Totally awesome strategy

What the biggest ’80s movies tell us about the art of war and peace


Students of national security have published trendy lessons in strategy from Star Wars, Game of Thrones, and Black Panther’s Battle of Wakanda. It’s theoretically possible that there are unicorn defense analysts out there who are not fanboys, however. If they exist, Words at War now provides them with strategic lessons found in the 10 top-grossing non-Star Wars movies of the 1980s.

10. Rain Man (1988)

The economic pillar of national power depends on relatively low barriers to trade. Excessive restrictions have serious consequences for citizens. Specifically, high emissions standards for Lamborghinis can lead to a state of desperation where it seems completely reasonable to manipulate your emotionally unstable savant brother into a risky card-counting scheme at a casino.


9. Top Gun (1986)

The well-being of an all-volunteer force is the primary consideration of military leaders in any sustained period of conflict or competition. If Maverick and Iceman had an outlet other than shirtless volleyball games for their tumultuous feelings of affection and aggression, Goose would still be alive.


8. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

History repeats itself imperfectly, and applying historical examples to contemporary problems can be disastrous. Thus it is dangerous to assume that the United States’ current conflict with Russia and China represents a second Cold War, just as it would be dangerous to assume that Asian stereotypes prevalent in 1935 would be hilarious in a 1984 movie set in that year.


7. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

You must choose, and you must choose wisely. Down the path of the gilded cup lies the Bay of Pigs, the invasion of Iraq, Comanche helicopters, and the Future Combat System.


6. Back to the Future (1985)

This may be the On War of ‘80s movies for the heft of its strategic maxims. Among them are:

  • Do not underestimate the intelligence capabilities of terrorists, especially with plutonium at stake.

  • Incestuous insularity within your own tribe dims your prospects for the future.

  • The Biffs of the world can incite even the meekest McFlys to violence.


5. Beverly Hills Cop (1984)

It is easier and better to bullshit rather than fight your way out of a bad situation. So talk until you need to shoot. But when you need to shoot, bring along some friends and don’t stop until you’re (almost) out of bullets.


4. Ghostbusters (1984)

Things that are wonderful in one set of circumstances can be terrifying in a different context, like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. Or democracy.


3. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Sure, there’s the whole “hubris of imagining you can control great destructive power once it’s unleashed” thing. But don’t forget: if you really want to lose something, give it to Army intelligence.


2. Batman (1989)

The madman theory of foreign relations might be good for a few laughs, but eventually you’re going to run into some other crazy bastard who will drop your chuckling ass out of a bell tower.


1. E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

Rivals Back to the Future as a strategy treasure trove. Spielberg teaches us:

  • Simple, expedient plans are the best, whether it’s building a communication device or coming up with camouflage that lets you to sneak out on Halloween.

  • A great nation undermines its moral authority when it ruthlessly hunts or harms nice people from somewhere else.

  • When you’ve been on a mission too long, it’s time to go home.