Because my friend Sonny Bunch is one of the most horrible and devious trolls in the known universe, he has managed to recycle [See update] Jonathan Last’s work, and spark a huge debate over whether or not the Empire in Star Wars is actually evil.
While I defer to no man in my ability to get drawn into nerd arcana, I must say I find the argument ridiculous. Dan Drezner lays out the best retort to Bunch I’ve seen so far, firing two torpedos straight into the exhaust shaft of Bunch’s case. Sonny thinks that the destruction of Alderaan was justified under just war theory. Drezner says Bunch is higher than the tallest flagpole in Cloud City. I think he’s right.
But I have some quibbles with Drezner’s retort. Drezner writes:
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).
First, Drezner concedes Bunch’s assertion that without the destruction of Alderaan there is no evidence in the original trilogy that the empire is evil. Really? How about when, in The Empire Strikes Back, they torture Han Solo just for kicks? “They didn’t even ask me any questions,” Solo says after a torture session. Reasonable people can disagree on whether enhanced-interrogation methods are warranted, but not even Dick Cheney would support torture just for the sake of inflicting pain. Which raises my second objection to Drezner’s retort. He writes:
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.
Come now. Let’s use Occam’s razor. Is the most obvious explanation for Bunch’s ridiculous argument that he is acting as a spokesman for neoconservatism or is it that he’s been drinking before noon again? I think we all know the answer to that.
Moreover, this really is a slander against neoconservatives. When do neoconservatives defend genocide?* Neoconservatives are far more well-known as supporters of freedom-fighting insurgencies battling evil empires. If anything, Bunch is a realist. He makes apologies for the powerful in the name of realpolitik. He supports evil regimes and pays lip service to their bogus, sham, democratic forms. He values order above freedom, coldblooded self-interest above justice, moral relativism above idealism. I believe Socrates said it best, “Sonny Bunch is a monster.”
One last point: Drezner alludes to the fact that the opening preamble describes the empire as “evil.” I understand the impulse to bring skepticism to everything George Lucas writes. But I’m not sure it’s warranted here. There are lots of World War II movies where the actions of the Nazis on screen are not obviously anymore evil than the actions of the American or allied troops. But that doesn’t mean we should go around holding seminars about whether or not the Americans are the real bad guys in Kelly’s Heroes or The Dirty Dozen (A film where the Americans on screen really are worse than the Germans on screen). Sometimes you just have to take the author’s word for it.
Besides, the idea that the Empire is good ultimately rests on the most ludicrous premise of all: That the whole series was really, really, well written, but in a such a clever way that only Bunch and Last were capable of finding the real meaning of the movies. Come now. Sometimes you can stop at the text, without even bothering with the subtext.
* Note: Bunch’s argument that destroying a planet isn’t genocide is ludicrous. He writes:
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.
The U.N. defines genocide as the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” I have problems with that, but they’re not relevant here. Genocidal campaigns in Armenia, Ukraine, Rwanda and Germany left plenty of humans untouched. That doesn’t mean they weren’t genocides. The destruction of Alderaan (not counting people on vacation) destroyed an ethnic/national/racial and perhaps religious group: Alderaanians (Alderaanii? Alderaanites?).
Update: I called Sonny Bunch evil and a monster so of course he objects to my use of the word “recycle.” Fair enough. Sonny brilliantly builds upon Last’s thesis by defending the indefensible with verve and panache.