The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The destruction of Alderaan was completely justified

Darth Vader after boarding Princess Leia’s ship in “Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope.” (Credit: Lucasfilm)

The Daily Beast’s Asawin Suebsaeng recently noted that “neoconservative Twitter” loves the Galactic Empire, the putative villains of the “Star Wars” universe, prompting much harrumphing from people who think this is nothing but petty trolling. As I always say, it’s not trolling if it’s true. Honestly, I have a hard time understanding why more people haven’t seen the light, so to speak, about the dark side of the Force.

My friend Jonathan V. Last ably laid out the pros of the Empire and the cons of the Galactic Republic more than a decade ago for the Weekly Standard in a piece entitled “The Case for the Empire.” As Last notes, on one side of the ledger you have a meritocratic force for order and stability led by a more-or-less benevolent dictatorship that seeks to maintain galactic unity, facilitate trade and head off a nasty intergalactic conflict before too many people can die. On the other, you have a band of religious terrorists whose leaders include a drug smuggler in the pocket of slavers and a pair of incestuous twins working to restore a broken republic held hostage by special interests that tolerated its citizens being treated as chattel.

I don’t know about you, but the good guys and bad guys here seem pretty obvious to me.

Here's the trailer for the highly-anticipated "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," directed by J.J. Abrams. (Video: The Walt Disney Company, Lucasfilm)

The sticky wicket, of course, is Alderaan. The Death Star destroyed Princess Leia’s adopted home world early on in “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.” Pro-New Republic propagandists frequently point to this military action as unconscionably evil — ipso facto proof that The Empire was in the wrong. As Dylan Matthews bluntly put it when Bill Kristol (correctly) pointed out that there’s no real evidence that the Empire is evil, “They destroyed a f—— planet.”

Well, sure. But that was really the least bad of all the available options, if you take a moment to think about it.

First off, let’s dispense with the childish notion that Alderaan was, as rebel spy and intergalactic insurrectionist Princess Leia has argued, a purely civilian target. There is literally no reason to believe her claim that “Alderaan is peaceful, we have no weapons.” She had previously lied about not only the diplomatic nature of the mission she was on when she was captured but also about the location of the stolen Death Star plans. It’s also worth noting that she would go on to lie about the location of a military target for the Death Star to target moments before Alderaan was destroyed.

We have further reason to disbelieve Princess Liar when we consider that her adopted father, Bail Organa, was one of the original members of the rebellion, conferring with Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda in an effort to undermine the democratically elected Chancellor Palpatine shortly after his ascension. Alderaan was less likely a peaceful planet than a financial and intellectual hub of the rebellion, whose leaders, as we’ve seen, are totally untrustworthy negotiating partners — a hive of scum and villainy no less wretched than Mos Eisley, but on a planetary scale.

So, Alderaan was a legitimate military target. Was the level of force used against it justified? It’s a tricky question, but it seems the least bad of all the alternatives. Consider another option the Empire could have taken: invading Alderaan, removing its leaders and installing a pro-Empire regime. However, putting boots on the ground in this manner would likely have destabilized not only the planet but also the entire region, creating a breeding ground for religious terrorists and draining blood and treasure for decades. It’s not hard to imagine a Jedi State of the Alderaan System (JSAS, for short, though they’d likely prefer the simpler Jedi State (JS)) arising from the ashes of some ill-conceived invasion and occupation.

This was probably just the sort of catastrophe that Grand Moff Tarkin was trying to avoid when he devised his Death Star-centered defensive strategy. The Tarkin Doctrine, discussed here, is one based on deterrence and the threat of force rather than the use of force. Granted, you have to use force once for the threat to be useful, but it’s easy to see the appeal of such a tactic, which is designed to save lives in the long run. Imagine the human toll — not to mention the enormous fiscal cost — of launching invasion after invasion of breakaway systems. The utilitarian calculation is complicated, but it’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which fewer people died as a result of the destruction of Alderaan than would have died in a series of costly invasions.

The destruction of Alderaan, then, is more analogous to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki than it is to a “genocide.”* Yes, it was horrible, and yes, it would be nice if it didn’t happen. But it was an attack on a legitimate military target and defensible under Just War Theory, an attack intended to save lives by deterring other major powers from beginning conflicts of their own. The Imperial Grand Moff Tarkin is no worse than Democratic President Harry S. Truman — and no one worth listening to considers Truman to be a monster.

Obviously, this piece will not convince those who have been duped by the propagandists for the New Republic; after all, these are people who go to bed dreaming of attending a Nuremberg-style rally in support of an Aryan aristocracy. But I implore you open-minded few to reconsider what you’ve been taught. As “Star Wars: Episode VII” approaches, keep in mind that the Empire was, in all likelihood, the good guy this whole time.

* I always get vaguely annoyed when people describe the destruction of Alderaan as a “genocide.” It’s not like they blew up Kashyyyk and wiped out the Wookiees, folks. There are plenty of other human settlements in the galaxy. This is more akin to the Roman sacking of Palmyra, and no one considers that a genocide.

Correction: This piece originally referred to the Galactic Empire as the “Intergalactic” Empire; the author deeply regrets any confusion this embarrassing mistake may have caused.