The Tarkin Doctrine
My chapter from “Strategy Strikes Back: How Star Wars Explains Modern Military Conflict.”
Edited by Althea May Atherton
Hello, dear readers! My apologies for the long absence. There’s a longer note at the end of this newsletter about what’s up and what’s next.
In the meantime, I’m presenting my chapter from “Strategy Strikes Back: How Star Wars Explains Modern Military Conflict.” The book was published by the University of Nebraska Press in 2018, and contains a host of writers talking about science fiction and strategy.
My chapter was on the Tarkin Doctrine, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately, especially in light of how Andor depicts Imperial decision making. I expect to have an original piece about Andor out on Wars of Future Past next week. Consider this both a teaser and an essential reference point. This contains spoilers for Star Wars, Rogue One, Return of the Jedi, Clone Wars, and The Force Awakens.
Chapter 8: Tarkin Doctrine
The Empire’s Theory of Victory
Kelsey D. Atherton
“The regional governors now have direct control over their territories. Fear will keep the local systems in line. Fear of this battle station.” -- Grand Moff Tarkin
Wilhuff Tarkin has only twenty-three lines in A New Hope. Thirty-nine years later, he gains three more in Rogue One. It is from such a thin canon that we get Grand Moff Tarkin, the ill-fated architect of Imperial strategy whose mind gave form to an audacious strategic theory. Outside of the films, Tarkin enjoyed a strong showing in both The Clone Wars and Rebels, which fill in the great gaps between the collapse of the Old Republic and the emergence of the Galactic Empire. While Palpatine orchestrated his ascent to power, while Anakin Skywalker claimed tactical success after tactical success, Tarkin theorized a path for the Empire to hold power, forever.
The Old Republic died from a thousand cuts, and none were clearer than the lack of a flexible military response to growing unrest. With Tarkin’s proposed oversectors, a single high-ranking military commander would have extra resources on hand and the authority to quell rebellions. We can see in this a response to the chaos of the Clone Wars, where the Republic found itself in a civil war and without an army. Tarkin’s entire career was a response to the failures of the Jedi Order, whose diplomat-knights had failed to prevent the war or, on their own, win it.
The Tarkin Doctrine was a theory for Imperial supremacy over the entire galaxy, motivated by fear, and held in check by a stunning, staggering technological development: the Death Star. We first see the Tarkin Doctrine spelled out as a memorandum to Emperor Palpatine, in the Death Star Technical Companion, a supplement to the Star Wars Roleplaying Game Like all grand statements of strategy, it describes a specific threat and several overarching tools for controlling that threat.
First is the threat: the persistent problem of rebellions -- except for those, Palpatine’s Empire was poised to control the galaxy for a long time, except for the persistent problem of rebellions. Tarkin acknowledged that peace might eventually be achieved through permanent occupation by force of the entire galaxy, but having the military on hand to do that was a distant proposition. To meet the immediate and future needs of empire, Tarkin had three major proposals: rapidly form new military districts, rule through fear, and create a superweapon that would inspire terror in anyone who ever even thought about tolerating a rebellion on their planet.
Military governors, with sweeping authority over their sectors, were one part of Tarkin’s solution. The empire, as we see it in Rogue One and A New Hope, was powerful, but not all-powerful. There were hard limits based on the number of Star Destroyers, TIE fighters, and stormtroopers. Darth Vader was the penultimate tool in this arsenal: an ace pilot and deadly weapon unto himself, he cowed all around him into obedient surrender or death. But Vader was one man, the last of religious faith, and it’s clear Tarkin had contempt for all Jedi.
“The Jedi are extinct, their fire has gone out of the universe,” Tarkin told Vader, in response to Vader sensing the presence of Obi-Wan Kenobi. “You, my friend, are all that's left of their religion.”
Tarkin was hardly the first commander, tasked with ending an insurgency, to find that the religious Rebels he had been sent to quash still persisted. But Tarkin wasn’t thinking of the Galactic Civil War in terms of religious conflict. He was focused on stopping all possible rebellions, and for that he needed fear. To Tarkin’s eye, a galaxy where everyone is in mortal fear of the consequences of rebelling is a galaxy that can be garrisoned at a fraction of the cost as one where punishment is lenient. The second component of the Tarkin Doctrine is rule through fear, and that fear comes from a weapon never before seen in the history of the galaxy: the Death Star.
By the time of Rogue One, the Empire had no external threats. There were rebellions, but the Clone Wars were over, the separatists defeated, and the whole military apparatus was devoted to killing stragglers and cementing Palpatine’s rule. It was at this same time that the Empire began to develop the Death Star, a weapon conceptualized in the Old Republic but not yet fielded in the universe. The Death Star was a tool of fear, not just for Rebels, but for anyone who harbored Rebels. The ability to destroy a planet was, potentially, galaxy-changing. Insurgencies thrived by finding places they could hide before striking out again. With the Death Star, Tarkin had a weapon that can destroy an entire planet simply for the crime of harboring rebels.
The Death Star was an offset strategy, turning the Empire’s monopoly on power and deep pockets into a tool that can force any planet to choose between surrender or nonexistence. The first planet destroyed was Alderaan, formally peaceful but with Rebel sympathies. To the extent that news traveled in the galaxy, the sudden destruction of a planet from a brand-new super weapon must have been all anyone talked about. And it was power concentrated nominally under the Emperor’s control; but in effect the power to end worlds was Tarkin’s alone.
With Alderaan destroyed, Grand Moff Tarkin had every reason to believe that the Rebellion would soon suffer a similar fate. Tracking an escaped prisoner back to her rebel base put a bullseye on the greatest foe to stable Imperial rule, and Tarkin almost got away with it.
We know how this ended a flaw, designed into the Death Star, became the target of choice for several Rebellion fighter squadrons. Darth Vader, together with TIE fighter escorts, attempted to stop the fighters on their drive to the thermal exhaust port. A force-sensitive ace pilot fired the salvo that destroyed the Death Star, and Tarkin perished in the ensuing fireball.
Was the Tarkin doctrine worth it? It certainly seemed so to the Emperor, who oversaw construction of a second Death Star. Destroying Alderaan, intended as a way to convince the public that harboring rebels was a fatal mistake, instead galvanized existing Rebels against the Empire. What was supposed to be rule through fear floundered at the first sign of Imperial fallibility.
Still, no one else in the entire Star Wars universe offered as clear a path to peace through superior firepower. Tarkin’s vision, forged in civil war and counterinsurgency, was a military technology so powerful it changed the politics of the galaxy, so threatening that it made insurgency a death sentence for not just the would-be insurgents, but death to anyone even distantly related to a possible insurgent. Palpatine supported the tool and likely the tactic, and the First Order, a bloodthirsty Imperial successor sect, imitated the destructive power in their own Starkiller weapon.
How to create peace after decades of insurgency is a maddening question. Tarkin’s answer was elaborate, brutal, and focused on human cowardice. In a galaxy defined by war, Wilhuff Tarkin was one of the few even attempting to answer the right question.
The Dead Speak!
When I last sent out one of these newsletters, way back in July, I promised that I was going to take a month off and then relaunch on Ghost. I took the month off, and then half a year off. The fall was full of developments professional and personal, ones I hope to share soon, and it necessitated spending more time away from this letter than I intended.
It also meant I never made the jump to a different newsletter service. Ghost, while promising in many respects and a viable platform for lots of writers, never felt like a good fit for a newsletter I am producing in and around other jobs.
At the same time, Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter has turned my default online home into an even more precarious place to exist as a freelancer and writer. I’m not giving up on the site, but I’ve long needed an alternative place to hang my hat, and dusting off this Substack is the correct way to do it.
With that said, I fully intend to return to regular posting, both for paid subscribers and a public audience. As part of that, I will be restarting payments on January 2nd, 2023. No hard feelings if supporting this letter is no longer in your budget or interests. If you do stick around or haven’t subscribed before and have a few dollars to spare in your budget, know that I really appreciate the support I get from readers directly. Thank you, and I look forward to writing for you more in the future.
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