Monday, January 4, 2016

Star War-To-End-All-Wars

Kylo Ren and his infantry, immediately after destroying a civilian village

This Essay Contains Spoilers!

In the opening scenes of the newest Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens, a stormtrooper division commanded by black-clad villain Kylo Ren fails to find their desired target in an isolated desert village. Frustrated, Ren orders his stormtroopers to destroy the village and all the villagers. Watching one stormtrooper unload his flamethrower into a ramshackle hut, I realized where I’ve seen footage like this before.

It looks disturbingly like the after pictures at My Lai

Star Wars has long utilized World War II imagery to propel the Empire’s unquestioned evil, and the Rebellion’s manifest virtue. Arising, as it did, after America’s ignominious collapse into mission drift during Vietnam, George Lucas could only recapture the ethos of the Flash Gordon serials he loved by ignoring much American postwar history. Moral ambiguity might feel more realistic, but Lucas wasn’t seeking reality; he sought mythology.

But since the original Star Wars trilogy, America’s subsequent experiences with strategically questionable wars and rudderless missions have colored our mythology of warfare. Right-wing critics charged Lucas’ prequel trilogy with fomenting anti-Bush Administration sentiment, an opinion not worth disputing now that even most Republicans agree Operation Iraqi Freedom was poor judgment at best. Vietnam isn’t a blip Americans can overlook anymore.

Serious scholars have even called World War II into question. Historian Howard Zinn, who attended Columbia University on the GI Bill, recounts having flown bombing missions over occupied France. He describes having strafed a village of 1,400 French citizens, occupied citizens of an Allied country, to roust a nest of forty Nazis. One recalls the famous AP quote about Bển Tre, that “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”

And, oops, we’re back in Vietnam again. Or did we ever really leave?

Rey and Finn fleeing the Luftwaffe—erm, I mean TIE fighters—strafing their squatter camp

Thus the renegade Stormtrooper Finn’s moral struggle during that opening scene, his refusal to open fire into a mass of unarmed civilians, isn’t enough. Layperson moralists have long insisted that if just one American soldier had refused Lieutenant Calley’s order to fire, righteousness would’ve spread like contagion. But would it? The problem wasn’t My Lai in isolation. America has suffered severe mission drift beyond one military conflict.

America’s reliance on international military force in furtherance of domestic agendas has undoubtedly enhanced American political stability. Despite rumors of Daesh incursions, nobody legitimately threatens America at home anymore. Anybody who would seriously threaten America today had better have multiple tactical thermonuclear weapons. Anything less only risks angering the giant.

This unquestioned might requires a trade-off, however. America’s military prowess means every challenge has military solutions. Though our military took time off following V-J Day, we stuck right in again; we haven’t gone twelve straight months without a shooting conflict with someone, somewhere, since 1948. Though we disclaim international territorial ambition, the fact is, America’s military machine works so well, it’s become our first diplomatic tool.

Thus, even though enough time has passed for Han and Leia’s son to reach adulthood, our classic protagonists remain trapped in a neverending war cycle. They could’ve passed comfortably into government positions within the Republic (as the did in the now non-canon novels), but instead, remain leaders of the Resistance, dwelling illegally deep behind enemy lines. As the movie unfolds, we discover many Rebel leaders retain essentially Rebellious mindsets.

Can a galaxy ever know peace, truly lasting peace, if its leaders and icons know only warfare? Well, that’s a loaded question: what does knowing warfare mean? Our classic protagonists cut their teeth on epoch-making war. Somehow, those who grew up knowing peace have never ascended to leadership. When General Organa and Admiral Ackbar remain leaders, never relinquishing power to coming generations, war must almost inevitably remain the standard option.

Passing the baton of conflict onto the next generation

But extending our American metaphor, bequeathing power to new generations won’t necessarily solve much. 2016’s last serious Presidential candidate with military experience, Senator Lindsey Graham, has left the race. But Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Hillary Clinton, and others verbally jockey to prove they’re the candidate most serious about crushing America’s opponents. As British scholar Christopher Coker insists, war remains a cheap way to bind peoples together into a nation.

Science fiction always represents the era which created it. From Flash Gordon’s Aryan hero standing strong against a slant-eyed Fascist, to the Terminator’s fear that humans have created our own destruction, effective sci-fi lets us witness ourselves through a mythological lens. And in America today, our greatest fear is that we’ve created war without planning for peace. Like the Resistance, we fear “victory” is only retooling for the next battle.

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