Though Star Wars is make-believe, there is much it can teach about the real-world dynamics of good and evil and everything in between, whether about Nazis, ISIS, or politics. Below are the top five such lessons Lucas’s six movies and The Clone Wars can teach us. Oh, and SPOILER ALERT (but not for Episode VII: The Force Awakens)
Originally published on LinkedIn Pulse December 22, 2015
This piece was also posted on Moviepilot
All images from Star Wars films or Star Wars: The Clone Wars (Lucasfilm)
One thing that is missing (among other things) in the new Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens is the interesting meditation on the nature of good and evil that all the Lucas-helmed projects—Episodes I-VI and the underappreciated Clone Wars TV series—contained (in fact, for anyone who appreciates the deeper aspects, even if executed imperfectly, of what Lucas tried to do, the disappointing Force Awakens is missing a lot: it seems to be more of a Jacksonesque Hobbit-like simple action-centered movie with Star Wars frosting on top of a blah-meh-typically-soulless action movie, just with a good cast that did the most they could with the material they were given; it lacks all of the deeper mythos and philosophical aspects that made Star Wars more than just action movies set in space, but I digress).
In particular, there are several key themes about the nature of good and evil that are particularly well illustrated by the Lucas enterprises, including Clone Wars. Below, a number of these themes will be discussed in detail, with FULL SPOILERS (and out of courtesy for those who have seen the movies but not Clone Wars, I will start each sentence with specific Clone Wars spoilers with a bold CW SPOILERS, and END CW SPOILERS will let you know when it is safe to keep reading). If you’ve already seen all six movies but need a refresher, this video here should do the trick.
Below are five of the main lessons we can take from the Lucas-helmed parts of the Star Wars saga.
1.) Often the worst and most destructive evil is driven by naked ambition for power at any cost
In Star Wars, we have the Jedi order, users of the Light Side of the Force (the universe’s mystical, magical, living energy field), and the Sith (usually two), users of the Dark Side of the Force; the Jedi use their powers, generally, to protect and help others, while the Sith, generally, use their power to empower themselves and harm others. We have Senator, then Chancellor, Palpatine (who all along is Darth Sidious) in Lucas’s six movies and Clone Wars, a man who is secretly a Sith Lord who wants to dominate the galaxy and rule with an iron fist, who is willing to kill anyone, and kill any number of people, to achieve these ends, even to the degree of starting two wars and destroying an entire planet. Close behind is his apprentice before Anakin, Count Dooku/Darth Tyrannus, whom we see—especially in Clone Wars—is willing to go to extreme lengths and to kill many innocents in his pursuit of power as well. He is also dreaming of overthrowing his master and ruling for himself, and he goes through several apprentices in trying to set all this up but is eventually killed by Anakin at the request of Palpatine himself, not long before Anakin becomes Darth Vader, Sidious’s new apprentice. To Palpatine and Dooku, everything and everyone exists just to serve their ends of attaining and keeping power: the biggest mass murderers in history—Hitler, Stalin, Tamerlane, etc.—operated under this idea, with other human beings being seen as just means to their ends, not ends in and of themselves, violating Immanuel Kant’s great ethical precept. From the start of a galactic-wide civil war between the Republic and Separatists to the destruction of Alderaan, the Sith showed there were truly no limits to the amount of death and destruction they would allow to happen to advance their personal goals for gaining power.
2.) Good can produce evil
Evil can also be done far too often for understandable or even good reasons. Unlike Palpatine and (presumably) Dooku, Anakin does not turn to the Dark Side and become Darth Vader mainly for power for himself (while this is not indisputably clear in Episode III, a good watching of Clone Wars does remedy this). Rather, Anakin is becoming increasingly worried about his secret, forbidden wife—Natalie Portman’s Padmé Amidala—who is now pregnant with his child(ren!); his dreams show her dying in childbirth. Anakin is still haunted by the death of his mother, who died in his arms when he tried to rescue her after being tortured by the Sand People; Anakin’s response was to slaughter the entire village of Sand People: men, women, children, even pets. This act is one of unmistakable evil, and yet we are feeling for Anakin who is feeling the pain of losing his mother. He even tells Padmé about his murderous vengeful rampage just after it happens and she, like the audience (presumably), takes him in with open arms. At the grave of his mother, he voices his guilt for not being powerful enough to save her and swears that he will never be so weak again that he fails to protect someone he loves. Thus, when Chancellor Palpatine begins dropping hints to Anakin in Episode III that there are ways that the Force can prevent someone from dying, Anakin is all ears. What we don’t know is how deeply and justifiably upset and disillusioned he is with the Jedi Council, which some of the best Clone Wars episodes of later seasons show us.
CW SPOILERS We know from a story arc which has Anakin meeting Captain Tarkin (before he is Grand Moff) that Anakin finds the Jedi Code and philosophy as frustratingly inappropriate in wartime, that by not going far enough, the Jedi constantly miss opportunities for victories that could end the war, and that by holding back even with good intentions, the war—and suffering—are prolonged.
In small ways throughout the series, we see that Anakin and Jedi Master Mace Windu’s personalities clash repeatedly. Additionally, in one story arc, the Jedi Council decides to have Obi-Wan Kenobi, Anakin’s mentor and best friend, appear to be taken out by an assassin as he fakes his death. We learn it is Obi-Wan’s decision to keep Anakin in the dark on this because Anakin’s raw emotion is a strong selling point to the enemies of both the Jedi and the Republic that Obi-Wan is really dead. Obi-Wan then goes through some interesting (temporary) surgery to take on the appearance of the bounty hunter who was hired to kill him; the idea is that an assassin who killed a Jedi Master would get a lot of street cred in prison and be able to find information on a major plot against the leader of the Republic, Chancellor Palpatine. Anakin, meanwhile, is consumed by pain and anger and nearly kills Obi-Wan while pursuing who he thinks is Obi-Wan’s assassin. He eventually realizes that something is not right, and confront Masters Yoda and Windu about the deception. Anakin is hurt and angered and disappointed that he was kept in the dark by the Council, and even more so when he learns Obi-Wan was key in the decision. Anakin voices that he suspects the Council is hiding more things from him and that Obi-Wan might not even be aware of this.
As bad as this experience was for Anakin, not long after, there is an even worse experience for him. At the beginning of the Clone Wars, Anakin is assigned a young female padawan apprentice named Ahsoka Tano. At first he does not want the responsibility and views her as a nuisance, but he admires her spirit and takes her in despite his misgivings. He quickly becomes very attached to her, and even early in the series, we see Anakin torture a Separatist prisoner to get information that could save her life when she is in danger.
The series shows a very rewarding evolution in their relationship, as they both grow and change over the course of the war; over the show’s movie and six seasons, they go from constantly arguing with each other, with Anakin having to teach his headstrong apprentice some tough lessons, to being more respectful and trusting of each other, to being near-peers and admiring each other’s growth, skills, and abilities greatly; Anakin feels a true sense of accomplishment in helping Ahsoka to grow into a great Jedi, while Ahsoka feels a real sense of accomplishment that a great Jedi like Anakin would place so much trust and faith in her as a padawan.
When another Jedi frames Ahsoka for a terrorist attack against the Jedi Temple, the Jedi Council as a whole turns on her and refuses to accept her claims that she is innocent; in a decision that is not unanimous (apparently Masters Yoda, Plo Koon—who brought Ahsoka into the Jedi Order—and Obi-Wan, it is implied, did not side with the majority), the Council bars her from the Jedi Order and decides to turn her over to the Republic’s military courts. During the preceding debate, Obi-Wan argues passionately that they should be the ones to judge Ahsoka, but Master Windu counters that that move could be seen as a biased one and that throwing Ahsoka under the bus would be more politically convenient for the Council as the Jedi are losing public support as the war drags on and on. That the Council chooses political convenience over loyalty to one of their own is but one example of how the war is twisting the values of the Jedi. Windu also questions whether Anakin is too emotionally attached to Ahsoka to be involved at all, to which Anakin angrily replies “Master Windu, with all due respect, she’s my padawan.” Even before the Council pronounces its verdict on his padawan, Anakin sees that this is about political convenience and, enraged, he yells at the Council that the proceedings are “just a formality;” he has to even be checked by Temple guards when he protests after the decision is announced. But Anakin is hardly giving up: he gets Padmé, whom Ahsoka has helped repeatedly, to represent her in the military court. But they all know that the cards are stacked against Ahsoka, so Anakin knows he needs to figure out who really committed the terrorist act. None other than (now Admiral) Tarkin leads the prosecution at her trial, and just before what is almost certainly a guilty verdict is announced, Anakin bursts in with the real Jedi traitor, who confesses to being a terrorist.
At a meeting with the council, Anakin and Plo Koon offer heartfelt apologies to Ahsoka; an unapologetic Windu seems almost to suggest Ahsoka should be thankful for the incident since it has made her stronger; and Master Yoda invites her back into the order. Anakin emotionally adds “They’re asking you back , I’m asking you back.” Trying to keep her own emotions in check, she turns down the offer, telling Anakin, “I’m sorry Master, but I’m not coming back,” and walks out of the Temple. Anakin is crushed, then quickly runs out to catch Ahsoka in a very emotional confrontation; Ahsoka notes the Council did not trust her, but Anakin counters that he stayed by her the whole time. “I understand, more than you realize, I understand walking to walk away from the Order.” Frustrated with the Council and forced to live out his marriage in secret, Anakin has good reasons for being fed up. “I know,” is Ahsoka’s response, hinting that she has actually figured out Anakin and Padmé’s secret relationship. She tearfully walks off into the sunset, leaving Anakin crushed.
The Council also asks Padmé to endanger herself on covert missions in several instances, instances of which Anakin does not approve, instances which cause conflict between him and Padmé. One of these instances happens very soon after Ahsoka has left the Order, and Padmé is only saved by a last-minute rescue from Anakin, and both events are happening just before Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. Anakin’s faith in the Order is at an all-time low, and for good reasons: he sees (not without some validity) that the Jedi Code is prolonging the war and that Jedi peacekeepers are not well-suited to being generals in a war, that decisions of the Council—with which he completely disagreed—just lost him his padawan and put his wife in serious danger (repeatedly); the Council and even his own Master have also kept him in the dark on at least one big operation, causing him emotional pain on multiple levels… END CW SPOILERS
Thus, when Anakin does finally turn on the Jedi after Mace Windu tries to execute Chancellor Palpatine—whom Anakin has exposed as a Sith Lord but has also told Anakin that only his Sith powers can help save Padmé from “certain death”—rather than put him on trial, we can, in light of The Clone Wars, have a much better—and much more sympathetic—understanding of why he turns on the Jedi Order and chooses the Dark Side. Having lost much following the Jedi and nearly even more, his faith in the order and the Light Side crushed, Anakin chooses a different path, one that a war orchestrated by the Sith combined with poor decisions by the Jedi Council have made it the far more convenient and attractive path for Anakin to take. He wants power for himself, yes, but mainly to save another. Thus, even in Anakin’s decision to become a Sith, we have very un-Sith-like motivations. That is why after Padmé gives birth to Luke and Leia, she can still tell Obi-Wan with her dying breath “There’s good in him, I know, I know there’s still…”
Additionally, idealism taken too far can produce unintendedly evil consequences. The Jedi’s idealistic prosecution of the war also empowered their enemies and prolonged the suffering of millions. The sad truth that Lucas is getting at is that there is no escaping the corrupting influence of war, that well-meaning actions can even increase suffering, and that war by its very nature destroys ideals and can corrupt even the noblest of people, turning them into instruments of evil. Yet war doesn’t corrupt on its own…
3.) When good people/institutions compromise their values too much, it leaves room for evil to flourish and destroy them, both from without and from within
In the prequels and especially The Clone Wars, we see ideals fall far short in reality, whether in the corruption of the Senate or the peaceful philosophy of the Jedi order giving way to the violence of war and political convenience. Early in the series, Yoda worries aloud that “In this war, a danger there is, of losing who we are.” In particular, Master Mace Windu seems to push the Council to compromise its values more than anyone else and advocates for questionable actions that are contrary in spirit to the Jedi Code. Yoda always seems to voice concerns but fails to take a stand, and while there are Jedi that move forward with such actions with regret, Windu does not seem to even blink an eye or hesitate for a moment. When the Jedi choose a warrior path, deception, arming rebels illegally, political convenience over loyalty, and even (in an unfinished but canon Clone Wars story) assassination, there is room for Anakin to and his padawan Ahsoka to doubt. The doubts created by the Jedi Council’s own decisions—albeit under very trying circumstances—open doors that lead to their destruction and the destruction of the Republic. Of course, the Sith very much have a role in this too, but if the Jedi Council had behaved differently and closer to their ideals, the Jedi would not have lost Anakin to Darth Sidious and the Dark Side.
CW SPOILERS Perhaps the best expression of these sentiments occurs when the Jedi-turned-terrorist traitor who tried to frame Ahsoka is given a chance to speak after being caught, in this speech that is given:
“I did it. Because I’ve come to realize what many people in the Republic have come to realize. That the Jedi are the ones responsible for this war. That we’ve so lost our way that we have become villains in this conflict. That we are the ones that should be put on trial, all of us! And my attack on the Temple was an attack on what the Jedi have become: an army fighting for the Dark Side, fallen from the Light that we once held so dear. This Republic is failing! It’s only a matter of time.”
END CW SPOILERS
The Jedi mean well, but under the massive pressure of war, they betray many of their values. Many in the public around the galaxy come to see them simply as one side’s leadership in a terrible and destructive war, just as responsible for the killing as the other side. Yes, the Jedi do clearly conduct war more humanely than the Separatists, but it is a distinction that is lost on much of the galactic populace and one that is less pronounced the more the war drags on. And this is all part of Darth Sidious’s plan: as the Jedi are his biggest obstacle to power, he creates a war that will not only kill many of the Jedi but also destroys their reputations and credibility as “the guardians of peace justice in the galaxy,” forcing them into a new role of military leaders in a war that kills many innocents.
4.) Evil often involves people losing their humanity and becoming more like machines
In the prequels and The Clone Wars, the “bad guys” are often unthinking droids. The droids in the armies of the Separatists carry out their orders and their killing without question, as they are, literally, machines. We also never see the faces of Imperial Stormtroopers, and their all-encompassing armor tends to make them feel more robotic and less human, some humorous dialogue aside. In contrast to the droids (and, apparently, Imperial Stormtroopers), there are some great stories involving the Republic’s clone troopers realizing that they are human beings and not robots or automatons and that they can think for themselves and even challenge orders that they believe to be wrong.
CW SPOILERS This is not lost at all on the Sith Lords who orchestrated the clone army’s creation, as they made sure from the beginning to be certain that when it comes time for Order 66—the order to execute all the Jedi—that the clones’ minds will be taken control of as far as following that order, removing any choice for them. END CW SPOILERS
The droids in the droid armies are metaphors for the mass-killers of many human armies, who lose their humanity and become little more than droids when they unthinkingly, robotically kill their fellow humans, even unarmed civilians, by the hundreds of thousands and millions. From Genghis Khan’s Mongol riders to crusading knights, to Hitler’s Nazi SS and Rwandan Hutus with machetes, to mass shooters in America to ISIS executioners, cold, brutal killing can be said to reduce people to unthinking, unquestioning automatons.
While the contrast between Jedi heroes and villains is simple, what Lucas excels at is showing us the transition from feeling, moral human to monstrous, callous droid. A the end of Episode II: Attack of the Clones, Anakin has his hand cut off by Count Dooku, and his missing hand is replaced by a robotic one; this happens after Anakin has already engaged in a mass killing of Sand People in response to the torture and death of his mother; his path to unthinking killer has begun, literally and symbolically. In Clone Wars and Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, we see the top general of the Separatist Droid Army, General Grievous, and we can tell that behind his mask there is a living head with malicious eyes; before Obi-Wan kills him at the end of Revenge of the Sith, we also see that there are some organs encased in his cyborg body, but it is clear from the beginning that with Grievous, there is little living and breathing that is left of him; he is at least 90% machine, a soulless, callous killer that is simply a slave to power. He is very much meant to be a preview of what Anakin will become when he himself becomes encased in the living tomb of his black Darth Vader armor. This is after Anakin’s legs have been cut off by Obi-Wan on Mustafar, where volcanic flames had burned him beyond recognition. He will spend most of the next two decades (the rest of his life) alone in silent torment, having lost everything—his friends, Obi-Wan, his wife Padmé—and living a life of servitude to his master, Darth Sidious, a life in which he now has become little more than a machine for his master’s bidding, killing without a second thought.
In the original trilogy of Episodes IV-VI, especially if you have seen the prequels, you watch realizing how Luke staying true to the Light Side is no certain thing. Like his father before him, Luke gets his hand cut off in a lightsaber duel (fighting his father, Anakin, now Darth Vader) and also gets a mechanical replacement hand, foreshadowing a potential following in his father’s footsteps. At the end of Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, we are meant to feel nervous that Luke will give into his hate, kill his father, lose his humanity, and become a robotic servant of the Emperor just like his father has, and we are meant to feel relief when both he does not and his father redeems himself out of love for his son.
We meet Anakin as a cute little boy who wants to help people, and he grows into a monstrous, machine-like mass-killer. We are meant to be reminded that even the worst of us are not born that way and that the process of becoming evil is in part a process of trading away one’s humanity in favor a becoming more of a machine.
5.) Even the noblest may fall into darkness, but the most villainous may also come back to the light
Which brings us to our next point: human beings will always be human beings, with both elements of Dark and Light always present within us. Anakin is first a hero with dark tendencies who manages to overcome them until he does not; then he becomes a villain with deeply-buried good tendencies who manages to suppress them until he does not.
CW SPOILERS In Clone Wars especially we see Obi-Wan face the same temptations—both of true love and of how to react when his love is killed—that Anakin did, but Kenobi reacts in polar opposite ways, maintaining faith and fidelity to the Jedi Order and mastering his emotions so as not to give into hate and desperation, and we see Yoda is powerful enough in the light side to avoid his own temptations to go to the Dark Side. CW SPOILERS END
While characters like Obi-Wan and Yoda stay true to the good, we expect characters like Grievous and Palpatine to stay evil, and they do not disappoint.
But that is why Anakin is so important: ultimately, Sidious is only as successful as he is by winning over Anakin; without Anakin coming to his aid, Mace Windu kills Palpatine and there is no Emperor, no Empire, no Order 66, and the second Anakin turns on Palpatine in Return of the Jedi, Palpatine is destroyed and his reign is at an end. In short, the people in the world that are closest to pure evil always need people like Anakin to accomplish their goals. It serves their interests to suppress their minions’ humanity because it is that humanity that is ultimately a threat to their order: no mass murderer has ever succeeded without getting thousands of others to surrender their humanity and carry out his or her evil plans. It is very hard to tell the difference between a Palpatine and an Anakin without intimate knowledge of each; thus, in the real world, we must confront and fight evil while still giving it a chance to redeem itself: America had no desire to fight and kill every Nazi and every German soldier in WWII; modern counterterrorism and counterinsurgency doctrines rely heavily on the ability to separate the hardest core from the rest of their followers, and winning over those less hardcore followers rather than having to kill them. Luke Skywalker succeeding in bringing the Empire’s second-in-command over the Light Side, no small achievement by any standard. Thus, Anakin dies in a state of redemption, not a fallen state.
Lucas’ imagined universe has much to teach us about our own. We see that ambition can destroy whole worlds, people, and nations. Evil can result both from good intentions and from the good failing to live up to their ideals, yet, perhaps most disturbingly, good intentions can also result in evil outcomes. Even in the most seemingly black-and-white of conflicts, Star Wars teaches us to have faith in the humanity of the other side even while being prepared to fight and kill when necessary. Having too much faith or too little can each be destructive, as Anakin teaches us, and people can change for either the better or for the worse. The more of our humanity we retain, the less we can become robotic killing machines in the service of unbridled ambition, but our emotions and attachment can come to be used against us, too. No one is above potential corruption or incapable of potential redemption. In Star Wars as in life, we cannot take either a person’s good or evil for granted; such things are fluid, not permanent, just as the Force is, just as life is. In the end, the future is dependent both on our own reactions and how we react to others’ actions, whether we are powerful in the Force or think the Force is “all a lot of simple tricks and nonsense.” Even if sometimes clumsy, at least the George Lucas-helmed parts of Star Wars are in part defined by asking their audiences to think about these ideas, something J.J. Abrams is less interested in pushing his viewers to do.
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