Atreides or Harkonnen? A Literary Corollary for Self-Awareness and Host Nation Perception in Small Wars
By Tom Ordeman, Jr.
Science Fiction as Military Corollary
Two key elements serve as hallmarks of the American military mindset. First: since at least 1945, American troops have considered themselves the undisputed "good guys," the guys in white hats, heirs to the fights against the clear evils of fascism and communism. Second: American troops love science fiction, often for its visions of revolutionary, war-winning technology, rather than for its use in the illustration of social or moral lessons.
The former element manifests itself in the attitudes displayed not only by American service personnel, but also in their demeanor. American troops whose great-grandfathers may have served during the Second World War, and who may or may not have seen combat, nonetheless carry themselves as if they personally liberated Paris from the Third Reich's occupying troops. The latter element manifests itself primarily in the adoration of Star Wars, the juggernaut franchise based upon George Lucas' 1977 science fantasy remake of Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress. Meanwhile, other media franchises also receive various levels of military attention.
Examples are manifold. In 2004, pseudonymous author "Dr. Rusty Shackleford" of The Jawa Report co-opted elements from Star Wars to explain the international dynamics of the Global War on Terror. Then, in a 2015 Small Wars Journal essay, Army veteran Justin Baumann highlighted hybrid warfare using Star Wars examples. One lecturer at the U.S. Naval Academy Museum's NavyCon 2017 used his time to discuss naval acquisition by Star Wars' Galactic Empire; by 2020, another lecturer had prepared similar remarks to discuss fleet acquisition as illustrated in the first season of Star Trek: Picard. U.S. Air Force personnel have long referred to the F-16 aircraft as "Vipers", after the fighter craft featured in the 1978 Battlestar Galactica television series. Between 2015 and 2019, Amazon Prime aired The Man in the High Castle, a re-imagining of the postwar sociopolitical landscape aided by science fantasy elements. The Commandant of the Marine Corps' reading list includes such classics as Ender's Game and Starship Troopers. One might argue that this phenomenon culminated with the 2018 publication of Strategy Strikes Back: How Star Wars Explains Modern Military Conflict, in which notable authors such as Max Brooks, John Amble, Matt Cavanaugh, Steve "Doctrine Man" Leonard, James Stavridis, and Stanley McChrystal once again endeavored - for the sake of entertainment, more so than serious analysis - to illustrate military concepts through examples from Lucas' world famous film franchise.
Of course, this cognitive ligature results in a sort of projection of fictional concepts onto historical events. As a result, American troops perpetually identify themselves with the protagonists: the Rebel Alliance, the United Federation of Planets, the Colonial Fleet, and such. Thus, American troops equate the fight against fascist oppression with the epic fight against the repressive forces of the Galactic Empire. They defend the Federation against incursions from Klingons or Romulans, analogues for hostile foreign powers who pay mere lip service to international norms. They defend humanity against the Cylon menace, a collective of conformist drones whose national ideology is inconsistent with the tenets of personal freedom.
A modest proposition: what if this perception is admirable, but misguided? What if the best science fiction franchise to describe America's role in the world is the ornate, intricate, borderline incomprehensible universe described by the late Frank Herbert in his seminal classic, Dune? And what if, cloaked in confidence in their own righteousness, American troops have ceased to be the admirable agents of House Atreides, and have instead become the Harkonnens?
The Gold Standard of Science Fiction
Published in 1965, Frank Herbert's iconic novel won the inaugural Nebula Award for Best (Science Fiction) Novel and tied for the 1966 Hugo Award. French-Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky spent much of the 1970's developing a bizarre film interpretation of the novel that - perhaps thankfully - never came to fruition, though it went on to influence such classics as Ridley Scott's Alien. After several more failed attempts, 1984 saw the release of David Lynch's controversial interpretation, featuring an ensemble cast. The film lost money, and no sequels were produced. Having been denied a great deal of creative control, Lynch distanced himself from many of the film's extended versions. The Sci-Fi Channel commissioned a 2000 television adaptation, as well as a 2003 adaptation of two of Herbert’s sequels. The first of two episodes of a new interpretation by Denis Villeneuve, director of Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, was released in late 2021.
Set approximately ten thousand years in the future, Dune tells the story of Paul, son of Duke Leto and his consort, Lady Jessica. As the reigning heir of House Atreides, Leto leads the current stage of a generations-long struggle with the rival House Harkonnen. These and other houses - notably House Corrino, led by Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV - make up the Landsraad, a sort of feudal imperial confederation. The Landsraad operates in concert with a galactic mercantile, the CHOAM Corporation, which ostensibly dictates the conditions of the interstellar economy.
That economy revolves entirely upon the most precious commodity in the universe: Melange, colloquially known as "the Spice." Spice consumption expands consciousness and extends life. "Thinking machines" having been outlawed, Spice allows the Mentats to perform complex calculations in their heads, and the Spacing Guild to provide interstellar travel to the Empire’s citizens. For these reasons, Spice is extremely precious. Melange occurs at only one location: the brutal desert planet of Arrakis. Spice mining is difficult and dangerous, and every outing of the spice harvesters will eventually summon one of Arrakis' legendary sand worms, necessitating a hasty airborne departure.
House Atreides has gained favor amongst the other noble houses. Because his methods are just and fair, Duke Leto Atreides now rivals the Padishah Emperor himself for influence in the Landsraad. For this reason, Shaddam IV conspires with Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, Leto's enemy and rival in the Landsraad, to reassign control of Arrakis - and responsibility for harvesting the Spice - to House Atreides. Sensing treachery and intrigue, Duke Leto sends his agents to scout out Arrakis, and concludes that the only way to survive is to form an alliance with the Fremen, Arrakis' indigenous population. The Fremen sustain ancient beliefs, speak an ancient language, and have adapted over millennia to survive in the harsh conditions of Arrakis' open deserts. The Atreides and their entourage begin to embrace Fremen ways, and to leverage their resources - particularly imported or reclaimed moisture - to improve the lives of Fremen who live and work in the capital city of Arrakeen. Initial meetings between the Fremen and House Atreides appear promising: Lady Jessica secures the trust of the Fremen housekeeper, the Shadout Mapes, while Duke Leto secures the tentative respect of a Fremen chieftain named Stilgar.
By contrast, for eighty years, House Harkonnen acted as the Emperor's designated procurators on Arrakis, squeezing every possible grain of Melange from the planet. Their occupation was repressive: partly for the sake of control, and partly for pure sport, Harkonnen troops harassed and subjugated the Fremen. Some Fremen secured menial jobs working for the Harkonnens in Arrakeen: maids, servants, and such. However, no question existed as to which population was superior, and which was inferior. At the behest of his cunning uncle, Baron Vladimir, Glossu Rabban Harkonnen's unapologetic brutality earned the nicknames of "The Beast" and "Mudir Nahya" (Demon Ruler). Throughout the Landsraad, the Harkonnens are reviled for their depravity, but feared for the sake of the power that their long tenure as Arrakis' overseers afforded them.
Every faction nurtures its own agenda. The Padishah Emperor seeks political stability, while the Harkonnens seek to consolidate their wealth and power. The Spacing Guild seeks to safeguard the flow of Spice, while the Bene Gesserit - a powerful sisterhood of operatives to which Lady Jessica belongs - leverage their positions throughout the Landsraad in pursuit of a secretive, intergenerational breeding program. Under the secret leadership of the Padishah Emperor's own planetologist, the Fremen seek to transform Arrakis, both physically and politically. Meanwhile, the Atreides seek to offset the Padishah Emperor's power by establishing "Desert Power": an alliance with the Fremen, combining the Atreides' technology and training with the Fremen command of the desert.
Duke Leto's strategy fails in its infancy: the Padishah Emperor's personal shock troops, the Sardaukar, augment Harkonnen troops in a surprise attack that obliterates the Atreides’ foothold on Arrakis. With Duke Leto dead, Glossu Rabban retakes his former post as Baron Vladimir's oppressive viceroy, reimposing their brutal regime upon the Fremen. However, before his untimely death, Duke Leto manages to establish enough trust with the Fremen to secure sanctuary for a tiny cadre of Atreides survivors, notably Paul and Jessica.
Paul Atreides becomes a sort of messiah to the Fremen, and eventually reunites with House Atreides' chief strategist, Gurney Halleck. Their fragile "Desert Power" begins as an insurgency, eventually growing so powerful as to bring Spice production to a standstill. Although the Padishah Emperor and the Harkonnens attempt to intervene, even seeking the outright annihilation of the Fremen, "Desert Power" proves too powerful: the Atreides-Fremen alliance and its threat to the Spice brings the universe to its knees. Paul deposes the Padishah Emperor, and the Fremen assume a dangerous measure of interstellar power under his fragile leadership.
Herbert’s classic novel followed from extensive research on coastal and desert ecology, inspired by a 1959 trip to the iconic dunes outside Florence, Oregon. His research also focused upon the Middle East and the Arabic language, which influenced the linguistic intricacies interwoven into Herbert’s narrative. The story showcases a variety of competing and complementary agendas, none of which manage to play out as their perpetrators intend. Even the central protagonist, Paul, eventually loses control of the very force he manages to recruit to his cause, originating the quote that summarizes the entire story: “No more terrible disaster could befall your people than for them to fall into the hands of a Hero.”
On the fictional planet Arrakis, the members of House Atreides send advance teams to make contact with the Fremen, ascertain their culture, learn to speak their languages, and seek to establish alliances with key Fremen tribes. By contrast, the Harkonnens make no such effort. Instead, they dismiss the Fremen as barbarians to be managed, exploited, or simply exterminated.
For the sake of neither the Afghan nor Iraq campaigns could Western troops be bothered to develop more than a passing understanding of either culture. The number of Western troops who learned critical languages - Arabic, Kurdish, Farsi, Dari, Pashtu, Urdu - with any degree of competence numbered in the dozens, perhaps the hundreds. Few of these dealt directly with the local populace in their respective theaters. Instead, they were employed in rear echelon units, such as intelligence cells or embassies. Rank-and-file troops charged with interacting with locals dealt mostly through interpreters, possibly going so far as to enjoy “three cups of tea” under the naive assumption that sharing in this basic aspect of local hospitality built common cause with their local interlocutors. Other coalition troops openly flaunted cultural proscriptions against alcohol consumption, or inter-gender fraternization, or a variety of other such proscriptions.
On Arrakis, the Atreides recognize their wealth - particularly in water - and seek to leverage that wealth for the sake of improving Fremen lives. Atreides forces engage in ambitious water preservation measures and seek opportunities to increase water rations for the Fremen in their employ. By contrast, the Harkonnen periods before and after the Atreides initial occupation become symbolic of excess, perversion, and flaunted wealth. The Harkonnens make no effort to improve Fremen lives, treating them instead as a resource to be squeezed to a breaking point in pursuit of an ever-growing spice production quota.
Despite the Counterinsurgency field manual's admonitions against ostentatious displays of wealth, Western troops enjoyed luxuries that their local counterparts - particularly the Afghans - could scarcely have dreamed of. While some frontline troops at forward patrol bases suffered the same sort of deprivations that the local populace endures on a lifetime basis, most support troops - the vast majority of deployed forces - enjoyed fast food concessions, recreation facilities, and other amenities beyond anything that Afghans or many Iraqis could ever hope to experience. For the sake of comfort, these conspicuous displays of wealth created cultural distance between Western troops and their host nation counterparts, while simultaneously encouraging unrealistic expectations with regard to what Western coalitions could accomplish. In Afghanistan in particular, unbridled expenditures - coupled with a prevailing lack of oversight or accountability - contributed directly to the coalition's failure.
On Arrakis, the Atreides recognize the importance of protecting Fremen life. In one key passage, Lady Jessica spares the life of the Shadout Mapes for the sake of building rapport with the Fremen - a reflection of her moral values, but also of her recognition of the importance of influencing Fremen hearts and minds. (Notably, Jessica exploits a longtime Bene Gesserit initiative, the Missionaria Protectiva, which seeded a belief system among the Fremen in a manner eerily similar to the longtime Saudi sponsorship of an international network of madrassas.) In another, Duke Leto himself orders that a substantial amount of raw spice - the most valuable commodity in the known universe - be abandoned in order to save the lives of a Fremen harvesting crew. By contrast, the Harkonnens place no value on the lives of Arrakis' indigenous populace. To Baron Vladimir, his underlings, and their troops, the Fremen amount to little more than an obstacle in their pursuit of wealth and power.
Certainly, few Western troops harbored the sort of cynicism and disregard for human life demonstrated by the Harkonnens. Still, despite the proliferation of noble and productive concepts like "courageous restraint" and "winning the hearts and minds," the coalition repeatedly alienated host nation communities through their overall lack of restraint in the application of deadly force applied toward one objective or another. For a period lasting beyond the initial months and years of the Afghan campaign, wedding parties were bombed almost repeatedly, fueling a consistent erosion of host nation faith in the coalition's integrity and motives. Even after coalition commanders recognized the need for restraint, troops quickly determined that they could secure the desired level of fire support with three words: "troops in contact." While coalition troops' goal was never the indiscriminate killing of civilians, the perception by host nation civilians was undoubtedly the same as it would have been if troops' intent had been deliberately hostile.
In a final example, the Atreides establish immediate plans to reconstitute Arrakis’ spice harvesting work force and infrastructure, both of which have been deliberately compromised by the Harkonnens during their withdrawal. These Harkonnen efforts to repatriate the best of their equipment mirrors efforts by coalition troops to leave minimal equipment with their Afghan and Iraqi counterparts. While a variety of considerations governed coalition calculations with regard to which assets stayed or went, this situation exceeded weapon systems and tactical vehicles, extending to base infrastructure such as access control and surveillance systems. In one documentary depicting the British withdrawal from Camp Bastion, an Afghan officer eventually comments to one of his colleagues, “They’re taking all the important things.”
A Disruptive Endgame
Eventually, operating under the Fremen nom de guerre "Muad'Dib", Paul Atreides leads an invasion force of Fremen warriors, augmented by a cadre of Atreides survivors that coincidentally resemble Army Special Forces A-Teams, against Arrakeen. Muad'Dib's forces quickly overwhelm their Harkonnen opponents, taking control of Arrakis, and of the Spice trade by extension. Baron Vladimir dies at the hands of Paul's captive sister, while Glossu Rabban is assassinated by the Fremen, and his brother Feyd-Rautha perishes in single combat with Paul. Muad'Dib becomes de facto Emperor of the known universe, while the Fremen - having seemingly found their messiah and fulfilled the prophecy seeded by the Missionaria Protectiva - launch a jihad across the universe, which even Muad'Dib himself is largely powerless to rein in.
Herbert's description of the Fremen conquest of Arrakeen reads like a fantastic version of the August 2021, fall of Kabul, after Taliban forces overran Western-aligned Afghan troop positions in a matter of days. The Taliban advance was, apparently, tolerated by a rural populace exhausted by nearly twenty years of failed NATO campaigns. Eventually, in a manner reminiscent of the fall of Saigon - and also of the uneasy Arrakeen settlement imposed at Muad'Dib's convenience - American and international troops evacuated military, civilian, and contracted personnel, in addition to thousands upon thousands of refugees, at the convenience of a Taliban force that had effectively surrounded Kabul's central airfield. The Taliban even disseminated images of their officials occupying government buildings, and of their most elite combatants brandishing appropriated Western equipment. Critics observed that the United States had spent twenty years, nearly 2,500 fatalities, and more than $2 trillion to replace the Taliban with the Taliban.
Elsewhere, in Iraq, the international coalition withdrew just before the close of 2011, leaving a Western-aligned Shiite strongman, Nuri al Maliki, as Prime Minister. This followed American interference in Iraqi politics to secure Maliki's position, despite his party's failure to secure an electoral majority against the rival Iraqiyah unity party in the nation's 2010 parliamentary election. With no residual coalition forces to act as a stabilizing force in Iraqi politics, Maliki launched an immediate, Iranian-backed pogrom against sectarian political rivals, attempting to consolidate his power by targeting Iraq's minority Sunni committee. In a matter of months, the same Sunni tribesmen who had partnered with coalition troops to eliminate Iraq's al Qaeda affiliate, the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI), welcomed ISI's successor organization back into Iraq's Sunni provinces as liberators, preferring their former enemies to the America-backed government. The social, cultural, and political damage inflicted by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Sham (ISIS/"DAESH") took years to halt and defies efforts at quantification.
In neither Afghanistan nor Iraq, nor in a multitude of other foreign locales, have recent generations of Americans arrived with the intention of making life miserable for the local populace, stealing precious resources, or exploiting host nation counterparts for one-sided game. Of course, intentions count for little if they result in botched execution. Unfortunately, America's national track record - admittedly complicated by the conflicting objectives, methods, and conduct of coalition partners - left a great deal to be desired in recent campaigns. American troops' perception of themselves as benevolent liberators counts for little if their operations, well-intentioned though they may be, result in a host nation perception of malevolence or indifference by those they were sent to assist.
This challenge of "perception is reality" goes beyond bombing wedding parties, or the unintended deaths of innocent bystanders. For example, the DoD's own Counterinsurgency Field Manual states that "logistic postures that project an image of unduly luxurious living by foreign forces while host nation civilians suffer in poverty should be avoided." As noted previously, coalition troops undermined their own credibility and alienated themselves from the local nationals whose support they desperately needed, for the sake of minimizing the deprivations normally associated with military life.
For all the talk of political failures in Western capitals, or local forces abandoning their posts, perception among local nationals played a role in the Afghan and Iraqi debacles that could not be overcome by logistics, marksmanship, or air supremacy. For all the talk of "a return to great power competition" and "near-peer competitors," the Cold War's historical precedent suggests that a return to such a state of affairs would actually play out in a series of small proxy wars, rather than a direct confrontation. In the twentieth century's Cold War, as with any number of similar states of strategic unease throughout recorded history, as well as isolated small wars, the victor's success depended upon being perceived - at least by its allies, often by its opponents, and certainly by its own populace and troops - as the Atreides, rather than the Harkonnens. This perception depends at least as much upon competent execution as it does upon legitimate objectives. If American and coalition troops intend to serve the strategic purposes for which they exist, there is no time like the present - at the conclusion of two tumultuous decades of operations, and during a recruiting shortfall - to take a sober look at the force's shortfalls, and to both resolve and prepare to do better.
After all, the Spice must flow.