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In Dune, the first novel in Frank Herbert's cycle, the condition sine qua non for the Imperial Sardaukar to take part in the venture is that the Harkonnens provide plausible deniability to the Emperor. In the final package, two legions of Sardaukar would complement the Harkonnen forces, fighting in Harkonnen uniform.

I understand the gain in effectiveness was to be ascribed to the lucky actions of a high-rank traitor among the Atreides. However, a mystery remains: a complement of two legions would get suddenly added to the grand total of Harkonnen troops, only to disappear like dew in May once the Arrakis rigmarole was over.

How was this providential complement to be explained? Did the Harkonnens e. g., levy an equivalent number of conscripts on Giedi Prime, just to keep them squatting there the whole time?

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    Explained by whom? All of the Atreides forces are dead or scattered. Their leadership is dead or in exile and the Guild is notorious for keeping their mouths shut about this sort of inter-house squabble. At best there'll be rumours that the Harkonnen troops were suspiciously populous
    – Valorum
    Commented Apr 26 at 19:24
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    Good questions. To whom: to whoever might be interested in accusing the Emperor of taking side with one of the Great Houses against an other. After all, he was making real their worst nightmare: smashing them one by one while they were no match for the Sardaukar. Commented Apr 26 at 19:33
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    Plus (a) it's only 2 legions among 10 and (b) they took heavy losses (5 for 1) fighting the Fremen after the invasion. Meanwhile the Harkonnen were raising massive forces (additional legions) to keep throwing at Arrakis, so a few thousand troops returning to some place other than Giedi Prime would hardly be noticed.
    – DavidW
    Commented Apr 26 at 19:34
  • By whom: The Harkonnens. There is no point in providing deniability if no one will bother to demand a denial. Commented Apr 26 at 19:38
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    Kanly! The Duke Atreides declared vendetta on house Harkonnen. Where is your proof? There are rules for kanly! Commented Apr 28 at 1:06

4 Answers 4

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The Emperor can simply deny that his Sardaukar were involved and without any evidence to the contrary (and without a champion brandishing that evidence), any other Noble House that makes this allegation would be immediately branded a traitor.

Without the Duke at their head, the few remaining low-ranked Atreides troops don't have a hope in hell of putting their case to the Landsraad. Hawat assesses his chances of getting proof in front of the Council as basically zero.

Those damnable Sardaukar!

With a self-accusing bitterness, he faced the thought of the soldier- fanatics and the Imperial treachery they represented. His own Mentat assessment of the data told him how little chance he had ever to present evidence of this treachery before the High Council of the Landsraad where justice might be done.

Note that even with the Duke alive, he was still going to need actual proof.

Paul tried to swallow in a throat suddenly dry. ”Couldn’t you convene the Landsraad, expose –“

”Make our enemy aware we know which hand holds the knife? Ah, now, Paul — we see the knife, now. Who knows where it might be shifted next? If we put this before the Landsraad it’d only create a great cloud of confusion. The Emperor would deny it. Who could gainsay him? All we’d gain is a little time while risking chaos. And where would the next attack come from?“

Leto was extremely reluctant to go before the Council of Lords without actual captured Sardaukar to offer as living evidence.

“Four or five battalions all told, Sire. No more. Guild troop-transport costs being what they are.”

“Then five battalions of Fremen plus our own forces ought to do it. Let us have a few captive Sardaukar to parade in front of the Landsraad Council and matters will be much different–profits or no profits.”

“We’ll do our best, Sire.”


After the battle the whole thing is basically fait accompli; The Atreides forces are dead or scattered. Their leadership (the Duke and his heir and all of the Duke's lieutenants) are dead. The Judge of the Change (Kynes) also died under mysterious circumstances during the fighting.

Who then is to say that there were even Sardaukar on the planet apart from the Guild (who tend to keep their mouths shut), the Harkonnen and the Emperor? Everyone left standing has a vested interest in not telling anyone anything.

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    @FrançoisJurain - Who is making this fantastical claim? The last of the routed Atreides forces, eager to damage their enemy with lies? Where is the evidence? Hawat doesn't even fancy his chances of being able to make the claim to anyone of note, let alone back it up.
    – Valorum
    Commented Apr 26 at 20:38
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    Also, the suspicion that the Emperor had put down an upstart Duke by breaking the rules and got away with it is highly useful.
    – Dale M
    Commented Apr 27 at 11:03
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    @DaleM - Oh yes. And even if the rumours didn't make it off of Arrakis, the Emperor might be well advised to make sure they do, pour encourager les autres
    – Valorum
    Commented Apr 27 at 13:54
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    @FrançoisJurain A big limiter on war in the Dune universe is the astronomical cost of transporting troops. I had always understood that from a planetary population the Harkonens could have many millions of troops if they wanted them; they just couldn't afford to deploy that many outside their own system. I doubt they sent anywhere close to every soldier they could recruit. The deal with the Emperor wasn't to get more troops; they easily could have filled all the transports they could afford with their own troops. The deal was to get better troops.
    – Ben
    Commented Apr 27 at 14:00
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    @Ben - It's also an artificial limitation. The Guild's heighliners are vast and, if they so desired, could accommodate hundreds of thousands or even millions of troops. The Guild place such high prices in order to discourage fighting, excepting the occasional inter-house squabble.
    – Valorum
    Commented Apr 27 at 14:18
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The Harkonnen retook Arrakis with at least 10 legions, only two of which were Sardaukar:

"We'll move in strengthened by two legions of Sardaukar disguised in Harkonnen livery."

and Hawat's count:

Two legions landed at Carthag.

Five legions—fifty brigades!—attacking the Duke's main base at Arrakeen.

A legion at Arsunt.

Two battle groups at Splintered Rock.

[...]

More than a hundred brigades—ten legions!

So only 60 000 Sardaukar (one legion is 10 brigades or 30 000 troops per the appendix) landed in the initial invasion out of over 300 000 troops total.

In addition they suffered heavy losses:

You say the Sardaukar accounted for another twenty thousand, possibly a few more. And I've seen the transportation manifests for their return from Arrakis. If they killed twenty thousand, they lost almost five for one.

The math doesn't really work (that amounts to nearly 100 000 dead Sardaukar) but perhaps more were dispatched to help the Harkonnen keep control. But in any event the losses were high enough that the number of survivors returning from Arrakis would be lost in the noise.

Note that Rabban had lost an additional 30 000 troops in just two years after the invasion, so troops were being poured in:

"What are Rabban's troop losses for the past two years?" Hawat asked.

The Baron rubbed his jowls. "Well, he has been recruiting rather heavily, to be sure. His agents make rather extravagant promises and—"

"Shall we say thirty thousand in round numbers?" Hawat asked.

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    "If they killed twenty thousand, they lost almost five for one": it's been a long time since I read that; I think I understood "they" were the unsorted hostiles, not specifically the Sardaukar. Anyway, you're right the losses in combat conceal the inconsistancy. Commented Apr 26 at 20:15
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    @FrançoisJurain Yeah, it doesn't make sense that the most feared military forces lost five times as many as they killed. Commented Apr 27 at 4:23
  • @Acccumulation and 66% more than they were in total :-}. Commented Apr 27 at 16:58
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    Well, the point of the "five for one" was to sell how ridiculously good fighters the Fremen were, to establish that the coming jihad against the entire galaxy could actually work with only a pool of maybe a couple million soldiers to draw on. That said it's possible that the Sarduakar were hard enough that even a death or two wouldn't stop them... :D
    – DavidW
    Commented Apr 27 at 17:13
  • I find it really hard to parse that as Fremen losing 5 to 1, but that would explain why the Harkonnens seem to have a better ratio than the Sardaukar in a different part of that conversation.
    – Nolimon
    Commented Apr 29 at 16:50
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I think the answer is simply that it would have been night impossible to spot this discrepancy.

You'd have to keep a really close eye on Harkonnen forces both on Giedi Prime and elsewhere, before the attack, during and after. You'd have to have precise information on the location, size and movements of all Harkonnen forces, to notice that something doesn't add up on Arrakis. And such information is usually highly sensitive and well hidden from unauthorized people.

In addition, we don't know how the Sardaukar were infiltrated and exfiltrated. They could have arrived on a separate guild ship and just joined the Harkonnen forces for the Arrakis campaign, leaving after the fighting was done. But it could have also been done more discreetly. For example, maybe they arrived to Giedi Prime in a slow trickle over several months as "fresh recruits" and were quite officially added to the Harkonnen number. This might have also cut down on costs since this wouldn't count as "troop transport". And after the attack there would have been a number of discharges due to injuries/retirement/death/etc...

So I'd say it'd be absolutely trivial to make everything work out on paper. You'd have to literally track each person individually to notice that some of the "retired veterans" are actually travelling back to Salusa Secundus and picking up Sardaukar uniforms.

All in all, I think that anyone from the sidelines would just see a bunch of troops leaving the barracks on Giedi Prime and travelling to Arrakis, and then somewhat less of them returning. Any funny business with troop numbers would be undetectable because they wouldn't be able to get access to the necessary data to notice a discrepancy.

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    I think we can assume that the Atreides forces were paying especially close attention to the numbers landing on the planet.
    – Valorum
    Commented Apr 27 at 19:01
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    @Valorum Sure, and they probably also had some idea about the total size of Harkonnen military, and they did already expect Sardaukar in Harkonnen livery. I also think that they didn't know how many troops left Giedi Prime, since the only way to bring that information would be on the same ship that also brought the attack. But even if they did manage to somehow transmit that number sooner, it still wouldn't change anything, because none of those numbers allow them to calculate any "surplus" troops. 300K left Giedi Prime and 300K arrived at Arrakis.
    – Vilx-
    Commented Apr 27 at 22:41
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Did audiences all over theimperium view full length movies or videos of the entire process of the the Harkonnen troops boarding spaceships as crowds cheared, and leaving Giedi Prime and entire full lengh depictions of all the "Harkonnen" troops landing on various parts of Arrakis? And thus get a chance to count the difference in numbers?

Was the usual entertainment in the Empires so boring that people would eagerly watch hours of troops boarding space ships and hours of troops landing from spaceships?

Would those events even be filmed? I guess the troops would board spaceships from military bases far from civilians, where nobody was around to film the process for the public to see?

Here is a sneaky plan to keep everyone in the dark about the number of troops transported to arrakis for the attack.

Possibly the troops would be sent to many different uninhabted planets were nobody would see them land or stay in orbit. And each planet would be on the route of a Guild ship.

When a Guild ship reached one of those planets it would take aboard a ship full of soldiers which probably wouldn't be labeled "a ship full of soldiers" and go on to a travel hub. At the travel hub several ships, including the one with the soldiers, would get off and wait for the next Guild ship. And there would probably be several ships with soldiers at the hub which came on different Guild ships from different planets. And then another Guild ship would come to the hub planet and all the ships with soldiers would be among the ships which boarded the Guild ship to go to Arrakis.

And that had possibly been going on for a while and several guild ships had brought ships to the Arrakis system before the Atreides arrived. If the Harkonnen and Sardaukar ships were not labeled something like "Troop Transport For Secret Military Attack" but something like "Acme Freight Lines" maybe the Atreides would travel right beside one without the slightest suspicion.

And maybe the troopships didn't get off at the Arrakis shystem but got off in an uninhabited system near Arrakis and traveled the rest of the distance on their own power and without Guild navigators, which was more dangerous but sometimes done.

And when the troops landed on Arrakis and attacked I doubt that there was anyone making a record of it to be broadcast to the public on Arrakis or elsewhere in the Imperium.

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    That sounds highly speculative, and unnecessarily convoluted. The Guild is proudly neutral, and the Houses know that the Guild won't breach confidentiality. At least, they won't publicly broadcast sensitive information, although they may pass it on discreetly for a suitable fee.
    – PM 2Ring
    Commented Apr 27 at 20:08

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