The Defense Analyst: John Arquilla

'The mind remains the greatest weapon'

All one needs to know about strategy and conflict can be gleaned from “Battlestar Galactica.” From the outset, this series has succeeded in portraying the epic sweep of war, touching on virtually all the key themes in military affairs.


When it comes to the importance of surprise and the commander’s need to make calculated sacrifices, the point has never been better made than in “Hand of God.” In this episode, Starbuck conjures up a ruse to catch the Cylons off guard — but making it work requires her to offer up much of the strike force as decoys.


Many are killed, but the ruse pays off, and the fleet is saved. Still, the ashen look on Starbuck’s face speaks volumes about the awful weight of such command decisions.


If “BSG” has an especially dramatic effect, it lies in the ability to uncover what conflict does to the human psyche — and to the “csyches” of intelligent machines! One need only view the arc of episodes that plays out around the Cylon occupation of New Caprica to see the terrible toll of war, whatever one’s side.


“BSG” also conveys a timely, paradoxical message showing, in the initial catastrophe of the Cylon attack, that interconnectivity empowers and simultaneously imperils. The humans are nearly destroyed because their forces are highly networked. Galactica survives because it isn’t networked at all — a dramatic way to make the point that the mind remains the greatest weapon.


For this insight, and countless others, military and national security professionals owe a great debt to “BSG.”



John Arquilla is professor of defense analysis at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School. He has been advising the Defense Dept. on strategic matters for nearly 20 years. His latest book is “Worst Enemy: The Reluctant Transformation of the American Military.

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