We all know Luke, Leia and Han. They were destined to save the galaxy and lead the Rebellion. Palpatine was determined to take over the galaxy and ensure permanent domination. This is the fundamental basis of Star Wars as we know it. But one large factor is often overlooked, or rather an innumerable number of smaller details that add up to make the difference. The average soldiers who serve both sides of the conflict. Risking their own lives and taking the lives of their enemies.
By why? What does TK-421 gain by guarding the Millennium Falcon in the Death Star’s hanger bay? Why did so many Bothans die to ensure that the Rebellion could learn of the Second Death Star? The motivation behind these numerous, yet faceless, characters is often ignored in both the movies, and the Expanded Universe. In fact, the only armies that can be accepted without considering their personal feelings are those of the Separatist Alliance or Xim the Despot – droids who are programed for war.
As soon as an army utilizes living, thinking beings, emotion and reason enter the equation. And so the question must inevitably follow, what possible reason could they have to put their lives on the line for something that they may not even benefit from, even should they survive.
It’s the same question that real-life political leaders must grapple with, and historians forever analyze to understand the rise and fall of empires. And in the fictional world of Star Wars, there is no less a role for this. In fact, many of the militaries we see are nothing more than a reflection of our own history.
The Galactic Empire and Nazi Germany
19 years before the Battle of Yavin: the Clone Wars have ended, but corruption in the senate has been rife, divisive politics exist, there is no strong leader, the cost of the war must be repaid. Enter Emperor Palpatine, with sweeping reforms and the declaration of a New Galactic Empire, and prosperity returns, even as Palpatine dissolves the Senate. Yet in the outer rim, dissent grows and a new war looms…
1933: The Great War has ended, and Germany is in ruins. Political chaos is rife following the defeat of the Kaiser, there is no strong leader, and war reparations are bankrupting the country. Enter Adolf Hitler, appointed Chancellor in 1933, the Enabling Act allows him to govern with unquestioned dictatorial power, and Germany is one of the most prosperous nations in Europe. Yet oppression returns and a new war looms…
Perhaps the most obvious parallel within Star Wars: Emperor Palpatine and Adolph Hitler. Tyrannical megalomaniacs with no desire other than ultimate power for themselves, and the elimination of any who would defy them.
Why would anyone chose to fight for their armies?
Three reasons: security, adventure and fear.
Germany, following the end of the Second World War, was in ruins. The Galaxy following the Clone Wars was torn apart. Both Hitler and Palpatine offered salvation. In the eyes of the public, what better job than rebuilding your shattered world?
Work following a war is always difficult to find, both for the soldiers returning home, and for those who have served wartime at home. Following the Clone Wars, the Empire’s military expanded even more than Germany’s had post-WWI, and shipping out to serve the military of the New Order guaranteed a roof, three meals a day, and a high likelihood of continued employment. Things that are scarce almost anywhere else in the galaxy. It may have limited family or public life, but whatever pay the stormtroopers, TIE pilots or other soldier of the Empire may have earned, they didn’t have to pay for any of their necessities. Food, clothing, shelter and transport were all provided by the Empire free of charge, so when their tour finally ended they would have financial security to start life wherever they chose in a position enviable to most.
And so, as the Empire expanded with the galaxy in a fragile state, a place at the Academy, and a posting with the fleet or army offered a sense of incomparable job security, while also meaning that a recruit could ship out and explore the galaxy.
In A New Hope, we see how excited Luke Skywalker is to go off to The Academy to begin his training. Biggs, Tank, Han, Hobbie, and dozens of others started their military careers in the Academy of Carida. The other common factor that unites them is their humble origins.
Fans often forget that most people in the galaxy can’t afford to travel between star systems. Though commonly seen in both the movies and EU, almost all the travelers between systems are the politicians, soldiers, traders or wealthy citizens of the galaxy. Most citizens cannot afford to even leave their home planets, even the relatively successful ones, as illustrated ably in the recent novel Kenobi. And when they do, they are packed into dingy holds with little privacy or personal space, as we see Anakin and Padmé travel in Attack of the Clones. Interstellar transport is not like the international tourism of our world, instead it is equivalent to the early days of colonialism two or three centuries ago.
And yet, just as in our world, there is this desire to see new lands, and new people; to have an experience beyond the ordinary. That is the dream promised by The Academy. Each soldier on their return home will have a story to tell their friends and family.
One might counter though, that the more of the galaxy that is seen, the more likely that an individual soldier is to witness the atrocities of the Empire and want to either abandon it or fight back. That however, assumes that the majority of soldiers witnessed such events. Certainly they were not uncommon, but a TIE pilot stationed on a Star Destroyer on patrol above Coruscant is unlikely to be aware of subjugation on Kashyyyk, or Tarkin landing an airspeeder on a public protest. Instead, his or her mind will be focused on the spectacular views of the Star Destroyer and the city-world below that they had never dreamed of witnessing.
Even if many of the average soldiers and citizens were unaware of the grand plans of Germany or the Empire, what about those who were stationed in Auschwitz, or Despayre?
Every atrocity witnessed can have one of two effects on a person – infuriation, or intimidation. Some choose to stand up, Oskar Schindler and the Hand of Judgement being the two notable examples, in large part due to their rarity.
Intimidation tactics are not meant only for the public, but also the very soldiers who enforce them. Any dissent in enforcement will damage the system, and must not be allowed.
A guard of Nazi Germany who tried to liberate prisoners, or improve their conditions would soon join them. There is no reason to expect that the Emperor’s justice would be anything but as swift. Even simple mistakes, rather than outright defiance, were punishable by death by Lord Vader. And even more pragmatic commanders with limited resources would not put up with insubordination. Warlord Zsinj built a small personal Empire after the fall of Coruscant to the New Republic, and though he knew he had limited manpower on his ships, a bridge officer caught playing flight simulators rather than following his designated routine was put to death. One can only imagine what fate awaited those caught in open defiance.
Certainly there are examples of those brave enough to defect to the Rebellion, or strike out on their own to right the wrongs of an Empire. But they are few and far between. To risk death, or worse fates, requires a rare breed of courage, especially from those who already find themselves in the lion’s mouth.
So those nameless Imperial soldiers that provide endless dangers and threats to the peace of the galaxy, are no more than optimistic young men and women, trying to find a little adventure while doing their job to the best of their abilities. And of those few who have witnessed the true evil behind the mask, while a small number have indeed become complicit, most are simply too scared to stand up on their own and risk becoming an example to others.
The Alliance to Restore the Republic and the French Revolution
For most of us, this was our first introduction to the ‘heroes’ of Star Wars. A small band of idealists fighting against an entrenched, tyrannical system that had been in place for years. Underfunded, under-equipped, and relying only on the tenacity of those who were willing to fight for a better galaxy. Those who have seen Les Miserables, or studied the French Revolution will know how tired the populace was of its repression.
Jealousy is perhaps the most relatable of all human emotions. We want to have what others have, and to be denied that privilege rankles badly with anyone. Unfortunately, in any society there is only so much wealth and prestige to go around. There are of course many systems to address the distribution of such wealth and power with varying equality, but none is perfect, and the more inequitable the distribution, the more force is needed to keep the disadvantaged in line.
But oppression leads to dissent, so a fine line must be walked for this to succeed. In most totalitarian governments, force increases over time as the ruler becomes more comfortable with his or her power base, because they guard their position more jealously, for fear of uprisings. But who would risk rising up against this sort of government, those with little or nothing to lose.
Let us take a look at some of the lesser heroes of the Rebellion for a moment. Wedge Antillies joined following the destruction of his parents’ refinery, isolation from his sister, and at least one failed relationship. He had no family left to care for, few friends, many of whom were already involved in the fight, and little more than a dream that the galaxy might be left a better place where others didn’t have to live the same life of disappointment he had. Ton Phanan, an alliance doctor who served at the Battle of Endor before enlisting in the Starfighter Corps, not only had no family, but lost an increasing proportion of his own body in the struggle for freedom, as did fellow pilot Hobbie Klivian.
The stories of the Alliance are littered with such tales. Why? Well, probably in part because it is easier for the writers to not have to address families, and gives a more interesting backstory. But WHY is such a backstory more interesting and fitting to the character? Because people who have everything aren’t willing to risk losing it. Those who have nothing to lose, have everything to gain by taking risks.
The Rebel Alliance is well known to rely on the efforts of non-human species fighting back against the tyranny of the Empire. The Empire had already enslaved their people, often leaving the only choice as dying working on a project for the Empire, and dying fighting against them, while those living in the resplendent towers of Coruscant lived in comfort and security.
France, under the rule of royalty suffered from a similar, if less extreme, oppression. The wealthy had beautiful palaces, lavish parties, and more food than they could spare. An average peasant by contrast, rarely had enough food to feed their own families. With nothing to lose, resentment grew until it boiled over into open rebellion, and public executions.
The Alliance to Restore the Republic was not the sort to hold such spectacles, but their feelings were the same. Forced to the edges of society, with no stable employment, family life, or source of sustenance, they saw the worst of the Empire. Rather than be intimidated by it, they chose to fight it in the hopes of gaining something, if not for themselves, but for others who were in the same dire circumstances.
Certainly this requires bravery, but also a measure of desperation. Any valuables, be they possessions, employment, or most of all people, that someone holds dear can be lost. And the fear of that loss is often overwhelming. But when all of that is stripped from you, that fear is gone, and the only thing left to risk is a life that may not be worth living and may be near its end already. A person like that has only things to gain, friends, comradery and if they are lucky enough to see it through, a better galaxy for themselves and those around them.
Of course, there are also those who came from lives of privilege who threw in their lot with the Rebels, but they are not the backbone of the Rebellion. Indeed, in the opening arc of the new Star Wars comic series by Brian Wood, one of the mechanics in the Rebel hanger mocks Leia behind her back as a princess playing around with the average soldiers when she returns from a mission. Here is perhaps the clearest indication of how the Rebellion was built. On the backs of those who were oppressed and could only dream of a better life, because they had nothing left but hope.
The Yuuzhan Vong and the Crusades
A species that worships its own gods, believing that they created the universe, and their species alone is made in their own image. A species that self-mutilates and suffers torture to be closer to their gods. A species that commits genocide simply because other species don’t follow their same beliefs.
That’s pretty hard to relate to isn’t it. That can’t have any real world-comparison. Can it?
Well perhaps you should join me next week on the day of the sun god Ra. My religious order and I will kneel at the foot of a torture device, consuming symbols of blood and flesh. In the past we’ve fought was where we murdered thousands who didn’t believe in our God. And to this day, many of our belief still ostracize those who differ from their particular interpretation of the ancient texts. Then again, many of you already are Christians, so you do this every Sunday anyway when you take Holy Communion.
No, it’s not the embrace of pain, but many of the roots of the murderous Yuuzhan Vong from the New Jedi Order can be traced back to the practices of Christian groups not all that long ago. To see it from any other perspective is a horror, yet to be a member of that group at the time allows no perception then of utter righteousness.
It may seem hard to understand many practices of the Vong, especially their self-mutilation, but even this is so different from our own world. There are many tribes in Africa that use metal rings to lengthen the necks of their women, sometimes to as much as a foot, to make them more attractive. A common practice that continues in Asia to these days is binding the feet of young children with tight bandages to ensure that they do not grow. These ideas are likely alien to many, but are a natural part of life for others. And if such practices are not so inhuman, why should their motivation be so different from ours either?
In fact, it is not. The Crusades were sanctioned by the Pope to restore Christian access to the holy lands, and in much the same way, the Vong invasion was sanctioned and encouraged by its priests to restore a new homeland. In both cases, the armies fought against the “infidels” or “The Ones Without Faith”. In both cases, the invading armies sought to impose their religious beliefs, political and economic structure on the regions they conquered, believing that it was their divine right to do so.
This type of belief may appear misguided, but is perfectly rational to the populations in question. The vast majority of the European world looked to the Roman Catholic Church for leadership, regardless of Kingdom. Similarly, though the Vong looked to a Supreme Overlord Shimmra, and various other representatives of other casts, their life centered on their religion and their gods.
Every culture in history will have a similar centrality through large parts of its history, because religion, whatever it may be of, answers the many philosophical questions that are beyond physics, politics or any empiric science. However, this places an extraordinary power in the hands of those who control the religious experience for the population.
Adherents are taught from an early age to trust absolutely in their religion. In multi-cultural societies, there are differing viewpoints that may present a challenge, and allow individuals to challenge their long-held beliefs. But the Vong lacked such an opportunity due to their singular belief system caused by an extremely limited population.
Just as geographic isolation will limit a small population’s genetic diversity, so too will it limit their culture. And the Vong, following the destruction of their home galaxy, and millennia-long journey to the Galaxy Far Far Away, were among the most isolated of all.
When their religious leaders gave the instructions for conquest, no member of the population had any reference for a different opinion, let alone defiance; and so, the invasion commenced without question. Those beings who could have provided new ideas to consider seldom survived long enough to impart that knowledge.
The Vong in the end, are not so different from Humans or any era. They hold a firm belief in the “rightness” of the cultural and social rulers of their era, and are willing to fight for what they believe in. And though their specific practices may appear odd to the inhabitants of the galaxy or fans of the NJO, our own traditions if looked at from the outside, are equally strange.
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Of course, there are many other armies that deserve consideration, including the Mandalorians and their desire for conquest mirroring the ancient Huns, the Hutts and their armies of enslaved species, and the child soldiers of the Grand Army of the Republic.
Though Star Wars will always focus on the “heroes” of each generation, it is important to remember that none of them could have accomplished what they did without the nameless legions who fought behind them to ensure their success. Nor should we dismiss those armies that wound up on the wrong side of history as a collection of evildoers and sadists. Merely individuals too unaware, or terrified to break away from an ill-understood ideal.
Perhaps take a moment to consider those nameless characters who pass across the screen, or through the pages you’re turning, try and understand why they chose to be there, rather than relaxing in the safety of their home with a hot cup of caf, and acknowledge their part in the history of the galaxy, no matter how small it may be.