Monday, February 18, 2013

Reading "Star Wars: The Essential Guide to Warfare" while in Afghanistan

"If there is a bright center of the universe, you are on the planet it's farthest from.” – Aspiring youth Luke Skywalker

For most of recorded human history, Afghanistan has been a crossroads.  A Graveyard of Empires, a place where the clash of civilizations between Asia, India, Russia, and the Persian and Muslim Empires has defined life and culture.

Stories of Afghanistan have been told, re-told, and embellished. To some, Afghanistan is a place of great tribal pride and survival in a rough climate and rougher surroundings. For others, it is a backwards wasteland 150 years behind the rest of the world.

For present-day Americans, Afghanistan is a place where the US military has shed their blood, sweat, and tears. It is a place of bullets, guns, and improvised explosive devices.

It is a place of war.

“You're going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.” - Obi Wan Kenobi to Luke Skywalker

Despite working with the military for nearly 15 years, and currently finishing up a voluntary year in Afghanistan, I don’t read books about military or war very often. I don’t need to be reminded about tactics, intelligence, or operations. They are part of my everyday work day.

But that’s not to say I won’t read a book about war if one catches my eye.

Especially if it’s about Star Wars.

Written by Jason Fry and Paul R. Urquhart, Star Wars: The Essential Guide to Warfare is the latest “guide” book written on the Star Wars universe. While this is the second guide book I own, this is the first I have read cover to cover.

When buying Star Wars: The Essential Guide to Warfare, I read a review on that compared the book to a college text book. That comparison is correct. The Essential Guide to Warfare is a synopsis of over 4,000 years of machines, strategies, and personalities that put the “war” in Star Wars. There are not only essays and descriptions of droids, ships, and weapons, but also stories and narratives of war and conflict from different perspectives over different eras, some more familiar than others.

Among my favorites, for example, is a picture of the Ewoks fighting the Stormtroopers during the Battle of Endor. In the picture, the Ewoks are not the cuddly teddy bears of Return of the Jedi lore. According to the picture, they’re little savage monsters, snarling and aggressive, tearing Stormtroopers limb from limb. Accompanying the illustration is insight from a surviving Stormtrooper, who writes about the Ewoks using poison-tipped arrows and other primitive yet deadly weapons that tipped the scale from the technologically-advanced Empire.

The insight, narratives, and added perspectives from other characters add to the complexity of the personalities in Star Wars. They aren’t seen as just “bad guys” and “good guys”. They are different people, cultures, or political parties struggling to get by in a galaxy of thousands of species and beings, not much different from Afghanistan’s crossroads of cultures. As in Afghanistan, there are those that are power-hungry, but sometimes even they have their reasons. The thought, for example, that the Emperor wanted to strengthen the galaxy under military rule in preparation of the impending Yuuzhan Vong invasion he foresaw is an interesting defense to what is usually perceived as an era of tyranny.

Star Wars: The Essential Guide to Warfare also puts the movies and other mainstream Star Wars adventures into perspective as just small parts of eons of struggle, fighting, and war. Sort of like the US involvement in Afghanistan. American heroes today are only a blip on the radar after eons of kingdoms, invasions, and conquests.

Unfortunately similar to a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far, away, our present world seems stuck in an endless cycle of violence and war. Different philosophies drive groups to take action or non-action or exercise power over someone or something else. In the end of the Warfare book, the Jedi are in hiding as a war between the descendants of the Empire and descendants of the Sith rages throughout the galaxy. One could derive religious-fanaticism, conservativism, totalitarianism, Genghis Khan-type militantism, democracy, and many other philosophies from Star Wars.

Reading Star Wars: The Essential Guide to Warfare, I was amazed by the lack of peace. Sitting in a warzone, I couldn’t help but think what that might mean for us. Many of the same entities and philosophies exist on Earth and specifically here in Afghanistan. To get meta, what does it mean for our society that this book on warfare in the Star Wars galaxy spans thousands of years with very little mentions of eras of peace?

Granted, a book called “Star Peace: Flowers Planted During the Era of Jedi Meditation” probably wouldn’t sell, but what does it mean that the Star Wars fans who wrote the book or contributed to its creation didn’t even create an epoch of peace? Not even in the end of the story. Does that mean they have given up hope as they fill their fantasy galaxy with war and conflict? Or are they merely projecting, trying to hide their natural human tendencies for war in George Lucas’s fictional playground?

The last narrative, written 137 years after the battle of Yavin and the destruction of the first Death Star, and 4,000 years after the first recorded battle in the Star Wars galaxy, sums the book up well. In the final pages, Admiral Gar Stazi reflects on war and the essence of being. He concludes that as war is inevitable, it’s those who engage in the act of war and their ability to be war’s master, not its slave, that counts. Powerful stuff. Perhaps even our own generals, admirals, and other war leaders agree.

As for me, as battle-weary vagabond Jengo Fett said, “I’m just a simple man trying to make my way in the universe”.