The sociological eye means looking at things for what they are, as best we can given the blinders of interest and ideology, of cliché and ritualized belief. It is not an individual enterprise. Chaining our efforts together as a long-term network of theorists and researchers improves one’s own sociological vision, provided we make the effort. The sociological eye holds up a periscope above the tides of political and intellectual partisanship, spying out the patterns of social life in every direction.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016


Star Wars: The Force Awakens is set in the distant future, but militarily it is far out of date.

The "smart" weapons of the 1990s and the computerization of the battlefield make gun-fights with the First Order's storm troopers as anachronistic as a cowboy movie. The aerial sequences are closer to World War I dogfights than they are to modern air power.

A battalion of U.S. Marines has the fire-power to beat all the Evil Empires put together.

[1] The storm troopers carry complicated-looking weapons, but the resemblance to modern automatic weapons ends there. They fire single shots with pauses in between, and their shots rarely hit anybody. OK, this is a Hollywood convention, because the main characters in your story can't get killed (at least until the end when one can be sacrificed in an emotional scene). And yes, it is true that soldiers pumped up with adrenaline in real combat miss their targets a lot. After the Korean War the U.S. Army figured this out, and shifted over to automatic weapons for combat infantry. Since their aim isn't that good, the emphasis is on laying down an overwhelming amount of fire, coordinated to blanket enemy positions. Today's infantry rifles fire at a rate of hundreds of bullets per minute; some hit their targets and the rest help keep the enemy's heads down so that our own troops can maneuver.

Unfortunately for the movies, this does not make very picturesque action; the battlefield is mostly empty and distant. So instead we get close-range shot-by-shot exchanges with both sides' soldiers clear and distinct on the screen. Star Wars storm troopers just make a large flash and a bang, more or less equivalent to the blunderbusses fired by Spanish conquistadors back in the 1500s, which had most of their effect by scaring the enemy into running away. Of course our movie good guys stand their ground; and they look maximally heroic by firing back with pistols that they hardly need to aim, making perfect one-hand shots although real-life technique is to steady the pistol with both arms.  In the adrenaline rush of real violence, handgun shots can go anywhere and often hit the wrong person (as police shootings so often show).

If your want a palatable-looking, cleaned-up gun battle, the Star Wars staging is the way to do it. In real combat, such forces would be beaten by today's small infantry units armed with automatic weapons. And that doesn't even count hand-carried explosives such as RPGs, or distance weapons such as artillery, rockets and missiles. Modern military tactics emphasizes combined arms, coordinating different weapons systems to support each other. But that would give a bureaucratic picture that does not translate well to the screen.

[2]  The most futuristic-seeming part of Star Wars are the flying machines: space ships that look like flying saucers or entire planets, fighter jets with fanciful X-wing configurations or things that look like box kites. But the aerial combat is distinctly early-twentieth century. For one thing,  Star Wars pilots fly their planes on their own; gunners choose their targets, aim and fire, hit or miss. All this became out-dated by the 1990s.

Now the most important part of an aerial battlefield is what looks like a commercial airliner circling 200 miles away. It is full of computers that keep track of all the hostile aircraft, and guide friendly aircraft on their flight paths (including keeping them from running into each other), while sending targeting information directly to their on-board weapons. Pilots in air-to-air combat and in ground attack planes that serve as flying rocket launchers are mainly along for the ride. The control computers can fly the planes on their own; the humans are backups in case something goes wrong. 

The dozens of aircraft in a battle are just pieces of a computerized network, like every other weapon whatever platform it is fired from: rockets launched by ships, ground artillery, armor, or foot soldiers on the ground. There are technological eyes and ears stacked up in the sky and at vantage points on the ground, all sending back information to the computers, and receiving messages controlling what they do. GPS coordinates, laser tags marking targets, electronically enhanced optical images identified by matching images stored in archives, infra-red heat sensors-- together these make up an electronic octopus whose tentacles look at everything and command everything in the war machine. Even the enemy's electronics are turned against them: anti-radiation missiles home in on anything that emits radar, so that as soon as they start to fire they become targets for precision-guided munitions that lock onto them. The focus of the battlefield is no longer the warriors but the all-encompassing network that guides them.

The dogfights in  Star Wars resemble nothing so much as the early flying days of World War I, where planes really did chase each other through the skies, hid in clouds, and tried to attack from a blind spot by flying out of the sun. World War II had the most ace pilots-- those who racked up large numbers of aerial kills-- because it was a war when bombers were used to attack enemy infrastructure, fighter planes escorted the bombers, and fought off enemy fighters who attacked the bombers. The number of aces has declined ever since; by the time of the first Gulf War most enemy aircraft were destroyed on the ground by precision long-distance munitions. 

Stars Wars has remained a lot like Flash Gordon-- the future as seen from the 1930s. Even the shapes of the aircraft or spacecraft have a pre-1918 look: the box-kite fighters of the First Order echo the double-winged hollow crates of the early days of flying.  Its enormous flying globes, although depicted on the inside like skyscrapers with cavernous elevator shafts, from the outside resemble Zeppelins and other gas-filled balloons with spacious passenger lounges slung beneath them.

Bottom line: the flying craft of both the First Order and the Resistance would be swiftly located, tracked, locked-onto, and destroyed by the smart weapons of today's Air Force and the other services, with no more trouble than the first days of Gulf War One and Two.

[3]  Leading actors fight each other with light sabers. OK, it's bright and colourful, and it's good for merchandizing, as well as dramatic climaxes. Obviously it goes against the real-life trend to distant battle mediated by computers.  Dueling with swords was the honorable way of fighting from the Middle Ages up through the early 20th century in places like France and Italy. It was honorable because only gentlemen could duel; if you weren't elite enough, a gentleman would refuse to fight you, and might have his servants throw you out in the street. So the duel with light sabers is quite literally a showdown between heroes, with a bit of futuristic magic so that the blades appear out of thin air and glow in the dark. And, oh yes, they are good for repelling bullets, like Wonder Woman's magic bracelets.

Let's pin down the light saber duel a little more sharply. To be picky, it's not really a saber.  A "sabre" (as originally spelled) is a curved blade, sharp only on one edge, used for slashing rather than thrusting. It was mainly a cavalry weapon, used to slash down at the enemy.  German dueling fraternities in the 19th century used it, because their aim was to limit damage to superficial slashes, rather than deadly piercing through the body. The Star Wars light saber is really an epée,  as the French would call it-- straight, double-edged, with a big cross-shaped handle. And yes, a more deadly weapon.

In  The Force Awakens, the light saber duels aren't even really fencing. Mainly they are battering at each other's blade, with gains made by sheer strength of throwing the opponent backwards or pushing them to the ground. This looks like a form of fighting that goes back even before the time of sword duels, fighting with wooden staves, like Robin Hood fighting with Friar Tuck. (Long staves were carried by wanderers chiefly to fend off attacking dogs.) It is more like Greco-Roman wrestling with long poles. Why did the latest Star Wars chose to depict light saber fights in this way? It makes the duel less deadly. And it keeps up the modern liberal belief, that we don't fight unless necessary, and even then we do as little damage as possible once we've won. This is a nice ideal, even though it doesn't fit today's world very well.

[4]  What about the robots?  This is undoubtedly the way of the future, although it was more visionary in 1977 when the first Star Wars appeared.  Robots are self-propelled machines whose skills come from on-board computers, and are autonomous to the degree they get input from their own sensors.  The most important war robots that exist today are smart missiles, that sense their own position relative to a target and guide itself in to destroy it.  This kind of war robot is conspicuously absent from The Force Awakens. It would undermine the heroism of pilots, as well as their close encounters with enemies. And it would make robots menacing.  Instead, all the Star Wars robots have been human-like, virtually harmless, cute as pets; they provide comic relief and a sentimental touch by mimicking sympathetic emotions. On the whole they are like loyal dogs who love their masters.

What we don't see are the massive computers that run today's war organization, compiling information, calculating plans, issuing orders to far-flung war machines and to the humans attached to them. The possibility that this will be the dark side of the future is never invoked.  Even the forces of Evil are not depicted as very computerized; both sides use the same kind of technology, and the only differences are moral, how humane they are. 

A future Star Wars installment could take the route where the Evil side is a war machine ruthlessly controlled by a centralized computer.  In fact, it would look something like our military organization today. One problem with this plot line is that the more computerized side would probably win, especially if the Resistance confined itself to low-tech pilots, pistols, and light sabers.

One more place where The Force Awakens  is behind the times is in surveillance and base security. The heroine Rey and her rescuers scurry around the corridors of the enemy base, evading guards and climbing walls. Today there would be CCTV cameras all over the place, and desks monitoring all the feed; intruders would be located almost immediately. Of course there are good dramatic reasons to omit this; sneaking around inside the enemy's castle has been a staple of adventure and suspense ever since The Wizard of Oz.  On defense, too, today's military and security apparatus is far more powerful than Star Wars.

[5] Symmetrical and asymmetrical war. The fights between the Resistance and the First Order are essentially symmetrical. They are set-piece battles between infantries, or between air forces, with the same kinds of weapons on both sides. In this sense Star Wars hankers back to World War I and II. This is another respect in which Star Wars depicts relatively cleaned-up war.

The term "Resistance" against a huge empire suggests the opposite kind of war, which is what the fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and most other places has been in recent years. Asymmetrical war is especially nasty because the weaker side cannot match up with the stronger on a battle front, so they resort to guerrilla tactics: hit-and-run, ambushes, clandestine bombings. Since there are no front lines, fighting takes place in the midst of civilian populations. Guerrillas hit undefended targets, especially civilians because they are the easiest. And since guerrillas disguise themselves as civilians and hide in the civilian population before and after their attacks, efforts to ferret them out kill more civilians.  Vietnam set the pattern of this kind of war, a war we would like to forget since it was intrinsically a war of competing atrocities, like all guerrilla wars.

Today we call it terrorism. And this is one more reason why the Star Wars franchise can't depict war as it really is in the era of high-tech weaponry. If the Resistance really were weaker, they would have to become terrorists.

Yes, Star Wars is entertainment, and that means escape from reality. But one thing it proves is that we can't escape into the future.  The majority of sci-fi adventure shows ever since Flash Gordon have been trips not so much to the future as to the Middle Ages, land of sword-and-sorcery. The trend towards bureaucracy-reinforced-by-technology doesn't give the kinds of adventure drama we enjoy. Star Wars is a lot more fun than Orwell's 1984, where everyone's TV set spies on you. Sure, the Middle Ages wasn't really that nice either, but it had one thing we miss: it had better mythology.   It's the magic that can pop up all around us-- magic weapons, magic spells, magic Forces that still carry a tinge of religion and moral choice. And that's a relief from the technological labyrinth that is becoming our future. 

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 Napoleon Never Slept: How Great Leaders Leverage Social Energy  
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Collins, Randall. 2008. Violence:  A Micro-Sociological Theory.  Princeton University Press.

Collins, Randall. 2010.  “A Dynamic Theory of Battle Victory and Defeat.” Cliodynamics: The Journal of Theoretical and Mathematical History  1: 3-25.

Gordon, Michael R. and Bernard E. Trainor. 2007.  Cobra II. The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq.   Random House.

King, Anthony.  2011. The Transformation of Europe’s Armed Forces.  Cambridge University Press.

McIvor, Anthony D. (ed.)  2005. Rethinking the Principles of War. Annapolis MD: Naval Institute Press.