The Legend of Korra – An Insurgency Masterclass

This article contains significant spoilers for Season 1 of The Legend of Korra

Season 1 of The Legend of Korra is an insightful depiction of a counterinsurgency campaign which should be required watching for security studies students everywhere. It captures key elements of how insurgencies operate and highlights common pitfalls of counterinsurgents in a compact and entertaining format.

What is The Legend of Korra?

The Legend of Korra is a sequel to the popular animated children’s show Avatar: The Last Airbender. It retains the animation style but works with more mature themes, including discrimination, socioeconomic inequality, and terrorism. It is set in Republic City, a fusion of New York and Tokyo. The citizens of Republic City are divided into benders – those who can control fire, water, earth, or air at will – and non-benders, who can’t.

Benders dominate government, security, and corporate institutions. A radical political movement called the Equalists has taken root in the city led by the enigmatic Amon, promising to overthrow the benders and take away their bending. The season explores their insurgency. The titular Korra is the latest Avatar, a powerful bender in training, who arrives in the city as the Equalist movement begins its final offensive.

How does it teach insurgency?

Amon, the leader of the Equalist movement, is an expert insurgent. He first targets and eliminates the Triple Threat Triads, a set of criminal gangs operating in the city. This is done in a way which maximises publicity and establishes his bona fides as a defender of the people. It also, usefully, displaces a potential competitor.

His next act is to threaten an attack against a pro-bending arena – a sport well loved by benders – unless an important match is cancelled. The government responds by ramping up police presence around the arena. Amon uses infiltrators to attack anyway, and publicly takes the bending away from several sports stars.

This is a triple victory. First, it usefully shows that the police force, while unwilling to defend non-benders against bending criminals, is willing to throw significant resources into preserving a luxury activity enjoyed by the elite. Second, attacking and overcoming this highly secure target anyway proves the Equalists’ capability in dramatic style. Finally, publicly taking the bending away from celebrities at a highly observed location strikes terror into benders and emboldens non-benders.

Following this attack, Amon exploits the heavy-handed government response – see more below – to further build support and infrastructure. This includes deepening partnerships with companies in the private sector and securing technological capabilities. At the right moment, when the government fractures itself through overextension, he strikes. Government leadership is eliminated with a simultaneous commando raids. Police capabilities are sabotaged, and their headquarters taken through liberal use of chemical weapons. Conventional Equalist forces move into the city en masse.

Before Amon completes his takeover, the government mobilises the United Forces, and a military taskforce is dispatched to the city. However, Equalist signals intelligence intercepts this message. When the military arrives, Equalist torpedo bombers – themselves a recent innovation – sink the assault force. While Amon is eventually defeated by Korra, he and his Equalists ran a pitch-perfect insurgency campaign which outmanoeuvres government forces at every turn.

What about counterinsurgency?

Amon’s efforts are ably assisted by a blundering, poorly coordinated, and politically insensitive government counterinsurgency effort. Republic City is run by the United Republic Council, a group of five benders. Their police commander and second in command are also benders. This does not bode well for effective management of the political domain.

The counterinsurgency effort begins promisingly, with a special taskforce convened to carry out raids against Equalist hideouts. However, while operationally effective, the force is politically problematic. It is stood up under the direct command of Councilman Tarrlok, linking its success inextricably to his political objectives. This opens it to criticism and scepticism from other Councillors, notably Councilman Tenzin, which feeds internal divisions. This issue is dramatically exacerbated when the taskforce, and hence Tarrlok, is placed in overall command of the entire anti-Equalist campaign. This reduces the independence and accountability of security professionals.

Moreover, Tarrlok and the government more broadly overfocus on kinetic operations. Amon and the Equalists made adept use of propaganda which casts benders as tyrannical and discriminatory. Rather than promoting their own narrative that benders and non-benders can live in harmony, the government outlaws all pro-Equalist rhetoric. While certain restrictions on incitement to violence may be necessary, such a response was disproportionate, and the absence of pro-government messaging reinforces its oppressive character.

The situation escalates following Amon’s attack on the pro-bending arena. The government implements a curfew for all non-benders. This securitizes an innocent population and sparks public dissent. Tarrlok inflames affairs by turning off the power in a majority non-bender area. When a crowd breaks curfew to protest, he detains them indefinitely and en masse. Targeting public services and exploiting outcry to make an object lesson has precedent in the modern world. However, it generally strengthens an insurgency and delegitimizes the government.

While this heavy-handed approach merrily weakened the government, it also fractured it. Elements within the Council, notably Councilman Tenzin and his student Korra, bitterly opposed Tarrlok. He responded by arresting their compatriots on trumped up charges, and later illicitly detaining Korra as a hostage. While this centralisation was justified as a means to fight the Equalists, it was in practice a coup which disrupted government response at a crucial juncture.

The end result of this calamitous policy was that when the Equalists began their conventional assault, they enjoyed substantial popular support, and the politicised security services were too brittle and divided to stop them.

To sum up…

The Legend of Korra presents both a capable insurgent and a blundering counterinsurgent. Amon and his Equalists adeptly deploy terror and propaganda to achieve their goals – Tarrlok and the government oppress, overextend, and fail at their own. It is still a TV show, not a military textbook. However, it is well worth watching for an engaging primer on an important issue.

It helps that it’s also an excellent show on its own merits, of course.

About the Author: Matthew Ader is a War Studies student at King’s College London. He’s previously written for the Army Mad Scientist Blog. He has a Twitter account (@AderMatthew) which he doesn’t really use.

About the Editor: Angry Staff Officer is an Army engineer officer who is adrift in a sea of doctrine and staff operations and uses writing as a means to retain his sanity. He also collaborates on a podcast with Adin Dobkin entitled War Stories, which examines key moments in the history of warfare.

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