Somehow, over the last ten years, it’s become vogue for conservatives to advertise their affection for the Galactic Empire, ranging from Jonathan Last’s classic defense to Dick Cheney’s famous nickname for himself (“Darth Vader”).
For the most part, this is just good-natured trolling of excessively sensitive Star Wars fans and progressives. It’s good fun, as long as it’s really a joke. However, the most recent incarnation of what I’ll call “imperial apologism” strikes a deeply un-funny cord. In a Washington Post article, Sonny Bunch of the Washington Free Beacon argues “the destruction of Alderaan was completely justified.”
Here’s clearly trolling, right? Nobody could actually endorse the obliteration of a planet with about 2 billion people living on it. I want to believe Sonny is trolling, and probably part of him is, but there’s a humorless strain of political reasoning to his piece that needs rebuttal.
He begins by saying “it’s not trolling if it’s true,” clarifying that, no, he’s not trolling (or else is meta-trolling). He’s serious. To him, mass murder on a scale beyond anything even remotely comprehensible to us is the “sticky wicket” standing between the public and the true recognition of Imperial benevolence.
He assures us that destroying Alderaan “was really the least bad of all the available options, if you take a moment to think about it.” This isn’t trolling. As I’ll show, this is really Sonny trying to convince you that, if we just nuked Tehran, all our problems would go away.
Are There Thought Terrorists?
Bunch lays out reasons why the entire planet can be considered a military target: it was the financial and intellectual hub of the rebellion! First of all, he’s factually wrong on it being a financial hub (that’s more likely to be Chandrila, Mon Mothma’s home world). He’s right about it being an intellectual hub, but since when does intellectual assent establish a whole people group as a military target? The United States has never claimed that all Muslims who adopt a radical theology are military targets, or even targets for judicial prosecution. Nobody sane believes such a thing, as it requires an unconscionable level of thought-policing.
Even if such intellectual assent does make someone a military target, there’s a basic criteria to meet, that any force applied be discriminate. So what if a billion people were born-again New Jedi Order believers: the other billion aren’t! Some measure of collateral damage may be tolerable, but we’re talking about an entire planet full of people, including some of the Empire’s own soldiers. Alderaan was not engaged in active armed revolt (hence why Leia was the imperial senator from Alderaan), so the use of such force is preposterous.
Bunch is wrong about Alderaan being a legitimate military target (not even Grand Moff Tarkin asserts it as a military target, hence why he demands Leia provide such a military target as an alternative: seriously, has Sonny even watched these movies?). He’s wrong when he says the appropriateness of the applied force is a “tricky question.”
He suggests the alternative is installing a pro-Empire regime: but the Alderaanian leadership wasn’t in open rebellion. Imperial soldiers were already present on Alderaan and, again, Princess Leia was the Alderaanian delegate to the Imperial Senate, because Alderaan was a constituent of the Empire. This isn’t like the United States blowing up Hiroshima to win World War II, it’s like the Union massacring every living person, slave or free, white or black, in South Carolina. Not even advocates of total war like generals Grant or Sherman would have countenanced such a strategy.
The Parallels to Neocon Military Strategy
Underneath Bunch’s apologia for imperial genocide is the basic logic of neoconservative security strategy.* It goes something like this: if a superpower behaves with confidence, aggression, and overwhelming force, then nobody will oppose them. Furthermore, that overwhelming force is self-justifying, because, even with its collateral damage, it prevents a worse catastrophe of ever-spreading chaos.
Bunch’s claims, and the logic under them, rely on several demonstrably false assumptions. Put more formally, Bunch argues that destroying Alderaan is justifiable because it saved lives, on net. Those lives were saved because without intervention there would have been widespread chaos and violence, and also because with intervention there would not be widespread chaos and violence.
For Bunch’s claims to be correct, the probability-adjusted net lives saved must exceed the lives lost in the destruction of Alderaan. So let’s do the math.
Let’s Do Some Death Calculus
Let’s say, for the sake of argument, there’s a 75 percent chance that, without destroying Alderaan, the rebellion would spread chaos and violence. With destroying Alderaan, that “rebellion spread” risk falls to zero, allegedly. Let’s also say there’s a 75 percent chance that, by destroying Alderaan, there’s only a 10 percent chance of “blowback chaos.” These assumptions are very friendly to imperial apologists like Bunch.
How many casualties would result from spreading chaos and violence? Assume that the casualties to population ratio for occupying a planet is 1 casualty for every 1,000 people: remember, an occupying force could just shell from orbit, so only highly populated planets with widely dispersed population would even bother to resist. Many will be subdued without a fight.
All extant Star Wars information suggests the number of planets in open resistance to the Empire around the time of the destruction of Alderaan was less than 100. If we assume a billion people per planet, that’s 100 billion. That means occupying the whole rebellion in force would inflict 100 million casualties. Multiply by 0.75 and you get 75 million probability-adjusted lives saved. Now recall there’s a 10 percent chance these casualties still occur due to blowback, and you have to subtract 10 million more.
So the Death Star killed 2 billion almost entirely civilian Alderaanians in order to save 65 million casualties, mostly insurgents or imperial combatants. That’s not a reasonable tradeoff. Even if you assume the rebellion was ten times as large as I suggest, it still doesn’t balance out.
Blowing Up Alderaan Wouldn’t Stop Rebellion
Plus, the probabilities I use are clearly wrong. Was there really a 75 percent chance blowing up Alderaan would stop the rebellion? Hah! No! All that did was confirm the suspicions rebel-inclined people already had. Alderaan supplied intellectual and moral heft to the rebellion, but not much military capability.
Again, not even Grand Moff Tarkin viewed Alderaan as a military target. In reality, there was virtually no chance that blowing up Alderaan would stop the rebellion. Blowing up Yavin IV or Hoth? Maybe. Blowing up Alderaan? Not a chance.
Meanwhile, blowback was a much bigger risk. The Empire’s brutal and repressive rule had already created open rebellion in many systems, and led to organized political and military opposition. They were already experiencing blowback from previous brutal actions. Grand Moff Tarkin horribly underestimated the risk of blowback: a point Princess Leia aptly noted when she quipped, “The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers.”
When Episode V rolls around, the new rebel base is bigger, better equipped, and prepared to evacuate even in the face of a major assault by an imperial battle fleet led by a Sith lord. By the time we’re at Episode VI, the rebels are fielding cruisers and fighter carriers of their own and making a frontal assault on the Death Star. Imperial brutality did not crush the rebellion; it created the rebellion.
Let’s Import This into Reality
However, if all we’re doing is arguing about an imaginary universe, none of this matters. Nobody really cares if the fictional destruction of a fictional planet was theoretically justifiable, and there’s no serious movement for “revisionist Star Wars,” casting the Empire as the good guys. The moral universe of Star Wars cannot be so easily flipped on its head.
At the end of the day, however, we’re not arguing about Alderaan. We’re asking what would happen if we nuked Tehran. We’re asking whether all Muslims are legitimate military targets for U.S. bombs and drones or whether all Christians are legitimate “military” targets for ISIS. What we’re really talking about is how we should think about security strategy risks.
Bunch suggests that the Empire’s actions, aside from being moral, represent a fundamentally rational strategy: fear probably will keep the systems in line, the rebellion really will be crushed. The problem is that Bunch and Grand Moff Tarkin are wrong. The Empire loses. Fear did not keep the outer systems in line; it enraged them. They called the Empire’s bluff, and the Empire’s pair of kings was no match for the Rebellion’s ace fighter pilots.
Likewise, a casual disregard for civilian casualties will not secure the United States’ objectives abroad. Viewing all ideological opponents as enemy military assets will not help us destroy our foes. And applying more force and more violence will not of itself accomplish security objectives.
Blowing up Alderaan will not stop the rebellion, and bombing Iran will not prevent nuclear proliferation. Flimsy agreements with poor enforcement probably won’t either, of course, but the increasing illiteracy of the conservative foreign policy commentariat is an embarrassment to our movement. A group once known for savvy cold warriors and realistic truth-tellers in foreign policy now has only one hammer, for which every foreign-policy conundrum looks like a nail: apply more force.
It didn’t work for Tarkin. It won’t work for the United States.