In his influential 1832 treatise, On War, the Prussian military theorist and cavalry commander Carl von Clausewitz observed that “war is a continuation of politics by other means.” This is not how we like to think of or talk about war. The antebellum political underpinnings of a respective conflict are often messy and open to multiple interpretations. The reasons behind the American Civil War are still, bizarrely, a point of contention for some. Examining particulars such as American support for Chile’s Pinochet regime can reveal pointedly uncomfortable hypocrisies. Propaganda exists for a reason. As has often been pointed out, the difference between a freedom fighter and a terrorist—or the strategically prudent bombing of a city and a war crime—is often a question of perspective. Politics are opaque; combat is clarifying. Theoretically. This is why many people who think of themselves as history buffs are, in actuality, war buffs.
Rogue One, despite the understandable protestations of Disney CEO Bob Iger, is a political film. As a war movie, it can’t be anything else. That said, attempting to place Star Wars and its characters on the traditional left-right axis, as irresistible as the exercise might be, is pointless. As Abraham Riesman smartly points out on Vulture: “Pick nearly any spot on the political axis and you can declare that Luke Skywalker is standing right next to you.” People have been analyzing the politics of Star Wars since A New Hope debuted in 1977. It’s no different with Rogue One. But this time, what we’re really doing is analyzing the politics of war.
In pop culture, there’s a pragmatic concern that comes with depicting war as an outgrowth of politics: It’s fucking boring. This is one of the reasons (along with bad casting, worse dialogue, and an overreliance on immature special-effects technology) that George Lucas’s Star Wars prequels lack the emotional power of the original trilogy (shouts to Richard Brody). Byzantine trade agreements? The accretion of totalitarian power through the gradual perversion of parliamentary procedure? The mystical Jedi knights hamstrung by bureaucratic infighting? In fiction, as in life, the disparate machinations of far-flung legislative bodies is a less compelling narrative than coming home to find your Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru have been murdered, possibly by agents of the state. Yet the latter cannot be considered separately from the former.
Star Wars premiered in May 1977 to an America whose confidence was shaken. The assassinations and social upheavals of the 1960s had created a creeping sense of insecurity by 1970. Over the course of the decade, various radical groups planted homemade bombs across the country — more than 2,500 during an 18-month period from 1971 to 1972, per Bryan Burrough’s history of 1970s radicalism Days of Rage — in public spaces, government offices, restaurants, and so on. Airline hijacking was endemic. Terrorists attacked the Olympics.
It was no less tumultuous in the halls of power. In 1971, President Nixon unilaterally canceled the gold standard, allowing the dollar to “float” against other currencies, and pulled the U.S. out of the Bretton Woods financial agreement, which had underwritten three decades of European post-war economic growth. In 1973, the U.S. pulled out of Vietnam, and the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) protested American support for Israel by enforcing an embargo. By 1974, after five decades of stability, the retail price of gasoline soared to more than 50 cents a gallon for the first time. Lines at gas stations were measured in hours. Then the stock market crashed. Nixon resigned as a result of the investigations into the Watergate break-in. In May 1975, the unemployment rate was at 9 percent for the first time since the Great Depression.
No wonder audiences were ready for a swashbuckling space war pitting absolute good against absolute evil. Lucas described his story in 1973 as “a large technological empire going after a small group of freedom fighters.” Star Wars derived its Manichean punch by allowing its audience to engage with the powerful moral iconography usually reserved for the underdog. It was a face-swapped version of Vietnam. A ragtag band of rebels, battling a hegemonic empire in possession of weapons of mass destruction. The movie’s cultural impact speaks to a deep ambivalence, bordering on distrust, of overwhelming military might and a desire to be the good guys.
A strange fact of conflict is that the narrative of the defeated is often more powerful than that of the victor. Northern Ireland and the proposed state of Kurdistan (straddling portions of Iraq, Turkey, Armenia, Syria, and Iran) are examples of regions where people have simply refused to accept the results of battles fought centuries ago. States and armies can win battles, but the judgment of history is difficult to control. In On War, von Clausewitz writes that “the political” object of a war “will be the standard for determining both the aim of the military force and also the amount of effort to be made.” The ideal “political object” in war, then, is always self-defense, the security of loved ones, and property. This is why even naked wars of aggression are always framed as acts of self-defense. Post–World War II, America’s overseas wars have been dominated by the central question: “What are we doing here?” Little wonder, then, that no one can say how and when they will end or what winning looks like.
Rogue One understands this to an almost-uncomfortable degree. (Perhaps this is why Disney ordered major rewrites?) Director Gareth Edwards has augmented Lucas’s original underdog formula with the symbols of 21st-century resistance. A city in the desert, sacred to the followers of an ancient religion, heaving under the weight of a brutal occupation; Imperial troops extracting a planet’s natural resources at the point of a gun; freedom fighters ambushing an enemy convoy then disappearing like ghosts back into the native population — as Americans, none of these things are “ours.” Rogue One lets us experience them.
Toward the end of Rogue One, Rebel leader Mon Mothma — after learning of the existence of the Death Star — sums up the balance of power by saying, “The Empire has the means of mass destruction; the Rebellion does not.” It goes without saying that this straightforward formulation of who is the bad guy and who is the good guy does not translate to the world outside the movie theater. Though clearly the world would be simpler if it did.
Can a Star Wars movie depict the moral muddiness of war? It kind of does. The movie is beautifully shot, the best-looking film in the series — there’s nothing like dirt caked on a Stormtrooper helmet to give you a sense that you are watching something real. The ideological seams are visible, though. Rogue One is three movies in one: It’s a hopeful Star Wars movie, told through Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones); it’s a morally complex Army of Shadows–esque semi-apologia of extremism as a weapon against tyranny, told through Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and Che Guevar — excuse me — Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker); and it’s a festishistic depiction of the coolness of the Empire (Krennic’s dope white uniform and cape, Darth Vader going full Jedi Knight: Outcast aboard Admiral Raddus’s rebel flagship).
In the end, Rogue One isn’t sure which of these worldviews wins. I can’t decide either. Part of me feels that in 25 years, Rogue One will be considered the “important” Star Wars movie. Part of me feels like it will simply come and go. Like a war we barely remember.