I want to say up front what this piece is and what it isn’t. I think it’s about time we had a conversation about how war crimes are depicted in Star Wars, and why it’s worth talking about. I don’t plan on making this a listicle of war crimes and I don’t intend to make this piece inaccessible or hyper-technical, either. I think it should be the opposite. Star Wars is, among other things, a fairy tale with a strong moral element: there are heroes and there are villains. It includes political commentary based on real history and real life: most obviously with the fall of the Republic and rise of the Empire. As part of that framework, I think it’s very important how certain acts of war are portrayed in Star Wars – especially when those acts are performed by heroes rather than villains.
I first started thinking about this idea at a convention a few years back, when a Star Wars creative mentioned to another creative that “you know, technically Obi-Wan’s fake surrender in The Clone Wars is a war crime.” I don’t know how that person felt about it, but that comment stuck with me because it would be so easy to read it as an amusing bit of trivia. Oh, that dastardly Obi-Wan, committing war crimes. When several years later, the final arc of the revived Clone Wars made a call-back to the false surrender by having Anakin pull the same stunt, I actually needed to stop and think about that for a while. At this point, I am sure the people behind Star Wars know that false surrender – also known as perfidy – is a war crime. It’s possible they may not have known the first time (I certainly didn’t, since I hadn’t studied the law of war yet in 2008), but they decided a callback was important enough that it had to happen again. Now, maybe it was on purpose – maybe Anakin and Obi-Wan were meant to be acting in morally-questionable ways during wartime as part of the portrayal of the Jedi and Republic in decline. But I hardly think so, because the show doesn’t communicate at all that there’s anything wrong with what Anakin and Obi-Wan did with their false-surrender gambits.
This bothered me. A lot. Why? Surely Star Wars – as a fictional setting – doesn’t have the same laws as the real world? They may not have the equivalent of the Rome Statute, Geneva Conventions, or the Hague Conventions. Why get wound up over something technical, like sound in space or lasers moving slower than light speed? It’s just fun! But that’s the thing – I don’t think it’s just harmless fun. Not if we see Star Wars as a fairy tale with any sort of moral purpose.Read More