Star Wars and the American Empire

by | May 24, 2005 | Scott Horton's Articles

by Scott Horton May 24, 2005

[Spoiler warning: This article gives away important details about the new movie.]

‘For a thousand generations, the Jedi Knights were the guardians of peace and justice in the Old Republic. Before the Dark Times. Before the Empire.’
Ben Kenobi

‘This is how liberty dies: with thundering applause.’
— Senator Padme Amidala

Many of us grew up on Star Wars, and some of us, as 10-year-olds on rainy Saturday afternoons, even spent time trying to piece together the story before the story. What were the Clone Wars? How did the Old Republic become the Empire? How could the emperor have defeated what were presumably thousands of Jedi and taken over the galaxy?

Now we know the answer: Deception. Just like in the real world.

Before the movie was even released, people began making the connection between the war on terror and Vader’s declaration near the end of Revenge of the Sith, ‘You are either with me — or you are my enemy.’ Lucas, however, when asked if this was a reference to the War on Terror, said at the Cannes film festival, ‘When I wrote it, [the current war in] Iraq didn’t exist. We were just funding Saddam Hussein, giving him weapons of mass destruction; we didn’t think of him as an enemy at that point. We were going after Iran, using [Saddam] as our surrogate — just as we were doing in Vietnam. This really came out of the Vietnam era — and the parallels between what we did in Vietnam and what we’re doing in Iraq now are unbelievable.’

Some neocons have expressed their dismay that the new Star Wars movie seems so antiwar, saying it was perhaps even rewritten as an anti-Bush diatribe. This cold desperation comes as no surprise, but it also strengthens my appreciation of Lucas’ decision to make episodes IV, V, and VI before I, II, and the now-completed III. This establishes first the generally agreeable premise that it’s right to overthrow oppressive government, before bringing into focus something more discomforting — that the corrupt tyranny referred to is our own. The story being told this week was written over 30 years ago, as Lucas has explained. Star Wars ‘was really about the Vietnam War, and that was the period where Nixon was trying to run for a [second] term, which got me to thinking historically about how do democracies get turned into dictatorships? Because the democracies aren’t overthrown; they’re given away.’

I suppose that explains why Supreme Chancellor Palpatine works out of an oval office, and why his aide looks so much like Henry Kissinger.

According to the Chicago Tribune,

‘Lucas said he wrote ”¦ the screenplay’s ”¦ politically pointed elements before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the subsequent war on terror. So when Palpatine announces that he intends to remain at war until a certain General Grievous is captured, no parallels to the hunt for Osama bin Laden or Saddam Hussein were intended.

‘‘First of all we never thought of Bush ever becoming president,’ Star Wars producer Rick McCallum said, ‘or then 9/11, the PATRIOT Act, war, weapons of mass destruction. Then suddenly you realize, ‘Oh, my God, there’s something happening that looks like we’re almost prescient.’’

In other words, it is not George Lucas’ fault that George W. Bush is acting just like the evil Sith Lords of the story, destroying forever what was once a limited republic in the name of protecting it. Perhaps Bush is a Star Wars fan, and truly believing that power denied is power wasted, he is deliberately following the example of the Sith.

There can be no doubt that the Star Wars saga is about humanity’s, especially America’s, history and future. The historical analogies clearly go much further than just Vietnam and Iraq. In the old movies, there were references to various episodes in American history. For example, the battle on the ice planet Hoth alludes to the long winter at Valley Forge during the American Revolution. Throughout episodes IV, V, and VI, the leaders of the Rebel Alliance are all portrayed by American actors (or are aliens in rubber masks), while the Empire’s forces are all played by Brits. And as Lucas has said, the Ewoks of Return of the Jedi represent the Vietnamese who, though lacking industry and technology, help to bring the Empire to its knees.

Ludwig von Mises Institute scholar Mark Thornton has written a few articles on the politics of the Star Wars prequels, so I invited him on my radio show Saturday May 14 to talk about the historical references [stream] [download]. As Thornton has written, Episode I: The Phantom Menace draws heavily on the history of British domination of India and Jamaica in the 19th century. (Jar Jar Binks isn’t Stepin Fetchit, just a terribly annoying depiction of an outcast Rastaman who makes good.) The rise of the Evil Galactic Empire begins with a blockade by Lucas’ version of the British East India Company, the Galactic Trade Federation. Acting on an official ‘franchise’ from the central government, the viceroy of the Trade Federation is frustrated in his attempts to collect taxes from the planet of Naboo. At the instruction of a cloaked Sith lord named Darth Sidious — who turns out to be Augustus Palpatine, Naboo’s representative to the Galactic Senate — the Trade Federation invades and occupies the planet.

Using the crisis he created as an excuse, Palpatine then tricks the trusting young queen of Naboo into calling for a vote of no-confidence in the current supreme chancellor of the Galactic Republic. Explaining to her that the Senate has become corrupt and that the current chancellor has been weakened by accusations of corruption, he tells her that their best option is to push for his replacement by a strong chief executive who can ‘get things done.’ Palpatine, of course, framed up the old supreme chancellor, and is elected the new one. ‘I feel confident that our situation will create a strong sympathy vote for us,’ he cheerfully reports to the queen before the vote.

One of the movie’s main points seems lost on many reviewers. The story is not only about each man’s ability to choose good or evil, or how wars destroy limited republics and empires alike; it is also about how the subtle manipulation of power behind the scenes helps make it all possible. By fooling all of the various characters into thinking they are doing the right thing, or at least acting in their own interests, Darth Sidious (AKA Palpatine) implements the final phase of the Sith Lords’ long-term plan to take revenge on the Jedi and total power for themselves.

Between the events of The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, a decade goes by in which Palpatine recruits as his apprentice a former Jedi master named Count Dooku — taken from doku, a Buddhist term meaning to govern or poison — to prepare the galaxy for a civil war. Dooku first hires the bounty hunter Jango Fett to be the genetic basis for the clone army of the Republic. In the time it takes them to reach fighting age (10 years, as they are engineered to age twice as fast as regular folks), he goes off and creates a separatist movement of the planets allied with mercantilist groups who have fallen into disfavor with the central government, the Confederacy of Independent Systems. He also creates an army of droids for them.

Though some have criticized Lucas for being anticapitalist in his portrayal of the commercial interests in Attack of the Clones, the names of these organizations — Trade Federation, Commerce Guild, Corporate Alliance and Banking Clan — suggest that they are greedy and corrupt crony capitalists, not free marketeers.

Because antiwar factions in the Senate refuse to allow the creation of a standing army unless they are attacked, Darth Sidious arranges events so that the separatists are seen as the aggressors, and manipulates the dumbest character of the new movies, Jar Jar Binks, into proposing to the Senate that he be granted emergency powers over the galaxy. He then announces the creation of a ‘Grand Army of the Republic’ to ‘counter the increasing threats of the separatists.’ The Jedi then lead the massive clone army into battle across the galaxy to ‘save’ the Republic. These clones, of course, become the Imperial Stormtroopers of the later chapters.

The name ‘Grand Army of the Republic’ is a direct reference to the Union Army during America’s war over secession. For many, that war marked a major shift in their conception of the country — from one in which a limited central government presided over a union of ultimately sovereign states toward one in which a strong central government exercised ultimate authority over these now weakened and dependent states. Though Lincoln didn’t control the leadership of the Confederacy, goading them into firing the first shots at Fort Sumter certainly provided the same sort of pretext for his dirty work.

By the time of Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, a tremendous amount of power has been concentrated in the hands of the supreme chancellor, and the Jedi Knights have used up the good will of the people of the galaxy with all the destruction caused by the Clone Wars, making it simple to set them up as responsible for all the galaxy’s problems. In a final act of treachery, Palpatine, in a magnificent, simultaneous, galaxy-wide Night of the Long Knives, issues Order 66 to the clone armies, ordering them to slay their Jedi generals. (It is hard to see the Jedi as the S.A. Perhaps this is borrowed from the Pope’s betrayal of the Knights Templar in 1307?) Once safe in office, Darth Sidious declares himself emperor for life and introduces his ‘New Order’ to roaring ovations in the Senate. Lucas says this scene of the final surrender of liberty to power was inspired by the dictatorships of Augustus Caesar, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Adolph Hitler: ‘It’s not the first time a politician has created a war to try to stay in office.’ Indeed it isn’t the first time. The American government regularly lies us into wars and ‘minor’ interventions, and each one has cost individual liberty and helped to destroy the separation of powers formerly ingrained in the Constitution.

It was the aggression of American soldiers that started the war against Mexico, contrary to the U.S. government’s claims at the time. The accidental destruction of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor in 1898 led to a war against Spain that would become the first in a continuous series of violent overseas missions masquerading as liberations, in this case Cuba’s. Darth Wilson had his ‘surprise attack’ on the Lusitania and the Zimmerman telegram’s fanciful promise of German help for a Mexican invasion of the Southwest as his pretext. FDR deliberately provoked Japan and had the commanders at Pearl Harbor cut out of the intelligence loop in order to precipitate the attack that led to American participation in the greatest catastrophe in history, and our inheritance of all the former Western empires as our own. In order to justify the continued existence of our grand army and its imperial domain, every president between Truman and Bush Sr. lied like the Sith about the threat posed by the U.S.S.R. in order to to divide the world in thirds: one for them, two for us. The American people were told that ‘we have to accept Big Government for the duration,’ of the emergency, and that ‘a totalitarian bureaucracy within our shores,’ was absolutely necessary, but only temporarily. In the meantime, the government lied us into more violent conflicts than one could possibly recite. Since the Cold War ended, we have had 16 years’ worth of consolidation of American police power at home and abroad under every pretext from drugs to terror to nonproliferation — and each consolidation has brought about new restrictions of liberty. One may be justified to wonder whether what are at this point little but the forms of our old republic can survive the onslaught.

Now that Revenge of the Sith is out and the circle is complete, and we know how the Old Republic becomes the Empire and how it is destroyed in the end, it becomes apparent that the prophecy that Anakin Skywalker would destroy the Sith and bring the Force back into balance was true; it just turns out that he and the galaxy were tricked into going through a period of total statism before getting back to liberty. Let us hope that we can learn a little from the history played upon by Lucas in his movies and restore our Old Republic — before it is truly an evil empire that can only be destroyed by more war.

(If you got this far, and still want to hear me say most of this same stuff again, click here.)

Listen to The Scott Horton Show