As many could attest, I grew up a Star Wars nerd. In many ways I still own that title. Over the years I cheered on Luke Skywalker and the rag-tag band of Rebels as they fought against impossible odds. I made elaborate scenarios with my action figures or model ships as a kid, and in battle after battle the good guys always won. The Rebellion was victorious, and the faceless soldiers of the Empire were defeated. However, as I started to enter my teenage years I couldn’t help but notice my perspective on Star Wars changing – most notably in respect to the Galactic Empire and the Rebellion.
Warning: If you’re already wondering if you should stop now, the answer is probably yes. This is me indulging in something I haven’t discussed in a long time.
This change in perspective came in no small part due to the >shudder< prequel trilogy. I’ll try to say as little about this as possible, but sufficit to say this is what I gleaned. The Republic was a bloated, ineffective government that couldn’t even settle a simple trade dispute. (Episode I) This ineffective government came with a strong-arm group of self-righteous Zen cultists who would slice various parts of your body off if you dared disagree with their Zen ways – or the will of the Republic, whichever excuse was more convenient. In other words, they wouldn’t tolerate anyone not as tolerant as they are. Sound familiar? Their self-contradicting code taught that emotions – good or bad — were to be totally denied, except for every time it was convenient for them to feel one. Compassion is an emotion they were certainly tied to, but for the most part Jedi were navel gazers and self-congratulatory philosophers rather than doers of any concrete good. One might almost say they were useless academics. Not only that, but they openly contradicted their own ideals constantly. I physically face-palmed in the theater (which was mostly empty, mercifully) when I heard Ewan MacGreggor spew the line “Only a Sith believes in absolutes Anakin!” Really. Congratulations, you have just given an absolute statement, proving once and for all that the Jedi code is a load of bunk.
So, how does this lead to a justification of the unjustifiable? How does one justify a Galactic Empire?
Consider in the first place Chancellor (and later Emperor) Palpatine. He used the system of government – blighted and corrupt as it was – to rally star systems to a common goal. That goal was ultimately peace, but like any peace it had to come at the cost of some blood. By skillful maneuvering, Palpatine was able to orchestrate a system that would stop listening to the inane prattle of self-serving bureaucrats and allow a single individual to act swiftly and effectively. The stroke of genius is that he did this with the support of the Galactic Senate. This change did not seem to bother the citizens of the Republic at all. In fact, at the end of Revenge of the Sith, the only people who seem to be disturbed with this turn of events are the people trying to prop up the failed system – and thereby their own cushy representative positions.
The next aspect of what makes the Galactic Empire defensible is its military prowess. While might does not make right, the Empire was able to establish and maintain a cohesive defense force to protect its citizens. This is not something that the Republic was able to do. Under the Republic, most systems were left to fend for themselves in terms of defense. Coruscant itself (seat of the Republic) like Rome had not seen a standing army within its borders for ages. What this ultimately meant was that the most the Republic could do if one planet were to invade another was to pout about it, say “stop it” in the senate, and if you were really naughty they would send some Jedi to negotiate/rearrange your face. Never mind that Jedi were actually not a political arm of the Republic, but I digress. At the end of the day, the Empire shows a lot more regard for its citizens and their well-being than the Senate did. If you wanted the Senate’s attention, you’d better have had something really good to bribe them with.
The Galactic Empire under Palpatine, Vader, Tarkin and others corrected this oversight. Using their military prowess they were able to defend previously defenseless worlds, drive out pirates, and bring the Hutt crime syndicates more to heel than the Republic ever could. Palpatine, Vader and Tarkin all had this in mind: peace. Vader admitted as much to Luke at Cloud City: “Join me and we shall end this destructive conflict!”
It’s commonly heard that the Empire is tyrannical. We’re told as much in the opening scrawl for A New Hope, but there’s little evidence on screen for this being the case. We do not see slavery onscreen, we do not see random acts of violence on the part of the Stormtroopers upon citizens. (Nomadic scavengers operating illegally, yes, but not on citizens.) On the contrary, the trouble makers seem to only be the Rebels. All in all, the Empire seems more interested in capturing its key oponents rather than killing them. Vader’s focus in all three of the original films is on capturing Luke. He allows Han to be captured. On Cloud City, it was his design that Leia and Chewbacca remain as prisoners. While he was merciless on incompetent officers, there are plenty of historical examples of such discipline. Another example of how the Empire is not interested in constantly subjugating local populations is Endor. There were Imperial stations there, but there was no evidence of aggression between the Ewoks and Imperials until Luke and the gang showed up and convinced them that the Empire must be evil.
Speaking of the Rebellion, it doesn’t seem to be very popular. The Rebels always seem to have pathetic numbers. This implies that the Rebellion as a whole is fighting a battle that most citizens of the Empire do not believe needs to be fought. New projects were open for billions of engineers and laborers in Imperial shipyards and the Death Star, and the economy was likely surging due to better protected shipping lanes. Jobs were up, the galaxy was more secure, and yet there was a tiny group of people fighting to reinstate a failed system. Technology also advanced under the Empire, as new ship designs and communication systems were being developed to support better galactic infrastructure. All in all, it doesn’t make much sense to join a group fighting against an Empire that has brought about positive change galaxy wide.
Finally, consider the lowly Stormtrooper. Many were initially clones, but later ranks were bolstered by naturally born humans who considered it an honor to answer the Empire’s call and take up their roles as soldiers, peace-keepers, or police. Behind every gleaming white helmet was a man (or woman, to be fair) who had a life story and a family somewhere. (This is certainly driven home in Shadows of the Empire, but I digress.) Each one of those white clad troopers is a human being, but the armor is what makes them effective at deterring bad behavior and ensuring order. The Rebellion seems to have very little compunction about killing these people. Is it right to do so simply because you can’t see the face behind the helmet?
These considerations do open up a fundamental quandry for those who believe that the Rebellion is morally right: do the benefits of better economics, better defense capabilities, and equality across planets make the Empire and the Sith a force for good in the galaxy? If so, why is it acceptable for the rebellion to fight against their duly elected government which has brought so many benefits to the galactic citizenry? Finally, and possibly most importantly, did Lucas even consider some of these questions before showing the Empire as the bad guys? Did he not think through these political and philosophical factors to their logical end, or did he simply not care?
Stay tuned for Part 2, in which I detail why the Sith are actually more philosophically consistent than the Jedi.
Many thanks to Wookiepedia for background articles on various parts of the Star Wars universe.