In September 2009, an article from the Economist detailed a significant lack of counterinsurgency tactics in the original Star Wars sci-fi blockbusters. The publication explained that the movie-going public ‘hate insurgency and counterinsurgency.’ This might have been true in the era of Star Wars’ cinematic release in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, and nuclear war with the Soviet Union still a prevalent concern. But it couldn’t be further from the truth in 2015.
In fact, we’re fascinated by insurgency these days. Conceivably, that’s because we are bombarded with news about rebel groups all over the world every week, be they in Syria, Ukraine, Libya, Thailand, Kurdistan or further afield.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the popular science fiction of the day says a lot about the society in which it emerged. Without wading into the great depths of literature, I’ll offer a few print examples: HG Wells’ The Time Machine (1895) is a diatribe on industrial relations and socialism, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) emerged just after Europe had been torn apart by totalitarianism, and William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) was published just three years after IBM released its first personal computer and the internet was in its infancy. A review of recent popular films reveals the ongoing fascination with insurgency and terrorism.
Interestingly, in recent insurgency-themed science fiction, the protagonists are often the ones waging asymmetric war against the overbearing, centralised power. Recent examples include the Hunger Games, Divergent, Red Dawn (the remake)—even The Matrix. I would argue that insurgency fascinates us because of the morally ambiguous challenge it presents. The modern Middle East–North Africa theatre is a perfect example: the West provided support for insurgencies against Muammar Gaddafi and, in the early stages, against Bashar al-Assad. Nowadays, determining which Syrian rebel groups are ‘freedom fighters’ and which are ‘terrorists’ has worse odds than successfully navigating an asteroid field. We have made political choices between supporting status quo dictatorships or pro-democracy activists—just look at Egypt in 2011–13. During the Cold War, the West supported anti-Communist insurgencies, including the jihadist mujahedeen in the Soviet–Afghan War.
Star Wars is useful for analogies because of its pervasive cultural presence. Recent articles have used Star Wars to comment on cyber security, military strategy, religion and just war. It’s easy to turn it into a terrorism caricature, too: Luke Skywalker was ‘radicalised’ after the murder of his Aunt and Uncle by ‘foreign military’ forces and was subsequently responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of imperials (and probably civilians!) aboard the Death Star.
As an avid Star Wars fan, my immediate response to The Economist article was that insurgency/counterinsurgency discourse is more pervasive in more recent Star Wars-related media. The TV series Star Wars Rebels, and the novel ‘Tarkin’ are examples of texts that engage with insurgency themes. But those are contemporary texts, as well. Even in the same ‘galaxy’ as it were, the themes have changed according to the interests of real-world geopolitics.
But if we’re going to be honest, the original Star Wars movies were about fighting fascist dictatorship and the many uses of laser swords. Painting the Rebels as terrorists is just ironic humour, because part of the premise of the film involves accepting that they were fighting for freedom from tyranny. At their best, the films present a canvas upon which to test our ideals for the real world.
For example, there’s a facetious debate over whether Alderaan was a military or civilian target when the planet was destroyed by the Death Star in the original film. Arguing over the merits of Imperial strategy is really a discussion about how far we might be willing to go to preserve our own global political system and the moral minefield that represents.
So when we analyse Star Wars as a counterterrorism text, we’re actually asking under what circumstances we’d support either the Empire or the Rebels. Under which circumstances is the rebel either a freedom fighter or a terrorist? There are no clear answers. We’re constantly debating the merits of security versus freedom, and contemporary terrorism challenges this anew. That’s what makes it such an interesting topic for film.
In Episode VII: The Force Awakens, more than 30 years will have passed since the death of the Emperor—both in the Star Wars galaxy and in our own. A new generation has emerged to continue the struggle between security and freedom; between tyranny and resistance. Where each side will draw the line will be interesting to see. But one thing we can safely assume is that 2015’s audiences will enjoy every minute of it.