From a military perspective, one thing has always stood out: The Empire, and now the First Order, have nearly limitless ships, equipment, and manpower, while the Rebels/Resistance have scant resources. With every engagement, this band of rebel fighters grows ever smaller, while there seems to be no lack of available Stormtroopers. At least previously, though, those engagements ended with the destruction of Death Stars and a Starkiller Base, even if unsound Rebel strategic thinking got them there. Now those bad choices are playing out more realistically—and tragically—than ever.
Win It All
While The Last Jedi mainly focuses on the Jedi order and its fate, perhaps the most striking feature of the film is that the Resistance has finally played its last card. The Resistance—and the Rebels before them—sought the decisive battle, that one moment that would destroy the enemy’s will to fight and bring about peace in the Galaxy. That seemed to be the case after Return of the Jedi, and yet somehow in the intervening 30 years the Republic squandered away all that they had won.
But history shows that decisive battles do little to further a rebel cause. During the American Civil War, Confederate General Robert E. Lee spent years pursuing a decisive battle versus the United States Army. Yet, even after one-sided Confederate successes such as Fredericksburg in 1862 and Chancellorsville in 1863, the US Army of the Potomac remained in the field, inflicting losses that the Confederates could not afford. Lee’s search for decisive battle led to his force being winnowed away to nearly nothing. The truly great generals throughout history have realized that seeking a decisive battle only puts one’s force in more peril than the risk is worth.
In The Last Jedi, the Resistance lacks truly great generals. Commander Poe Dameron is a skilled fighter pilot but hardly a strategic thinker; he’s a hammer who sees a world full of nails. He gambles the Resistance bomber fleet on a shot to take out a First Order dreadnought-class star destroyer. Not only that, but he does so in violation of a direct order from General Leia Organa. The mission succeeds in knocking out the enemy ship, but at the cost of the entire Resistance bomber fleet, for which Poe is reduced in rank.
Seeking that decisive battle with the First Order only resulted in dead pilots and lost resources. It solved nothing in the long term. And as the rest of The Last Jedi makes clear, for every enemy star destroyer or frigate the Resistance accounts for, the First Order can replace it without blinking an eye.
Rather than making massive sacrifices to blow up one big ship, the real strength of the Resistance rests in its ability to survive. The presumed heroics of individuals like Poe and Finn make it hard for them to do even that.
In many ways, the Resistance shares that trait with real-world rebellions throughout history. Most are worn down through the sheer lack of resources and through attrition; a decisive battle becomes their best way to make a grand statement.
In The Last Jedi, the Resistance lacks truly great generals.
The successful counterexample, and a model the Resistance would have been better served following, is the American Revolution. George Washington’s genius lay less in his ability to take the fight to the British—although he excelled at that—and more in the way that he prioritized preservation of troops over seeking out a singular moment of triumph. His ability to exfiltrate units from near-disaster mattered just as much as his offensive strategies.
But just as General Organa finally recognizes the importance of preserving her force—too late, one could argue—she enters a coma after the First Order begins its bombardment of the last Resistance Frigate. (RIP Admiral Ackbar.) Command devolves to Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo, who recognizes the strategic need to protect their force, but has what proves to be a fatal flaw: She fails to communicate well.
Holdo knows that she can jettison the escape transports and they will be cloaked from the First Order, but doesn’t share the plan with Poe. She instead belittles him, and leaves him eager to take action. Left out of the loop, Poe and Finn concoct a hare-brained scheme to save the last three Resistance ships from First Order bombardment, another all-or-nothing gambit that not only fails, but gets the majority of transports destroyed in the process.
Some Like It Hoth
When what remains of the Resistance lands on Crait, a planet that houses an musty old Rebel Alliance outpost, they yet again seek a decisive engagement, this time with only a handful of fighters and some infantry left. Crait is a terrible spot for a last stand. The rebellion stuffs itself into a cave, with only one entry and egress point, and little in the way of protection.
They’re shielded from planetary bombardment, so the First Order lands a ground force. Now you’ve got massive new AT-M6 walkers facing off against the serried trenches and rusting turret guns of the Resistance.
Sound familiar? Yes, it’s looking like we’re about to get a repeat of The Empire Strikes Back‘s battle of Hoth, where resistance fighters just barely manage to escape after suffering grave losses.
Back then, Imperial armor cut through the Rebels’ linear defenses, brushed past Luke Skywalker’s head-on air attack with snow speeders, and blasted apart the shield generator. However, the plucky Rebel troopers had managed to buy enough time for the main force to escape off planet, under the protective fire of the ion cannon.
Much like Luke Skywalker in Empire, Poe doesn’t seem to realize that the AT-series has no firepower on its sides or rear. Nope, it’s straight up the middle for Poe, with predictable carnage for the last handful of Resistance pilots that remain. At least Poe, unlike Luke, eventually realizes it’s a suicide mission, and pulls back after taking losses.
Of course, they’re not much better off back in the cave. Only the arrival of Luke Skywalker in full Jedi power mode saves the Resistance from being snuffed out in entirety. But only just barely; all that’s left can fit inside the Millennium Falcon.
By consistently refusing to learn the rules of unity of command, communication across the chain of command, and the necessity of preserving their force, the Resistance has fought itself nearly out of existence. If rebellions are built on hope, then they survive through skilled withdrawals—which almost never happens in the Star Wars saga. And in The Last Jedi, that failure has brought what was once a promising rebellion to the brink.