commanders at home, through an entire war. It delved heavily into command structure, military intelligence gathering, and other issues of naval organization that most Star Wars novels skip, and showed a Tom Clancy-like interest in modern military affairs. To the Last Man, an arc of Empire, was directly inspired by the British colonial action of the film Zulu, which dramatized the real-life defense of Rorke’s Drift. The first Clone Wars novel, Shatterpoint, focused on telling a “horrors of war” story influenced by Apocalypse Now.

Yet, when all is considered, the amount of military fiction in the Expanded Universe actually isn’t that heavy, relative to the EU’s size. I think there could be room for a great deal more. We haven’t had a military comic series since X-wing: Rogue Squadron ended in in 1990s, but I think a comic following a military unit could provide an excellent set of ongoing adventures while playing to the popularly known, high-selling elements of Star Wars like X-wing-vs.-TIE action or stormtroopers and Star Destroyers. Fans have clamored for years for more X-wing novels, or a TIE Fighter series following the popular Baron Fel. Military-focused fiction on a larger scale, like The Black Fleet Crisis attempted, could provide an ideal path to telling a more unified story of the Clone Wars — stories about which have tended to focus on single, random battles on single, random planets rather than coherent large-scale campaigns — on a strategic level, and potentially bringing fan-favorite or established but underused characters like Pellaeon and Dodonna into use. The many untold or merely hinted-at campaigns of the New Republic would also be fruitful ground for a military fiction treatment.

Lord Hornblower, one of the Horatio Hornblower novels

There are also entire subtypes of military fiction that have yet to be fully explored. The style of heroic historical military fiction displayed in the Horatio Hornblower, Sharpe, and Aubrey-Maturin novels, which follows a heroic soldier or seaman as he fights in a war or wars and rises through the ranks in a series of adventures, has yet to be fully explored in a Star Wars context. I think it is especially promising as a way of introducing new characters or exploring existing ones. Imagine a comic series following an intrepid young lieutenant in the Old Republic’s Judicial Fleet as he tames the wild Rim and rises through the ranks in a series of naval adventures, or a set of Gar Stazi novels charting the Legacy-era Supreme Commander in his younger days as he climbed the ladder in earlier clashes.

Star Wars cannot devote its storytelling entirely to war stories and the military — massive aspects of the saga would go missing — but considering the importance of war to the saga’s storytelling, it could do much more to tell war stories and develop an aspect of the setting — the soldiers, pilots, admirals, and generals who belong among the cast — that has too often gone neglected in recent years.

Lucas Jackson

Lucas Jackson's biggest interests are history, political theory, the art of storytelling, and talking about any of the preceding three interests. Star Wars captivated his imagination at age nine when he learned that not only were there amazing movies, but an entire galaxy of interconnecting stories to discover. That appeal, of an interconnected set of stories in an almost impossibly deep setting, has kept the Expanded Universe a constant part of his life ever since. Since age seventeen, as Havac, he has enjoyed discussing that passion online with friends, strangers, and strangers who become friends, primarily via the Jedi Council Forums and Wookieepedia. Now someone has been stupid enough to give him his own forum in which to spout off.

9 thoughts to “Star Wars and Genre: Military Fiction and the War Story”

  1. “a set of Gar Stazi novels charting the Legacy-era Supreme Commander in his younger days as he climbed the ladder in earlier clashes”

    Yes, oh yes, I’d buy!

    I think the bigger problem though with the war in SW is the characters aren’t now really permitted to operate as such. In any other story, attacking an enemy shipyard to hurt the enemy would be deemed quite acceptable, yet in NJO Edge of Victory 2 that’s deemed evil! Why? Civilians got hurt, well, to be brutally honest, that’s the enemy’s problem – how many died due to the Dambuster raids? Short answer: A lot.

    So the characters are in a war setting, with all the viciousness of war but are not permitted to respond in kind, instead being strangely morally hamstrung by a perfectionism that dies as soon as war starts. I thought NJO a golden opportunity to do bigger, more military battles, with tactics and strategy but it happened quite rarely. When it was done, it was superb!

    It also had an opportunity to go further and confront the harshest aspects of war – that innocents will die and there’s little that can be done about it, even with high-tech. But that seemed a realistic step too far, despite realism tending to be understood as primarily negative. Where war’s reality is concerned, that’s not far wrong – a really realistic war story in SW is one no one would enjoy reading! But the other things felt off, the suicidal politicians, the divisions – those didn’t work for me at all – but we’re talking war here. I’ll be interested to see what you make of the political genre.

    1. The seriousness (and in many cases relative unseriousness) with which concepts of morality, ethics, and philosophy are applied in Star Wars is one of the topics I want to tackle in the future. In many cases, as you point out, we get this kind of cheap pop moralizing that’s not well thought through rather than serious considerations of the moral questions that are actually being presented.

  2. You won’t find any argument on this end at the very least. To The Last Man remains my favorite arc of the Empire series for being pretty much the only Star Wars account dedicated to the infantry. Not badass Special Forces, not glamorous fighter jocks or genius naval strategists, just the poor bloody infantry doing the dirty work that is, when you get right down to it, what soldiering is all about.

    Star Wars seems to have a problem when it comes down to these grunts. Not even so much just on the Imperial side, but also on the Alliance. We know of no Alliance ground units of any kind besides the Katarn Commandos. Even WEG’s massive untapped potential didn’t come up with too many Alliance or NR footslogger outfits to profile, while at least the Empire’s ground forces got cursory nods in the form of Zel Johans and Hell’s Hammers.

    I’m not entirely sure why the infantry have gone ignored. Maybe it’s because they lack the badass wish-fulfillment cred of Special Forces or fighter pilots. But that doesn’t mean they’re not without comepelling stories of their own—just look at To The Last Man, or David Drake’s works like Redliners, or the parts of Starship Troopers that aren’t a political discourse.

    The story of a young infantry officer would make for an excellent Aubrey-Maturin style tale of a rise through the ranks while confronting the horrors of war that his instruction breezed over, never mind what side of the war they’re on. Will it happen? Not likely in a galaxy where we know more of the GAR’s special forces guys than we do their grunts.

    Would it be awesome? I’d say so.

    1. Agreed. The non-commando army is badly underutilized. It’s harder to use glamorously and frequently, which is the main problem. I think you’d really have to commit to an OC with an in-the-trenches war story perspective, where the story is more about the experience of war and the character’s personal journey than about the specific exciting adventure or special mission he or she is on. The Aubrey-Maturin style would be a pretty good fit for a way to do that.

    2. It’s not just the infantry that goes ignored. Star Wars often tends to take an unfortunately simplistic view of the military: you have your air force equivalent with starfighter pilots, your special forces units (usually involving Jedi), your naval officers-in-space, and your basic infantrymen dying in the trenches offscreen. Very rarely do you see more specialized soldiers, such as sappers, scouts, or frogmen.

      Another topic only briefly touched upon is the difficulty armies face in seeing combat across a thousand different worlds, facing a thousand different species in a thousand different environments. Occasionally we see stormtroopers trained for certain environments, such as the snowtroopers deployed on Hoth or Tatooine’s sandtroopers, but it rarely delves any deeper into their struggles. Does their equipment suffer malfunctions in extreme environments, as the rebels’ did? Are they forced to revert to more primitive weapons, like slugthrowers? Do they resort to using cavalry units on worlds where modern vehicles are unreliable or in short supply?

      The penal battalion is another aspect of warfare with considerable potential that has gone unexplored. Given its impressive size and dedication to the pursuit of those who flaunted its laws, the Empire undoubtedly possessed many prisoners with combat experience – it would hardly be out of the ordinary to send such men and women to die in the name of the Emperor on far off worlds, rather than see such skills wasted in the spice mines of Kessel or some other dark hole. Or, if one wished to be particularly creative, it might be the Republic that once offered the condemned the chance to redeem their names on the battlefields of fringe worlds, not unlike the French Bataillons d’Infanterie Légère d’Afrique.

  3. Damned fine post, Lucas. This is definitely an area that the EU would benefit from and it would help appeal to fans like myself that enjoy the “war” aspect of Star Wars. As for your idea about a young Gar Stazi, ever since the EGTW came out and we had the epilogue story about his early years I have been of the opinion that a story set in his youth would be EPIC.

  4. “Imagine a comic series following an intrepid young lieutenant in the Old Republic’s Judicial Fleet as he tames the wild Rim and rises through the ranks in a series of naval adventures”

    An intrepid young lieutenant by the name of Tarkin, perhaps. Though I admit a certain fondness for the universe’s adherence to the conventions of older forms of warfare, there also remain significant technological advances that offer their own storytelling potential. It is one thing to destroy a world with the Death Star, but great calamity could still be inflicted by the much simpler method of redirecting an asteroid towards a planet – as was done in Mass Effect’s Bring Down the Sky DLC.

    The ramifications of planetary invasions are also rarely given the consideration they deserve. It is one thing to target a single base on an uninhabited planet, such as Hoth, and another entirely to seize a major population center like Corellia. The most effective method would be to target the planetary capital and decapitate – literally or figuratively – the major organs of government, but that still leaves the majority of the planet in a situation where it cannot be assumed that they will automatically fall into line.

    By the conventions of galactic warfare, a conflict may be considered over when the government falls, but many might disagree when they still possess the home field advantage. The battle for control of a single world and the invaders’ efforts to root out the remaining insurgency could easily present a compelling story without the need for the fate of the entire galaxy to hinge on its outcome. The world, in this case, would be quite enough.

    1. I have all the Adventure Journals, in fact, and you’re right: they were an excellent platform for giving greater depth to the universe. There’s definitely something to be said for the pen and paper approach to worldbuilding (and guidelines to keep the players from flying off the rails a few campaigns down the road): something the Sequel Trilogy could certainly take a few lessons from going forward.

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