It’s possible to go really deep on this kind of critique, but we’d be here all day if we started comparing fictional battles to the infinite complexity of real military operations. So today, we focus specifically on when stories break their own military rules. Not only is it fun to analyze exactly where these stories went wrong, but it’ll help us to avoid similar mistakes in our own writing.
1. Fighting in a Ravine, Battlestar Galactica
In the episode Rapture, our human heroes have discovered an ancient temple that may hold the key to finding Earth. But then the Cylons show up, oh no! Now the humans have to defend the temple long enough to decipher its ancient writings, which means it’s time for a battle.
First, the facts. Both sides have a limited number of soldiers, mostly carrying small arms and a few explosives. Neither side can call in reinforcements or air support. The Cylons’ major advantage is that their centurions are really tough, whereas humans are notoriously vulnerable to bullets.
The humans’ main edge is that they’re playing defense. The temple itself is huge, so big it looks like a mountain from the outside,* but there’s only one way in. The temple also has a commanding view of the surrounding terrain, and the Cylons won’t risk damaging it with heavy ordnance, so there’s plenty of cover.
At this point, the human strategy is obvious, right? Hole up in the temple, using its high ground to rain fire on any approaching Cylons, then fall back to the interior and funnel their enemy into a narrow kill zone. That would also be a great place to use their explosives as traps, if they’re so inclined.
Instead, the humans abandon the temple completely and set up in a ravine, surrounded by ridges and plateaus on all sides. This is a baffling choice, most notably because it looks like the Cylons could just go around them. However, the characters insist that the enemy has to go through this specific ravine to reach the temple, so we’ll grant them the benefit of the doubt this time.
But intentionally placing themselves in low ground has another major problem: they’re incredibly vulnerable to attack. Once the Cylons have the high ground,* they can easily shoot over the humans’ cover, while having plenty of cover themselves. This is exactly what happens, and a bunch of unnamed extras die, with the main characters only being saved by a convenient plot twist.*
These humans are supposed to be trained soldiers, so it’s unclear why they’d make such a tactically unsound choice. The explanation is probably production related instead, as the temple itself was likely a model and it would have been difficult to show actors fighting in it. But even with that limitation, would it have been too much to ask for the humans to put themselves on a ridge or something?
2. Defending the Deeping Wall, The Two Towers
The fortress of Helm’s Deep is in two parts. First there’s the Hornberg, which is the main keep. It’s built on high ground, with only two entrances, both of which must be reached via a long and exposed path of open ground. Second, there’s the Deeping Wall, which juts off to one side from the Hornberg. The Deeping Wall is much lower than the main keep, and its primary purpose is to defend an area of land behind it.* This makes sense, since a fortress of this size could certainly use the extra space for growing crops, or just as a civilian living area.
But when Saruman’s army lays siege to Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers, there’s nothing in the area behind the Deeping Wall. The civilians are all inside the Hornberg, and there’s no way the battle will last long enough for growing crops to be viable. The defenders are expecting a relief force within five days, after all.
In that scenario, the obvious choice would be to simply abandon the Deeping Wall and concentrate all defenders in the Hornberg, which is higher up and much easier to defend. Our heroes do not do this. Instead, they do the exact opposite, sending most of their force out to the Deeping Wall.
This is a terrible choice because it allows Saruman to fight on a much wider front where he can bring more of his numbers to bear. The entire point of fortifications like Helms Deep is to limit how much of the attacking force can fight at once. This is what allows a much smaller defending force to hold its own. By placing troops on the Deeping Wall, our heroes are simply making life much more difficult for themselves.*
So what would have happened if the heroes had been smarter about their defense? Saruman would have taken the Deeping Wall, but that wouldn’t have done him much good since the Hornberg is on much higher walls. Instead of fighting on a long wall, the good guys could have forced their enemy into just two narrow choke points and held out as long as they pleased.
Narratively, that might not have been very satisfying, which is why the design of Helm’s Deep should have been changed. Instead of jutting off to the side, the Deeping Wall should have been an outer line of defense in front of the Hornberg, which is how real castles are built. That way, taking the Deeping Wall would just be the first step on Saruman’s attack, and it would leave his forces exposed to missiles from the Hornberg’s higher walls.
3. Arming Space Habitats, Persepolis Rising
While The Expanse novels aren’t exactly hard scifi, they have a core of realism that helps them stand out. One aspect of that realism is that bigger isn’t automatically better when it comes to space combat. Mobility is really important because the best way to resist enemy fire is by getting out of the way. This means any extra mass aboard a warship must be critical, since it slows down the ship’s evasive maneuvers.
There’s even an entire storyline about this, when the Belters* convert a giant colony ship into the solar system’s largest warship. The resulting Behemoth is very intimidating from its sheer size, but it’s actually far weaker than all but the smallest purpose-built warships. It’s hauling around a bunch of extra mass in the form of farming equipment, daycare rooms, and all the other requirements of civilian lives.
The books are remarkably consistent about this until Persepolis Rising introduces the Void Cities. At first, these three vessels are described like mobile space stations, which makes sense. Each of them has a population of around 200,000 and carries all the facilities of a civilian port to wherever they’re needed in the solar system.
But then we find out they’re also meant to be super powerful warships. In fact, they’re described as the most powerful weapons in the good guys’ arsenal when a new group of villains attack. This is ridiculous. Even if the Void Cities’ armament is impressive, they’re carting around 200,000 people’s worth of dead weight. A bunch of hydroponic farms and municipal centers aren’t going to be any use in a battle. At most, they might soak up some enemy fire, but actual armor would be way more useful for that.
Because the Void Cities are so large, they have close to zero maneuverability. And in exchange for that, they have the firepower of much smaller vessels. It’s like sending the USS Iowa into battle with a cruise ship tied to it. This would be irritating enough in any story, but it goes against the specific conceits set up earlier in The Expanse. It’s no wonder that the Void Cities are easily destroyed, and while this is supposed to be evidence of how powerful the bad guys are, it feels more like an indictment of sending city hall into battle.
I’m honestly not sure why the Void Cities even exist. It’s true that Persepolis Rising is supposed to show how the Belters are now ascendant within the solar system, but they didn’t need to build impractical warships to do that. They could have just had a regular navy. Or maybe the combat-focused parts of the Void Cities could detach from the rest before a fight. That would have added some novelty without contradicting the setting’s established rules.
4. Calling in Reinforcements, Serenity
As a sequel to Firefly, the film Serenity is all about the evil Alliance hunting down our intrepid heroes. The Alliance is after one River Tam, largely because she knows a whole bunch of top secret information that could do a lot of damage if released.
That’s why the Alliance is very subtle in its pursuit. It doesn’t send in a whole fleet of ships to look for River; that would draw too much attention. Instead, it relies on bounty hunters and corporate spies. Then, in Serenity, the Alliance breaks out the big guns: an elite agent called the Operative.
The Operative only has one ship, but that’s more than enough. The good guys are flying an unarmed transport, the titular Serenity. Even if they manage to retrofit a weapon or two, the Operative’s cruiser has plenty of firepower to do the job. The main problem is finding Serenity, as its captain is a wily one with plenty of places to hide.
But finally the Operative gets a break. He learns exactly where Serenity is heading, and when it’ll get there. So naturally he sets up a quiet ambush to blow Serenity out of the sky… Oh, wait, no, he calls in “every ship in the quadrant,” which turns out to be a pretty big fleet, all so he can deal with one renegade transport.
This is a baffling move to say the least. There’s no way the Operative needs that much extra muscle on his side; his ship alone is already overkill. At the same time, moving that many ships is bound to attract attention. We’re talking thousands of military personnel here, and some of them are going to wonder why they were suddenly pulled off their normal deployment.
Worse, that kind of major military operation is bound to attract press attention. We know that the Alliance is fairly authoritarian, so they might be able to suppress official reports, but rumors and speculation would still get out. That’s just the nature of major military operations. So by calling for reinforcements, the Operative put his mission in a lot of unnecessary danger.
Of course, we know that the real reason for this was so that there would be an Alliance fleet to fight the Reaver fleet that shows up in the climax. But the Operative has no reason to suspect this, unless he can spy on the script itself. A better explanation would have been for the heroes to call up some of their old war buddies and organize a small fleet of their own, which the Operative could then hear about. That would explain why he wanted more ships, and the Reavers could still be a big surprise.
5. Giving Up the Wormhole, Deep Space Nine
In the fifth season of Deep Space Nine, Starfleet has a problem. The Gamma Quadrant–based Dominion is sending convoy after convoy of ships and war materials through the Bajoran wormhole to its new ally, the Cardassian Empire. Captain Sisko knows it’s only a matter of time before war breaks out, so he decides to act first by mining the wormhole’s entrance. This will stop the convoys and prevent the Dominion from building up even more forces in the Alpha Quadrant.
Naturally, the Dominion isn’t happy about this and sends a fleet to capture the wormhole. But this isn’t too bad for Starfleet as they have a powerful space station there: Deep Space Nine itself. We’ve already seen the station hold off a Klingon assault, so it’s reasonable that the good guys could triumph here too, especially since the Federation has plenty of time to send extra ships to reinforce DS9.
Except, for some reason, Starfleet doesn’t do that. Instead, our heroes have to make do with just the station and two ships they already have. Instead of joining the battle, the rest of Starfleet crosses into Cardassian space and destroys a major Dominion shipyard. Without reinforcements, our heroes can’t hold their station, and the Dominion captures it. This leaves only a self-replicating minefield to prevent the Dominion from sending more ships through the wormhole.
The characters relate this information like it’s some kind of triumph, but it’s actually a blunder of epic proportions. Sure, losing that shipyard is a blow to the Dominion, but they have countless shipyards on the other side of the wormhole, and now they have unrestricted access to the minefield, so they can take their time disarming it. This takes longer than you might think, but they still manage it, forcing Starfleet to launch a desperate attack to retake the station and, when that fails, to consort with enigmatic god-aliens.
If the strategic implications of losing the wormhole weren’t bad enough, Starfleet also passes up the perfect tactical opportunity here. The Dominion has no choice but to attack the fortified DS9, giving Starfleet a major advantage in firepower. With a fleet backing the station up, our heroes could have inflicted debilitating losses on the enemy.
Dramatically, losing the station is a good thing for the story, as it puts the characters in a low point that they need to climb out of. But the way it was set up just doesn’t make sense. If it were up to me, I’d have explained that DS9 is just too far away from the rest of Federation space to be properly supplied, so any ships sent there would be cut off and surrounded. That would give at least some idea why Starfleet didn’t feel it was worth defending.
6. The Entire Defense, The Empire Strikes Back
Finally, we arrive at Star Wars, a franchise that occasionally dabbles in this whole war business. In The Empire Strikes Back, the Empire has discovered the Rebellion’s secret base on Hoth, but it’s okay because the rebels have a plan. They’ll use shields to prevent orbital bombardment, then lay down fire with their ion cannon to clear the path for transports escaping the planet. Meanwhile, rebel soldiers will hold off an imperial ground assault until the evacuation is complete.
This ground defense looks like something right out of the Western Front of WWI. There are trenches full of soldiers, artillery positions, and even light aircraft flying overhead. That’s sure to slow the Empire down! Or at least it would, if it weren’t for one problem: AT-AT walkers. They’re big, stuffed with stormtroopers, and completely impervious to everything in the rebel arsenal.
Seriously, we see the rebels firing at them using both small arms and artillery, none of which makes a dent. The AT-ATs don’t even slow down; they just keep walking as if the rebels weren’t there. The only thing that seems to make a difference is when the rebels try lassoing them with speeders. That means most of the Rebellion’s defensive force is accomplishing nothing – they’re just sacrificing personnel for no gain.
More irritating, the Rebellion does actually have weapons that could probably hurt the walkers: the proton torpedoes carried by their X-Wings. The films don’t tell us exactly how powerful these torpedoes are, but we know from the previous movie that they’re stronger than normal blasters. Currently, all the X-Wings are doing is escorting the transports, which doesn’t actually matter since that operation succeeds or fails entirely based on the ion cannon.
Another tactic the film shows us is to have infantry rush up to the AT-ATs’ feet and attack them with explosives. Luke Skywalker pulls this trick after his speeder crashes, so we know it would work even if it’s difficult. The AT-ATs have a comically small field of fire, so getting close to them is relatively safe. Certainly it’s safer than waiting in a trench directly in front of them.
But the rebels don’t do any of that. Instead, they wait in their trenches to get shot. The best possible explanation I can think of here is that the defenses are meant to stop lighter, faster vehicles that the Empire never deployed. But even if that were the case, surely the rebels would change tactics once they realized what the enemy was sending against them?
Of course the real reason the rebels set up their defenses like that is the film makers wanting Hoth to look like the Western Front of WWI. I can appreciate the imagery, but imagery needs to fit with the plot too. If the rebels actually had some kind of artillery that could damage the walkers, and the Empire had to destroy that artillery before it could advance, that would have worked a lot better.
Real battles and military operations are enormously complex, so it’s unlikely you’ll be able to cover every detail. Your story doesn’t have the space, and it would probably be boring anyway. However, you should still do everything you can to make your battles consistent with the rules you laid out, either explicitly or implicitly. Otherwise, more detail-oriented audiences will notice the discrepancies, and what should be a fun action sequence can become an annoying slog instead.
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