Science fiction has seen its fair share of questionable military commanders and strategists. There’s Star Wars’ Emperor, and his love of doubling or even tripling down on the whole “floating orb of death” strategy, of course. Darth Vader’s fixation on his wayward son to the exclusion of pretty much anything else springs to mind. And then there’s Thanos’ single-minded obsession with halving the world’s population while sounding like a whiny philosophy grad student. But no commander in all of sci-fi warfare has ever been a better tactician and worse military strategist than Baron Vladimir Harkonnen in Dune. Overly confident, manipulative, ruthless—based on his introduction in Frank Herbert’s classic 1965 novel, he’s the ideal bad dude. By the middle of the book he’s even managed to claim control of the desert planet Arrakis, displacing—and [spoilers, but in my defense you’ve had like 60 years] killing—his arch-rival Duke Leto Atreides and claiming the only means of production for the most valuable natural resource in the galaxy: melange, aka “the spice.” Helluva start. But although he’s a master of intrigue, the Baron can’t master grand strategy to save his ample posterior, and as for understanding the human terrain – well, there’s less chance of that than a Bene Gesserit school not meddling in gene pools.
Before he completely tanks his hold of Arrakis, the Baron is a damn good tactician and tolerably good at the operational art. He unleashes a decisive attack—moving troops through time and space—on multiple targets, and uses audacity and surprise to overwhelm House Atreides. He even manages to con the Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV into sending some of his elite Sardaukar soldiery to help with the fighting in return for some sweet spice kickbacks and an assurance that this would be the last of the Great House infighting. He’s playing the kind of 3-D chess that ought to grant him a “go” at every warfighter exercise for the foreseeable future. Still, he still ends up losing everything. How? Well, like many would-be-dictators, he throws away his hard-earned conquest through a series of bone-headed post-conflict decisions driven by avarice and a short-sighted reliance on his own genius.
The Baron’s Grand Strategy
This massive bungling of a perfect invasion largely stems from how Baron sees the world. For him, it’s just House Harkonnen and … everyone else. His overall goal is to ensure that the Harkonnens have a path to the emperor’s throne—and for that, he has to think big. Really big. Not just boring boots-on-the-ground strategy, but grand strategy: long-range, multigenerational planning that considers all the instruments of national power, from military to economic to social to political to diplomatic. But as a grand strategist, the Baron leaves a lot to be desired. He goes all-in for the initial push to seize Arrakis and then completely falls apart in the post-conflict planning.
Rather than put together a scheme that accounts for all peoples on Arrakis, he adopts one that leaves the host-nation inhabitants, the Fremen, without agency. He emplaces a puppet governor—his nephew, “Beast” Rabban—to hunt and kill them while wringing every cent possible out of the planet. This serves a two-fold purpose: pay for his losses from the war with the Atreides and make the people of Arrakis hate Rabban. He then plans to replace Rabban with his other nephew, Feyd-Rautha, who will come on the scene as a savior figure. In the Baron’s thick-headed mind, he will now have the loyalty of his people as well as plenty of money. Win-win. Much like every would-be conqueror, this plan backfires in the most predictable of ways.
Look, you can’t just waltz in and start tyrannizing people without expecting some backlash. Napoleon learned this the hard way when he kicked his way into Spain and Portugal, only to be confronted with a growing force of irregulars who tied down his much larger conventional armies. “It was that miserable Spanish affair that killed me,” he stated after he’d lost. Similarly, if you impose harsh economic penalties on a colony to pay for a war, you can expect that people might get a little fed up and ask why they need you around at all. Want proof? Look at George III. When the king and the English Parliament went looking for cash to fund the (very expensive) Seven Years War (1754-1763), they turned to the 13 North American colonies to throw in their fair share. Not a totally unreasonable request considering the war benefited the colonies most. But then, a decade later, the locals were growing increasingly restless and had some new and interesting ideas about freedom.
So, yeah, the Baron tripped right into the age-old trap of nation-building in order to gain a monopoly over a commodity that he didn’t fully control or understand. Ya love to see it.
In Frank Herbert’s world, melange is the most valuable commodity in the known universe. It grants the user extended psychic abilities, longer life, and heightened awareness—while also being incredibly addictive to the point of death if there is a withdrawal. A wicked bummer, that. But because of its attributes, pilots can use it to traverse space and time, “folding space” to bring massive starships from planet to planet safely. The Guild Navigators—completely addicted to spice—become the entire gateway to space travel.
One might ask, Why wouldn’t they just use machines or artificial intelligence to work out the computations necessary for space travel? It worked in Star Wars and Star Trek, after all. But for Herbert’s world, think about machines more along the lines of The Matrix. In Herbert’s universe, humans ultimately had to rise up against the technology they created and destroy it in a bloody, multigenerational battle known as the Great Revolt, or “Butlerian Jihad.” Out of that came a great dictum: “Man may not be replaced.” In order not to violate this dictum, melange-based space travel becomes the norm. With it, the ever-pervasive spice – and the addiction that can kill you, of course.
And because spice comes from only one place—Arrakis—it becomes the focal point for the balance of power in Dune. This single point of control means that whoever controls the source, controls the universe. Furthermore, if you are a desert-dwelling Atreides-in-exile, as well as pseudo-religious-prophet insurgent bent on restoring the family name, when you realize that spice production can be destroyed at its source, you realize, as Duke Leto’s son Paul Atreides does, that you have an incredible amount of leverage: “The power to destroy a thing is the absolute control over it.” It’s disconcerting how rapidly an adolescent figures this out while the Baron is still spending most of his time trying not to get assassinated.
Spice becomes the key driver of conflict in Dune. Although there are the other usual motivations—feuds, jealousy, political ambitions, religious fanaticism, a weird focus on bloodlines, and giant worms—the spice is the catalyst that sets conflict in motion. It is that historical flash point, that key terrain, that every conflict is centered on. Without it, a nation-state is doomed to obscurity. Yet somehow, the Baron just doesn’t understand quite what that means.
War in Dune
Now, maybe we’re being a little unfair to the Baron; after all, he’s been pretty handicapped by his creator in his ability to make war. Written in the 1960s, Dune is the product of an era steeped in disruptive and violent change. In the span of that decade, US post-WWII atomic supremacy had been up-ended by the revelation that the Soviet Union also had nuclear weapons. In 1957, the Soviet Union changed the game yet again, with the launch of Sputnik, the first rocket to put an artificial satellite into orbit around Earth. This sets off the arms race, where the US and Soviet Union compete to develop the first intercontinental ballistic missiles that can strike each others’ home countries, ushering in the era of mutually assured destruction, or MAD. Fun, right?
In Dune, MAD is used as a plot point to enforce the ban on the use of atomic weapons. Simply put, if one family house uses atomics against other humans, the rest of the Great Houses will destroy that belligerent in entirety. Rather than MAD, it becomes AD—assured destruction. This places MAD within the greater context of the historical mutually-supportive treaties that sprang up during the Cold War, such as NATO and the Warsaw Pact, with the added twist that offenders would see annihilation brought upon them.
In removing atomics as a viable military option, Herbert forces his combatants to seek alternate ways of war. Massive conflicts between large bodies of troops are generally too expensive since the Spacing Guild can control politics at large by charging exorbitant sums for moving troops from planet to planet. Therefore, low-intensity conflict becomes the name of the game. Assassinations, raids, sabotage, and proxy wars are the most common types. The threat of complete destruction drives people to seek alternate ways of competing in great power politics.
Basically, the mantra becomes, how can I do my competitor the most harm the most quietly and the most cheaply?
The Baron excels at the assassination and sabotage stuff, but pretty much bankrupts himself in his military operation to seize Arrakis, hence the need to replenish his treasury. But it’s a gamble that he’s willing to take, since he cannot dominate the other Great Houses with force alone. It’s too expensive. Therefore, he chooses political and economic power as his means to the ultimate end. At the nexus of all this is the control of the gatekeeper of power: the spice.
The Baron’s Blunder
The Baron’s aforementioned invasion of Arrakis was flawless. Tactically, he’d mastered the art of war in the Dune universe up to that point. But if your overall goal is achieving sustainable power with an eye to the emperor’s throne, your wartime aims cannot end on the battlefield. This has been a hard concept for nations to grasp – for pretty much ever. I mean, just look around.
The Baron’s grand strategy suffered a similar fate. Once he conquered Arrakis, he focused too heavily on the spice—and still didn’t fully understand its value. His wily designs on the throne saw melange as a means to an end: it was expensive, he controlled it, so he could raise money to buy influence. He completely failed to factor in the population of Arrakis itself. As he pointed out to Rabban, if he killed too many people, he would have even more shipped in to take their place. This is where the Baron revealed himself to be an utter simpleton, because he ignored what Paul Atreides identified almost immediately.
As the Baron’s rival, Paul quickly gathered the importance of a disenfranchised local populace that was also incredibly skilled at fighting in the local terrain. Like, you want assured mobility? How about crazy religious fanatics riding massive sandworms through severely restricted terrain for assured mobility? Through his influence with the desert population of the Fremen, Paul also found out that the spice was not just a commodity—it was part of an ecosystem, and could be destroyed. Able to see past the mere monetary value of the spice, Paul was able to diffuse its power and completely upend the power balance on Arrakis, albeit with some bizarre drug-crazed religious warlord overtones.
Baron Harkonnen’s reliance on using the spice for monetary gain as well as ignoring the indigenous population led to a whole series of massive oversights whereby he found himself suddenly facing a violent and effective insurgency. By the time he grasped the magnitude of it, it was too late. Much like the Baron in his attack on Arrakis, Paul made a masterful tactical decision. He launched a surprise attack through a storm, used atomics to breach a massive mountain wall, and then assaulted through it with a legion of Fremen on sandworms. As one does. Like a ‘thopter in a sandstorm, the Baron didn’t stand a chance.
Ultimately, you can win all the battles you want but still end up a piece of space junk if you don’t have a plan for what happens after the combat. World domination isn’t a single-sum game. Anyone who says otherwise is just spice-drunk.
Cover image: Sand dunes in Libya