Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers.
The Force has awakened, and boy, did its beauty sleep produce good results. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” convincingly washes out the stink of the prequel trilogy and gives the franchise the kind of life it probably hasn’t seen since 1983. Now that “Star Wars” is more than the literary equivalent of the steaming wreckage of a once majestic Star Destroyer, at last we can settle in for an avalanche of thoroughly justified thinkpieces on the politics of that galaxy far, far away.
While plenty of commentators have argued (correctly, in my opinion) that the original trilogy really portrays the tragic fall of a great and meritocratic, if imperfect, empire brought low by ISIS-esque rebels, at first blush “The Force Awakens” makes this sort of contrarian spin look very difficult. Where the Empire in the original Star Wars only blew up one planet and never really committed much aggression beyond attacking its declared foes, “The Force Awakens” features what looks like a planet and several moons being blasted to smithereens by a sun-eating monstrosity called the “Starkiller Base,” seemingly without provocation.
Worse, this act of genocide is set against the backdrop of an address screeched by the all-too-fascist sounding General Hux, who can best be described as the ginger equivalent of Josef Goebbels. The Empire might have been necessarily brutal, in other words, but it’s hard to see its successors, the First Order, as anything but fascist, mass-murdering madmen, determined to destroy the galaxy if they can’t rule it.
Worse, this franchise’s younger, more petulant equivalent to Darth Vader—Kylo Ren—murders his own father, Han Solo, in cold blood. Say this for Vader: at least he let Obi-Wan put up a fight. In other words, it seems very hard to argue that the First Order is anything but pure evil.
That is, until you spend any time at all thinking about the stated causes for their behavior, and their parallels to the problems faced by, say, the United States today. In fact, if you spend even a little time applying sound realist foreign policy logic to “The Force Awakens,” then the narrative of the First Order as irredeemably evil completely falls apart. The First Order, in fact, are the heroes of this story.
The Empire and Rebels Flip Places
Start with the destruction of the New Republic’s capital planet. While the movie skimps a lot on details regarding just what the New Republic is and why it’s so defenseless against such an attack, Disney and Lucasfilm released sources that explain it. Put simply, the New Republic is the highly provisional government set up by the victorious terrorists known as the Rebel Alliance in the previous series. One of the first acts it imposed was the unilateral disarmament of the galaxy as a means of cracking down on pro-Imperial dissidents.
In other words, the first thing the New Republic did was impose gun control to stop any other rebellions. Hannah Arendt’s line that a revolutionary becomes a hardline conservative after the revolution has never seemed so ironic, nor so true.
However, the First Order, which is made up of previous Imperial officers and soldiers, refused to obey this edict and instead retreated to unregulated reaches of space, where it set up its own government. The New Republic, having already disarmed not only its citizens, but its own fleet (nuclear disarmament, anyone?), couldn’t really object, plunging the galaxy into a Cold War.
Except it’s not completely cold, because the New Republic actually sent one of its own generals—Leia Organa—to head up a covert “Resistance” in the First Order’s territory as a means of undermining their authority. Anyone familiar with Cold War history should immediately recognize the pattern of an ostensibly disinterested foreign power sponsoring a covert resistance to take down the remnants of a once-great Empire. If not, I’ll spell it out: Princess Leia is basically leading the Viet Cong.
But fortunately for the First Order, its leader, Supreme Leader Snoke, is no LBJ. Instead, like Barry Goldwater, he seems to be concerned with the question, “Why not victory?”
How to Justify What Looks Like Genocide
This brings us to the firing of Starkiller Base and General Hux’s speech preceding that event. At first blush, this speech might seem like a fascist rant, but strip away the aesthetics of General Hux’s dress and delivery, and you end up with a fairly convincing indictment of the New Republic as not merely an inefficient, bureaucratic mess incapable of protecting its own citizens, but also as a disingenuous state sponsor of terror.
In other words, the firing of Starkiller Base is anything but unprovoked. It is an attempt to cut off the head of a serpent that is killing numerous First Order troops and leading to the deaths of hundreds of First Order-governed civilians all the time.
Ah, but I hear the cries of complaint: The First Order kills its own civilians! Look at the first scene in the movie! Sorry, but no. While the acts of the First Order in the film’s opening scene—where the ominous Captain Phasma massacres an entire village at the order of Kylo Ren—are undoubtedly brutal, they are also completely justified once you realize a few facts.
First of all, there’s no evidence that the village in question was ever governed by the First Order. In fact, given that many residents of that village begin firing on First Order troops the instant they land and that they are harboring an old friend of the Resistance’s leader, the opposite seems to be true. In a world where terrorists use living shields and there’s no guarantee that one of them might not be hiding among the survivors of the assault, taking the entire village captive would be the minimum required course.
Except that in the process of holding these beings, a major secret is revealed: Luke Skywalker, the Resistance’s equivalent of a Messiah, is still alive. Imagine someone revealing that Muhammad had been reincarnated in ISIS-occupied territory, and you have an idea of the scale of this bit of intelligence. It’s a potential rallying point for every even remotely Resistance-sympathetic citizen of the First Order.
It’s also the last thing you need someone revealing to any other captives the First Order might have. Unlike the Empire, their resources are pretty limited, and a prison riot could do real damage, especially considering that even the Empire couldn’t keep smugglers and Wookies from freeing high-value prisoners. What can you do in this situation but kill anyone who might let this kind of information out?
Han Solo, Deadbeat Dad
Speaking of smugglers and Wookies, let’s talk about the death of Han Solo. I refuse to call it murder, because “The Force Awakens” establishes Solo as one of the more despicable characters in fiction.
Let me count the ways: Number one, he is a deadbeat parent by every definition of the term. He outsources the raising of his own son to his brother-in-law, a religious extremist who trains child soldiers. Picture a daycare run by Joseph Kony and you have some idea of what the young Ben Solo (later Kylo Ren) was abandoned to endure.
Not only that, but he’s a terrible husband, as he runs away from his wife Leia the instant their son’s defective parenting gets exposed. This is the kind of behavior you expect from Maury Povich guests, not heroic soldiers.
But, and this is the absolute crowning problem, Han Solo goes back to being a smuggler. And not just any smuggler. We’re not talking about someone who’s committing a victimless crime. We see in vivid detail just what Han Solo smuggles in “The Force Awakens,” and what he smuggles are vicious, tentacle monstrosities called Rathtars, just one of which is apparently responsible for a fabled massacre. And who does he sell these monsters to? Criminals. That’s right. Han Solo smuggles weapons of mass destruction to criminals. What a swell guy.
In view of this, any sane government who caught this man would have him put to death for crimes against humanity (or whatever you’d call it in a universe populated by several sentient species). The fact that his son Ben, a.k.a. Kylo, lets him have a moment of peace and reconciliation before plunging a lightsaber through his chest shows almost saintly magnanimity.
The First Order Is Merciful to Criminals
Nor is Solo the only criminal to whom the First Order shows an unbelievable degree of mercy. To begin with, the deserter calling himself Finn (aka FN-2187), who displays open insubordination toward his commander during his first scene onscreen, gets let off not with torture or even with 50 push-ups, but merely with a light recommendation for reconditioning by his commanding officer.
In other words, the First Order treats its soldiers as such valuable assets that it literally tries to talk disobedient soldiers around rather than lock them up, or do anything far less humane regimes do. This ends up being a policy failure, seeing as FN-2187 steals their most valuable asset, deserts, and gets millions of First Order soldiers blown up by revealing the structural weaknesses of Starkiller Base, thus leading to the destruction of yet another inhabited planet.
More than that, the rogue scavenger Rey, whose Force sensitivity, unremitting hostility, and clear brainwashing by the Resistance would mark her as a clear threat, instead merely gets restrained, and even offered amnesty for her crimes by Kylo Ren. Even when Rey has spent several minutes trying to kill him, Ren tries to reason with her and offers her the prospect of training with him under the watchful eye of Supreme Leader Snoke. This is humane to a fault. In fact, it is a fault, since Rey nearly succeeds in killing Ren for his trouble.
In fact, the only criminal who gets treated even remotely the way a criminal and terrorist should get treated is the Resistance fighter pilot Poe Dameron, who gets subjected to enhanced interrogation to discover the location of vital intelligence assets—namely, the map to Luke Skywalker (one wonders if a First Order equivalent of “Zero Dark Thirty” is in the offing).
So efficient is Kylo Ren as an interrogator that even Dameron is left in sufficiently good physical and mental condition to walk out of his cell and then pilot a TIE fighter out of the First Order’s headquarters. Your average Guantanamo Bay interrogator would probably be envious of someone who was that humane and efficient, even if he might criticize the First Order’s security protocols.
Terrorists Versus Enlightened Society
In other words, the battle in “Star Wars: Episode VII” is morally crystal clear. On one side, you have an unscrupulous terrorist organization led by the sister of a religious terrorist responsible for the deaths of millions of people and the training of child soldiers, which allies with weapons smugglers and allows its operatives to hide among civilians and use them as shields in its operations.
On the other, you have a humane, fairly enlightened militarized society defending itself against said terrorists and their state sponsors in the most efficient way they can, given their acquisition of a massive power asymmetry.
The First Order, like the Empire before them, deserves to rule the galaxy. One only hopes that the Skywalker twins’ reign of terror will be reversed, and that Kylo Ren—like the descendants of Josef Stalin—will be able to rest easy about the guilt of his connection to such fanatical, barbaric criminals.
For the time being, I mourn the deaths of the millions slaughtered in the attack on Starkiller Base, and the lost opportunity to eradicate the leadership of a dangerous terrorist threat in “The Force Awakens.” Rather like the next president, Supreme Leader Snoke would do well to become the sort who does not lead from behind.