Thoughts on Tactics: How History Affects Fiction and Makes It Believable

Not long ago, this author discovered the above picture, which discusses some fans’ thoughts on how the Fellowship of the Ring might have simply flown to Mordor to dispose of the One Ring rather than “take the long way around.” As the commenter explains, this would have been a bad idea narratively because the entire point of the adventure in The Lord of the Rings* is to destroy the Ring in secret.

Sauron does not expect his enemies to do this. He expects that one or more of them will try to claim the Ring and then move against him. That is why, in Return of the King, Aragorn takes a united army of Rohirrim, Gondorians, and other free men of the West to assault Mordor after the Dark Lord learns his heritage. His motive is to give Frodo and Sam – whom the rest of the Fellowship only hopes are still alive – cover so that they will not be discovered as they cross the wastes to Mount Doom to dispense with the Ring.

Not only is this action important narratively speaking, it makes tactical sense. The Ring is a weapon only Sauron can use; if anyone else tries, they become visible to him and fall under his sway. Or if they possess and use the Ring for their own gain, as Gollum did, they fade away into wraiths. Gollum’s Hobbit heritage is all that prevents him from succumbing to this fate, as Hobbits “fade very reluctantly” and do not become wraiths easily. That is why he is such a thin, spindly creature when Bilbo and then Frodo and Sam meet him. He has lived far longer than a Hobbit should and it has taken a toll on his body.

If one puts the trilogy in context of actual, historical combat, the Fellowship’s plan makes sense. No, it is not as safe a plan as merely flying in to attack Mordor on the backs of willing Eagles, but in the end it proves to be a better choice than storming the gates of Mordor in order to, with pomp and ceremony, do the same deed. Historically such assaults fail as often as they succeed, or the repercussions of their initial victory are lost when the enemy besieges the victors from the rear.

This is where writers in action genres – which include sci-fi, fantasy, Westerns, horror, and general speculative fiction as well as war tales – need to pay attention to how conflicts have been prosecuted in the past. A great deal of thought has to be given to each and every military campaign ever conceived and executed. From supplying the armies and navies, to how much time commanders can spare the men for rest in between and/or in preparation for battles, to the numbers needed to accomplish a specific mission, the obvious answer is not always the safest or even the best choice to win the war.

By far, Professor Tolkien’s epic demonstrates a great deal of common sense. It would be easier to take the Ring and challenge Sauron, certainly. However, as we are told several times and see exemplified in the fall and then redemption of Boromir, the results point to how unsafe that “obvious” plan actually is. If the Free Peoples of Middle-earth take that path they will secure their own enslavement to the master of Barad-dúr.

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And so they choose the apparently foolish course – and it is fraught with terrible dangers; it can be considered a suicide mission – of taking the Ring in secret to the enemy’s stronghold so they can destroy it. It is a risky decision often referred to in the story as a “fool’s hope,” but it works where open battle could not. And it succeeds precisely because it aims for the enemy’s blind spot.

Why does this author bring this up in an article discussing tactics? I put forth this premise here because I have noticed that, in a number of present stories, authors are writing with little to no consideration of how wars are actually prosecuted and won. Not every writer currently releasing a new work has this issue or has it to the degree that others do. Nevertheless, it is a growing trend and a problem, one that has to be addressed before it reaches critical mass.

One of the first tales where this lack of tactical understanding became clear to me was in the fourth season of Star Wars Rebels, an otherwise entertaining show that had so far managed to maintain a semblance of realistic combat and the necessary elements to waging a rebellion against a larger foe. While the franchise itself often confuses military terms (generals do not lead strike teams, no matter how large they may be, as a rule, nor are they put in command of naval forces), for most of its life Star Wars largely adhered to the historically recognized principles of war. Armies and navies clashed believably in the original trilogy and to a fair degree in the prequels.

Rebels’ fourth season episode “Rebel Assault,” however, did not follow this pattern. That episode sees a reluctant Rebellion preparing to attack a TIE Defender factory on the planet of Lothal. For those who do not know, the TIE Defender is a variation on the TIE fighter that includes shields and a hyperdrive. Traditional TIE fighters, such as those seen in A New Hope* guarding the Death Star, are short range fighters and therefore do not come equipped with this engine. They are meant to be deployed from a carrier and to return to it after their mission is accomplished.

Despite the fact that they are more maneuverable in space than an X-Wing, they are also cheap to manufacture, meaning the Empire can churn them out as easily as they can produce cutlery. It also shows just how little the Empire values the lives of its pilots. Run-of-the-mill TIEs come equipped with no protective measures and no means of flying to a safe haven if they are somehow separated from their carriers and there is no planet with a breathable atmosphere nearby. TIE bombers are also not equipped with hyperdrives, though they can be and sometimes are placed in these models for specific missions. Due to their payload of bombs, they also possess at least minimal shielding. Otherwise, though, they are as vulnerable as regular TIEs.

Clearly, based on this information, it makes sense that Rebel Command would want to annihilate the TIE Defender factories as quickly as possible. If the Empire mass produces this fighter, then the older X-Wings and Y-Wings the Rebellion is forced to rely upon become even more vulnerable than they are at present. While Y-Wings are notoriously slower compared to X-Wings due to their nature as bombers, they possess shields and hyperdrives, which their adversaries do not. In a Rebellion that cannot afford to spend lives and materiel, every pilot and his fighter is precious and cannot be sacrificed fruitlessly. The TIE Defenders have to go.

Cannot Get Your Ship Out: the speed zero maneuver ...

The TIE Defender

Yet destroying the factories will be no easy feat. Lothal is under an Imperial blockade, meaning Star Destroyers guard it from quick infiltration. And the admiral commanding this force is the only alien in the Empire’s ranks: the genius Grand Admiral Thrawn.

In a situation such as this, against a commander like Thrawn, achieving any kind of victory will be difficult. Thrawn is well known throughout Star Wars fandom as being a brilliant tactician – an admixture of, among others, Sherlock Holmes and Erwin Rommel. He studies his enemies thoroughly in order to pinpoint their psychological blind spots so that he may overcome them in battle, while remaining calm enough that if the encounter does not go his way, he will retreat to spare his men’s lives and fight another day. Since he usually finds any information he gains through combat as valuable as a victory, this makes physically defeating him something of a Pyrrhic triumph if the commander he is facing “gets cocky.”

Even so, given the resources he commands, the best bet the Rebellion would have would be to deploy at least a few corvettes and, perhaps, one or two larger ships to challenge the blockade. While these occupy the Star Destroyers a small band of starfighters could slip through the defense, bomb the factory, and hope to retreat to rejoin the attack force so at least some remnant could escape to safety. Thrawn can and will be brutal, but he would see more value in allowing the Rebels to retreat in order to trace them back to their hidden base, just as he did in season three of this same series.

Is the above-proposed plan dangerous? Yes. Will Thrawn see it coming and have a plan in place to stop it? The answer is likely yes. Is there a better option? As I am not trained in military tactics I cannot claim to give a definitive no as a reply. I am merely a writer who enjoys history and who does her best to observe the lessons it teaches.

Even so, I think the plan to send in a handful of starfighters to run the Imperial blockade of Lothal, unsupported by larger ships, has to count as one of the stupidest decisions any military could make. Yet this is the entirety of the force that is dispatched against Thrawn’s blockade in “Rebel Assault,” which sees a squadron of X-Wings pass the Star Destroyers with no losses, before being cut to pieces by TIEs laying in wait to protect the factories. Predictably, the Rebel force is destroyed, with only two pilots and a droid surviving the clash.

….This is not how any modern military would run a blockade in an attempt to destroy a factory – especially if they were desperate for pilots and figher planes (starfighters, in the Rebellion’s case). We know this because during World War II, which helped inspire Star Wars, fighter planes were never deployed like this by the Allies. Early on there were not even enough fighters to be sent with the B-17s and B-24s which were used to bomb German factories to cut off their supplies. The bombers – sky ships equal to at least a fictional Star Wars corvette or light cruiser – had to fly in formation to minimize their losses to anti-aircraft fire and attacks by German pilots in their own fighter planes.

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We see this tactical consideration in A New Hope. Attacking the completed Death Star, which can obliterate planets, with anything larger than an X-Wing will only waste lives and materiel that the Rebellion can ill-afford to spare. So, as the Fellowship does in The Lord of the Rings, they seek out a weakness in this monstrosity that they can exploit. Something that will allow them to annihilate this weapon of mass destruction without costing them people and ships they cannot lose.

Once they have that information, they utilize the only viable method any sane military leader would choose: deploy several squadrons of X-Wings and Y-Wings in what amounts to a voluntary suicide mission to hit the Death Star’s sole weak spot. The central laser and larger cannons aboard the moon-sized station will not be able to hit the starfighters at range, while the towers and TIE fighters that protect the surface of the Death Star will only be a threat when the fighters have closed with the monstrosity.

It is a tactically sound if horrifying choice. Every pilot in the room, every commander – including General Dodonna, the man presenting the plan – knows that most of the men listening to this lecture will likely not be coming back. The odds are not in their favor, as they would be if they were going into battle supported by the entirety of the Rebel Fleet – something we see in Return of the Jedi, where a larger number of starfighters and their pilots make it through the battle with the second Death Star. If any of the men in the auditorium on Yavin make it back to base alive, it will be nothing short of a miracle.

Thus we see the cost of war as well as the courage and strength of those who go to fight it on display in this scene. Knowing they are essentially volunteering to die these Rebels still don their flight suits and climb into the cockpit. This is what makes Han’s decision to leave before the Death Star arrives almost a betrayal of his new friends, as he is running away from the battle which these men and Luke Skywalker are willingly running into to spare other planets Alderaan’s tragic fate. It is not just the Rebellion at stake in this battle; the entire galaxy is at risk if the Death Star is not destroyed, here and now.

I do not know why, precisely, Star Wars Rebels forgot the lessons of history and its own franchise for the episode “Rebel Assault.” There are many theories which may explain this, and they have likely already been stated elsewhere by others. My own suspicions are not relevant to the point.

And that point is this: tactics matter in fiction. Whether a writer is describing single combat between two opponents or the clash of armies and navies, he has to have at least enough understanding of the underpinning mechanisms of conflict to make it believable. And while this does not require him to describe hand-to-hand combat or the movement of troops in detail, it does mean that he has to know enough about the subject not to make an error such as that seen in “Rebel Assault.”

Small strike teams – whether they are in or out of vehicles – are wonderful tools in the arsenal of the military. But they are not the sole tactic thereof, nor the best one for every situation. Even in Marvel’s The Avengers*, which sees six people stand against an alien assault force, these six were not fighting utterly alone. The National Guard was deployed to help contain the Chitauri and the NYPD, which is large enough to count as an army in and of itself, was on hand to offer aid in addition to directing civilians out of the line of fire while protecting them from harm wherever and whenever they could.

The Avengers (film 2012) - Wikipedia

In that battle, the Avengers were both the tip of the spear and the ones the enemy focused the brunt of their attention upon. That is the entire point of the Avengers, at least in the films. They are an “army of six” (and growing) extraordinary people who pierce enemy lines, drawing the majority of enemy fire. This allows their support forces – primarily made up of SHIELD agents in the comics – an easier time killing or arresting (in the case of HYDRA and others like them) the discombobulated legions they have whipped past like a whirlwind of destruction.

A writer who treats combat of any kind in his stories with the same enthusiastic lack of comprehension as a young child will not do himself or his audience any favors. And no, not every author can or will “get it right” every time in every story. We are human after all, and there is only so much that we and our beta readers, editors, and publishers can do to minimize mistakes. Errors will happen; that is just part of life.

What an aspiring storyteller wants to do is reduce the number of missteps he makes in his tales. One blunder in a single short story is more forgivable than a series of large ones across novels or a series. If the novelist somehow confuses the type of gun his protagonist uses in two different scenes, the reader will blink and move on. He will not do the same if a squadron of twelve X-Wings attacks a blockade of Star Destroyers commanded by a brilliant tactician only to be predictably eradicated.

Do your research, future authors. Think through the tactics others present to you in the fiction you consume. Not every “plothole” proposed by fans is actually an error or the result of “plot armor” to protect the protagonist/lead the story to the desired conclusion. More than likely it has some historical precedent or patterns backing it up.

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Too often we think today that man lives in a vacuum. We do not remember where we came from or that “there is nothing new under the sun.” Although there are exceptions to every rule, rules themselves were created for a reason. They are not all arbitrary or meant to hold a man chained to one particular line of thought or mode of life. Often they are established by long tradition because they are proven to keep more people alive than the alternative.

Respect this fact, and your stories will only get better, aspiring writers. Abandon it, and you will find yourself lost at sea without even a compass or an astrolabe. The consequences of the latter will not be nearly as pleasant or comfortable as the former.

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If you liked this article, friend Caroline Furlong on Facebook or follow her here at Her stories have been published in Cirsova’s Summer Special and Unbound III: Goodbye, Earth, while her poetry appeared in Organic Ink, Vol. 2. She has also had stories published in Planetary Anthologies Luna, Uranus, and Sol. Another story was released in Cirsova Magazine’s Summer Issue in 2020, and she recently had a story published in Storyhack Magazine’s 7th Issue and Cirsova Magazine’s 2021 Summer Issue. Order them today!

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9 thoughts on “Thoughts on Tactics: How History Affects Fiction and Makes It Believable

  1. Intriguing post.
    No doubt writers, especially Hollywood writers, often display an amazing lack of understanding about strategy, tactics, history, military matters in general, etc….
    Speaking as someone from the aviation industry, it often amazes me how little knowledge is shown on a wide range of aviation matters which could often be fixed by just a nominal level of research. (funny how after over 50 years the original “Airport” remains one of the best aviation movies ever made. The original writer actually KNEW what he was talking about!). Similarly as a military history buff I’m often horrified by things depicted in mass media. And I can only imagine that people with a wide range of specialized knowledge often find their own areas depicted poorly in books and film (So what is the current state of depicting the deli industry on film?).
    Obviously serious research is advised for any professional writing. I do think the area of military understanding is particularly poorly represented. It may be partly because the overlap of creative types and military history types is an extremely small subset. Of course some too may just be oversights or time constraints. I just watched and enjoyed “The Tomorrow War”, a perfectly passable summer popcorn muncher; but it did beg the question, why were these time travelling soldiers being sent into action against tough alien monsters with only light arms? Shouldn’t they have heavier weapons? grenades? rocket launchers? A pretty simple throw away line about shortage of such weapons, or ammunition, or inability to travel through time with anything heavy would have squashed the complaint. Such a line might have even been written but didn’t survive filming/editing cuts. And there may be a fairly small number of us who are bothered by such things anyway!
    I would also mention a number of really stupid decisions HAVE been made by high ranking officers. Like 1st Fighter Group being sent to bomb Ploesti Rumania (using a fighter against its strength) , or Stanhope Ring steering the bulk of Air Group 8 AWAY from the Japanese fleet at Midway (the only American commander who failed to locate the enemy that day), Or how about General Short bunching all of his airplanes together in the middle of the airfield when he’d been TOLD to expect an enemy attack. Typically in the cases where we HEAR about such bad decisions a heavy price has been paid.
    Of course its also fair to mention Robert E Lee is best known for violating conventional wisdom about “concentration of force” to confuse and shatter commanders less assured than himself.
    Often the difference between stupidity and genius is just in the results.
    This becomes problematic in fiction when its obvious the writer doesn’t even understand when such a “foolish” risk is being taken. I love seeing the writer who can explain it; “this chance was taken for x reason and it succeeded for y reason”. Err, more elegantly phrased of course! But again, I find it most damaging when its obvious the writer does not even understand why their idea is a bad idea.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You also need to take into consideration two other things: 1. Flying in would attract far more attention than slipping in through a cave where a giant spider lived and nobody wanted to go, crossing hard-to-cross territory, which the enemy didn’t expect, and wouldn’t be easily spotted movement from as a flying creature would; and second, the eagles wouldn’t want something as ‘evil’ as the ring anywhere near them. Something Tolkien explained, which doesn’t help the idea. Thus, we have both an in-narrative reason for why flying the ring wouldn’t work, and a tactical reason for why flying the ring in wouldn’t have worked.

    Liked by 1 person

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