Crush the Black Knights: Code Geass as a Case Study in Counterinsurgency
Something that has always bothered me about Code Geass, is that even though the Holy Britannian Empire is played up to be this incredibly powerful and domineering military force, they are kind of comedically incompetent at actually fighting off the Black Knights. I know that a lot of that is to demonstrate how much of a strategic genius Lelouch is and to show off the powers of his geass. But here are three key lessons that explain why the Black Knights succeeded and how Britannia could have stopped Lelouch in his tracks.
The first lesson is that both a rebel insurgency and government counterinsurgency live and die by their legitimacy. In political science, legitimacy refers to the extent that the people accept a government or group’s authority. People often think about rebellion as being about armed resistance and fighting battles but generally, the success of an insurgent movement is based on their ability to win the hearts and minds of the people, not their ability to win militarily against the government..
To this extent, I think that Code Geass actually does a good job of illustrating how one might realistically stage a rebellion against a global hegemonic superpower like the Holy Britannian Empire. In a situation in which your opponent is better armed, better trained, better organised and better supplied, an insurgent movement’s critical advantage is local knowledge. The fundamental problem for the government in stamping out a rebel group is information asymmetry. After all, the existence of a rebel group at all implies that the rebels have some knowledge that the government doesn’t have,. because otherwise the rebels would all just have been arrested or killed to begin with. One of the major ways this manifests early on is how the rebels are able to use their knowledge of Tokyo’s subway tunnels to outmaneuver the Britannians. Another way that insurgent groups capitalize on this advantage is by building their legitimacy with the local population, often by solving grievances that the local population has with the government like lack of economic opportunity or discrimination. In this respect, what is the Black Knight’s greatest strength is also Britannian’s biggest weakness. As an unelected, authoritarian regime from abroad, it is very difficult for the Britannians to make their rule seem legitimate to the occupied Japanese people. This is the problem that the United States ran into in places like Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq where the US was basically trying to create legitimate governments from scratch.
Understanding this, Lelouch frames the Black Knights as a group fighting against the oppression of the weak. Consider how Lelouch manipulates the Japan Liberation Front’s hotel hostage takeover. Lelouch is able to turn what would have driven people away from an anti-britannian insurgency, that is, wanton terroristic violence against civilians, into a chance to make a statement about the goals of his organization. He then moves to quickly capitalize on the momentum he built at the hotel by using his geass to oppose criminal gangs and government corruption. By destroying the supply of Refrain, a drug that is ravaging the Japanese population, Lelouch turns the Black Knights into a credible organisation that seeks to protect the interests of the Japanese while standing against Britannian oppression. I think this is the critical piece that explains why the Black Knights are able to succeed while the Japan Liberation Front is not. Aside from that fact that they don’t have a Lelouch. The JLF is committed to an archaic form of honourable military resistance and does little in the way of positing a viable alternative to Britannian rule. Acts of massive violence, like the hotel jacking, are very rarely successful at promoting the goals of an insurgency and are a great way to lose popular support and legitimacy amongst the local population. Lelouch understands that targeted violence against key figures is leagues more effective than meaningless public violence.
The reason that promoting civilian buy-in is so important for both the government and rebels is that one of the biggest problems for a rebel insurgency is managing to recruit people to your cause. After all, convincing people to take up arms against the world’s premier military superpower seems like a tough sell. There is the idea in the social sciences known as the tragedy of the commons. This occurs when you have a situation in which it is in everyone collective interest to work together to achieve some common goal, but it is also in each individuals own best interest to not participate in working towards this common good and to instead free ride by allowing everyone else to assume the downside of achieving the common goal while they only reap the benefits. This is often used to explain why solving problems like climate change is so difficult. Recruitment into armed rebel groups is basically a more extreme version of this problem. It is in all of the Japanese people’s best interest to band together to end the Britannian occupation, but it’s also individually very risky to resist the government so very few people engage in rebellion. By building up the legitimacy of the Black Knights as an organisation dedicated to protecting the weak and resisting corruption and oppression, Lelouch is able to flip the recruitment problem on its head. At a certain point people start to believe that it is rational to join the Black Knights because joining the Black Knights may, in fact, be safer and lead to a better life than living under the Britannian yoke.
The second key lesson is to avoid excessive military force and collateral damage. This is the biggest trap that the Britannians fall into. One of the most common answers for containing insurgency is what’s referred to as the “iron fist” approach. This is when the government primarily concerns itself with eliminating the insurgent force through aggressive military action. This is basically what Clovis is doing when the show starts in destroying the rebel group in the ghetto or Cornelia attempting to stamp out the Japan Liberation Front in Narita. The only problem is that, empirically speaking, this is one of the worst ways to stamp out an insurgency. A 2013 Rand Corporation report found that only 32% of counterinsurgencies that utilised an iron fist approach actually worked. In universe, it’s explained that the Britannian have this superiority complex and think that all their problems can be solved through “honourable fighting on the battlefield or something”. In their defense, there is some reason to believe that such a strategy can be effective. Historically speaking, forcing the rebels to fight as Guerillas is one of the best predictive factors of a counterinsurgency’s success.
But the problem is that what people like Cornelia are trying to do is apply doctrines designed to win a conventional war to winning an asymmetric guerrilla insurgency. Throughout the series we see people like Cornelia and Guilford try to draw the Black Knights into open pitched battle only to almost always lose. In his book Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present, author Max Boot explains that conventional tactics are ineffective in combating an unconventional opponent. Tactical flexibility and adaptation are critical to any successful counterinsurgency strategy. This is especially true with an organisation as unconventional and enigmatic as Lelouch’s Black Knights. You simply can’t fight an insurgency the same way that you would try to fight a traditional war.
But the bigger problem with the Britannian’s strategy for combating Japanese resistance is they engage in a lot of wonton violence and extreme racism and oppression of the Japanese people. Not to mention that the government is also super corrupt and just straight up complicit in the drug trade. If you don’t want to live in a ghetto your only other option as a Japanese person is to live as a second class citizen who basically has no rights and gets abused by Britannians for fun. Extreme racial and economic oppression are a great way to fuel a strong insurgency. Traditionally, it is understood that insurgencies rise out of grievances that certain populations have with the government. As one 2008 paper explains, “an individual’s discontent with his or her economic position in society is a major causal factor that differentiates participants in rebellion from nonparticipants” Specifically, they identify three grievances that explain why people choose to fight in violent rebellions. They are as follows: one, they are economically deprived; two, they are marginalized from political decision making; three, they are alienated from mainstream political processes. These factors seem to be in abundance in Britannian occupied Japan. The problems for Britannia are made even worse by their willingness to arbitrarily kill civilians and their aggressive use of reprisals against civilians and prisoners in response to rebellion. The rationale for using violence against civilians is that because guerilla armies are hard to stamp out directly and because they rely on civilian support to succeed, there isn’t really a meaningful difference between a civilian and a direct rebel collaborator. The problem here is that killing civilians is another really great way to drive people into the arms of rebels. This fact is, ironically, best illustrated by Shirley just working in reverse. After Lelouch unleashes the landslide at Narita, he unintentionally kills Shirley’s father. She then ends up almost shooting Lelouch on multiple occasions. This is also the primary argument made against US drone strikes in the Middle East. Islamic insurgent groups often seize upon the collateral damage caused by US airstrikes as a way to drive recruitment into their ranks.
This leads us to our third and most important lesson in defeating an insurgency. Given that promoting legitimacy is critical. rather than exclusively relying on aggressive military action, it is far more effective to use a motives based approach to combating insurgency, meaning you address the underlying reasons why people choose to support and join anti-government forces. This is often referred to as the “hearts and minds” approach. In this case, that means laying off the oppression of the Japanese. I realise that the whole rationale for why the Japanese are oppressed is that the Holy Britannian Empire is supposed to be based on this extreme version of social darwinism that has institutionalised the superiority of their race. But at the same time there are still people like Euphemia who are pretty against racism. Also, Schneizel demonstrates during the debacle in the Chinese Federation that he is aware of the importance of ensuring that a government is seen as legitimate by its people. It’s not like they have to embrace full equality for the Japanese or anything, they just have to give them some modicum of respect. Just making some basic concessions would probably be enough to significantly reduce the Black Knights support or at least mitigate some of their popularity. As Lelouch points out in episode 7, there are actually some good reasons to believe that Japan is better off under the Britannians. Britannia’s need to play up the good parts of their rule while minimizing the downsides to discredit the Black Knights
Tangibly what this might look like in practice is to first start by curtailing the use of excessive violence and the killing of civilians. It is still important to military challenge the insurgents, you just can’t do so in a manner that makes you look like a bloodthirsty tyrant. Second, it’s important to crack down on corruption within the occupation government. As often happens in these sorts of colonial regimes, there’s a great deal of crooked politicians who are taking advantage of the situation to enrich themselves at the cost of the Japanese. A great example of this is in the episode about the drug refrain. The drug is being smuggled in and the police are in on its distribution. Another benefit this brings is helping to stamp out those funnelling the rebellion. Taizo Kirihara for instance is funneling support to the resistance despite outwardly collaborating with the Britannians. Another useful strategy the Britannians should implement is to increase the public presence of Japanese people within their occupation government. As mentioned earlier, a major problem for the Britannians is that, as outsiders, it is unlikely that the Japanese people will see their rule as legitimate and support them. To some extent, it appears that they understand this. Presumably that is the goal of the honorary Britannian system. I’m not saying that the Britannians need to radically change their racial philosophy and view the Japanese as equals, they just need to get better at not making that racial discrimination so obivious. I think Schneizel understands this, which is why he makes Suzaku, the son of the former Prime Minister, the pilot of the Lancelot. Given that Suzaku is so committed to changing Britannian from within, he would have been a useful pawn for the Britannians to use to prop up the legitimacy of their government.
Finally it’s necessary to increase economic opportunity for the Japanese. As I mentioned earlier, economic grievances are often a major driver of why people choose to fight in armed rebellions. I think Euphemia’s plan to create the Specially Administered Zone of Japan is actually a pretty good idea in principle. Even Lelouch is about to get on board before the infamous Euphemia scene happens. I imagine that if Britannia had implemented a plan like the Special Zone or some other form of concessions way earlier they probably would have been reasonably successful in limiting the rise of the Black Knights.
This is especially true in this specific case when you consider the difference in Lelouch’s motivation versus those of the rest of the Black Knights. Lelouch’s primary goal is to get revenge against the Emperor and to protect his sister whereas the rest of the Black Knights are just trying to secure rights for the Japanese. Lelouch’s legitimacy is couched in his ability to bring them victory. This is something that gets brought up a lot early on, where the Black Knights are skeptical about trusting him because they can’t see his face. If Lelouch tries to fight against policies that would be seen as beneficial to Japan, it is likely that his subordinates would end up mutinying against him. This is what’s referred to as the Principal Agent problem. Basically this is the problem that occurs when the person who makes decisions, the principal, has different motives from the person who carries those decisions out, the agent. We actually see this play out in Lelouch’s first battle against Cornelia where the rebels he is commanding end up refusing to follow his orders because they don’t want to die. Even if Lelouch uses his Geass to make the rest of the Black Knights obey him, he would still end up losing a substantial amount of legitimacy and popular support by fighting against policies that seem to benefit the Japanese. We see this exact problem to a greater extent at the end of season 1 and the beginning of season 2. Lelouch just straight up abandons the Black Knights to save Nunally which ultimately leads to the Black Rebellion collapsing and this logically leads many of the members of the Black Knights to be skeptical of Lelouch when he returns in R2.
To recap, here are the key points on how to defeat an insurgence. One, the fight between the government and an anti-government insurgence is largely a battle over legitimacy and popular support. Second, aggressive military action and excessive repression of civilians is largely ineffective and often backfires. Third, combating insurgencies often means addressing the systemic grievances that fuel those insurgencies. The problem for Britannia is that they are doing literally everything wrong. But then again, I don’t think you can really make an anime about economic development and the politics of a realistic counter insurgency strategy so I can understand why the writers took the approach they did. So if you ever find yourself in a position where you’re leading a despotic authoritarian colonial regime or an underground resistance movement, make sure to keep these lessons in mind.
Victory Has a Thousand Fathers: Sources of Success in Counterinsurgency. Paul, Clark and Grill
Who Fights? The Determinants of Participation in Civil War. Humphreys and Weinstein
Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present. Boot