A Look at Military Leadership in Attack on Titan

With Attack on Titan‘s excellent final season in full swing now, it’s obviously on my mind a bit more lately, so I wanted to talk about the show. However, there’s so much that can be said about it, and if I wanted to cover even just a portion of it, we’d be here all week.

So, let’s talk about the leadership on display in the series. Why? Because history, especially military history, fascinates me, as of course do stories like this, and that’s where we see leadership, specifically battlefield leadership, become extremely important and inspiring. Also, while Attack on Titan is many things, it is at least partially a military show, which I think is part of why it appealed so much to me.

Leadership, specifically military leadership, was something I explored a fair amount in my first book series, the Galaxy Ascendant series, and I’ll be looking at it from a bit of a different angle in my next series, Light Unto Another World.

But what exactly makes a great leader of soldiers? You can break it down into several components, but it really all combines into one central aspect. A great leader of soldiers is one who can inspire scared people who don’t want to die to risk their lives for the sake of others. A leader who gets his or her people to believe in them to a point where no matter what the orders are, no matter how dire the situation, they will follow those orders.

Honestly, for me, the best moments of Attack on Titan are where this is on display. Yes, the titan battles are cool and the story is extremely interesting & well told, but it’s these heroic moments that really stick with me, and which bring me back to rewatch them time again, so that’s what we’re focusing on here. So, we’ll be taking a look at 3 characters here who put their leadership qualities on display–though one will be getting the most attention by far, for obvious reasons . Also, #3 may surprise you.

Warning: Spoilers Ahead!

We begin back in season 1, back before we even met Erwin Smith, who will obviously be appearing here. Before him, we had Dot Pixis, the commander of the Garrison.

Pixis is immediately a likable character from his first introduction speaking with some stuffy aristocrat. He’s old, has seen some things, and has run out of f&cks to give, to use a popular expression. However, he’s also gained wisdom with his age, and while other officer panic at seeing Eren’s new titan power and want to kill him, Pixis immediately sees what’s actually happened, and that this can be a huge boon for them. In fact, his saving Eren’s life means that he deserves credit for everything Eren & co were able to later accomplish.

But his crowning moment comes in episode 11 of the season, with a scene that, in a show with so many amazing moment, might be the best, for me at least. In particular, a short 50 second moment that I’d say is up there for best moments of the series.

Here’s a link to an edited video from the episode (cutting out, I think, scenes not directly related to the important part here). This comes just after the Trost Disctrict was breached by titans, as Shiganshima was in the opening episode. Things are going very poorly, but (as we learn conclusively later) an attempt must be made to recapture it and seal the breach in the wall. So we have hundreds of frightened, demoralized soldiers gathered to, apparently, hear a plan to accomplish this. They’re understandably skeptical. Even setting aside the innate human desire to live, they just don’t see how it’d be possible. So things are tense as Pixis begins to address them from atop the wall. The show takes the time to emphasize them, to show how close the soldiers are to breaking–to the point where some already are breaking & considering desertion, which makes what’s to come all the more powerful and impressive.

With things on the verge of a total breakdown, Pixis starts speaking. He immediately manages to get their attention (extra impressive considering the height–and where some meme of this scene came from). Even though Pixis has to know that his plan has so many unknowns involved that predicting its success, he lays it out with complete confidence. No matter what a leader thinks of a plan, if he doesn’t make himself sound absolutely certain of it, he cannot expect his men to feel confident enough to carry it out.

However, this isn’t always enough. People aren’t stupid, They often know a crazy, borderline suicidal plan when they see one. More so here, when it relies on someone turning into a titan (which to this point no one knew was even possible), someone who barely knew how to use this power. So after the shock sets in, things deteriorate further. They see a plan that will fail, and get them all killed for nothing. Soldiers might be willing to die, but they will not knowingly die for nothing. So we see murmuring as people who’d already been considering deserting start to do so (pay attention to the one bearded soldier, who earlier encouraged a couple trainees to make a scene so they could slip away).

The army is breaking, with more and more starting to walk out, and others completely paralyzed by fear–especially those who’d just confronted the horror of the titans firsthand for the first time. It quickly reaches the point where a panicking officer is fully prepared to start summarily executing deserters.

Now is where Pixis demonstrates superb leadership, and becomes a legend. After somehow cutting through the noise and getting everyone quiet again, he says something you’ll almost never hear from a military officer: “Those who desert now will all be pardoned.” However, he doesn’t stop there. He adds that once someone surrenders to their fear of the titans, they’re no longer fit for battle. He’s not talking about normal fear that nearly every healthy person has in a situation like this, but the crippling kind of fear that gets into one’s head and makes them unable to fight. Then, he also says that while those who have succumbed to that fear are free to leave, they leave knowing that in doing so, they condemn their loved ones–who are not soldiers whose job it is to fight the titans–to experiencing that fear.

It’s a brilliant play, as it makes these people–many of whom had at least at some point chosen to join the military to defend their families if the need arose–feel ashamed of their fear, along with guilt at breaking, and their families experiencing the terror they have.

The show does an excellent job showing people’s reactions (and you can see the moment where fan-favorite character Sasha becomes the determined, effective soldier she’ll be for the rest of the series), but special focus is given to that one nameless soldier, who represents dozens or hundreds of others. If you only watch part of the linked video, watch from 4:40 to 5:00 as we see the effect Pixis’s words had in driving a man who’d been in the process of deserting to turn around despite his fear. Because he knows what’s behind him, and that if they’re to have a chance at survival, he needs to put himself on the line. It’s not about orders any more, it’s about a more primal sense of loyalty to one’s family and the drive to protect them.

In that brief moment, Commander Pixis saved the army, and by extension the people of Paradis as a whole. He then goes a step further, speaking honestly about the events we saw just after the wall breach in episode 1, how tens of thousands were sent to their deaths, because they simply couldn’t be fed with the outer wall territory breached an uninhabitable. There are of course times when commanders must keep information to themselves, but honesty goes a long way, especially in matters like this, toward getting frightened people to risk their lives. (We’ll see this again later.) He concludes by telling them that if they don’t succeed, the innermost wall could only support half the population, which would lead to massive social unrest that would doom them all.

So, better to die where they stand than die fighting each other amid a violent collapse.

It’s brilliant writing, with historical precedents as well. A masterclass in persuasion, leadership and sheer command presence from an underrated character. I never get tired of rewatching this scene.

Our next subject is, of course, Erwin Smith, about whom so much has been said, but it’s worth saying again because he’s just that awesome. And there are two moments to focus on here.

The first is in season 2, episode 11 (interesting coincidence lol). In the linked video is another edited scene focused almost solely on his actions in a very chaotic situation. (The dubbed version is badass too.) To briefly sum up, Eren is kidnapped (again) by the Armored Titan, and rescue efforts had stalled when Erwin, in the first of several badass moments in this episode, leads a horde of titans toward everyone, bogging down the Armored Titan. Then, without any hesitation, he orders his soldiers to charge on horseback into the horde of titans.

His words are brief but effective. Their only chance of survival lies with Eren, so they must get him back at all costs. There isn’t much else to say, apart from the Scouts’ motto/battle cry of “Shinzou wo sasageyo” which roughly translates to “Dedicate your heart” before leading the charge himself, not even checking if the others are following.

He doesn’t need to check because he knows he’s earned their loyalty and that they’ll follow without hesitation. Where Pixis above embodies the archetype of the grizzled, wizened older commander, Erwin is the embodiment of the younger combat officer who leads his men from the front. It’s something that even most people not in the military can easily respect, and you can bet that the average soldier respects it even more. An officer willing to lead from the front shows several things: That he doesn’t see himself as above or better than the average soldier, that he’s just as willing to give his life if necessary, and that he believes enough in his plans to do this.

However, that’s not all. An officer must have some ability to carry on when things go terribly wrong with a plan, to ensure that the mission gets completed; and a great one will ensure that that happens even if it costs him personally. We see that here, in the now iconic scene where a surprise titan bites into Erwin’s arm and begins carrying him off. A danger with a leader so beloved by his men is that his loss (and in the context of this show, it’s fair for the soldiers to have believed he was as good as dead) can break their morale. Erwin knew this, so he acts immediately, ignoring his own situation. He reminds them that their target is just ahead, and orders them forward again.

And they listen (though if you’re sharp-eyed, you can see a pair of Scouts zipping back to help him). The mission does eventually succeed, at great cost, and Erwin makes it, though he loses his arm. But the fact that he was willing to give his life there only further cements his status among his soldiers, and why he’s on a short list of fictional character’s I’d follow into battle, no questions asked. It’s also something I really admire about the military ethos of the Israel Defense Forces, that our combat officers, even men with ranks of major or colonel, or high ranking NCOs, will be at the front line with the lowliest of privates. There’s obviously great risk there, but the motivation it gives the soldiers is invaluable, and it’s a shame it’s a less common thing in modern militaries than it ought to be. There are obviously many well known historical examples of leaders like this, such as Alexander the Great. There’s a reason why Erwin, and characters like him, are fan favorites. Something about this type of man speaks to us on a deep level. Heroes.

In his second scene we’ll analyze (linked video has both the subbed & dubbed versions), we see his conduct in another key leadership moment, as he confronts a scenario where he knows that he, and just about all of his soldiers, are going to die. This of course takes place in episode 16 of season 3, one of the best episodes of television of all time (that’s not just my opinion; it’s ranked #4 on IMDB’s top 100 tv episodes list, behind 1 episode of Breaking Bad & 2 other Attack on Titan episodes).

While most of our main characters are engaging the Armored & Colossal Titans, Erwin, Levi, & the rest of the Scouts–most of whom are rookies, with nearly all the veterans already dead–find themselves pinned down by the Beast Titan hurling crushed rocks like long range shotgun blasts. Their cover won’t protect them for much longer, and everyone knows their about to die. After a heart to heart with Levi, Erwin prepares himself for certain doom and decides to launch one final operation to try and salvage the situation, giving the others a chance. However, his plan for Levi to take a shot at killing the Beast Titan requires the rest of them to take action, and he’s got to convince dozens of young, inexperienced soldiers to follow him into certain death.

In speaking to his soldiers, he immediately takes charge, and doesn’t mince words. After restoring order, he doesn’t mince words as he details the very simple, suicidal plan. They’ll all charge the enemy on horseback, doing whatever they can to distract him so that their best soldier, Levi, has a chance to get to him unseen. This of course means charging directly into the line of fire. Always a cunning strategist, he’s the one who realized that the Beast Titan’s escort titans will be able to give Levi an avenue of attack. But convincing his loyal, longtime subordinate isn’t hard. It’s convincing the others, and the show demonstrates that it’s not a simple matter.

You can see in their faces how terrified they all are; one girl even throws up upon realizing what they’re being asked to do. Floch, a minor character who essentially represents most of the rookies, voices the obvious question, asking if they’re all going to die. Erwin is completely honest with him, telling him that yes, they are going to die, and that it’s better to die fighting than hiding behind flimsy walls. Then, when Floch point out that if they’re going to die anyway, there’s nothing forcing them to listen to him, that it’s all meaningless anyway. Erwin again agrees, adding that none of their dreams matter any more–remember, he had just given up on his own dream to learn the truth about their world. It’s almost like he’s reassuring himself as much as the soldiers.

However, like Pixis did back in season 1, Erwin knows just what to say to these scared kids who don’t want to die. Is life meaningless just because everyone will die someday? Were the lives of their already fallen comrades meaningless?

No, of course not. They, while they still draw breath, can give meaning to those lives, and those who follow after them will thusly give their sacrifices meaning.

There’s a lot to unpack in a short space. First he, importantly, is completely honest about what’s about to happen, making it clear that he will share their fate. Then he appeals to the unspoken desire of the soldiers for their lives, and deaths, to mean something, to have value. Just fighting to the death instead of meekly lying down isn’t always enough of a motivator. So he goes fully into appealing to their desire for there to be a purpose for their sacrifice. Just as they give meaning to the sacrifices of those who fell before them, and remember them, so too those who come after them will make their sacrifices matter.

Then he leads the charge from the front, like the consumate commander he is, and is one of the first to take a hit.

My summary of the scene doesn’t do it justice; you really have to watch it yourself (and like with the other Erwin scene, but the subbed & dubbed versions are amazing; both voice actors did awesome work.) It’s just pure badassery, that also demonstrates Erwin’s evolution as a leader from his already high level in season 2. Back then, his action was a more spur-of-the-moment decision, and most of his soldiers were experienced veterans, used to following him into danger. Here there was time to think, which can be dangerous, and he was working with young rookies. Just a remarkable example of leadership that I love seeing portrayed in fiction.

Our final example is a much shorter and subtler one from season 4, involving Pieck, the Cart Titan in service of Marley. As is explained in the season, despite her Warrior status, she’s still an Eldian, subject to the prejudice all her people in Marley have to endure. However, in the few scenes we see of her and her panzer squad (the crew who puts on her armor & guns in addition to manning them, they are completely devoted to her, to the point where at least one or two of them had pictures of her, and the rest of the unit, in their gun ports. (Also her crutches are there too, for after battles.)

People like to make simp memes about these guys, but the truth is, between their scenes and Pieck’s during the battle, she won them over by being a kind, competent commander–overcoming any prejudice they might’ve held. It almost transcends an officer/soldier relationship to become a family, which made the scene where her gunners are killed one of the most heartbreaking in the show.

With their final words, they think of her, and her despair at realizing what’s happened really hits home. (Also seen in her anger when one of them is killed by Sasha.)

She’s an example of an ideal leader on a squad level, both displaying battlefield competence and an ability to overcome racial barriers and gain the respect of people who would’ve been predisposed to hate her. It’s a shame we didn’t get to see more of their relationship. They seemed like good guys.

This went a lot longer than I expected, but it’s a fascinating topic for me, and Attack on Titan, in addition to being a great show in general, provided me some great examples to talk about this topic.

While my upcoming isekai series, Light Unto Another World, is primarily a fantasy adventure, there will be military elements in it. If that sort of series interests you, we’ve got a few hours left on the very successful kickstarter campaign! (And if you’re reading this at a later date, they’ll be on Amazon before too long.)

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/yakovmerkin/light-unto-another-world-volumes-1-5/

Hope you found this interesting, and I’d love to do more posts like this if folks like reading them. I much prefer it to negative content like complaining about bad things or politics.

Until next time!

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