“We are at war,” intones Col. Nick Fury, about ten minutes into The Avengers. As consumers of summer blockbusters, we’re used to seeing wars on the big screen. We’re also (finally) accustomed to seeing high-quality superhero movies. But the idea of superheroes engaging in war, at least in cinema, is new to us. What are the implications for the Avengers going to war? How does The Avengers handle the policy implications of their war with Loki and the Chitauri? And what happens next?
We Are At War
First off, we can take Fury’s ominous declaration as a means of rallying his team, not an actual, legal declaration of war. In the U.S., war can only be declared by Congress, though that restriction has been relaxed of late. Then again, Fury isn’t committing traditional military resources to this conflict, so there’s less to worry about.
But even if SHIELD is the only force at Fury’s disposal, this raises another question: does SHIELD have the power to conduct a war? What is their remit?
SHIELD has gone through a number of revamps and rebrandings since Nick Fury took the helm in 1965 (Strange Tales #135). The current incarnation, as patiently explained by Agent Phil Coulson several times in 2008’s Iron Man, is the “Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division.” Their role is never explicitly spelled out, but it seems to involve stopping superpowered crises (Intervention), preventing superpowered folks from breaking the law (Enforcement) and transporting things like frozen super-soldiers and mystical hammers from place to place (Logistics).
I’m not clear on whether SHIELD in the movies is a U.N. agency (as in the comics) or a U.S. agency. The official Marvel.com Avengers website (WARNING: huge, terrible Flash intro) lists SHIELD as an “international peacekeeping agency” in Nick Fury’s bio. Additionally, Spencer Ackerman’s take on SHIELD in Wired describes them as an international agency – and that’s the take his contacts in the DoD had on it, since they bailed on participating.
However, the use of “Homeland” suggests that they’re a domestic agency in the movie universe. Plus, Fury and Coulson clearly have some domestic authority, as evidenced in Iron Man, Thor and Captain America. It beggars belief that the U.S. would let a U.N. agency run around American soil and scoop up superweapons. Suffice it to say, SHIELD’s role re: the American military is ill-defined.
Using the Marvel comics as backstory – always a bit of a risk when crossing over to the big screen, but what else do we have? – SHIELD has its roots in intelligence. Their chief job seems to be monitoring: finding crises or interesting things around the world, then dispatching agents to contain them. We’ve seen it in prior movies, when Agent Coulson shows up in a post-credits teaser to radio in to his superiors. We see this in The Avengers, too, where Fury boasts of the power to use everything in the world with a wireless signal as a listening device.
So SHIELD is a cross between an intelligence-gathering / law-enforcement agency. One would think they don’t have the power to conduct a war, anymore than the FBI or CIA would. Then again, the CIA has engaged in warlike activities for years, such as deposing foreign rulers, financing foreign armies, and assassinating demagogues. So it’s not unreasonable for an intelligence agency to make war on a hostile power.
In any event, there’s no disputing that the U.S. is, in fact, at war. A foreign force (the Chitauri aliens, under the command of the Asgardian Loki) invades the continental United States and lays waste to the infrastructure and populace. But this isn’t the sort of war where the President calls up the Army and the Navy to defend the coast. This is part of the new era of warfare, where the enemy is a stateless actor, hiding in the shadows and striking at unpredictable intervals to cause civilian casualties. This is a war of intelligence first, where finding the enemy is as much the challenge as breaking his ability to make war.
WHOSE WAR IS IT, ANYWAY?
Fury and SHIELD take charge of tracking down Loki and his weapons. But when the actual invasion begins, who are the frontline fighters?
We have Captain America, an infantry officer whose field command experience is seventy years out of date. The last war he fought in was the invasion of Europe, a massive movement of men and weaponry that took years to coordinate and execute. In his cryogenic coma, Steve Rogers has missed out on Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. More importantly, he’s missed out on the lessons of those wars as well.
For one thing, contemporary soldiers in the U.S. receive very different forms of training, for very different purposes, than doughboys in the 40s did. The current institution for overseeing training and Army doctrine, TRADOC, didn’t exist before 1973. And the differences aren’t just in practice. S.L.A. Marshall, a combat historian active in WW2, claimed that fewer than 25% of all soldiers in action ever fired their weapons directly at the enemy. This ratio of fire climbed to 90% by Vietnam. (Note that Marshall’s figures have come under question in the last 25 years, but more accurate numbers have yet to appear) Soldiers from the WW2 era and the post-Vietnam era are different sorts of fighters.
Combat readiness aside, the U.S. hasn’t engaged in a war like WW2 since WW2. The invasion of Europe was a coordinated effort to break the capacity of a hostile power (Germany) to make war. Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq, on the other hand, have been wars of counterinsurgency, “hearts and minds” campaigns in foreign territory. This leads to an entirely different set of strategies. Nuking cities as a show of strength, for instance, is a no-go. The rules of engagement for Berlin would be completely different than the rules of engagement for Fallujah.
Cap is eminently qualified to punch aliens in the jaw and deflect their blasts with his shield. As a commander, though, we might have reservations about the effectiveness of his leadership in the modern era of war. The Chitauri are an invading force, so many of those objections can be overlooked. But if SHIELD went to war with Genosha or Latveria, would Cap be the best man to put in charge?
Speaking of “hearts and minds,” the 21st century has already proven that it’s tough for a foreign national to show up in a country, claim to be its appointed defender, then set about slaying foes with a weapon known to inflict collateral damage. Yet that’s exactly the position Thor finds himself in. He takes the role of “defender of Midgard” in order to prove himself worthy to his father, Odin. But he also wields a hammer that hits with the force of a mortar shell and can call down lightning. His battle with the Destroyer in his titular movie levels a small town, as several people point out in The Avengers. Clearly Thor’s presence on Earth has the ability to attract harm as well as bring good.
Tony Stark, as owner and operator of the Iron Man battlesuit, is the most clearly qualified to fight in a modern war. But his presence raises a few questions about incentives. Stark Industries was, up until the events of Iron Man, a leading American defense contractor. When defense contractors and intelligence agencies work hand-in-hand, there’s a noted tendency for the agencies to escalate their tactics to take advantage of their new toys. Part of this may be due to the new opportunities that skilled professionals present, but part of it may also be due to lobbying by the contractors. And for all of Tony’s claims that Stark Industries is out of the weapons business, he is putting a flying, armament-laden battlesuit at the disposal of an immensely powerful intelligence agency. SHIELD might be fine forgoing Stark weaponry if they have Stark himself at their disposal. When all you have is a repulsor beam, everything looks like a Chitauri.
And finally, there’s the Hulk.
As I mentioned in the Avengers podcast, there’s something ironic about Nick Fury objecting to nuking Manhattan, yet deploying the Hulk. A nuclear weapon would cause trillions in property damage and inflict hundreds of thousands of casualties, but the Hulk has the demonstrated potential to do the same. He’s an indestructible monster that gets stronger as he gets angrier, and everything makes him angrier. A nuclear launch has one huge advantage over the Hulk: it can be aborted. Once you “turn on” the Hulk, you’re relying on Dr. Banner’s willpower to turn him off again. From a policy perspective, a nuke is predictable, disposable and replicatable. Compare that to a megaton temper tantrum that can trade body blows with the God of Thunder.
I’m omitting Hawkeye and Black Widow from my analysis because, as capable as they are, they’re intelligence officers first and foremost. Barton even makes this observation to Romanov while they’re recuperating. They acquit themselves mightily, but it’s obvious they have the least impact on the front-line fighting.
Fury wasn’t wrong to deploy the Avengers – look at how well they did. But this is a judgment in hindsight. Defense doctrine relies on tested theories, predictable factors, and extensive briefings. The four heavy hitters of the Avengers are all sensitive elements that could be misused if not governed by sound policy.
So what policy should govern them?
THE FURY DOCTRINE
Defense policies in the U.S. are typically referred to as “doctrines,” meaning a set of rules that dictate when military assets should be put to use. They’re not laws; they’re not even regulations. They’re rarely codified in a set of bullet points until after the fact, when a historian or journalist can point to the decisions made and find the common thread. They’re typically named after the person in charge at the time: the Monroe Doctrine, the Weinberger Doctrine, the Bush Doctrine, etc.
Nick Fury has at his disposal the most powerful and most unstable individuals ever to put their talents in the service of a government body. He deploys them against an intergalactic threat of unprecedented proportions. What are the governing principles that Fury follows when putting the Avengers to use?
1. Operational decisions are delegated as close to the field as possible.
In traditional warfare, strategic decisions are left to the highest ranking defense minister (the Secretary of Defense in the U.S.) and the commander-in-chief of the armed forces (in the U.S., the President). The major military departments and the regional commands will certainly lend their input, and some wonks might say that their influence dictates strategy (e.g., note how battleships fell out of favor in the 20th century, or the continuing turf wars between land power and sea power, or between armor and infantry, etc). But the farther away from the press of battle you get, the more of a say you have in strategy.
That’s not how SHIELD and the Avengers fight their wars.
Nick Fury reports to a shadowy council that holograms into his command suite to demand updates and issue orders. However, the decisions about where to direct resources, and to what end, are his alone. It’s his call to scour the Earth for the stolen tesseract. It’s his call to bring the Helicarrier to New York when the aliens invade. And since the Helicarrier frequently comes under attack – it is an aircraft carrier, after all – this puts the command element in danger.
Once the Avengers hit the streets of Manhattan, they have a tremendous level of operational control. Captain America dictates where and how the Avengers are to be deployed. Making the call that Hawkeye and Black Widow should stay with him to repel the aliens and help civilians escape isn’t a controversial call. But no one dictated where civilian safety fell in the list of priorities. Obviously, the Avengers want to save civilians, but is that more or less important than driving the Chitauri back? That’s typically a policy decision made at the strategic level, but Cap makes that call in the field.
And consider Iron Man’s fourth-down audible: hijacking SHIELD’s nuclear missile and flying it through the dimensional portal to the Chitauri fleet. That’s a significant policy decision! The last time nuclear weapons were used in warfare, it took the Commander-in-Chief to sign off on their deployment. We would object if the pilot of the Enola Gay had sole authority over whether or not to nuke Japan – or, even worse, if it were his idea in the first place. Yet Iron Man takes the fight to the enemy with few objections.
Neither Captain America nor Iron Man made a bad call in those circumstances. But those decisions typically aren’t made by combat personnel.
Why would Fury allow such a level of autonomy among his forces?
As observed above, this is a very different type of war. The enemy’s capabilites are completely unknown to SHIELD and the Avengers. Nobody knew about the skyscraper-sized bugs, for instance, until they showed up. The only person who has any data on any hostile is Thor, and he shows up too late for his briefings on Loki to be that useful. The intel for this war is being gathered in situ; the Avengers only learn about the Chitauri’s strengths and weaknesses once the Chitauri arrive. Operational decisions are made in the field because they can’t legitimately be made any higher.
2. No policy choice or tactic is off the table if it serves the interest of defeating the enemy.
While Fury’s fighting a smarter and more agile war than his predecessors, he’s also fighting a far more ruthless one. He wants to drive these aliens off of Earth by any means necessary. This is a level of extremism we rarely see in history, and which we typically don’t associate with the good guys.
What kind of extreme measures does Fury take?
First, even before Loki arrives on the scene, Fury is already hard at work repurposing HYDRA weapons to arm his agents. As we saw in Captain America, these weapons were powered by the same energy source as the Tesseract, which explains why Fury is studying it in a secret underground bunker. While there’s historical precedent for whitewashing the work of WW2 enemies, this reHYDRAization appears to have fewer civil and more military aspects.
Second, Fury himself is personally devious, using Agent Coulson’s bloodsoaked trading cards as emotional blackmail against Captain America. It’s a calculated appeal to Steve Rogers’s pride and love of service, and it works perfectly. As Maria Hill points out, it’s also staged – Coulson kept his trading cards in his locker, not on his person. Even the most hardened general might blanch at lying to his most trusted officer about the recently deceased – especially if that same officer had just caught him in a lie (see the above paragraph) – but not Fury.
And third, to reiterate a point made earlier, Fury brings the friggin’ Hulk to the battlefield. His stated intention is just to use Dr. Banner as a gamma ray expert in tracking the Tesseract. But Fury is devious enough that we have to discount his stated intentions. Banner may be the world’s expert on gamma radiation, but he’s also a walking weapon of mass destruction. Wouldn’t the world’s second-most knowledgeable radiologist do? It only makes sense that Fury would recruit Banner, and all the risks that that implied, because he wanted to use “the big guy” as a trump card.
(Given the dangers inherent to the Hulk, why does Fury balk at the council’s decision to nuke Manhattan? Because it violates point #1 of the Fury Doctrine. The decision to nuke New York can only be made by folks close to the action, not mysterious figures in a shadowy office)
Strategists should question the means used in a war just as much as philosophers do. General Curtis LeMay said (according to Robert McNamara) that, if the Allies had lost WW2, they would have been prosecuted as war criminals for what they had done. Fury, himself a veteran of WW2, must be aware of this. And yet he still commits himself to the most extreme measures. If the Chitauri win their invasion, a war crimes tribunal will be the least of SHIELD’s problems.
3. No standing armies will be maintained.
Given the militarism of the first two points of the Fury Doctrine, this is an odd one to end on. Yet Fury clearly refuses to maintain a standing army in times of relative peace. The SHIELD agents aboard the Helicarrier are all armed and trained, but there’s no SHIELD Army supporting the National Guard in Manhattan. SHIELD is an intelligence / law-enforcement agency, a role that requires its members to carry weapons but not to invade or defend. And, of course, Fury ends the movie by disbanding the Avengers and telling the council (honestly or no) that he doesn’t know their whereabouts.
Why wouldn’t Fury want a full-time, professional army? Why not keep the Avengers aboard the Helicarrier and dispatch them to global crises?
For one, that level of power draws a significant amount of attention from the rest of the world. The Avengers are already coming under scrutiny by American authorities after one deployment in Manhattan. Imagine if the Avengers had a bigger media presence – if there were a super-soldier in American colors parachuting into Yemen to throw an unbreakable metal shield at terrorists. That would draw a lot of critics and several enemies. Whether Fury doesn’t want to deal with that hassle or whether he recognizes he doesn’t have the resources to, he’s staying out of it either way.
For another, he simply might not be able to. Tony Stark is a multi-billionaire who can hack into SHIELD’s networks with trivial ease. Thor can fly with the aid of a magic hammer. And the Hulk is the proverbial five-hundred pound gorilla who can sit wherever he wants. You try telling those three that they’ve been conscripted.
FIGHTING TOMORROW’S WARS
In the Avengers, the world has a fighting force that’s not meant to handle conventional threats. They exist not only outside the command structure of any existing army, but outside the hierarchy of most nation-states. Their capabilities and hang-ups are wildly disparate. And they’re governed by a doctrine that limits their use to a very small set of extreme circumstances.
These are the big guns. You call them in only when the stakes are global in scale. And you do so very carefully.