Andor: An Irregular Warfare Story

Andor: An Irregular Warfare Story

Dr. Lumpy Lumbaca

“I’d rather die trying to take them down than die giving them what they want.”

Cassian Andor
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The Disney+ series Andor—about Cassian Andor, a rebel fighting against the Galactic Empire—takes a dramatic detour from the usual Star Wars fare of lightsaber duels and epic spaceship battles. Instead, the show plunges viewers into the gritty underbelly of rebellion, exploring the birth of a resistance movement against the suffocating grip of the Empire. The show transcends mere space fantasy, offering a nuanced and captivating portrayal of the principles of irregular warfare and insurgency. 

Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, and Jedi knights are nowhere to be found in this series. The departure is immediately apparent. The show establishes the Empire not through grandiose displays of military might, but through the quotidian repression of unaccountable proxy forces patrolling downtrodden mining worlds and industrial centers. Their oppressive presence is felt in the arbitrary curfews they enforce and the brutal crackdowns on dissent they enact. These constant reminders of the Empire’s overwhelming power serve as stark counterpoints to the fledgling rebellion slowly taking root in response.

The show portrays a realistic depiction of a calculated system of authoritarian economic exploitation. Planets like Ferrix, where Andor was raised, are reduced to mere resource extraction sites for the Empire, leaving the local population impoverished and desperate. These economic injustices fuel resentment and provide fertile ground for resistance. Social control is another facet of the Empire’s oppressive machinery. Attempts to manufacture consent are portrayed through propaganda depicting the Empire as a benevolent force. Dissenters are swiftly silenced, either through violence or disappearing into Imperial prisons. This oppressive milieu becomes a crucible that forges Cassian Andor’s transformation from a cynical petty thief into a committed rebel.

The show charts Andor’s journey, highlighting the pivotal moments that chip away at his apathy and ignite his defiance. It provides a brutal baptism by fire for Cassian and his compatriots, highlighting their lack of resources and training compared to their well-equipped Imperial adversaries. However, Cassian’s encounter with Luthen Rael, an early leader of the anti-Imperial resistance, marks a turning point. Luthen, an experienced, covert rebel leader, exposes Cassian to a wider network of resistance fighters, and provides much-needed guidance, propelling him towards a more effective insurgency.

Andor embraces the realities of irregular warfare. Facing an overwhelming enemy, the rebels are forced to adopt asymmetric tactics. Hit-and-run attacks, sabotage, clandestine communication, and intelligence gathering become their primary weapons. Theft of Imperial equipment, and the disruption of economic supply lines, become crucial strategies for striking back at the Empire. The show also emphasizes the importance of exploiting local knowledge of terrain. Secluded hideouts provide the rebels with secure operational bases and opportunities to evade Imperial patrols. Lack of local collaborators to help navigate unfamiliar terrain, a liability for the technologically-superior counterinsurgent forces of the Empire, becomes an advantage for these nimble rebel forces.

Resistance tradecraft is highlighted throughout the show. Characters utilize sophisticated communications techniques such as electronic encryption, dead drops, and secure rendezvous points. Cut-outs, or middlemen, play a significant role, with operatives relying on these intermediaries to maintain operational security and distance themselves from direct contact with potential informants or allies. These elements showcase the meticulous planning and execution required for successful clandestine operations within a hostile environment. Cassian Andor, for example, is introduced to Luthen Rael through Bix Caleen, a seemingly innocuous mechanic who relays insurgent messages disguised as routine conversation and logistics requests. Recruitment itself occurs subtly. Cassian’s own path to rebellion is gradual, influenced by witnessing Imperial brutality and nudged by Luthen’s veiled encouragement. The show emphasizes the importance of trust and discretion, showcasing how a network of seemingly ordinary people become vital links in the chain of resistance.

Furthermore, Andor depicts the real-world components necessary for a successful resistance movement. According to the U.S. Army Special Operation Command’s Unconventional Warfare Pocket Guide, the “underground” in resistance involves the cellular organization that has the ability to conduct operations in areas that are inhospitable to guerrilla activity, such as urban areas under tight control of the local security forces. The “auxiliary” refers to that portion of the population that provides active clandestine support to the guerrilla force or the underground. The “guerilla force” involves a group of irregular, predominantly indigenous, personnel organized along military lines to conduct operations in enemy-held, hostile, or denied territory. Finally, the “shadow government” consists of administrative elements and activities performed by an irregular organization that aims to displace the functional governance of an existing regime such as the Empire.

We find all of these elements depicted in Andor. Senator Mon Mothma, a secret supporter of the rebellion, navigates a dangerous balancing act in the show. She risks public exposure and Imperial persecution by discreetly funneling funds to the nascent insurgency, all while maintaining a facade of loyalty to the oppressive Empire. This double life puts her personal safety and political career on the line in her fight for a cause she believes in. At the end of the first season, we witness Mon make the tremendous personal sacrifice to betroth her only daughter to raise funds for the resistance. Meanwhile, Vel Sartha, an heiress to a fortune and cousin to Senator Mon Mothma, deploys to far-away planets to conduct guerilla operations.  In line with Unconventional Warfare doctrine, several actors must serve more than one functional role in the resistance. Mon Mothma is a prime example. She initially serves in an auxiliary role, but at the same time slowly emerges as a key leader of the forming shadow government.

Despite small victories that may be won on the way, the path to an ultimately successful rebellion is fraught with immense challenges. Andor exposes internal fractures and differences within the resistance movement. Luthen Rael embodies a ruthless approach, prioritizing efficiency over morality. Cassian, on the other hand, grapples with the moral complexities of rebellion and the potential for collateral damage. These contrasting perspectives highlight the difficulties of forging an insurgency’s unified front, especially in the face of limited resources and constant threats from within. The lack of sophisticated weaponry and formal training forces the rebels to rely on ingenuity and improvisation. The constant paranoia surrounding potential informants and double agents, like Imperial officers Lonni Jung and Lieutenant Gorn, adds another layer of realistic complexity, demonstrating the precariousness of resistance and the need for constant vigilance.

The human cost of rebellion is another aspect that Andor doesn’t shy away from. The torture of Bix Caleen and the death of Maarva Andor, Cassian’s adoptive mother, serve as stark reminders of the personal sacrifices that rebellion can demand. The loss of his mother emboldens Cassian’s resolve to fight the Empire, but illustrates the human cost entailed in long-duration struggle. The rebels are forced to make difficult choices, facing tradeoffs between self-preservation and doing what they believe is right. This moral ambiguity adds depth and realism to the narrative, reminding viewers that even in the fight against tyranny, there are no easy answers.

Ultimately, the brilliance of Andor lies in its ability to translate the realities of insurgency and irregular warfare into a compelling narrative set in a galaxy far, far away. It embraces the moral complexities, the internal struggles, and the immense human cost of resistance. By grounding its story in these real-world themes, Andor transcends the genre of space opera fantasy and offers a thought-provoking exploration of the fight for self-determination against overwhelming odds. While entertaining and a Hollywood production, Andor nevertheless captures the real-world elements of modern insurgency and irregular warfare.

In conclusion, there are perhaps no words from the show more evocative of the spirit of resistance than those shared in the manifesto of the young insurgent, Karis Nemik:

“There will be times when the struggle seems impossible. I know this already. Alone, unsure, dwarfed by the scale of the enemy. Remember this. Freedom is a pure idea. It occurs spontaneously and without instruction. Random acts of insurrection are occurring constantly throughout the galaxy. There are whole armies, battalions that have no idea that they’ve already enlisted in the cause. Remember that the frontier of the Rebellion is everywhere. And even the smallest act of insurrection pushes our lines forward. And then remember this. The Imperial need for control is so desperate because it is so unnatural. Tyranny requires constant effort. It breaks, it leaks. Authority is brittle. Oppression is the mask of fear. Remember that. And know this, the day will come when all these skirmishes and battles, these moments of defiance will have flooded the banks of the Empire’s authority and then there will be one too many. One single thing will break the siege. Remember this. Try.”

Jeremiah “Lumpy” Lumbaca, PhD, is a retired U.S. Army Green Beret and current Department of Defense civilian professor of irregular warfare, counterterrorism, and special operations at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies. He can be found on X/Twitter @LumpyAsia.