Readers beware—the following article contains spoilers for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
By Thomas J. Shattuck*
(FPRI) — Glorifying resistance efforts in film and programs the audience to root for the underdog. A traditional cliché, but what happens when the underdog uses extreme tactics? What happens when the United States and its actions could be perceived as no different from the Galactic Empire of Star Wars fame? Making these connections brings to light hard truths. It could very well be that no matter what a regime does, the resistance will never completely be destroyed. It may disappear for a while, but it always comes back in another form, unless and until a mutually agreeable political solution can be found. The lessons from the greater Star Wars universe can teach the public a thing or two about properly dealing with and handling such groups, but may challenge some of the audience’s preconceived notions about good vs. evil in the process.
Take, for example, the recently released Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. What Rogue One does better than any of the other Star Wars films is it expands the Rebellion beyond a core group of characters, which allows the film to wrestle with some fundamental political questions: What does it mean to resist? What is more important: defeating an oppressive regime at all costs or maintaining some semblance of humanity? What actions can appropriately be called resistance—survival, providing support or intel, active engagement, or something else? Because various characters provide different answers to these questions by resisting in ways they deem proper, viewers are left to decide for themselves which form of resistance most deserves the name. However, their actions may have troubling similarities to ISIS, al Qaeda, and other real insurgencies, making viewers uncomfortable about who they are truly rooting for.
The Resistance Will Not Be Intimidated
On one end of the spectrum in Rogue One is Saw Gerrera, leader of an extremist faction of the Rebellion known as the Partisans. Gerrera is so mistrustful of the “mainstream” Rebellion that its leaders had to track down someone he cared about—the main character Jyn Erso—in order to make contact with him. He even questions her motives once they do meet, demonstrating just how much of a toll the quest for freedom has taken on his psyche. The Partisans’ tactics go beyond anything the Rebellion had been willing to do in order to defeat the Empire. At one point in the film, they gun down a squadron of Stormtroopers in the midst of a crowded neighborhood, showing no hesitation at killing innocent civilians in the process.
The Partisans’ insurgent tactics only deepen the cycle of violence and retribution. The attack on the Stormtroopers inspires the Empire to set an example for the galaxy by testing the power of the Death Star on the Holy City on Jedha. The test obliterates the city and everyone in it. Perhaps that is precisely the reaction the Partisans may have wanted, but the human and cultural toll is so extreme as to make even the most jaded viewer gasp.
Is this form of rebellion politically useful or morally acceptable? The question is profound and the answers disturbing. Killing for the sake killing will not bring down the Empire, but only provoke it and encourage the Empire to strike back. Gerrera and his group became so radicalized that they lost the support of the Rebellion and sight of the true mission. They became the embodiment of Nietzsche’s warning: “whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.”
Now, consider Saw Gerrera and his Partisans in the context of today’s Middle East: a leader and group so extreme that one resistance group disavows it. Sound familiar? In 2014, al Qaeda disavowed the Islamic State for its actions in Syria. They were two organizations seemingly fighting for the same cause: to topple Bashar al-Assad as the ruler of the country. When al Qaeda announced the schism, a spokesperson for the State Department said, “The fact to remember here is that both ISIS and [al Qaeda] are designated terrorist organizations. . . . Yes, they’ve been fighting each other for months, but that doesn’t change our view of both of those groups.”
Would anyone expect the Empire to acknowledge and respect the fact that the Partisans are more extreme and violent than the Rebellion? No—both the United States and the Empire would—and do—continue to fight against both of them because they are hostile organizations. The Partisans did disrupt a peaceful neighborhood when it ambushed a squadron of Stormtroopers just as the Rebellion was trying to re-connect and make contact with Gerrera. Al Qaeda and ISIS are battling against pro-Assad forces, while also killing innocent civilians across the region. Even though Saw Gerrera is a compelling character, audience members must think of the implications of cheering for him and his group in their fight against the Empire.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Rebel Alliance works from within the existing political order to resist the Empire. At one point, Mon Mothma, leader of the Rebellion, even says that she will report the Empire’s Death Star and its destructive force back to the Imperial Senate, the largely powerless legislative body governing the galaxy. For much of the film, though, the Rebellion does not act at all; it only works to receive pertinent intel to score political points. Yet by the end of Rogue One, it is understood that Empire cannot be dealt with politically through the Senate, and must be engaged militarily.
Insurgent efforts in Iraq starting in 2003 offer a suitable comparison to the Rebellion’s strategy. After the United States toppled Saddam Hussein, certain groups of Sunnis began a countrywide effort to end the foreign occupation. By harassing U.S. and coalition forces who were attempting to stabilize the country, the insurgents hoped that they would make the opportunity cost of staying in Iraq too high for the occupiers. Slow progress, high casualties, and headline grabbing attacks diminished public opinion and the will of the U.S. government to stay in the country. Also like the Rebellion, ISIS insurgents in Iraq operate in a similar manner today: blend in with civilians, escalate attacks, and raise the costs of occupation.
Now that we can view Rogue One through the lens of reality, we are left with fundamental questions about the purpose of resistance and the meaning of success. If minor engagements against the Empire cause it to destroy entire cities and planets with the Death Star, is terror the proper way to fight? Does potential freedom justify the deaths of thousands, possibly millions, of people? Will they go too far as Saw Gerrera’s Partisans did and be ostracized from the galaxy that they are trying to free? Reality offers a plethora of examples to contextualize the damage that resistance groups cause to civilians, so think before answering.
The Dark Side of Hope
Though Rogue One takes places a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, it depicts the difficult moral choices presented by choosing resistance against a seemingly undefeatable opponent. The odds are stacked against them, and in the end, it may turn out that resistance is futile. But no matter the galaxy, setting, or opponent, one thing is clear: rebellions require hope. Whether or not someone believes or sees that hope—or whatever replaces hope—will determine how they resist.
At the Rebellion’s lowest point in Rogue One, just as the true power of the Death Star is revealed, the thesis of the Star Wars series is espoused: rebellions are built on hope. No matter what the Rebellion did to undermine the Empire, it could not do it without hope—hope for a future free from tyranny and the return of democracy to the galaxy. Without hope, the Rebellion would not have new recruits or backers. Hope is what keeps them moving forward no matter the odds or costs. Hope gives them only one choice: to fight. Members are willing to participate in daring escapades and potentially die for the cause because their sacrifices—no matter how small—may help turn the tide in the Rebellion’s favor. A death could become a rallying cry; a successful mission could lead to the destruction of a game-changing weapon; an escape could undermine the authority of the Empire. Saw Gerrera’s last words before dying were “Save the Rebellion! Save the dream!” As radical as he was, he understood the importance of freedom as a motivator for the oppressed.
As painful as it is to accept, this rallying cry and these justifications for joining make just as much sense in the context of terrorism and insurgency as it does in Star Wars. While the fictional groups in the film use hope as motivation, terrorists and insurgent groups bastardize and twist it into something else: salvation in the next life, liberation of a country, or destruction of oppressive regimes. This may take the form of the promised 72 virgins, the creation of the caliphate, or even the complete destruction of the West, any of which may be enough to motivate a young jihadi.
I’ve Got a Bad Feeling About This
Star Wars obviously sets the audience up to root for the downtrodden and oppressed Rebellion over the Galactic Empire, and rightly so. It is difficult to cheer for regimes that murder innocents in the streets, colonize planetary systems, and blow up entire cities or planets. Looking at the story through a different lens, however, can raise troubling questions, and perhaps help the public to understand why frustrated rebels decide to join ISIS or al Qaeda and carry out such brutal attacks. Indeed, the Empire thought that it was truly bringing peace and stability to the galaxy, while the Rebellion viewed that same alleged peace and stability as oppression and terror.
Americans and Westerners in general resent comparisons to the Galactic Empire. We cannot be compared to an evil regime that decimates populations and planets, but we are. These comparisons – whether or not you deem them unfair or unwarranted – should make you feel uncomfortable. That is the point. This is how some people, groups, and countries characterize the U.S. It does not matter how you feel because these perceptions exist; they do not have to be respected, but they must be acknowledged. A 2002 “letter to America” by Osama bin Laden paints the U.S. in an unflattering light. He and his followers truly believe that the U.S. operates as an oppressive regime, killing innocent civilians and displacing others. From a Western perspective, dictators like Assad or Hussein may better fit the mold of the Galactic Empire, but both interpretations can be correct and incorrect at the same time, no matter how uncomfortable that makes the audience.
More important than finger pointing over who is the Rebellion and who is the Empire is understanding how non-state actors perceive the U.S. and how those actors are motivated. Understanding these perceptions and motivations could help the U.S. operate more effectively in conflict zones and deter others from taking up a hostile cause against us and our allies. We must realize that for our enemies, resistance is seen as a new hope, even though we are programmed to see it as a phantom menace.
About the author:
*Thomas J. Shattuck is FPRI’s Assistant Editor and a Research Associate in the Program on National Security.
This article was published by FPRI.