Freedom Fighters or Terrorists: The Rebel Alliance
Behind the spectacle, sacrifice and a swelling score by John Williams himself, there's something disturbing about Rogue One. For the first time in the canon Star Wars cinematic universe, one is confronted with the troubling reality that the Rebels are the bad guys.
This is not to say that the Empire are the good guys either—I’m not some edgy, right-wing hipster. However, it suffices to say that the conduct of the Rebel Alliance, given the geopolitical context of the Galactic Civil War, necessitates a reevaluation of the narrative. What follows is spoiler filled, so be warned.
An Intergalactic Hegemon
In the spirit of international, or rather intergalactic, relations analysis, it is critical to understand the actors in a Galaxy far, far away. Throughout the canon Star Wars saga, we see only a few political actors. In the original trilogy, there is only the hegemonic, unitary state of the Galactic Empire, hounded by a Rebel Alliance centered in the Outer Rim. The “evil” empire built the Death Star to be the ultimate deterrent, to rule the galaxy through fear of their ultimate, planet killing power. It was up to the noble rebels to destroy that doomsday device and eventually dismantle the tyrannical empire.
However, let’s examine the facts, not the narrative. We know this from the original films: there is a galaxy spanning empire, composed of thousands, if not millions, of planets and trillions of civilians. This Empire is a hegemonic actor that claims to bring peace and security to an unruly galaxy. All instances of their oppression and heavy-handedness generally take place in the “Outer Rim,” the aptly named, underdeveloped and largely lawless periphery of the Galaxy. Furthermore, their acts of oppression are usually talked about and when seen, are filtered through a rebel’s lens. It has been noted before that the Empire eerily resembles the United States and other hegemonic actors that try to maintain order in an unruly international system.
While others have focused on the better angels of the imperial nature, I will focus on the demons of the rebellious character. While the fresh faced and starry eyed rebels of the original trilogy may seem bloodless, Rogue One breathes new life into the troubling acts of the Rebel Alliance. Take, for example, the introduction of the one of the protagonists of the film, Captain Cassian Andor.
One Man's Freedom Fighter...
Cassian is introduced through a raucous meeting with a compromised imperial informant. When patrolling Stormtroopers arrive to investigate their clearly suspicious actions, instead of talking his way out of the situation or presenting false papers, he kills the troopers. His informant, after seeing this cold-blooded and violent display, is immediately incensed. Cassian’s answer? To execute his informant and escape. This, by the way, is the opening conduct of one of our protagonists, meant to contrast with the more radical rebels led by the militant Saw Gerrera.
When the two scrappy protagonists, Cassian and Jyn Erso, later enter the holy city of Jedha to search for the aforementioned legendary rebel, they land in the middle of a lit powder keg. There they witness an attack on an imperial patrol in the middle of a city’s streets, in which robed and masked insurgents fire upon the occupying troops with little to no regard for the civilians around them. Now, this scene may seem to be a little on the nose—the holy city of Jedha is no Jerusalem, Fallujah or Derry—but the parallels draw themselves.
Of course, these are the radical rebels. The rebels who eventually destroy the Death Star are the moderates. However, these moderate actors are no angels either. They are, by their own admonition, a band of assassins, saboteurs, and spies some of which fanatically subscribe to an ancient religion. They live on the fringe of Imperial society, acting in the shadows and their revisionist freedom fighting leads to the deaths of many.
The climactic space battle over Scarif exhibits yet another concerning act by the Rebellion. One of the most incredible scenes was the crashing of two star destroyers into each other. It is disconcerting to watch a rebel starship make a suicide run into a star destroyer in order to destroy it, its companion and the shield station below. This admittedly brilliant tactical maneuver cannot escape the dissonance of watching hundreds of imperial servicemen and women die silent, violent deaths in the cold reaches of space as the music swells. Many of these crewmen were simply doing their tour of duty, some of them using the imperial path as a way to a better life — much as what Luke Skywalker had originally wanted to do in a New Hope, by joining the Imperial Academy.
"You May Fire When Ready"
Of course, one might stop me there and say: “But what about Alderaan? Billions of innocents died!”
And I would concede that point, before mentioning that, to a galaxy spanning empire, a planet like Alderaan would be akin to a city in scale. Furthermore, to assume Alderaan is an innocent planet is a stretch. Our only evidence of their innocence comes from the obviously compromised Princess Leia. Let us not forget that her adoptive father, Bail Organa of Alderaan, is an ostensible member of the Rebel Alliance and actively hides a religious zealot from the Clone Wars, Obi-Wan Kenobi. All told, the elimination of Alderaan, from a purely military and strategic perspective, is reasonable, if heavy-handed. It is the intergalactic equivalent of a drone strike with tolerable amounts of collateral damage—only on a galactic scale. Regardless, two wrongs do not make a right: the Rebels cannot take the high ground if they engage in the killing of innocents and bystanders either.
I have one final point that damns the rebellious cause: the rise of the First Order. We know demonstrably that the results of the eventual death of the Emperor led to a power vacuum, in which the perverted and militantly fascist First Order arose. As we have seen in the Force Awakens, the New Republic is weaker and more sclerotic than its namesake and is powerless against a smaller and more fanatical First Order. Indeed, this power vacuum was filled by the worst demons of the Empire and led to the eventual multi-planetary destruction of the entirety of the New Republic. As viewers, we know the eventual result of the fall of the Empire: more pain, more suffering and more death.
No Hope For The Wicked
Furthermore, the Jedi did not return under Luke Skywalker. Instead, they are just as disparate and limited as before. Peace and order did not return under General Organa and the New Republic. Instead, more in-fighting and insurgency spawned in the Outer Rim once more, under the name of the “Resistance.” What we see in the Star Wars saga is not necessarily a story of light and dark, but one of cyclical violence in the most unfortunate parts of society.
Now, all of this could still be construed as Imperial apologism. The sins of the Empire don’t wash out those of the Rebel Alliance, however. The Empire ruled with an iron fist, but it at least was a secular meritocracy which provided for the basic rights of its law-abiding and taxpaying citizens. Jyn’s answer to the question of standing to “see the Imperial flag reign across the galaxy” is fitting: “It’s not a problem, as long as you don’t look up.” Contrast this with the minuscule Rebel Alliance that seeks to overturn the Empire through targeted assassinations, sabotage and unrestrained violence. Judgment of supreme executive authority should not come from the mandate of a tiny minority group of violent, religious extremists and political partisans, no matter how well-intentioned they may be.
With that being said, it is sickening to me, as someone who believes in individual liberty and freedom from tyranny, but the grim reality of the Star Wars universe paints a different picture. The rebels have a great cause, but the grand tragedy is their utter failure to realize it. As the characters in the movie said many times, rebellions are built on hope. Lasting peace and stability are not.
The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of other Arbitror contributors or the views of Arbitror itself.
Photo: “Stormtrooper,” Originally taken by Johnny Silvercloud with a CC license. Use of this photo does not indicate an endorsement from its creator.