It was while reading “The Shepherd’s Tale” that I began to think a bit more about the Unification War, that defining event in the history of the ‘verse that so looms over everything that unfolds in Firefly and Serenity. It’s the conflict that left the Alliance in their position of unassailable power and it’s the battle that made Malcolm Reynolds who he is.
But it’s remarkable how little the existing canon tells us about the Unification War, outside of the very obvious. We know that it was a war between the Union of Allied Planets and the “Independents”, we know it was fought on many planets and we know that the war ended with a near-total Alliance victory over the Browncoats. But what else do we really know?
Let’s consider what we actually see of the Unification War, on screen and in print. Obviously, the show itself opens with what appears to be the dying moments of the war, with the infamous Battle of Serenity Valley. As previously discussed, this fight bears more similarity to Appomattox Court House than Gettysburg when it comes to comparisons to real world conflicts, but beyond that, the basic pattern of how the Unification War is depicted can be seen: outnumbered, outgunned Browncoats try to stick it out against overwhelming Alliance forces, gaining small victories here and there, before inevitable defeat. The Browncoats at Serenity Valley have no reinforcements, no tanks, no vehicles, some very dodgy officers, and crucially, no air support: the Alliance has those things, and that makes the difference.
The next time we see the war, during the flashback section of “The Message”, it’s what you would assume to be an earlier battle in the war, in a place called Du Khang. This is an urban landscape, with the surrounds and the name calling to mind images of the Fall of Saigon or the Tet offensive, probably deliberate. Despite the change of scenery, much of the pattern that was established in “Serenity” is the same here: the Independents are still outnumbered, hunkered down where they can find cover, still trying to use their own guile and determination to overcome the advanced forces arraigned again them, whether it be “seeker” missiles, or “rollers”. The Browncoats aren’t even supplied properly: Tracey’s tin of bins considered such a prize that Mal brings it up unannounced as something he plans to take once Tracey’s dead (and he’s probably only half joking). Another bad case of leadership surfaces in the case of an officer freezing up in the horrid conditions. Like in the pilot, both scenes end with the Browncoats in a bad place.
Aside from that, there’s just Mal and Zoe’s recollection of events on a place called New Kashmir, where they were engaged in bitter trench warfare with the Alliance, in a situation where neither side had much in the way of anything: ammunition, supplies or even orders. In something that seems akin to the Christmas Truce of 1914, the two sides get to talking, but any sign of true comradery gets lost in what appears to be little less than an Alliance war crime, hiding small bombs inside apples to bait the starving Browncoats with. This image of the Unification War is a bit different to the others, but still carries similar hallmarks just the same.
In “Those Left Behind”, Mal and Zoe briefly discuss the “Battle of Sturges”, a conflict that appears to have been a truly epic struggle, with theatres on land and in space. Planetside, we get an horrific depiction of Mal using his own dead soldiers to form cover as he blasts away at advancing Alliance forces, while in the black, we get a vision of broken, tangled ships, all that remains of two large fleets that Badger claims were battling over a gigantic amount of cash (which appears to either be a lie later, or false information Badger was sold on). Sturges, and the ghosts of it, provide a mere backdrop to the more immediate action of “Those Left Behind”, but still gives us some idea of how the war was fought.
The film doesn’t depict the war directly, with the prologue only hinting at the devastation that it brought – the shadow falling on the rim settlement could just as easily be a Reaver ship than an Alliance craft – and talking more directly about the aftermath. The war is almost a distant memory by the time Serenity comes around, even if people like Mal can’t ever forget it. The film eschews any closer looks in favour of focusing directly on what the war birthed: an government system so drunk on its own sense of power that it lost any last shreds of moral guidance in once had.
Lastly, there is “The Shepherd’s Tale”. We see a few different facets of Alliance/Independent conflict in the story of Book’s origin: simmering resentment of Alliance control, a small-scale insurgency of Browncoats, subterfuge operations and the incident surrounding the IAV Alexander, a massive six-planet wide invasion designed as a means of ending the whole conflict in a single day, but which, betrayed by the very man that orchestrated it, turns into an Alliance debacle, with thousands dead across multiple worlds. It’s the only time in the official canon that the Browncoats are depicted as actually getting one over on the Purplebellies.
So, what can we glean as a common threads looking at these examples:
-The war began as a small-scale insurgency that ramped up into something bigger due to increasing Alliance reach in the ‘verse, though when the Independents became an organised regular entity – with a uniform, a flag and the ability to field units in multiple planets – remains a mystery.
-While we know that the war was fought in many different parts of the ‘verse and involved many casualties, it is unclear how large it did eventually get, or how many worlds were visited by it.
-The Alliance was numerically and technologically superior to the Independents at nearly every stage, advantages that told significantly in many battles, with air power alone providing the key difference in the war’s climactic encounter.
-Independent deficiencies in supplies, weaponry and support vehicles could not be made up by the individual bravery or commitment of its infantry.
-The Independent officer corps wasn’t up to the task, and frequently had to rest authority, formally, or informally, on NCO’s like Sgt Malcolm Reynolds.
-Alliance willingness to use their technological advantage to create deadly weapons like “seekers” and the apple bombs marked them out as an entity committed to a more ruthless and cut-throat conflict than the Browncoats.
-Even the most remarkable Browncoat successes, be it something as big as the IAV Alexander or something as small as Mal shooting down the skiff at Serenity Valley, were simply delays that slowed the Alliance’s progress to victory.
The picture then is less the American Civil War, and something more one-sided, unless the depictions take place almost uniformly in the later stages. In the end, the Unification War does not seem to have been something that Whedon and company were truly interested in fleshing out, not in the brief time that they had anyway: they were much more interested in what the war did to both the people and the entities that fought it.