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Why We Need to Talk About War Crimes in Star Wars

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.

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This is the Way: Anti-War and Anti-Colonial Lessons to Learn from The Mandalorian

Star Wars has always been known for strong anti-imperial themes, and these powerful political messages are particularly apparent in The Mandalorian. In this piece, I’ll explain how Din Djarin’s interactions with the Tusken Raiders, an Indigenous alien race, could provide important lessons to consider regarding the treatment of native communities. Even though Star Wars has tended to depict the Tuskens as being dangerous and monster-like, The Mandalorian shows they are actually a complex, dynamic and even vulnerable species. I’ll go on to explore how the show demonstrates the importance of coalition building, and shows the dangers of imperialism and war as embodied by those who lead the Empire.

Last year, I touched on the mistakes of the Republic as depicted in The Clone Wars – how its indifference to the suffering of ordinary people, and insidious expansion of imperialism, helped to create the Empire. Before that, another piece on colonialism by Abigail Dillon (that every fan should read) discussed why the role of Ezra in Star Wars Rebels was so powerful because he served as one of the first main heroes to firmly position themselves against the dangerous colonial points of views embodied by other characters. Like Ezra, I think Din is a continuation of fan-favorite characters representing a more recent tradition of Star Wars, particularly under the direction of Dave Filoni, that critically engages with themes of colonization at the narrative’s core in ways we haven’t seen before.

The first main interaction with Indigenous communities in The Mandalorian is in the fifth episode of season one, “The Gunslinger”, where Din works with Toro Calican, a young, naïve bounty hunter on Tatooine. In their trek the characters come across the native Tusken Raiders, whom Toro describes as “filth” that were standing in their way. Din, on the other hand, explains that they are Indigenous locals and the two of them are considered trespassers in the view of the Tuskens. Rather than engaging with them in a way that would antagonize the native race of aliens who had resided on the land for thousands of years, Din negotiates their passage using sign language and trades safe passage in return for equipment.

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Two Camelots: On The High Republic’s Lofty Aspirations

In Star Wars, it feels like democracies are always corrupt and republics always fall. It’s been a perverse message in a franchise about light and dark, freedom and oppression. From the Expanded Universe to the prequel trilogy to the sequel trilogy, we see that senators and politicians are untrustworthy and democratic systems are unequipped to survive. Always our plucky heroes defeat the big bad enemy through force and firepower. It felt absurd by the late EU, where the message seemed to be that only soldiers got it done: rely not on elected governments, but on the military. One of the reasons why democratic republics seem doomed to fail in Star Wars is that we’ve never really seen them in their heyday, only in their rough early days or their corrupt final days.

We’ve known since the original A New Hope novelization that there was an “Old Republic of legend” which “throve and grew” “under the wise rule of the Senate and the protection of the Jedi Knights”. In the film, Obi-Wan Kenobi called the Jedi the “guardians of peace and justice”. The 1997 Technical Journal of the Imperial Forces struck an even more idyllic note, calling the Old Republic “a community that had always served its citizenry well and faithfully”, where the “common rule by the Senate served the people wisely and well” and where “planets […] could turn to their neighbors for help” when facing natural disasters or uprisings. But whenever stories took us to the distant past, whether in the EU’s Tales of the Jedi¸ Knights of the Old Republic, or the still-ongoing The Old Republic, the government we saw was never as the legends described. Until now.

The intent of The High Republic initiative is to showcase a “hopeful, optimistic time, when the Jedi are good and noble”, according to Lucasfilm Creative Director Michael Siglain. In the launch stream for the project, Light of the Jedi author Charles Soule described the idea of two Camelots: the Arthurian Round Table of heroic knights of peace and justice, and the Kennedyesque political Camelot of Chancellor Lina Soh’s Galactic Republic. The two Camelots are the perfect pillars to describe the Arthurian Old Republic we’ve heard about since 1977, so it’s no surprise that these are among the main creative focuses of The High Republic.

I want to take a look at the two books that launched The High Republic initiative this week: Soule’s Light of the Jedi and Justina Ireland’s A Test of Courage to see how they frame the two Camelots defining the era. Do we finally get a functional galactic democracy? Does the Republic of legend feel convincing, with serious challenges, flaws, and blind spots it rises to overcome? Are the heroic Jedi as aspirational and inspirational as they are meant to be? Do they still fit with what we know of the Jedi? And finally – since The High Republic era takes place just a few centuries preceding the prequel era — what seeds might be planted for the end of this era of idealism? My short answer is – yes, I think that Soule and Ireland pull off a convincing launch into an era of aspirational idealism that’s a breath of fresh air in Star Wars while still laying the seeds of interesting challenges that I hope the series ends up wrestling with.

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The Unexpected Optimism of The High Republic

Announced some time ago, I have to admit to a certain amount of skepticism about The High Republic. With the last few years seeing some quite spectacularly awful real-world politics, a sequel trilogy of films that decided its best move was killing off Luke, Han and Leia, plus – and how could this one be forgotten? – a global pandemic, I was lukewarm about its claims to being a more optimistic Star Wars story. At the same time I had some reason to be wary of the writer kicking it off, which Charles Soule would I be getting? The one that did some smart work on the first Lando comic miniseries or the one who takes the corporate gigs like killing off Wolverine? Finally, there is the cynicism born of numerous brighter, happier superhero relaunches that end quickly with some character getting eviscerated.

It’s therefore a rather delightful surprise that Light of the Jedi defies all of this to do something entirely different, very, very unexpected but not at all unwelcome.

One question that comes up with regard to stories is if the heroes have all the advantages how can there be any real conflict or challenge? How can the villains get any victories or even represent a genuine threat? The first answer to this question comes in the face of the disaster that opens this story, and from the very start it defies expectations in a positive way. When reading it, some of what you expect does happen; you may well foresee that a particular new character is not going to be around long and, while you might be right, you may also end up caring about them far more than you thought you would. At the same time, Soule does not play the darkness card here – it’s a disaster sure, many, many people die, but the plot does not overly dwell on it. Instead we see what The High Republic is about in its response to this disaster.

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More Than One Way to Be Mandalorian

The Mandalorian’s first season establishes early on that Mandalorians are recognized both by their armor and by their refusal to remove it. An essential part of their creed, removal of the helmet was so great a sin that it would excommunicate someone from the culture. An essential part of fandom meant that we had to immediately argue about what this meant.

Theories, jokes, and accusations of canon contradictions flew, but there seemed to be at least some draw towards a consensus. A consensus that the show would confirm in the second season.

In “The Heiress”, three people in Mandalorian armor remove their helmets in front of Din Djarin. Din immediately accuses them of stealing the armor, of not being true Mandalorians. Problem is: one of them is the former regent of Mandalore itself. Bo-Katan of House Kryze.

Mandalore’s culture applies to Din as well as to Bo-Katan and her warriors because of the simple fact that there is more than one way to be a Mandalorian.

Star Wars has tackled the nuances of several in-universe identities over the years. We know that there are endless variations on what it means to be a Jedi, a clone, a Separatist, an Imperial, a rebel, all nuances well worth exploring. I only wish Star Wars showed the same sort of dedication to nuance when it comes to real-life representation.

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