Legend of the Galactic Heroes and the Weight of History

(Essay one of three on Legend of the Galactic Heroes. As they will cover the entirety of the series, there will be spoilers.)
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Legend of the Galactic Heroes is epic in scope, in many senses of the word. It is an epic in terms of its story of great deeds, heroes, and villains. The scope of its political philosophy is epic, containing big political ideals and small but vital bureaucratic details. It evokes operatic epics with its soundtrack composed almost entirely of classical music. And appropriately, it is an epic that spans a long and detailed history that shapes the characters and their decisions, as well as shaping who they are. Throughout the series the characters contemplate this history and their place in it, and here I’ll look at some elements of the how the weight of history is ever present in Legend of the Galactic Heroes.
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I focus in this entry on the three characters that played the largest leadership roles and thus had the most frequent and significant encounters with the gravity of their place on the stage of human history. Yang Wenli, brilliant fleet admiral of the Free Planets Alliance, hero of and martyr to democracy. Reinhard von Lohengramm, the man whose personal ambition led him to topple a dynasty and briefly unite all of humanity under his rule. And Julian Minci, the successor to Yang Wenli and the man who would keep alive the flame of democracy and lead it onwards for the next generation. Each thought frequently and deeply about history and their role in it, and I think each can be approached by one overarching question that they would ask themselves.
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Yang Wenli: What impact will my actions have on history, and how will they be remembered?
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Not a soldier by design, Yang joined the Free Planets Alliance military so he could get his tuition paid for in order to study history. But his natural talent for tactics and leadership brought him to the forefront of the fight against the Goldenbaum Dynasty, the coup forces, and the Lohengramm Dynasty. Reinforced by his love of history was his commitment to the ideals of republican democracy, even when its leaders betrayed him in their own self interest. And several times he was confronted with the opportunity to disobey orders, such as when he was about to destroy Reinhard’s flagship, or to assume political control to protect himself and his country. But he always deferred to history and its lessons in this regard.
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Yang considered all his actions as a leader in what Neustadt and May called “time-streams.” In the book Thinking in Time the two authors put forth that “thinking in time-streams is imagining the future as it may be when it becomes the past – with some intelligible continuity but richly complex and able to surprise (pages 253-254)”, and this is quite an apt way for viewing the actions of Yang and others in LoGH. The show’s format itself also draws attention to the temporal and historical element, constantly reminding the viewer of the date in three different calender systems. Yang always thought in terms of what his actions would mean for the future of democracy and the future of humanity, and he was always aware of different branching time-streams that could result from them and the history that preceeded them. When he was offered control of the FPA by his top officers and the acclaimations of the people, he turned it down because a similar situation had happened in the past. He, and others, often wondered if he would become another Rudolph von Goldenbaum, the admiral of a democracy that assumed power to save it from its excesses, only to become an authoritarian monster. The spectre of Rudolph von Goldenbaum always stalked the corners of Yang’s mind, even as the FPA’s petty and self-aggrandizing leaders destroyed their country from within. And in exile, with a fleet loyal to him personally, he always took steps to separate himself from political power, even as he worried about the contradiction of a personal military being the torchbearers for democratic ideals.
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In this exile from the FPA until his death he also worried many times about whether opposing the Lohengramm Dynasty was for the good or ill of humanity. Reinhard was an effective, just, and imaginative leader and was doing more for the population of the former FPA than its own previous democratic government did. But looking again to the scope of history, he knew that he had to oppose autocracy and the instability and power struggles that it brings. In his generation the Reich became a near ideal form of government, but he looked to the generations ahead and what the fate of dynasties always ended in.
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Reinhard von Lohengramm: Am I better than those I overthrew?
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Guided by personal ambition as he was, Reinhard fought more to leave his mark on history than to influence its course centuries into the future. But he too was also very aware of it as well. On a personal level he sometimes questioned whether he was capable and worthy of achieving his grand dream to “seize the universe.” Establishing a dynasty of his own, there was the question of whether he was truly building something new or just setting up a continuance of the Goldenbaum’s exccesses under a different name. While far less self-questioning and reflective than Yang, Reinhard still had moments of concern for his place in the universe.
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And as with Yang, Reinhard also felt the shadow of the past over him. His initial desire to gain power was inspired directly by one of the previous dynasty’s exccesses: his sister being taken as a concubine to the royal court. From such abuses of power was Reinhard’s ambition born, and he emphasized over and over again during his rise to and establishment of power that his regime would not be like the one that was defeated in the Lippstadt War. Several times he had to act with compassion or according to the laws when his pride would normally compell him to lash out, and he held his admirals, generals, and administrators to the same standard of restraint. But no ambition on this scale is ever completely clean, and despite his best efforts, strategic concern or simply accidents and chance events caused him intense grief for not being able to always live up to his pledge. Most significant among these was when he allowed (with some deceit on the part of Oberstein) the Goldenbaum forces to bombard the planet Westerland with a barrage of nuclear weapons. It was the perfect tragedy to turn public opinion in the Reich against the aristocracy, spun to perfection by Oberstein, but it horrified Reinhard for even thinking of using it to his advantage. Years later he was confronted by a relative of one who died there and was shaken as he never was before, save after the death of Kircheiss. Until Reinhard’s death he did lead a much more just and capable empire, but when he could not answer his question in the affirmative he was intensely hard on himself at the thought of his Reich being likened in history to the Goldenbaums.
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Julian Minci: How do I build democracy’s future?
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While Yang pondered the many paths that history could take and thought of his actions in this context, his successor Julian Minci had to figure out how to navigate these choices in accordance with the ideals of democracy and the realist need for security. While Yang mostly considered how his choices would affect the spirit of democracy, Minci, left with no existing state to operate within, had to lay each brick of the new Free Planets Alliance. His concern for thinking in time streams had less to do with where democracy was headed than with how its keepers would get there. It is still within Neustadt and May’s concept of thinking in time, but more about the practical, day to day issues. His task was to figure out “step by step, detail by detail, what “then” requires all the way back to “now”, or conversely how “now” might be turned by stages into something approaching “then.” (page 255.)” Immediately upon being chosen as Yang’s successor Julian had to begin setting up the personnel, ceremonies, battles, and institutions that would enable him to guide history in the way he and Yang wished.
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Julian’s situation is the most open ended and given the least amount of time in the narrative, but even in his short time as head of the Iserlohn government forces he had many moment of introspection about how to realize the future and many decisions that would help build it. While initially they were both reluctant, he worked together with Frederica Greenhill Yang to set up a clear distinction of authority and duties between the military and civilan elements of the republican holdouts. They also worked to conduct a proper funeral for Yang and build him up as a symbol, knowing that democratic ideals would not be enough to ensure the cohesion they would need in their attempt to challenge the forces of the Reich. And their final battle was also something engineered by Julian to achieve a foundation for a new Free Planets Alliance. Understanding the psychology of Reinhard and what he respected, he knew that the only way to be taken seriously and retain some measure of physical security for a new Alliance would be to put their lives on the line and achieve a victory in the name of their cause. And after this was secured, Julian also understood that if he wanted to move history towards a democratic and peaceful future, he must implant the ideas of representative democracy and constitutional rule of law within the Reich. Talking with Reinhard and Hilda before the former’s death, he appealed to their practical needs for a form of government that would endure and maintain the ideas of fairness and equality that Reinhard held dear. And in his final act in the show, Julian continues to be the builder and guardian of the new Alliance by continuing on as a soldier and by commiting his and Yang’s thoughts to paper, so as to let future generations learn from their parts on the grand stage of history.

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15 Comments

  1. Der Langrisser
    Posted August 10, 2010 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

    It’s a well tought and interesting entry you give us.

    • Posted August 11, 2010 at 12:03 am | Permalink

      I’m glad you enjoyed it. Two more are in the works, the second one will be out either later this week or early next week.

  2. Posted August 10, 2010 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

    LotGH is by far the most big picture and future thinking grand narrative in the medium, but it also capably creates compelling personal narratives. To be able to present history changing characters without turning them into mechanical agents of the story is the great feat of LotGH, and in that way this essay does it real justice. I’m looking forward to the other two articles.

    • Posted August 11, 2010 at 12:18 am | Permalink

      Making historical figures into real people is probably the greatest achievement of LoGH, since as you say it is very easy to turn them into agents of the story. The way the characters could be aware of their role on a grand level but also doubt themselves or make mistakes on a personal level really makes them the human beings that would eventually be transformed into the legends of history centuries later.

      One of the simplest but most profound points that was made during grad school was that all the world leaders and generals and politicians in the world are just people like everyone else. They make mistakes, get angry, have limited supplies of insight, can be petty or altruistic, and have emotions that influence their actions just like every one of us. As one of my professors put it, even the best of them don’t know much more or have significantly more wisdom than any of us. Which is simultaneously both worrying and reassuring. And I think LoGH shows this in its story, probably most strongly with Reinhard. For all that the ‘Galactic Heroes’ are gifted and ambitious, they’re also much like any other human. So even with such legendary and talented individuals, in many ways “in every time, in every place, the deeds of men remain the same.”

  3. Posted August 10, 2010 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

    Good stuff.

    What I find interesting is how grounded or self-aware the three characters are — which is ironic considering the bombast of the title. The “legend” plays more like a documentary than a straight piece of drama. I think this works great and I love how the bombastic title hides the efficient and understated storytelling within — the narrator’s variable caprices notwithstanding.

    • Posted August 11, 2010 at 12:24 am | Permalink

      Glad you liked it. The way the characters are grounded will relate somewhat to the next editorial, but on another level it goes to how effective they are. It shows how the people who would go down in history as legends built their renown bit by bit instead of with the single flashy maneuvers that tend to get remembered. Considering how the show used documentaries to fill in some of the history, I kind of take the narrator and his occasionally temporally out of place comments to be a documentary in itself. Yang, Reinhard, and Julian all became legends, but by watching LoGH you could be someone looking back on the circa SC 800/NIC 1 time period decades or even centuries later. Taken as a whole, it’s like you’ve swapped places with Julian as he watched documentaries about Earth’s past when he was en route to that planet.

      • Posted August 11, 2010 at 4:08 am | Permalink

        That episode is a rather maligned as a piece of story-telling. I mean, we’re watching a character watch documentaries for most of the episode. Personally, I’m not too bothered by it as I was quite interested in the back story and historical context.

        The Spiral Labyrinth however, is a lot of a younger Yang Wenli watching far less interesting historical vids. I don’t think I have the fortitude to finish it.

        • Posted August 11, 2010 at 10:50 pm | Permalink

          It might not have been an exciting episode, but I really, really liked that presentation. Just by showing a documentary in-universe it added an extra layer to the scope and density of the setting and its history. Not only is the history and backstory something that people still talk about and which still influences their lives, but seeing a documentary about it shows a concrete example of how people interpreted it and wondered at the motivations of people in the past, as the main characters would be interpreted and wondered about in the future.

          Haven’t started on the sidestories myself, but I’ll probably get to them fairly soon. And even if the Spiral Labyrinth ones aren’t as interesting, if I made it through Macross 7 I can make it through anything!

  4. Marzan
    Posted August 11, 2010 at 3:42 am | Permalink

    As a LOGH enthusiast, I really enjoyed your take on the role of the 3 main characters in the historical context presented by the series. I also appreciated your reference to “Thinking in Time” and the concept of time streams. Look forward to reading your future posts.

    • Posted August 11, 2010 at 10:46 pm | Permalink

      Glad you liked the approach I took to it. The book was recommended to me, and it has some really good methods for thinking about policy and leadership in historical terms and how to, and how not to, draw lessons and comparisons from history. But what I thought was the best concept in it was thinking of the present as history, something that LoGH does all the time.

  5. Marigold Ran
    Posted August 14, 2010 at 7:47 am | Permalink

    So… would Bush have invaded Iraq had he watched LOGH?

    • Posted August 16, 2010 at 11:12 pm | Permalink

      Assuming that he would actually learn from it, he could have drawn inspiration either for or against. Since he was a believer in the neoconservative ideas of an aggressive, idealistic foreign policy I’d think he be more likely to have done it anyway instead of not invading. The neoconservative project for Iraq was one for the whole of the Middle East, focused on changing the region to democracy by starting with the toppling of the worst of its dictators. So he might have looked at the invasion as the first step in a historical process that would lead to a transformed region decades from now. (However he’d have had to have drawn the historical ‘thinking in time’ aspect out of LoGH without also observing that all the major military campaigns of the series were properly funded and equipped with a large force and able bureaucrats to manage occupied territory. Iraq would probably have turned out pretty decently if an appropriate number of forces were sent in the first place and the civilian administration under Bremer wasn’t so completely inept and stupidly ideological.)

      On the other hand, if he had a moment where he could forget his ideological inclinations to have the US act as a unilateral, revisionist power in the name of democracy he might have noted that Yang and Reinhard didn’t let themselves do whatever they wanted just because of the ideas they represented. They had power in different ways (Yang over a nation and a cause, Reinhard over an empire and as an example of just rule) but showed restraint when not doing so would damage their cause in the long run. Yang followed his orders when he could have killed Reinhard, and Reinhard followed Imperial law at times when pride or short term strategic goals urged him to do otherwise, for example. Watching LoGH also would have shown what happens when forces are spread too thin, or when supply lines are stretched thin, as when Yang’s remnant forces struck at Imperial transports. A final point would refer to the viewing history as an ongoing narrative element, which would have cautioned Bush against launching such a controversial and unpopular war lest it tarnish the ideals and rhetoric used to support it. Yang was always concerned about whether his actions would harm the cause of democracy in the long term, but either that wasn’t thought about by Bush or he assumed that victory would be so quick and total that the controversy wouldn’t be remembered in the grand scope of history.

      In the end I think that given the kind of person Bush is and the ideas he held in 2003 (and maybe still does, but at least he was able to come around to new tactics in 2006-2007) he probably would have invaded even if he had studied LoGH. One of the key points underlying the neoconservative foreign policy is that the US is exceptional powerful and follows and exceptional ideology, therefore it can engage in policy that history would argue can’t be done. This also coupled with an idealistic attitude about democracy and desire to use that power to destroy dictators and support human rights. Which aren’t bad ends to have, but the means usually don’t achieve those ends so well. LoGH is very realist in its view of history and foreign policy, exemplified by the opening line that “in all times, in all places, the deeds of men remain the same.” Such a view of history and policy runs counter to the idealist/liberal foundations of neoconservative foreign policy and would likely have been rejected by the Bush administration because they would think that “this time it’s different.”

  6. Posted August 18, 2010 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

    One best thing about Reinhard was how he was loosely based upon a real life person, but yet was unique enough that it was always impossible to say it was truly the truth.

    The parallels between Reinhard and Alexander the Great are of course endless. They both conquered the known world, used advanced military tactics never seen before, defeated a powerful empire, had a close male friend whom was their confidant and was widely mourned when that friend died, managed to create an empire of laws and ideas which changed the world order (Alexander and his Hellenistic ideals taught to him by Aristotle, and Reinhard’s own ideals) and finally they both died young of a mysterious fever at the peak of their power.

    The biggest differences are that Reinhard worked within the system. Sure he conquered the FPA, but he started off by changing the world order from within, from a relatively lowly position, which more likens him to a Napoleon rather than an Alexander, but his endless victories of course are not exactly Napoleon at all. In the end, Reinhard is his own person, but his character was richly created by imbuing him with attributes of actual people rather than creating all of it from scratch.

    Meanwhile Yang occupies a unique niche in that no one has ever really been in his position before. Certainly we’ve seen countless examples of ancient and modern democratic leaders who used their military credentials to run the country. One can only think of the leaders of ancient Greece or more modern examples of George Washington or even Einsenhower to see how supreme military power can easily transition into political power. It is the latter examples though where it is almost strange to see how Yang never really leverages his own abilities for the greater good. Was his ‘slacker’ personality really the thing which held him back from taking legitimate political power (one imagines he would have easily won an election if he cared), or was the only way he could see himself gaining power be at the barrel of his gun? In that way he would be no different than Julius Caesar, Napoleon or countless tin pot dictators (i.e. Saddam Hussein) over the years. Considering his own timid personality, one wonders if deep down Yang actually felt that within him there could be a monster, or did he just never want the responsibility of it at all?

    As for Julian, he is something completely different altogether. Unlike Yang, he always wanted to be a soldier, and was always to risk his life for democracy. In the end though, much like Yang, Julian eschewed political power for military power. Did he see himself more as someone who could ‘protect’ democracy by having the power of force, or was he himself also scared at the prospect of holding political power? In a way Julian’s has witnessed a period of time where the FPA destroyed itself from within because the military power was unwilling and unable to stop the politicians from destroying the country from within. While the military coup occured, it was disgraced as a Reinhard ploy, rather than a true insurrection, and I wonder if Julian wrote that off somehow.

    Certainly he seems the best way to defend democracy is with him as the head of the military, and that in itself brings many questions. Will the future of democracy be ‘protected’ by the military much like how the Turkish armed forces guarantee the secular democracy in that country more than anyone else? Or perhaps by having a close relationship between the politicians and the military (i.e. with Frederica as the president), will this relationship continue in the future, thus ensuring a type of authoritarian military quasi-democracy? Hard to say, but I would think that deep down Julian knows the contractions of his position and knows that he has no choice because he’s hemmed in by reality.

    That said, perhaps Reinhard also knows that he has no choice but to be an emperor rather than creating his own democracy, because he knows forcing a democracy on people who’ve never had one is a bad idea and it would fall apart. Better to create a magna carta than to create an entirely new system.

    • Posted August 19, 2010 at 7:20 pm | Permalink

      Some really interesting points you bring up, and the comparisons in particular.

      Yang I think wasn’t convinced that he’d become a monster if he took power by force, but he was at least certain that he didn’t want the responsibility of taking a chance that he could become one. And as with the thinking in timestreams issue, he was deathly afraid of the precedent it would set.

      You mentioned Julius Caesar, and when the stakes are as they were in LoGH, Rome is probably a better analogy than modern democracies. Rome had a lot more frequent existential threats than most modern democracies face, and in that sort of environment what seem like philosophical questions like the details of civilian control over the military and the precedents of their actions take on real, deadly importance.Most of the time it barely registers, but when the state is in peril and the military may hold the power to preserve it, the temptation to power for good and selfish men presents itself often. And those are the situations in which a Sulla or a Caesar can set lasting precedents. Yang was in the middle of all this over and over again.

      For Julian, I saw him as understanding the contradictions as Yang did, but being more duty-bound to the military and the military way of life than Yang. Yang cared primarily about history and just happened to be in a military position to affect change within it. But Julian chose to be part of the military because that’s the life he wanted. After the FPA was reestablished, I think he both felt right being a soldier, felt a duty to continue on, and perhaps wanted to make sure that he was in a position to place good people within its ranks.It’s hard to speculate on the next steps for the FPA, but the Turkey analogy is something I could see happening as one potential outcome. At least in the short term, similar to how the military and political leadership were almost one in Battlestar Galactica since they were so vulnerable and couldn’t rebuild without a new home.

  7. Alex
    Posted March 2, 2011 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    In the end, the very idea of ‘time streams’ is rather foolish. Even the aged Admiral Bucock agreed that Yang should have disobeyed governmental orders and fired at Reinhard. And even Yang admitted he took the orders not because of setting a precedent, but because he was scared of being the one who killed Reinhard, thus putting himself as the central figure of history.

    The whole end of the Vermillion Battle was an insufferable Deus Ex Machina which showed one simple thing: Reinhard was meant to win, no matter what. And no matter if it made sense or not.

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  • [...] had intended to write this post back when I finished the series and wrote the other two, Legend of the Galactic Heroes and the Weight of History and The Nobility of Realism in Legend of the Galactic Heroes, but for the longest while I [...]

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