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Han Shot First: Star Wars And The Case For Preemptive Strikes
Editor's note: This essay, "Han, Greedo, and a Strategy of Prevention," is excerpted from the new book Strategy Strikes Back: How Star Wars Explains Modern Military Conflict from Potomac Books. The volume — which includes work by more than 30 soldiers, scholars, and diplomats, along with a foreword by former general Stanley McChrystal — is available now online and in bookstores.
When states and actors try to prevent future or imminent aggression from a potential adversary, it is sometimes desirable to be the one to strike first. This is especially true when the effects of being struck first have fatal or irrecoverable political and military consequences or when the state or actor feels that they’ve been “backed into a corner” and have no other viable options remaining. The strategic dilemma becomes whether to employ a strategy of prevention or preemption. Though they are often used interchangeably, they are not synonymous.
One of the best ways to illustrate the difference is to examine the shoot-out at the Mos Eisley cantina from Episode IV—A New Hope, one of the Star Wars franchise’s most iconic scenes. Since the mid-1990s, it’s also become one of the most contentious, thanks to the remastering of the shoot-out between Han Solo and a green alien named Greedo.
In case it’s been a while since you’ve seen the movie, after concluding an agreement with Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker for transport to Alderaan, a jubilant Han is getting up to follow Chewbacca to their ship when he is held up by a blaster-toting Greedo. Greedo, a bounty hunter, threatens to take Han to the local mob boss, Jabba the Hutt, so that he can collect the bounty on Han’s head. Han implores Greedo to let him go so he can finish the job for Obi-Wan; if he does, he’ll have the money needed to repay his debt to Jabba. Greedo rejects Han’s pleas and threatens to take both his life and his ship. What happens next depends on the version of the movie you happen to be watching and spawned the “Han Shot First” meme.
The differing versions of the cantina showdown between Han and Greedo all share the same dialogue, but they differ in who pulls the trigger first.
One has Greedo shooting first and missing before getting blown away (the 1997 version), another has Greedo only just barely shooting before Han (the 2004 version), and yet another has them shooting essentially simultaneously with Han barely pulling the trigger first (the 2011 version).
These versions are all wrong—the one that matters the most is the 1977 original, where Han murders Greedo in cold blood before the green thug has a chance to get off a shot. There’s no laser blast directed at Han; he simply gets up and walks away from the alien’s smoking corpse.
On the surface, this seems to clash with our collective perception of Han as a hero; after all, what kind of hero would just shoot an opponent without warning? The same can be said of governments. Throughout history, we can see numerous examples where nation-states make similar surprise attacks to varying degrees of success; there’s Prussia’s invasion of Silesia in 1740 (successful), Germany’s invasion of France in 1914 (initially successful), Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939 (successful), Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 (initially successful—notice a trend yet?), Japan’s air raid on Pearl Harbor in 1941 (tactically successful), and the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989 (successful), to name just a few. But remember, countries and statesmen position themselves as the “good guys” when they are making historical decisions in real time.
So what gives? What motivates otherwise “good” people (as they see themselves at the time) to use their instruments of national power to execute what is essentially a sucker punch? What about situations where the attack is a little less surprising, like the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003? How does that fit into all of this?
It turns out that we’re talking about two things that are distinct but often confused. The former is a preemptive strike; the latter is a preventive strike. It so happens that Han’s “shoot-out” with Greedo illustrates both.
Let’s go back to Han and Greedo and put ourselves in Han’s shoes. Han has three things to consider: who his adversary is and what Greedo’s motivations are, what the short-and long-term repercussions of killing Greedo are likely to be, and what the likely cost is if he does nothing.
So what does Han know about Greedo? Well, he’s a bounty hunter who works for a gigantic gangster (Jabba the Hutt) and lives in Mos Eisley, a “wretched hive of scum and villainy.” Mos Eisley’s a rough town, and its cantina is even rougher. Case in point, moments before the Han-Greedo conversation, Obi-Wan cut off an alien’s arm, and nobody batted an eye. The only thing anybody seemed to care about was not having any droids in the establishment, which kind of makes sense (because, hey, droids don’t drink). You’ve got to be pretty tough to be a bounty hunter in that kind of environment, and Han’s been around long enough to know that Greedo is dangerous just by being willing to set foot in the cantina.
At this point for Han, there isn’t a whole lot of downside to simply offing Greedo.
But wait, why not negotiate with Greedo? Try to talk him out of taking Han back to Jabba? First, we know that Greedo can’t be compelled to change his mind. We know this because of a deleted scene from The Phantom Menace where we see a young Anakin beating up a young Greedo because Greedo accused him of cheating. Qui-Gon breaks up the fight, Greedo flatly refuses to take back his accusation, and Qui-Gon tells Anakin, “You’ll have to tolerate his opinion; fighting will not change it.” Greedo’s probably been like that his whole life; and knowing Greedo, Han would recognize that he has no chance of verbally or physically coercing Greedo into letting him go, even if he was not witness to the Greedo-Anakin altercation. Han has dealt with Greedo and his ilk before, so he would intuitively know the character traits that we had to see in a deleted scene from a prequel.
Second, Han knows that Greedo, being a bounty hunter, is not trustworthy. So when Greedo suggests that he “might forget he saw him” and not tell Jabba if Han pays him, there are two big problems with that claim. One, there’s nothing to stop Greedo from taking the money and turning him in to Jabba anyway. Two, it doesn’t solve Han’s bigger problem, which is that he’d still owe Jabba a lot of money.
As far as Greedo’s motivations, Han can surmise for several reasons that Greedo wants to take him in alive. First, Greedo doesn’t have strength above and beyond what a human has (remember, young Anakin kicked his ass); if he kills Han at the cantina, then he’ll have to carry Han’s corpse out of the cantina and down a few alleys until he can get to a speeder—no easy task, especially with the added prospect of other bounty hunters potentially murdering Greedo along the way so that they can easily collect Han’s corpse and bounty after Greedo just did the hard work. So why not just shoot Han in the back and take his severed head back to Jabba? This goes to the second point: The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi both demonstrate that Jabba the Hutt is vindictive and cruel and revels in the torture of his enemies. Han would have dealt with Jabba enough by this point to know this, and it is probably why Greedo didn’t just shoot him on sight.
Next, Han weighs what the repercussions would be if he were to shoot Greedo in the bar. The short-term consequences are negligible. There’s no real law and order in Mos Eisley, with no local police or government other than the occasional Imperial patrol. Even the stormtroopers are more concerned with trying to find R2-D2 and C-3PO than with local crime; they actually were in the cantina moments before the shoot-out, where a brutal dismemberment by lightsaber had just taken place, about which their give-a-crap level was zero. Similarly, the bartender was more concerned about droids in his establishment than he was about a strange old guy busting out his laser sword and hacking off limbs. If anything, the bartender would be most concerned about cleaning up the mess, but that’s from the perspective of freeing up a table for additional patrons, because local sanitation inspections appear to be nonexistent.
What about long-term consequences? It’s not like Han can get into more trouble with Jabba by shooting Greedo than he already has by owing Jabba money. Jabba isn’t the kind of boss who particularly cares about his employees’ welfare. Heck, he fed one of his dancing girls to a rancor just for kicks. No, Jabba only cares about his bottom line; so when Han jettisoned his cargo at the sight of an Imperial cruiser, he committed an unforgivable crime. Killing Greedo won’t affect the price on his head either way. Han will still end up owing money to Jabba, but his prospects of being able to pay it back improve substantially.
At this point for Han, there isn’t a whole lot of downside to simply offing Greedo. So what’s the cost of doing nothing? If Han doesn’t shoot Greedo, there are a few ways that the scenario could play out. First, Greedo walks Han at gunpoint to Jabba’s palace, where he will be condemned to a torturously slow, agonizing death. This is the most likely outcome and is pretty bad for Han. Second, Greedo kills Han where he sits. As previously discussed, it’s not Greedo’s preferred choice, but it’s still a possible outcome and is also unfavorable from Han’s standpoint. Third, he sits in the cantina and keeps Greedo talking . . . at least for a while, but then he’s looking at either outcome one or two. Fourth and most unlikely, Greedo walks him to Jabba’s palace, where he is miraculously able to convince Jabba to give him more time to pay off his debt. But the delay means he loses his transport contract with Kenobi, so he’s out the money he needs and is back where he started. The upside to these outcomes? Han most likely gets to spend the rest of his short and excruciatingly painful life with the satisfaction that he did the “right thing.” And that’s what smugglers and rogues really aspire to, right?
So to recap, Han’s life is on the line with a dangerous and violent criminal whom he has almost no anticipated hope of negotiating with. If Han shoots Greedo, there are no negative consequences other than his own internal guilt (the cantina’s morality-free ambiance suggests nobody will judge him), and not shooting Greedo can only result in bad things happening. The real question here isn’t why Han shot Greedo; it’s why he waited so long to do it.
Prevention versus preemption
When Han shot Greedo, he conducted a preventive strike. It is so-called because Han looked at his situation and though he wasn’t sure what Greedo would do, he was sure that he didn’t like the threat that Greedo posed. He needed to take action to prevent Greedo from injuring or killing him or from utterly derailing his interests.
From a nation-state standpoint, this preventive strike looks like Japan bombing Pearl Harbor or the United States invading Iraq in 2003 or Israel’s bombing of Iraq’s Osirak nuclear plant in 1981. Though the other nation-state in question is not likely to conduct an imminent attack, the concern is that the other nation-state will eventually pose a mortal threat if not dealt with, and the cost of allowing the other side to strike first in that situation would be intolerable. This future aggression must be prevented, hence the term preventive strike.
The quintessential historical example of the preemptive strike is the Schlieffen Plan of 1914.
So then what is a preemptive strike? To answer that we need to look at the 2011 version of the cantina scene. Like the other remastered scenes since 1997, it still has the absurd digitally enhanced head bob, where Han dodges Greedo’s missed blaster shot (which is preposterous not only because Greedo missed but because it would indicate that Han has reflexes fast enough to dodge a laser beam); but unlike the 1997 and 2004 versions that have Greedo shooting first, in the 2011 version Han just barely gets his shot off before Greedo, which does a better job of explaining Greedo’s laughably awful aim.
What we see in the 2011 version is a preemptive strike on Han’s part. His calculus prior to pulling the trigger remains the same with one critical difference: he sees Greedo about to pull the trigger and understands that his enemy’s attack is imminent. Han just needed to be quicker on the draw than his enemy. This is where preemption differs from prevention; the preventive strike aims to prevent future strategic threats from manifesting, where a preemptive strike aims to be quicker on the draw than a tactical threat that has already manifested itself.
The quintessential historical example of the preemptive strike is the Schlieffen Plan of 1914. In this case, an invasion by France was imminent, and Germany was able to strike first by virtue of being able to mobilize more rapidly than its adversaries. The Germans correctly concluded that they would lose a protracted war, so their strategy depended on being able to individually force adversaries out of the conflict as quickly as possible. A lesser-known example of the preemptive strike is Napoleon’s Jena-Auerstadt campaign, in which Prussia declared war on France. Napoleon was able to mobilize his Grande Armeé faster than the Prussians could, and he was able to bring the campaign onto Prussian soil. By making the first operational move, Napoleon was able to dictate the tempo and location of the war.
So remember, if a nation-state takes action akin to Han shooting Greedo outright, like in the 1977 version of the film, then that nation is executing a preventive strike. If the situation looks more like the version of the film where Greedo is able to get a shot off, then that nation is executing a preemptive strike. Nations and actors employ these types of strikes and strategies when they feel that they are threatened and that the cost of not taking action is intolerable.
And for the record, Han shot first.
Chuck Bies is an armor officer in the U.S. Army, currently serving in the rank of major. He holds a BSE in mechanical engineering from Duke University and an MA in diplomacy and military studies from Hawaii Pacific University. Recently, he served as an assistant professor in the Department of History at the United States Military Academy. He won the 2016 General George S. Patton Award at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff School as the best tactician in his class of 1,300 officers.
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