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The Empire Is Us: The Politics of ‘Rogue One’

What happens when we become the empire?

In an early scene of Rogue One, the new Star Wars spinoff, we follow the protagonists Jyn Erso and Cassian Andor to the desert moon of Jedha. Walking through the streets, looking for a contact, Cassian perceptively comments, “This town is ready to blow.” Moments later, his words prove prophetic when a group of radical, masked rebels plans a surprise attack on an imperial squadron.

As I watched the scene, my jaw dropped. A desert setting. A group of soldiers in uniform. A surprise attack by a radical group that strongly opposes the more powerful force. This is Star Wars, yes, but it could also describe American combat in the Middle East, and as I watched Rogue One I was struck by the similarity. Thinking through the analogy, though, made for a troubling realization—if the radical rebels of Rogue One stand in for modern-day extremists, does the Empire they fight symbolize the United States?

In 1977, when Star Wars: A New Hope was released, there was no ambiguity about the good guys and bad guys. The good guys were Luke, Leia, Han and Obi-Wan, and Darth Vader, the Emperor and the stormtroopers were the bad guys. Easy. As a child, I identified with the rebels and their fight for justice. (Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, on the other hand, recently confessed he was “inclined to root for the empire.”)

Nearly 40 years later, the global situation has shifted. American military might has grown exponentially (thanks, in part, to Ronald Reagan’s strategic defense initiative, nicknamed “Star Wars”), the Soviet Union—another latter-day empire—has fallen, and America boasts a force that considers itself the peacekeepers of the world. In 2016, we are the undisputed masters of the universe, with a well-earned reputation for crushing our enemies. To the extent that adversaries dare challenge American power, they do it through asymmetric means—like terrorism or hacking—not outright war.

In 1977, this U.S./Empire parallel was there, but is far less obvious in A New Hope. The country was still nursing its fresh wounds from a protracted and painful conflict in Vietnam, and filmmaker George Lucas was fresh off of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, a movie he passed up, worried it was too explicitly political. Instead, he plowed his outrage over the U.S. presence in Vietnam into Star Wars – he even once described the plot as “a large technological empire going after a small group of freedom fighters,” according to a biographer — but as a child I never picked up on it.

Rogue One, by contrast, presents a Rebel Alliance far different than the white-washed, happily-ever-after rebels of the original trilogy. The rebels in Rogue One are gritty and scrappy, and while they give lip service to the Force and its power, they are more inclined to use the less spiritual (but more effective) lowercase-f force. Brute force. Violent force. These rebels kill you for their cause in cold blood and without a second thought. (In one of the first scenes of the film, Cassian kills an informant for little reason other than his anxiety about the information he has shared with Cassian. I imagined Cassian, after disposing of the unfortunate fellow, speaking Hamlet’s line to Horatio over the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: “Why, man, they did make love to this employment; they are not near my conscience.”) Although Rogue One immediately precedes the action of A New Hope, these rebels would not be at home in the 1977 film. One suspects even Han Solo would find Jyn, Cassian and company a little edgy for his tastes.

The rebel/extremist and Empire/U.S. analogy may seem forced or unfair, and certainly it is only one possible interpretation of the film. It’s also worth noting that Lucasfilm regularly denies political agendas to their films. That said, consider these parallels:

1. The heroes aren’t white. Compared to A New Hope’s white-bread American heroes—Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford—Rogue One gives us an international cast featuring a British woman (Felicity Jones as Jyn), a Mexican man (Diego Luna as Cassian), two Chinese men (Donnie Yen as Chirrut Îmwe and Wen Jiang as Baze Malbus), an English man of Pakistani descent (Riz Ahmed as Bodhi Rook), and an African American man (Forest Whitaker as Saw Gerrera, the extremist rebel leader). The only white men among the leads are the villain, Ben Mendelsohn’s Orson Krennic, and the voice of Alan Tudyk as the droid K-2SO. As such, this the least white, least American cast of any Star Wars movie (for which I applaud Lucasfilm), which has the effect of removing my simple identification of white America with the rebel cause as a child. If anything, the film takes extra measures to remove itself from such a privileged comparison. The mantra Chirrut Îmwe repeats—“I am one with the Force, and the Force is with me”—particularly as he marches to his death—both brings to mind Buddhist meditation and echoes the religious tones of the Islamic shahadah or the cry of “Allahu akbar!”

2. In Rogue One, the rebels’ mission is a stealthy one and, ultimately, a suicide operation. In the end of the film, none of the main characters are alive and at least two have offered themselves willingly to death during battle. An X-wing pilot kamikazes into an imperial ship. Most strikingly, during the final battle’s climax, an entire rebel ship purposely crashes into a star destroyer, causing it to careen into another star destroyer nearby. Although this is not exactly airplanes flying into twin towers, the parallel was enough to make me gasp. Americans recoil at the glorification of Japanese kamikaze pilots during World War II or of suicide bombers in the Middle East; Rogue One has the uncomfortable effect of making us sympathize with zealots willing to martyr themselves for the cause. As one of my friends put it, it’s “terrorism from the terrorists’ point of view.” Except, in this case, the terrorists are the ones we’re rooting for.

3. The rebels are massively outgunned. Repeatedly, in Rogue One, reference is made—visually and through dialogue—to the superior might of the Empire. The Death Star is only the latest and largest in the line of weapons put on display; we also see TIE fighters, AT-STs, AT-ATs and star destroyers. On a weapons-to-weapons comparison, there is little hope for the rebellion. The X-wings may keep the imperial forces busy for a while, but at no point in the film—particularly not by the end—is there any hope the rebels will defeat the Empire in direct battle. Similarly, by nearly any standard, the United States has vastly more combat power than other countries of the world. We rely on our ability to “shock and awe” our enemies into submission, and often the small counterattacks our enemies can make must be carried out by stealth, subterfuge and surprise.

4. The Empire seeks to preserve order. From their point of view, the Empire and its minions are the peacekeepers of the Star Wars galaxy. If I were a stormtrooper, how different would I consider myself from a modern police officer or U.S. soldier? Put yourself in the mind of one of those black-and-white clad minions, and you probably wouldn’t think of yourself as being part of an evil superpower full of menace and vengeance. Instead, you might, justifiably, consider that you have a job to do, which is to maintain order in a dangerous galaxy—even if the task is sometimes unpleasant. (After all, freedom isn’t free.) And thought it’s a different film from a different era, consider Darth Vader’s pitch to Luke Skywalker at the climax of their light-saber duel in The Empire Strikes Back: “Don’t make me destroy you,” he says. “Join me, and I will complete your training. With our combined strength, we can end this destructive conflict and bring order to the galaxy.” In the lingo of American international affairs experts, one might call that a power-sharing agreement.

Here’s where I hit the emergency brake. Equating the rebels of Rogue One with Islamic extremists is simplistic and inappropriate and, despite the parallels I have drawn, I will not take that analytical leap. If, however, we accept the idea that—if the Star Wars conflict were mapped onto our modern geopolitical map—the United States is the Empire, it should give us pause, particularly as Donald Trump prepares to assume the presidency. Maybe he’ll turn out to be a wise ruler and preserve the republic, rather than destroy it – despite what many in both parties fear. But he’s already shown an alarming tendency to provoke strong reactions all over the world, even before taking office. The American empire, to the extent we have one, has always been held together as much through mutual consent and trust as by sheer military might. As K-2SO might say, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this…”

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