BooksStar Wars

The History And Politics Of Star Wars: Death Stars And Democracy by Chris Kempshall (book review).

The short review is basically this: if you’re even a half-serious ‘Star Wars’ fan, this book, while fairly expensive, is easy to recommend. It’s rigorous, informative, well-written and thoroughly enjoyable. ‘Star Wars’ is, of course, space fantasy rather than hard Science Fiction, but that’s arguably what makes it such a useful vehicle for discussing things like politics. The need for scientific rigour doesn’t get in the way of telling a good story.

Academics have been using historical accounts of battles and rebellions for as long as people have been writing them down. But, while the likes of Xenophon and Agricola have largely slipped out of the public imagination, films such as ‘Star Wars’ have taken their place. So, while it might seem strange that a senior research fellow at Sandhurst, Chris Kempshall, would choose to write about the Star Wars universe, it actually makes a lot of sense to do so. Here are examples aplenty that provide subjects for discussions as diverse as just war theory and human rights.

The book is divided into five main sections, starting with one on totalitarianism as exemplified by the Emperor and his New Order. Next comes a discussion of democracy, using the decline and fall of the Republic as its central theme. The third section is about rebellion and taps deeply into the impact the Vietnam War had on America. The Jedi are the subject of the fourth section, where Kempshall takes issue with ‘intra-state operatives’ working outside the usual military or political chain of command.

The fifth and final section deals with aliens and droids as metaphors for how societies deal with outsiders. In addition, there’s an introductory chapter that sets the scene, describes the expanded universe and defines the current canon. There’s also a concluding chapter that reflects on how the Star Wars universe is unfolding, consumed across many different media, from feature films and TV shows to video games and comics. ‘Star Wars’ is, Kempshall points out, continually referring to itself as well as contemporary events and it’s this, he explains, that gives it a sort of cultural momentum.

To give some idea of the depth that Kempshall goes into, let’s talk about the third main section, the one on rebellion. This is arguably the pivot point around which the entire franchise rotates, given the fundamental importance of the Rebel Alliance as the polar opposite of Emperor Palpatine’s totalitarian empire. The Second World War and the Vietnam War were both hugely influential on Lucas and, to some extent, he modelled the Rebels on the Viet Cong. Where the Death Star represented the overwhelming power of nuclear weapons, the guerrilla tactics of a Rebel Alliance were more like those of the North Vietnamese.

This is alluded to by their jungle base and, in ‘Return Of The Jedi’, the forest-dwelling Ewoks and their primitive but effective use of unconventional weapons and tactics. At the same time, the Rebels are ‘American’ heroes and Lucas was as much basing his Rebels on the American side of the Revolutionary War as he was anything else. Again, there’s an empire to be beaten, this time that of the English, but the message is clear: in these justified wars, the good guys, the little guys, won.

But making this point only takes Kempshall a page or two into his thesis and where the chapter becomes really strong is where he describes the strategies of the two sides and the implications of their decisions. Take, for example, the Tarkin Doctrine. This, he explains, is where the Empire uses big and expensive weapons, like the Death Star, for their psychological impact as much as their tactical usefulness. Such an approach is, Kempshall argues, very similar to that of the US government in 1945 when they were deciding on where to drop their first atomic bomb. In the end, the target chosen wasn’t picked because of its military value, but for the effect its destruction would have on the Japanese population.

The sequels unpicked this further and Kempshall gives points out visual cues in the films that tap into America’s military adventures. The gunships ‘work’ in the same sort of way as the Huey helicopters of the Vietnam War, allowing clone troopers to jump straight out into the battlefield in the same way as American GIs. The clones themselves start off identical, but craft their own identities with things like tattoos and haircuts, in just the same way as the conscripted soldiers personalised their own clothing and kit. As the Clone Wars went on, the civilians on Coruscant and elsewhere found themselves suffering from food shortages and other privations and Kempshall draws parallels here with the post-9/11 situation where American politicians struggle to maintain support for seemingly endless wars that fail to deliver meaningful victories.

If the Clone Wars represent an ambiguous situation comparable to the War on Terror, while the Rebellion of the original films draws from both Vietnam and the American War of Independence, the Yuuzhan Vong invasion of the expanded universe is something different again. Although no longer canon, the books set during this period give one version of post-‘Return Of The Jedi’ history. In these books, a fanatic warrior culture from beyond the galaxy invades, using weird biological technology against which the New Republic has no solid defence.

The Yuuzhan Vong are literally genocidal, eliminating the existing life on the planets they conquer and replacing it with their own. The twist, Kempshall points out, is that the only way to stop the Yuuzhan Vong is an equally genocidal weapon. As things turn out, the weapon doesn’t work as well as planned, but Kempshall discusses this ‘Alpha Red’ biological weapon as both a name-check for Agent Orange and a metaphor for the atomic weapons used against Japan in 1945.

It’s really impossible to review this book in a way that does it justice because of the nature of the work. Partly an encyclopaedia of the politics of the Star Wars universe and partly an accessible discussion of the intersection between military history and a pop culture phenomenon, there’s so much here to love that Kempshall’s book is an easy recommendation for any ‘Star Wars’ fan.

Neale Monks

March 2023

(pub: Routledge, 2022. 252 page enlarged paperback. Price: £35.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-03231-887-5)

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