Culture

Is America the Evil Galactic Empire from 'Star Wars'?

Darth Vader in Rogue One ©2016 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

American police and soldiers are like the Imperial stormtroopers in Star Wars. Rebel fighters striking Imperial targets are like the 9-11 hijackers. These are the analogies offered by New York Times bestselling author Ian Doescher. “The Empire is us,” he claims while attempting to dissect the politics of Rogue One, a spin-off film currently in theaters. Writing for Politico, he offers:

… we follow the protagonists Jyn Erso and Cassian Andor to the desert moon of Jedha. Walking through the streets, looking for a contact, Cassian perceptively comments, “This town is ready to blow.” Moments later, his words prove prophetic when a group of radical, masked rebels plans a surprise attack on an imperial squadron.

As I watched the scene, my jaw dropped. A desert setting. A group of soldiers in uniform. A surprise attack by a radical group that strongly opposes the more powerful force. This is Star Wars, yes, but it could also describe American combat in the Middle East, and as I watched Rogue One I was struck by the similarity. Thinking through the analogy, though, made for a troubling realization—if the radical rebels of Rogue One stand in for modern-day extremists, does the Empire they fight symbolize the United States?

Doescher is not the first person to make this analogy. Memes have long circulated on social media casting the United States in the role of evil Galactic Empire. This time last year, as The Force Awakens enjoyed its run in theaters, Reason compared the plot of the 1977 original to a tale of Islamic radicalization. The provocative comparison only holds up if you cherry-pick cosmetic similarities and wholly ignore substance like motivation, goals, and morality.

Doescher presents four cosmetic similarities to justify his analogy. Each point falls apart upon examination.

“The heroes aren’t white,” he lauds. Indeed, Rogue One boasts the most diverse cast in any Star Wars film to date. The band of rebel insurgents at the crux of the story includes a British woman, a Mexican, two Chinese men, and an Englishman of Pakistani descent. Such casting is consistent with industry trends, which have sought to include international stars in tent-pole blockbusters to boost marketability overseas. It’s business. There’s nothing political about it. Lest we forget, this is a galaxy far, far away. Racial distinctions have never meant much in Star Wars.

Doescher reaches far in his effort to make this point:

The mantra Chirrut Îmwe repeats—“I am one with the Force, and the Force is with me”—particularly as he marches to his death—both brings to mind Buddhist meditation and echoes the religious tones of the Islamic shahadah or the cry of “Allahu akbar!”

Chirrut stands guard over a sacred site, intervening to protect innocent bystanders from Imperial attack. But he has a mantra, and therefore proves just like murderous death cultists actively seeking to take innocent lives. That’s Doescher’s absurd argument.

The casting of the original Star Wars should be analyzed in the context of the market in which it was produced. Many fans have long assumed that the rebellion against the Empire was meant as an analog of the American revolution. They note that the Imperial officers tend toward British accents while the rebels tend to sound American. However, we know from production commentary that this had more to do with shooting location than with any narrative intention. After all, Obi-Wan Kenobi had a British accent. Darth Vader did not. Accents and nationality have largely been arbitrary in the Star Wars universe. There’s nothing in Rogue One to indicate that has changed.

Doescher next notes that “the rebels’ mission is a stealthy one and, ultimately, a suicide operation.” Here again, the focus is on superficial similarity. He writes:

Most strikingly, during the final battle’s climax, an entire rebel ship purposely crashes into a star destroyer, causing it to careen into another star destroyer nearby. Although this is not exactly airplanes flying into twin towers, the parallel was enough to make me gasp.

What kind of a mind thinks like that? One which sees no moral difference between an instrument of aggressive war and a place where people gather to peaceably trade. Doescher continues:

… Rogue One has the uncomfortable effect of making us sympathize with zealots willing to martyr themselves for the cause. As one of my friends put it, it’s “terrorism from the terrorists’ point of view.” Except, in this case, the terrorists are the ones we’re rooting for.

Yes, but why? What is their cause? That matters. That’s everything. That’s what determines whether they are right or wrong.

This is something the left seems strangely incapable of getting their heads around. Context and purpose matter more than methodology. It is the what and why, not the how, which determines whether an action proves virtuous or immoral. The moral difference between a rebel pilot crashing into a star destroyer and a suicide attack on a school bus full of children should not require clarification.

This confusion of function with purpose continues into Doescher’s third point:

On a weapons-to-weapons comparison, there is little hope for the rebellion. The X-wings may keep the imperial forces busy for a while, but at no point in the film—particularly not by the end—is there any hope the rebels will defeat the Empire in direct battle. Similarly, by nearly any standard, the United States has vastly more combat power than other countries of the world. We rely on our ability to “shock and awe” our enemies into submission, and often the small counterattacks our enemies can make must be carried out by stealth, subterfuge and surprise.

This point proves worthless. Technological or tactical status says nothing of morality. We want the good guys to have more and better weapons. We want the good guys to be better trained and better organized. Whether it’s a cop on the street or a solider on the battlefield, we don’t want those who protect us to engage in fair fights. The bad guys should never have a chance. They should be suppressed with overwhelming force. Doescher writes as if underdog status grants virtue, as if Vader and his stormtroopers would be the good guys if they were few and outgunned. That’s patently absurd. Again, it’s the why that matters.

Doescher conflates the American why with that of the Imperials, writing of the stormtrooper mentality:

Put yourself in the mind of one of those black-and-white clad minions, and you probably wouldn’t think of yourself as being part of an evil superpower full of menace and vengeance. Instead, you might, justifiably, consider that you have a job to do, which is to maintain order in a dangerous galaxy—even if the task is sometimes unpleasant. (After all, freedom isn’t free.)

It may be true that every solider believes his cause is just. But that does not make it so. It’s our job, as rational agents, to discern between moral claims. In that task, Doescher utterly fails. He concludes that “if the Star Wars conflict were mapped onto our modern geopolitical map—the United States is the Empire.” He concludes that the United States is this “evil superpower full of menace and vengeance.” On what basis? What territories have we annexed? What nations have we maliciously destroyed? I struggle to recall the scenes in Star Wars detailing the reconstruction of Alderaan. Similarly, I struggle to recall how Imperial Japan was peaceful and innocent prior to our dropping the bomb.

These analogies collapse into utter nonsense upon the slightest examination, yet are published as notable commentary at Politico. There are political themes interspersed throughout Star Wars, but nothing whatsoever justifying Islamic terrorism or demonizing American foreign policy. If anything, the true analogs are the reverse of those which Doescher presents. Islamists, like Vader and his Empire, are evil because they seek to enslave and destroy. The United States, like that band of rebels in a far away galaxy, struggle to protect life and preserve liberty.