I have felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of Star Wars fans cried out in pain at Sonny Bunch’s recent argument that the destruction of Alderaan in the original “Star Wars”* was justified:
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.
I was prepared to let this argument peter out under the weight of its own internal contradictions, but now I’m seeing actual GOP candidates for president weigh in on “Star Wars” questions, and weigh in pretty darn badly. For the good of the Republic, a response is required.
But before I tear Bunch’s argument apart like a Wookie losing at space chess, it is worth stressing the part of his argument that is spot-on. Bunch is completely correct to observe that the destruction of Alderaan is crucial to any sober analyst’s assessment of whether the Galactic Empire is in the wrong or whether it’s really a benevolent authoritarian regime. Sure, the opening crawl of the original Star Wars film describes the Galactic Empire as “Evil,” but if you don’t take George Lucas’s words on faith — and that’s just sensible advice no matter what — the destruction of Alderaan is really the only moment in the entire original trilogy where the Empire takes destructive action against noncombatants (indeed, if you think about it, what’s striking about the conflict between the Empire and the Rebel Alliance is the near-total absence of civilians from the entire saga).
Without blowing up Alderaan, the Empire just seems like a ruling regime trying to quell an extralegal insurgency. And even in its counterinsurgency tactics, the Empire seems pretty disciplined.** Imperial forces don’t execute Rebel soldiers when they win, they just capture them and take them prisoner. Imperial stormtroopers don’t fire indiscriminately at their targets like undisciplined Sandmen; they use precision targeting. Bunch is right to argue that without the destruction of Alderaan, it would be difficult for Rebel sympathizers to shower the Empire with normative opprobrium without sounding like mindless Jedi partisans.
Of course, the Empire does blow up Alderaan. Bunch’s argument here is twofold. First, Alderaan is “less likely a peaceful planet than a financial and intellectual hub of the rebellion” and therefore a justifiable target. Second, this action is simply the brutal but life-saving example of the Tarkin Doctrine. So let’s tear off the arms of Bunch’s argument one by one.
The problem is that when you actually watch the scene setting up Alderaan’s destruction, Bunch’s argument fizzles as badly as the Amidala-Anakin love story:
The key exchange:
Tarkin: In a way, you have determined the choice of the planet that will be destroyed first. Since you are reluctant to provide us with the location of the Rebel base, I have chosen to test this station’s destructive power on your home planet of Alderaan.
Leia: No! Alderaan is peaceful. We have no weapons. You can’t possibly—
Tarkin: You would prefer another target? A military target?! Then name the system!
And here Bunch’s first argument falls apart. Grand Moff Tarkin’s response to Leia shows that even if he knows Leia lies a lot, she ain’t lying about Alderaan being peaceful. It is very much a civilian target, and Tarkin knows it before he destroys it. Any proper post-war tribunal would posthumously bring him up on war crimes (though it appears that the Rebels screwed this up).
Even if Alderaan, despite having no military value, is a “financial and intellectual hub,” that doesn’t mean that Just War theory permits its outright destruction. As Luke Perez notes over at Duck of Minerva:
Bunch infers that Alderaan was an intellectual and financial hub of the rebellion. Ok, let’s grant the premise. But we don’t blow up banks to stop the flow of terrorist money. Surely the Empire had the means to place crippling sanctions on the flow of monies into and out of Alderaan.
One only need to examine the “Alerdaan Incident” in light of a few just war principles to understand the breakdown of moral imagination in Bunch’s reasoning. Specifically, destroying Alderaan violated proportionality, right intention, and non-combatant immunity.
Read the whole thing. Perez’s point about sanctions is an excellent one. Any halfway-competent Imperial financial intelligence unit could have dried up Alderaan’s funding of the Rebel alliance. That is a far more proportionate response than, you know, blowing up the planet.
As for the Tarkin Doctrine somehow leading to less loss of life in the long term, color me skeptical. As my colleague Alyssa Rosenberg points out:
He’s wrong on practical grounds, not to mention the obvious moral ones: Princess Leia’s prediction that “The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers” looks better, long-term, than Grand Moff Tarkin’s prediction that the use of the Death Star would be an effective deterrent. When you can’t scare off Ewoks, you’re not very effective.
One could argue that had the Death Star not been destroyed at the end of Star Wars, maybe the Tarkin doctrine would have held up. But I doubt it. It is far more likely that the Rebel Alliance would have instead invested in its own planet-killing Death Star as the only means of deterring the Galactic Empire. Equipped with Death Star plans, even a weaker Rebel Alliance could have likely constructed its own planet-killing machine. After all, in our galaxy, it’s not like the Soviet Union offered up its unconditional surrender in response to the U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The proliferation of Death Stars in the Star Wars galaxy would likely have had far more calamitous effects on civilian populations than a more traditional counterinsurgency campaign.
I’m afraid that Bunch’s arguments in favor of destroying Alderaan are typical of neoconservative yearnings for the simple, brutal solution to nettlesome insurgencies rather than appropriate, proportionate doctrines.
Had the Death Star not destroyed Alderaan, the neoconservative case for the Empire would have been strong in the Force. At a minimum, a case could be made that nonviolent resistance to the Empire would have been the more appropriate and successful opposition tactic. But Tarkin blew up Alderaan as part of an unjust genocide that eventually caused way more star systems to slip through the Empire’s fingers. It was a moral and strategic disaster, and should be judged as such by any sane observer.
*Hey, younglings, don’t tell me that the proper name of the movie is “Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope.” When it was released, it was called “Star Wars,” the name of the darn film is “Star Wars,” don’t make me go all yellow-eyed Anakin on you.
**UPDATE: Orrin Knox, Jonathan Bernstein and many many others point out that in the first part of “Star Wars,” an Imperial contingent would appear to go on an indiscriminate killing spree, slaughtering lots of Jawas as well as Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru.
Fair enough. Bunch can (and should) defend that action more vigorously than I. However, I would imagine that he would raise three points. First, to be fair, we don’t know if this was an Imperial order or a rogue Stormtrooper division. Second, this kind of killing, though morally wrong, was not indiscriminate — there was a clear mission attached to these killings of reclaiming the droids and the plans for the Death Star. It wasn’t like the Stormtroopers blew up all of Mos Eisley during this expedition. Third, it’s not like the Rebel Alliance isn’t guilty of killing innocents as well. By “Return of the Jedi,” the rebels seem perfectly copacetic with killing everyone on Jabba the Hutt’s sail barge, not to mention thousands of innocent independent contractors on the second Death Star.