There’s an argument making its rounds in Fandom about The Last Jedi. No, not the LAST JEDI ARGUMENT writ large, just a tiny offshoot. It has to do with Vice-Admiral Holdo’s final strategic maneuver. Be warned, and this will likely be the last time I warn about this, major spoilers follow so read no further if you, by shear apathy or unfortunate preoccupation otherwise, haven’t seen The Last Jedi.
I say strategic but it’s really a tactical maneuver. And that’s an important distinction. Strategic means its part of a larger plan and beholden to a larger doctrine. Tactical means it’s a specific response to a specific situation yielding a specific desired result.
At the heart of this debate is really just that idea, in the form of this question: “If this was something that admirals driving large ships could choose to do, why didn’t they ever do it before?” And just this last week I’ve seen this perceived discrepancy portrayed as being so egregious in nature that it threatens the very credibility of the entire franchise. (Or not.)
It’s a well-thought out argument, really. The person that offered it to me had obviously thought about it a great deal, and I know for a fact that he’s not alone in asking this important question. I continue to question the gravitas of the real-world outcome, as well as the prioritization of this debate over others in regard to The Last Jedi, but on its face I think it’s a question that should be answered.
The heavy cruiser Raddus, flagship of General Leia Organa, is in dire straits. Running alone and on low fuel, she desperately endeavors to outpace Snoke’s flagship Supremacy and its support fleet of Star Destroyers. It is slowly being picked apart as it races toward a hidden Resistance Base. The plan is to evacuate the crew to the base where they can better defend itself. (There’s much more to this story and it involves attempts by Finn and Rose to find a hacker to disable a key ability onboard the Supremacy, but let’s keep it simple.)
Let’s compare this to another famous battle in which this could have been used. Why didn’t Admiral Ackbar, who also commanded the Raddus, do this against the fleet that trapped them against the second Death Star? Remember, specific situation, yielding specific results.
The Strategy was different, the Tactical situation was different, and the commander was different. Admiral Ackbar had to engage Imperial targets as long as possible to allow the strike team time to knock out the shield. He had the support of a larger Rebel fleet, although the numbers and the odds were against them. Firstly, to turn his cruiser into a battering ram against the DS2 would have probably been fruitless. To guarantee a killing blow against a target that large would likely have been unsuccessful. The lives of the people under his command, plus the success of the mission he was charged with warranted sticking to the plan. To do the same against the Imperial fleet would have been just as fruitless. It might have done some damage to the larger Imperial fleet, but it would do nothing to protect the strike team on the ground and to complete the mission, namely destroy the DS2 and kill the Emperor. Either way he turned, using his ship as a blunt instrument would have been an ill-advised gamble, which was not in Ackbar’s nature. In weighing those odds, he chose to engage the Star Destroyers in a pitch battle rather than a “one-shot, one-kill” tactical crap shoot. Ultimately if he had gone with Holdo’s solution there was a good chance he would undermine the larger Rebel Alliance strategy.
Let’s compare it to the battle over Scarif, then. This time, the commander was Raddus himself, the namesake of the The Last Jedi cruiser, and he commanded the MC75 Mon Calamari cruiser Profundity. Although he was far more bold and impulsive than Admiral Ackbar, even he knew that the Rebel Fleet was a finite commodity. And again, almost everything from Strategy to Tactical Response to Commander in the field was different. The Strategy was to gain vital intelligence to gain an advantage over the technological might of the Death Star, the Empire’s “Bismarck”, if you will. The Tactics were cobbled together at the last minute, but it was sound: penetrate enemy defenses, get in, get out with the plans, cover the escape with as much firepower as possible to ensure success. Yes, he could have rammed the planetary shield installation in orbit, but then that would mean sacrificing critical resources needed to cover the escape of the ship carrying the original Death Star plans. The situation was different, and the commander was different. This yields different decisions and results.
Let’s compare it to the thousands of years of military campaigns in the GFFA, then. Why have we never seen this before? I’d ask another question – how do we know no one ever used it before? When it comes to all of history in the GFFA, we’re not afforded complete omniscience. Our view of that universe is just a sliver, and in that sliver a few snapshots. But I’ll offer another reason. Who in their right mind would do that unless the situation specifically called for it?
Vice-Admiral Holdo and the Raddus were in very a different and far direr situation. This was not the larger Rebel (or later New Republic) Fleet. After the smaller support fleet were all picked off the Raddus was on her own, running low on fuel and with a burning question to answer: With a single damaged cruiser running low on fuel and being pursued by the bulk of the First Order fleet, not to mention the behemoth flagship Supremacy, how do you cover the escape of the core leadership of the Resistance to the more fortified base on the Krayt? Like the battle over Endor, it was another time-buying exercise, but it also required something more. It was going to call for a sacrifice play.
Options to consider:
- Wheel about and fight? One heavy cruiser against the Supremacy, let alone the rest of the FO fleet, would have resulted in making very short work of their destruction, and the Resistance would be lost in a single blow.
- Outrun the fleet? To where? And for how long? They were already following this path and failing. The lack of fuel and no support meant this would never work.
- Surrender? C’mon fandom. That’s not going to save anyone.
- Do something unexpected and desperate.
I’ll tell you the same thing I told the person with whom I had the discussion. I don’t think what Vice-Admiral Holdo did was necessarily the result of a brilliant Strategy. But the Tactical situation called for it. Let’s talk again about the difference between Strategy and Tactics. Strategy is the long-term complex plan of how to allocate resources, schedule deployment, and ensure success. Tactics are the short-term answers to unexpected permutations of the execution of that plan. In other words, once you’re tactical, you’re dealing with variables. In other words, Strategy is the War, and Combat is the application of Tactics. And it’s entirely possible for your Strategy to have been flawed (or at least a long-shot to begin with) but for your tactical response to be a victory, just as it’s possible for your Strategy to be very well-conceived, but your Tactical response to be lacking. I think the Resistance’s Strategy was extremely lacking in resources and time. In an ideal universe, the Raddus would have never found herself out there alone on the run with no support fleet and limited fuel. It is what it is. Hence the Tactics employed.
So let’s get back to that question, then: “If this is a thing commanders in the GFFA can do, why haven’t they done it before?” Three answers, Fandom. Firstly, part of the overall goal (the Strategy) is never to end up in that situation in the first place; so countless other commanders never do. This was a specific Tactical decision. Secondly, I’m not sure we have the definitive perspective that it has never been done before. We’ve seen a comparative handful of stories from the history of the GFFA which spans thousands of years. Can any of us say for certain that the Holdo Maneuver was never done before? And thirdly, and perhaps most important, there’s a first for everything in combat. The first shield and sword, the first phalanx, the first catapult, the first flanking maneuver, the first use of siege towers, the first machine gun, the first thermonuclear weapon, so on and so forth. Think about this: years ago, you never heard about suicide bombers or even more horrific tactics. But you do now. Times have changed. The situation for some is different, and in their mind it calls for different responses. Always a good idea? No, but like evolution, some things work and some things don’t. Combat is a terrible decision engine that constantly pumps out new results for new situations, and in that gruesome crucible of innovation history shows us that folks from Command all the way down to Grunt do some pretty crazy things to save the day. History is all about Firsts. That’s why it makes History, for good or for bad.
I’d also ask another slightly unrelated question, but I do wonder how some people would answer it. Some folks feel Admiral Ackbar was dispatched unceremoniously and without his due glory. If Admiral Ackbar had lived, do you think he would have been forced to do the same thing? Would we be more accepting of that decision if he had been the one to ram the Supremacy?
I’d say this…Admiral Ackbar died at his post, rolling around in his space chair fighting a battle. Some people think his story should have ended differently, but really, how else should a soldier die? And are there any really ideal ways to die as a soldier? It’s not the circumstances of their death, it’s the reasons that count. And I couldn’t think of a more fitting end to Ackbar than for him to be doing exactly what he was needed to do – stay on that bridge in impossible odds and fight to the end. Ackbar, like Holdo, was about duty. They just carried out their duties that day in different ways.
But I do wonder if part of the problem some of our Fandom has is that this Vice-Admiral Holdo, this woman we barely know, did something so completely outrageous and thereby is heralded as a hero. I wonder if secretly they feel like that should have been reserved for Ackbar. I’d remind everyone that doing something insane like that was simply not part of Ackbar’s character. He was methodical, not brash. I’d even say some fans have a problem with a female character showing those traits instead of a treasured male character.
But I will also say that was not the point of the person I was discussing this with. I sensed no alternative agenda, only a desire for it all to make sense. And therein lies the problem, Fandom. War almost never makes sense.
I’m no expert on War or Combat. I’ve never fired a shot at an enemy, nor been fired upon, and I hope I never find myself in that situation. I have no reason to believe I possess that kind of courage. Of the people I know who have witnessed combat (the ones who will talk about it at least) often say that in that moment it’s about saving the soldier next to you, and the squad behind her or him. In those frantic moments that could be anyone’s last, it’s about saving lives.
So in the end analysis I think that it’s a mistake to say that if something we’ve never seen something done before it can’t be valid plot point. I think that’s essentially throwing the Strategic baby out with the Tactical bathwater, and may not be fully cognizant of the way minds work in combat. Ultimately, the strategy to save lives, and thereby save the Resistance, was served by the tactical decision for Holdo to sacrifice herself and the Raddus.
And you have to admit, it resulted in a singularly stunning scene.