Star Wars and the Myth of Redemptive Violence

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Stories have power—and the narratives our societies choose to focus on will, for better or worse, begin to define our reality. The concept of Manifest Destiny helped usher in an age of colonization and imperialism that resulted in millions of deaths and the enslavement of millions more. The narrative of the “American Dream” fostered economic growth and productivity on a scale never seen before, though often at the cost of work-life balances and to the exclusion of those denied equal access to economic institutions. The 1980s conception of the “Welfare Queen” embedded itself into American consciousness and to this day inhibits anti-poverty efforts while encouraging racial animus.

Stories have power—and because of that, we must make sure we are not focusing on a narrative that may ultimately cause harm to others.  With that thought in mind, I worry: Does Star Wars promote the myth of redemptive violence (defined simply as “the belief that violence saves, that war brings peace, and that might makes right”)?

Recently Roy Scranton, an American veteran of the second Iraq war, argued in the New York Times that in Star Wars, “the violence of war has a power that unifies and enlightens…It’s a story about how violence makes us good.” In essence, Scranton argued that Star Wars is simply another piece of America’s cultural myth of redemptive violence. This myth, he argues, is emblematic of the US addiction to war and ultimately helps prop up the same powers that even now wreak violence around the globe.

If his critique is true, then every fan of Star Wars is part and parcel of systemic evil that the myth of redemptive violence has brought upon the world. As a fan, the possibility that this critique might be true frightens me. But is it?

To be sure, Star Wars contains plenty of violence that seems redemptive. Luke’s destruction of the first Death Star is portrayed as wholly righteous—it saves the rebel base, just in the nick of time! The Empire wasn’t defeated through diplomacy; it was overthrown by force of arms. It’s human nature to be drawn in to the huge explosions and epic battle sequences.

han-gunslingerOr how about this example—the extrajudicial execution of Greedo. Han Solo, a stereotypical western gunslinger, temporarily dodges this debt collector with a single pull of the trigger (bringing out his weapon in what’s supposed to be a weapons-free zone). After killing a living being, he coolly stands up, tosses a coin to the barkeep, and strides away. Not only is violence redemptive here, it clearly is the only thing that saves Han’s skin. (Perhaps Lucas’ much-maligned change, where Greedo shoots first, reflects a discomfort with this cold-blooded killing).

Obviously one could find many examples in Star Wars where violence seems to save the day, where our noble heroes would otherwise be long gone without the quick violence of a warrior. Potentially even more problematic are occasions when the act of violence is portrayed as not merely justified, but even humorous (see: Ewoks pummeling stormtroopers in Return of the Jedi, the character Mr. Bones in Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath, the destruction of hapless battle droids in The Clone Wars, etc.).

Personally, I hope Rogue One will give us a more thoughtful wrestling with the horrors of war. Evidence and rumors suggest that this film will have a darker, less triumphant feel—perhaps we see the Rebels’ violence portrayed more negatively, rather than as purely redemptive. It’s even possible that we will we see Saw Gerrera’s Partisans engage in some controversial acts of terrorism, as hinted at in Claudia Gray’s Bloodline. If Rogue One is indeed darker, one might hope it shows the harsh results of violence from both sides—not just double down on how wicked the Empire is.

But even if Rogue One does delve into the savagery of war, that does not necessarily address the critique. After all, there are plenty of dark movies that expose the evils of violence while still ultimately centering on violence as the solution to evil (see: Hunger Games, Kill Bill, Saving Private Ryan, etc.). So let’s return to the initial question: does the story of Star Wars promote the myth of redemptive violence?

I believe that the answer is no, and that in actuality Star Wars goes beyond most films in critiquing that very ideology. Take Yoda—he in particular is the prophetic voice who tries to hold the Jedi to a higher moral standard than many of them might prefer. Yoda’s sadness at the start of the Clone Wars is telling—“Victory you say? Not victory. The shroud of the dark side has fallen.” In The Empire Strikes Back, a battle-weary, reflective Yoda teaches Luke the values of a Jedi. “Anger, fear, aggression; the dark side of the Force are they…A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack.”

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But it’s not just Yoda. Luke, motivated by love for his father, takes this lesson to heart and refuses to kill Darth Vader in the climax of Return of the Jedi. Indeed the very title of Episode VI is apt, for in casting aside his sword, Luke is inaugurating a return of the true Jedi, those who refuse the easy seduction of violence. Contrast the ending of this film with the ending of The Avengers, where the villain’s defeat comes only when the larger, mightier Hulk throws Loki around like a rag doll.

I’m hopeful that the sequel trilogy will continue the anti-militaristic mindset established by Lucas in the first six films. In The Force Awakens, we see even the gunslinger Han Solo turn away from violence, daring to sacrifice himself out of hope for his son’s redemption. To see non-Jedi like Han (and even more minor characters like Lor San Tekka or Poe Dameron) exhibit compassion for those whom they would be expected to treat as their enemies helps confirm that the mercy Luke shows Vader in Return of the Jedi is part of a broader theme.

Much like our own world, violence is endemic in the Galaxy Far, Far Away. On a superficial level, Star Wars reflects that. But the moral arc of Star Wars takes a hard tack against violence as a solution. In fact, these acts of true redemption mentioned above are all the more striking because they seem so risky and unlikely given the context of the films. While its very name suggests that Star Wars is all about war, fans and critics who look deeper should see that the saga ultimately helps build a counternarrative to the myth of redemptive violence.

10 comments

  1. Eric Brown says:

    I find that all too often I dislike discussions on systems and cultures because (I find) they move the focus off of personal accountability and responsibility. Instead of looking at ourselves in terms of our own individual actions, we look at ourselves in terms of how we relate to culture. We let the culture drive the narrative, rather than letting ourselves as individuals drive the narrative; while culture might determine the circumstances I find myself in, when it boils down to it, I alone am ultimately responsible for my actions; I alone am culpable. And I would argue that what is required of me is not merely to oppose cultures or systems of violence, or to try to support or make a better system, but in the moment, in the present to do discreet acts that are “good”.

    This is why the “culture of violence” and “myth of redemptive violence” narratives don’t overly concern me. The Star Wars stories aren’t focused on cultural evaluation, but rather if there is a moral to the Star Wars story, it calls into the question of what you as an individual will do.

    Consider the climax of the Original trilogy. It’s not just a return of true Jedi, it’s not just the inauguration of a new culture, but one individual. “No. *I’LL* never join you.” The trials and travels have led to that point – the violence present in the universe, the opportunties presented reach their climax there – not in a culture change, not even in a system change (and the rest of the EU, legends or Disney, likes to show what a mess of things the system change is — no systemic happily ever after here) – but rather one individual deciding to do what is right.

    Of course, that’s how Luke starts, or almost doesn’t start his journey. Obi-wan tells him, “You must do what you feel is right, of course.” It’s at the end, having gone through all that he has, with events spiraling around him, the pull of other obligations and the machinations of others, that Luke acts as the individual moral agent.

    I think you could probably look at Star Wars as a tale of the individual growth of other characters – but it is focused on Luke, and it is a morality tale. How will you as an individual choose to act?

    There are times then, violence is the answer. Surgery is a violent act; Chemotherapy is horrifically violent… but it’s the best answer in a lousy situation. There are times violence seems like a useful solution, but the right answer is to say no. The key is being an individual who learns what is appropriate when, regardless of what the culture around you clamors for.

    • Andrew Berg says:

      I hear you, and definitely agree in part. The focus on individual choice is part of what makes Star Wars bold in this regard, is that some of the key characters choose to reject the very acts of violence that would otherwise seem to be righteous and justified. From the Rebels’ point of view, killing Darth Vader would indeed be a discrete act of good–and yet Luke rejects that act. From the Republic’s point of view, Jedi fighting in the Clone Wars is also a discrete act of good–and yet Yoda, Padmé, Bail, and others wisely acknowledge the darkness hidden in that path.

      However, I think humans are subject to being caught in systems of violence a lot more often than we may recognize (see: Stanford Prison Experiment, Hannah Arendt’s “Banality of Evil,” Harvard’s Implicit Attitude Test, etc). Roy Scranton and others sharing his perspective would argue that the myth of redemptive violence is a particularly attractive and seductive perspective, and that it’s present in almost every aspect of American society.

      Thus, rather than alleviating the focus on personal responsibility and accountability, I would hope that conversations like this one can actually heighten it: am I, Andrew Berg, somehow aiding the military-industrial complex by being a fan of Star Wars? Am I another cog in the machine, another metaphorical Stanford prison guard? (And if I am, am I willing to take steps to step out of it? I have friends who are committed pacifists who try to keep their children from watching Star Wars–would I have the courage to do that, if I thought it right?)

      I’m probably getting too “meta” at this point, as now I’m on a Star Wars fan site reflecting on whether it’s good to be a fan of Star Wars–lol. Yet I think this self-conscientiousness is crucial, otherwise I risk missing those very moments to do good and avoid evil that you correctly point out are at the crux of the Star Wars saga.

      • Mike Cooper Mike Cooper says:

        Oh, I think “is it good to be a Star Wars fan?” is safely within our wheelhouse. :)

      • Eric Brown says:

        “Now we see the violence inherent in the system!”

        Are Python references in our wheelhouse too? Tangentially, at least?

        Luke’s thoughts on Tattoonie – I hate the Empire but I can’t do anything about… or can he?

  2. John says:

    I know this comment is super-late, but your piece was so interesting that I feel compelled to respond.

    I think it is also worth noting that the heroic violence narrative at play in Star Wars exists in dialogue with another 20th century narrative concerning violence – namely, the nihilistic tendency to treat all organized violence as an ultimately meaningless waste of human potential. Roy Scranton draws on the tropes from this genre to describe his own experiences of the Iraq War – a description that would not be out of place with the post-WWI practitioners of this genre like Hemmingway, Remarque, and Sassoon, or for that matter authors like Halberstam, Karnow, and O’Brien on the Vietnam War.

    I think it’s important to recognize that both the heroic narrative of violence (Tarantino) and the nihilistic narrative of violence (Sassoon) make truth claims, but at the core neither are necessarily *true.* Both are narrative formulations intended to help us make sense of a complex, morally and emotionally fraught issue. To frame one as a “myth” without acknowledging the constructed nature of the other strikes me as an incomplete way to consider the issue.

    I think the idea of a spectrum of narratives concerning the utility of violence (rather than a single, outlying “myth”) ultimately reinforces your point about the greater complexity of Star Wars. I would consider Star Wars to be somewhere between the poles of “heroism” and “nihilism” when it comes to the question of the utility of organized violence. The movies actually have some pretty complex things to say on this subject. Anakin and Obi-Wan move from awkward strangers to “brothers” largely through their shared experience of violence; yet in the end the fruits of their violent endeavors drive them to destroy each other. Obi-Wan ultimately accepts that allowing violence to be done to him will bring about a greater good than continuing the fight against Vader. Luke ultimately echoes Obi-Wan’s sacrifice when he throws away his lightsaber rather than continue the fight against the Sith. Of course, Vader’s ultimate redemption still comes when he murders Palpatine, though the murder saves his son. Heck, even the Ewoks introduce complexity and ambivalence – there are comic scenes of Stormtroopers being killed, but there is also a surprisingly touching moment in which an Ewok stops in the middle of the battlefield to mourn his fallen comrade.

    This isn’t a whole-hearted embrace of heroic violence. Rather, I think it represents a worldview that violence *can* sometimes justified, while still recognizing that violence itself is not the solution to all of the world’s problems. In this way, I would actually put Star Wars in the same category as the works of J.R.R. Tolkien when it comes to proposing a narrative about the utility of violence – a sort of middle ground. Violence does allow the opportunity for heroism, but other values – faith, friendship, love, mercy, hope – are ultimately redemptive.

    • Andrew Berg says:

      Hi John,

      I really like the way you frame this issue and talk about a “spectrum of narratives” ranging from nihilistic to heroic. It actually further clarifies in my own mind what I was attempting to say, and I hope it does that for others who read your post. Very insightful!

      I do think that Walter Wink, the theologian who conceived the idea of the “myth of violence,” would say that the term “myth” in his usage is not a reference to its truth value, but rather to its role in shaping human understanding and actions (in that sense, while Wink was a faithful Christian, Christianity would also count as a myth–the term “myth” almost becomes synonymous with religion). I think he would argue, with a lot of merit, that while both the heroic and nihilistic narratives of violence exist in America, far and beyond the one that is most ingrained into society is the heroic notion. I mean, it’s hard to imagine what our world would look like with a nihilistic view–would we get rid of the military? Would we be like the Amish? Wink and others would actually prefer a world like that, but it is pretty hard to imagine the public ever swinging that way.

      In the meantime, I’m grateful for Star Wars for taking that middle path, and hope that the series continues to complicate the easy narrative of heroic violence.

      • John says:

        I imagine this is at least in part a disciplinary jargon issue – as a historian, the term “myth” perhaps has different connotations than it does in the theological realm. From the perspective of everyday language, I think “myth” does contain some baggage for the general reader; hence my preference for narrative (or perhaps theory, when it is applied to real-world violence rather than the fictional). For my own part, though, I respect the idea that “myth” need not mean “untrue” (a major part of my man Tolkien’s work 😉 ).

        Although I agree with the idea that the heroic conception of violence is a powerful force in American culture, I think the ways that it plays out and interacts with narratives of violence-as-nihilism are more complicated. There is, for example, a powerful sub-set of veterans who promote the idea that violence is meaningless. They are certainly counter-cultural in this regard, but they do also have significant influence. Nor do public attitudes about the utility of violence need to fit a coherent narrative or theoretical paradigm – the 1920s and 1930s saw a huge surge in the popularity of highly-romanticized Western films, at the same time that large portions of the American electorate looked askance at the military and the “merchants of death,” blaming them for the trauma of the First World War, and insisting on a foreign policy of military non-intervention in Spain and China. This suggests to me that it is important to keep the implicit opposites in mind when discussing the heroic myth of violence, because oftentimes different components of public opinion towards violence may reflect different aspects of the narrative spectrum.

        In any event, I appreciate your piece on the subject, and your reply! Here’s to many more excellent Star Wars movies.

      • Mike Cooper Mike Cooper says:

        To John, Andrew and Eric—I’ve really enjoyed how this discussion has continued via the comments, and if none of you object I’d actually like to republish this as a follow-up piece in and of itself. Sound good?

  3. Andrew Berg says:

    Mike–That would be fine with me! Do you think we need any additional/closing comments or is it fine as is?

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