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What Star Wars Taught Me About War, Liberty, and Human Nature

What is it about Star Wars that speaks so strongly to the human psyche?

Image Credit: Lucas Films

“All who seek to destroy liberty in a democratic nation should know that war offers them the surest and shortest route to success. This is the first axiom of science.” – Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

One of my fondest childhood memories was watching Star Wars: A New Hope for the first time. This was my earliest introduction to American popular culture and sparked my lifelong devotion and obsession with the space opera franchise. Even though my first grade self had no idea what a Senate was or what “the last remnants of the Old Republic have been swept away” meant, I quickly became enthralled by the idealistic farm boy Luke Skywalker, the swashbuckling smuggler Han Solo, and the strong-willed and beautiful Princess Leia in their adventures and struggle against the Galactic Empire.

For a young immigrant boy who knew nothing about politics or history, Star Wars had a universal appeal that transcended language, nationality, time, and other superficial social barriers. And I was not the only one. In his delightful and perceptive book The World According to Star Wars, legal scholar Cass Sunstein recounts a story about how a meeting with high-ranking Taiwanese officials on the subjects of human rights, the world economy, and its complex relationship with mainland China turned into a conversation about Star Wars. Similar excitement over Star Wars and unlikely fan bases were also reported in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Nigeria, Egypt, Israel, India, and Japan.

But what is it about Star Wars that speaks so strongly to the human psyche?

As a student of Joseph Campbell, creator George Lucas understood the power of myth and archetypes that connected the human experience ranging from the Odyssey to the legend of King Arthur. In addition to its seamless integration of classical motifs such as heroic journeys and destiny, Star Wars contained a distinctively American element. As eloquently summarized by Sunstein:

Star Wars also makes a bold claim about freedom of choice. Whenever people find themselves in trouble, or at some kind of crossroads, the series proclaims: You are free to choose. That’s the deepest lesson of Star Wars. That’s the twist on the Hero’s Journey. The emphasis on freedom of choice, even when things seem the darkest and life is most constrained, is the saga’s most inspiring feature…That’s the hidden message and real magic of Star Wars—and the foundation of its rousing tribute to human freedom.

As I learned more about politics, economics, history, and philosophy over the course of my life, I realized that the many hard lessons of war, liberty, and human nature were already woven throughout Star Wars.

The United States—a country “conceived in liberty”—also came into existence through war and revolution. This complex, contradictory relationship is one of many that would define the American political system, its culture, and the question of what it really means to be an American—something commentators have endlessly argued about from every possible angle. In what is perhaps the most dramatic demonstration of American self-contradiction, Thomas Jefferson held fellow human beings in bondage even as he penned “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” and the rest of the immortal words of the Declaration of Independence. (The principles of this document were, of course, echoed in another rebellion in a galaxy far, far away…) To vindicate those rights, Americans had to win them through force of arms on the battlefield. The first time was through the Revolutionary War, which won independence from Great Britain, and the second time was through the Civil War, which destroyed slavery for good. 

More than any other nation in history, the United States is shaped by the gun, and this relationship is seared into its collective consciousness and psyche. From the Revolutionary War to Star Wars, from the Founding Fathers to Princess Leia holding her blaster in a glamor shot, the gun is an inescapable part of American cultural identity. As of 2018, American civilians own almost half of the world’s total firearms, “more than those held by civilians in the other top 25 countries combined.”

Despite America’s martial heritage, anti-militarism is just as influential, if not more, in this country’s history and culture. James Madison keenly observed:

Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people. The same malignant aspect in republicanism may be traced in the inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and in the degeneracy of manners and of morals engendered by both. No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.

Other American Founders shared Madison’s fear of standing armies, martial law, and powerful executives. This attitude formed the root of the Second Amendment, an affirmation of the citizen-soldier as the heart and soul of a free republic.

As students of classical history, the Founders were familiar with how the Roman Republic transformed into a dictatorship and empire after Julius Caesar’s legions crossed the Rubicon. They knew how Oliver Cromwell and his New Model Army overthrew an absolute monarch only to have it replaced with a new tyrant in the not-too-distant English past. During their own time, they witnessed British soldiers enforcing martial law in an attempt to bring the American colonies to heel.

The dangers of standing armies extend into the 20th century and beyond. More often than not, armed troops are used as instruments of oppression. In 1989, the Chinese government brutally suppressed the Tiananmen Square democracy movement with military force. Earlier this year, a military junta seized power in Myanmar, killing and imprisoning all who dared to resist. As of this writing, Myanmar’s military is shooting its own people in the streets.

These sober lessons from past and present are clear: The centralized, militarized State is the greatest threat to people’s lives and liberties.

For most of human history (and in many places around the world today), collectivist tribalism, oppression, poverty, and zero-sum conflict were the universal norms. And they were terrible for almost everyone. The ideas of the Enlightenment—universal human rights, separation of church and state, constitutional government, reason to understand the natural world, and commerce over plunder—represented humanity’s attempt at something better. And it worked. Scientific, technological, material, and moral progress became reality.

The United States—the first and only nation in history founded on the principles of unalienable rights—was a product of the Enlightenment.

Throughout their writings, the Founders repeatedly emphasized that their creation of a constitutional republic and system of ordered liberty was a novel “experiment” whose success or failure ultimately depended upon the morality and actions of the American people. If anything, liberty is a fragile gift and should not be taken for granted.

The Star Wars prequel trilogy’s depiction of the fall of the Old Republic and rise of the Galactic Empire is perhaps the most dramatic and realistic portrayal of such an event I have seen in film. It depicts not only how wars destroy freedom and republics but also illustrates how deception and subtle manipulation of power behind the scenes make it all possible. The true “phantom menace” was the Machiavellian politician Palpatine (secretly Darth Sidious, a Dark Lord of the Sith), who orchestrated conflict after conflict to become Emperor and tyrant of the galaxy.

By manipulating one side as Palpatine and commanding the other side as his alter ego Sidious, he was able to accumulate more and more powers, accepting them “with great reluctance” and promising to deal decisively with each crisis. 

In Episode I: The Phantom Menace, as Darth Sidious, he secretly ordered the Trade Federation to blockade and occupy his own home planet Naboo. Then, as Senator Palpatine, he convinced Naboo’s elected queen Padmé Amidala to call for a vote of no confidence against the Republic’s incumbent Chancellor after he and the Galactic Senate failed to come to the aid of her people. Drawing on sympathy votes, Palpatine was elected Chancellor.

In Episode II: Attack of the Clones, Darth Sidious encouraged a secessionist movement and directed the separatist Confederacy of Independent Systems (led by Count Dooku who is his secret Sith apprentice Darth Tyrannus) to build a massive droid army. Despite the obstructions of anti-war factions in the Republic Senate, news of the Separatist military buildup sparked a climate of fear where Chancellor Palpatine was able to manipulate a very foolish character into giving him emergency powers.

With his “first act with this new authority,” Palpatine then announced the creation of a “Grand Army of the Republic to counter the increasing threats of the Separatists.” (In the darkest of ironies, the Republic’s army of clone troopers was also created in advance by Sidious and Tyrannus’s machinations.) Not knowing its true origins, the Jedi Knights were then conscripted to lead the clone army into battle across the galaxy to “save” the Republic. (Those clones, of course, would become future Imperial stormtroopers and the fists of galactic oppression.) Near the end of the film, Sidious and Tyrannus congratulated themselves knowing the faux Clone Wars are “going as planned.”

By the events of Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, Palpatine has centralized even more power in his office and subtly turned public opinion against the Jedi as their ranks bled dry from the Clone Wars. The film’s novelization explained the depth of the deceit:

The Clone Wars have always been, in and of themselves, from their very inception, the revenge of the Sith.

They were irresistible bait. They took place in remote locations, on planets that belonged, primarily, to ‘somebody else.’ They were fought by expendable proxies. And they were constructed as a win-win situation. The Clone Wars were the perfect Jedi trap.

By fighting at all, the Jedi lost.

With the Jedi Order overextended, spread thin across the galaxy, each Jedi is alone, surrounded only by whatever clone troops he, she, or it commands. War itself pours darkness into the Force, deepening the cloud that limits Jedi perception. And the clones have no malice, no hatred, not the slightest ill intent that might give warning. They are only following orders.

In this case, Order Sixty-Six.

Order 66 was the climactic scene when the clone troopers turned against the Jedi and killed them in a galaxy-wide Night of the Long Knives. (This betrayal was also planned in advance by Sidious/Palpatine.) With his hated enemies destroyed in one fell swoop and a powerful military under his complete control, Palpatine enthroned himself as Emperor and replaced the corrupted Republic with the Galactic Empire.

It is worth emphasizing Emperor Palpatine’s rise to power was enabled by the crises and wars that he himself engineered. Star Wars is the perfect interstellar metaphor of Randolph Bourne’s insight that “war is the health of the State.”

Economic historian Robert Higgs elaborated upon these insights in his classic book Crisis and Leviathan, a landmark study of political economy. Surveying the effects of World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II, Higgs revealed how emergencies and crises combined with statist ideology transformed the American government—originally of limited, enumerated powers that rarely affected the life of the average person—into its current form that reaches into virtually every aspect of domestic life.

While people are generally skeptical of politicians and government during normal times, a major threat like a financial panic, war, or pandemic unleashes the total state:

A crisis…alters the fundamental conditions of political life. Like a river suddenly swollen by the collapse of an upstream dam, the ideological current becomes bloated by the public’s fear and apprehension of impending dangers and its heightened uncertainty about future developments. Bewildered people turn to the government to resolve the situation, demanding that government officials ‘do something’ to repair the damage already done and prevent further harm…

Crisis brings opportunists running, both from inside and from outside the government, because crisis alters the fundamental forces that impel and constrain political action. It thereby creates unusual opportunities for extraordinary government actions, plans, and programs to be implemented. That crisis has this effect is widely understood by political actors inside and outside government. Opportunism is therefore to be expected and—especially for the general public, which is likely to be saddled with the crisis programs’ burdens and injustices—to be guarded against. Throughout U.S. history, national emergencies have served as outstanding occasions for the (ratcheting) loss of liberties.

His most original analysis is his description of the “ratchet effect”: Once a crisis has passed, state power usually recedes, but never to its original levels. For example, New Deal bureaucracies and subsidies have survived into modern times long after the Great Depression and the U.S. military did not revert to its prewar size after either of the world wars.

Thus, each emergency leaves the scope of government a little bigger, wider, and more intrusive than before. Last but not least, the institutional and ideological legacy is set as precedent for the next crisis.

Echoing the prescient warning of James Madison, Higgs reiterates that “war is the master key” that enables government to grow in size, scope, and power.

Higgs’s eye-opening, if not disturbing work, is expanded upon by economists Abigail Hall and Christopher Coyne. Their research showed how war and other coercive foreign interventions “often act like a boomerang, turning around and knocking down freedoms and liberties in the ‘throwing’ nation.” Abroad where it is free from usual constitutional constraints, the U.S. government experimented with new forms of social control that were eventually brought back and used at home.

Few know that government surveillance of ordinary Americans can be traced to the U.S. military occupation of the Philippines after the Spanish-American War. There, Army Captain Ralph Van Deman, “the father of U.S. military intelligence,” helped create a data collection system to monitor Filipino insurgents and dissidents. After his return stateside, Van Deman persuaded domestic officials to create a similar program that later spied on American citizens who opposed the United States’ entry into World War I—a precursor to the National Security Agency (NSA)’s high-tech surveillance programs.

It is worth mentioning that the NSA’s notorious “collect it all” dragnet had its origins in the collection of military signals intelligence for the occupation of Iraq. The goal was to sweep up every Iraqi text message, phone call, email, and all other forms of electronic communication. This indiscriminate, mass surveillance was later applied to the United States domestically. In other words, a military program originally intended to apply to a conquered enemy population in a foreign theater of war was then used on American soil. (The full story is told in Glenn Greenwald’s 2015 book No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State.)

The “boomerang effect” is also documented in the militarization of domestic policing, another consequence of American militarism abroad returning home to infect domestic politics and policy. The first SWAT teams were created by Los Angeles police chiefs eager to apply what they learned from special military units during the Vietnam War and World War II. Today, paramilitary SWAT teams are now a common sight in police departments across the United States. Despite being originally designed for emergency situations where violence was needed to stop violence such as bank robberies and hostage scenarios, mission creep led to SWAT teams being used from breaking up neighborhood poker games to enforcing underage drinking laws. It is now estimated that SWAT raids occur up to 40,000 times per year across the United States. Many of these encounters, especially no-knock raids, have ended in tragedy.

As the nation continues to struggle over police brutality—as seen in the recent high-profile deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor—it is worth reflecting on how we have arrived at this point: Militarism and empire abroad have rebounded on the lives and liberties of American citizens at home.

The costs of war are not easily quantified. They are felt across economic, institutional, societal, and personal levels for years to come.

“Wars not make one great,” Yoda would admonish Luke Skywalker in Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. There is no doubt the wise Jedi Master had Luke’s father Anakin in mind. Against the backdrop of war and political intrigue, the promising Jedi Knight and Chosen One fell to the dark side and became Darth Vader, the Empire’s most feared enforcer. He became a legendary warrior at the cost of his soul. The wicked Emperor Palpatine then attempted to use the same tricks to corrupt Luke. In the climax of Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, after nearly killing his father in a vicious final battle, Luke realizes how close he came to becoming the very evil he fought and, thus, rejects further aggression. Inspired by his son’s example, Darth Vader finally turns back from the dark side, and so is redeemed.

Even if one never reads James Madison or Robert Higgs, an entire crash course on political economy, liberty, and human nature can be absorbed from Star Wars. The epic space opera reminds us that freedom should be cherished and it is worth fighting for. Yet, war very easily leads individuals and institutions alike down the path to the dark side.

This is why the spellbinding storytelling of Star Wars connects with so many people on a primal level. We humans have the freedom to choose—a path of tribalism, aggression, and empire; or a path of love, forgiveness, and redemption. Let us hope most choose the light over the dark.

May the Fourth be with you.

This article was originally published by Merion West on May 1, 2021. It has been reprinted with permission.

  • Aaron Tao is an entrepreneur and technology professional working in Austin, Texas. He holds an M.S. from the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin and a B.A. from Case Western Reserve University. His other writings have been published by Areo Magazine, Merion West, Quillete, and the Independent Institute.

    He can be found on Twitter @aarontao2.