STAR WARS RETURNS today with its fifth installment, Attack of the Clones. There will be talk of the Force and the Dark Side and the epic morality of George Lucas's series. But the truth is that from the beginning, Lucas confused the good guys with the bad. The deep lesson of Star Wars is that the Empire is good.
It's a difficult leap to make--embracing Darth Vader and the Emperor over the plucky and attractive Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia--but a careful examination of the facts, sorted apart from Lucas's off-the-shelf moral cues, makes a quite convincing case.
First, an aside: For the sake of this discussion, I've considered only the history gleaned from the actual Star Wars films, not the Expanded Universe. If you know what the Expanded Universe is and want to argue that no discussion of Star Wars can be complete without considering material outside the canon, that's fine. However, it's always been my view that the comic books and novels largely serve to clean up Lucas's narrative and philosophical messes. Therefore, discussions of intrinsic intent must necessarily revolve around the movies alone. You may disagree, but please don't e-mail me about it.
If you don't know what the Expanded Universe is, well, uh, neither do I.
I. The Problems with the Galactic Republic
At the beginning of the Star Wars saga, the known universe is governed by the Galactic Republic. The Republic is controlled by a Senate, which is, in turn, run by an elected chancellor who's in charge of procedure, but has little real power.
Scores of thousands of planets are represented in the Galactic Senate, and as we first encounter it, it is sclerotic and ineffectual. The Republic has grown over many millennia to the point where there are so many factions and disparate interests, that it is simply too big to be governable. Even the Republic's staunchest supporters recognize this failing: In The Phantom Menace, Queen Amidala admits, "It is clear to me now that the Republic no longer functions." In Attack of the Clones, young Anakin Skywalker observes that it simply "doesn't work."
The Senate moves so slowly that it is powerless to stop aggression between member states. In The Phantom Menace a supra-planetary alliance, the Trade Federation (think of it as OPEC to the Galactic Republic's United Nations), invades a planet and all the Senate can agree to do is call for an investigation.
Like the United Nations, the Republic has no armed forces of its own, but instead relies on a group of warriors, the Jedi knights, to "keep the peace." The Jedi, while autonomous, often work in tandem with the Senate, trying to smooth over quarrels and avoid conflicts. But the Jedi number only in the thousands--they cannot protect everyone.
What's more, it's not clear that they should be "protecting" anyone. The Jedi are Lucas's great heroes, full of Zen wisdom and righteous power. They encourage people to "use the Force"--the mystical energy which is the source of their power--but the truth, revealed in The Phantom Menace, is that the Force isn't available to the rabble. The Force comes from midi-chlorians, tiny symbiotic organisms in people's blood, like mitochondria. The Force, it turns out, is an inherited, genetic trait. If you don't have the blood, you don't get the Force. Which makes the Jedi not a democratic militia, but a royalist Swiss guard.
And an arrogant royalist Swiss guard, at that. With one or two notable exceptions, the Jedi we meet in Star Wars are full of themselves. They ignore the counsel of others (often with terrible consequences), and seem honestly to believe that they are at the center of the universe. When the chief Jedi record-keeper is asked in Attack of the Clones about a planet she has never heard of, she replies that if it's not in the Jedi archives, it doesn't exist. (The planet in question does exist, again, with terrible consequences.)
In Attack of the Clones, a mysterious figure, Count Dooku, leads a separatist movement of planets that want to secede from the Republic. Dooku promises these confederates smaller government, unlimited free trade, and an "absolute commitment to capitalism." Dooku's motives are suspect--it's not clear whether or not he believes in these causes. However, there's no reason to doubt the motives of the other separatists--they seem genuinely to want to make a fresh start with a government that isn't bloated and dysfunctional.
The Republic, of course, is eager to quash these separatists, but they never make a compelling case--or any case, for that matter--as to why, if they are such a freedom-loving regime, these planets should not be allowed to check out of the Republic and take control of their own destinies.
II. The Empire
We do not yet know the exact how's and why's, but we do know this: At some point between the end of Episode II and the beginning of Episode IV, the Republic is replaced by an Empire. The first hint comes in Attack of the Clones, when the Senate's Chancellor Palpatine is granted emergency powers to deal with the separatists. It spoils very little to tell you that Palpatine eventually becomes the Emperor. For a time, he keeps the Senate in place, functioning as a rubber-stamp, much like the Roman imperial senate, but a few minutes into Episode IV, we are informed that the he has dissolved the Senate, and that "the last remnants of the Old Republic have been swept away."
Lucas wants the Empire to stand for evil, so he tells us that the Emperor and Darth Vader have gone over to the Dark Side and dresses them in black.
But look closer. When Palpatine is still a senator, he says, "The Republic is not what it once was. The Senate is full of greedy, squabbling delegates. There is no interest in the common good." At one point he laments that "the bureaucrats are in charge now."
Palpatine believes that the political order must be manipulated to produce peace and stability. When he mutters, "There is no civility, there is only politics," we see that at heart, he's an esoteric Straussian.
Make no mistake, as emperor, Palpatine is a dictator--but a relatively benign one, like Pinochet. It's a dictatorship people can do business with. They collect taxes and patrol the skies. They try to stop organized crime (in the form of the smuggling rings run by the Hutts). The Empire has virtually no effect on the daily life of the average, law-abiding citizen.
Also, unlike the divine-right Jedi, the Empire is a meritocracy. The Empire runs academies throughout the galaxy (Han Solo begins his career at an Imperial academy), and those who show promise are promoted, often rapidly. In The Empire Strikes Back Captain Piett is quickly promoted to admiral when his predecessor falls down on the job.
And while it's a small point, the Empire's manners and decorum speak well of it. When Darth Vader is forced to employ bounty hunters to track down Han Solo, he refuses to address them by name. Even Boba Fett, the greatest of all trackers, is referred to icily as "bounty hunter." And yet Fett understands the protocol. When he captures Solo, he calls him "Captain Solo." (Whether this is in deference to Han's former rank in the Imperial starfleet, or simply because Han owns and pilots his own ship, we don't know. I suspect it's the former.)
But the most compelling evidence that the Empire isn't evil comes in The Empire Strikes Back when Darth Vader is battling Luke Skywalker. After an exhausting fight, Vader is poised to finish Luke off, but he stays his hand. He tries to convert Luke to the Dark Side with this simple plea: "There is no escape. Don't make me destroy you. . . . Join me, and I will complete your training. With our combined strength, we can end this destructive conflict and bring order to the galaxy." It is here we find the real controlling impulse for the Dark Side and the Empire. The Empire doesn't want slaves or destruction or "evil." It wants order.
None of which is to say that the Empire isn't sometimes brutal. In Episode IV, Imperial stormtroopers kill Luke's aunt and uncle and Grand Moff Tarkin orders the destruction of an entire planet, Alderaan. But viewed in context, these acts are less brutal than they initially appear. Poor Aunt Beru and Uncle Owen reach a grisly end, but only after they aid the rebellion by hiding Luke and harboring two fugitive droids. They aren't given due process, but they are traitors.
The destruction of Alderaan is often cited as ipso facto proof of the Empire's "evilness" because it seems like mass murder--planeticide, even. As Tarkin prepares to fire the Death Star, Princess Leia implores him to spare the planet, saying, "Alderaan is peaceful. We have no weapons." Her plea is important, if true.
But the audience has no reason to believe that Leia is telling the truth. In Episode IV, every bit of information she gives the Empire is willfully untrue. In the opening, she tells Darth Vader that she is on a diplomatic mission of mercy, when in fact she is on a spy mission, trying to deliver schematics of the Death Star to the Rebel Alliance. When asked where the Alliance is headquartered, she lies again.
Leia's lies are perfectly defensible--she thinks she's serving the greater good--but they make her wholly unreliable on the question of whether or not Alderaan really is peaceful and defenseless. If anything, since Leia is a high-ranking member of the rebellion and the princess of Alderaan, it would be reasonable to suspect that Alderaan is a front for Rebel activity or at least home to many more spies and insurgents like Leia.
Whatever the case, the important thing to recognize is that the Empire is not committing random acts of terror. It is engaged in a fight for the survival of its regime against a violent group of rebels who are committed to its destruction.
III. After the Rebellion
As we all know from the final Star Wars installment, Return of the Jedi, the rebellion is eventually successful. The Emperor is assassinated, Darth Vader abdicates his post and dies, the central governing apparatus of the Empire is destroyed in a spectacular space battle, and the rebels rejoice with their small, annoying Ewok friends. But what happens next?
(There is a raft of literature on this point, but, as I said at the beginning, I'm going to ignore it because it doesn't speak to Lucas's original intent.)
In Episode IV, after Grand Moff Tarkin announces that the Imperial Senate has been abolished, he's asked how the Emperor can possibly hope to keep control of the galaxy. "The regional governors now have direct control over territories," he says. "Fear will keep the local systems in line."
So under Imperial rule, a large group of regional potentates, each with access to a sizable army and star destroyers, runs local affairs. These governors owe their fealty to the Emperor. And once the Emperor is dead, the galaxy will be plunged into chaos.
In all of the time we spend observing the Rebel Alliance, we never hear of their governing strategy or their plans for a post-Imperial universe. All we see are plots and fighting. Their victory over the Empire doesn't liberate the galaxy--it turns the galaxy into Somalia writ large: dominated by local warlords who are answerable to no one.
Which makes the rebels--Lucas's heroes--an unimpressive crew of anarchic royals who wreck the galaxy so that Princess Leia can have her tiara back.
I'll take the Empire.
Jonathan V. Last is online editor of The Weekly Standard.