It’s a trap. No, really, IT’S A TRAP.

by on 2013-02-14 in Duck- 16 Comments

Change you can believe in. Or is it a trap?

So our little geekfest-in-a-teacup has provoked, among other things, some additional contributions by members of The Duck focusing on additional ways that the Empire’s command structure and Imperial strategy towards the Rebel Alliance doesn’t make a lot of sense. The Imperial troops are feckless, letting the rebels escape on occasions when they should have been able to stop them easily. Opportunities to wipe out the rebels are missed through various kinds of incompetence, tactical or bureaucratic or otherwise. The Empire as a whole is riddled with inconsistencies and incoherences, clashes between divisions, competing goals, unclear budgeting priorities. And so on.

To all of that I say, along with my main Mon Calamari, Admiral Akbar: IT’S A TRAP. Really. The whole damn thing is a trap, not just specific instances of deception like the one that his most famous exclamation seems to refer to. Yes, it’s a trap that the shield generator is still working and the Death Star is operational when the rebel fleet jumps into the Endor system, but more to the point, the entire interstellar-galactic-political situation is a giant trap for the unwary, and by “the unwary” here I mean not just the various denizens of the Star Wars universe who are focusing on the wrong thing if they think that the main game in town is Empire-vs.Rebel Alliance, but also and perhaps even more profoundly the analysts who keep mistakenly treating anything that the Empire does as animated by the strategic goal of securing political rule and defeating insurgents. All of that is a sideshow, because the actual story here has nothing do with political rule; the contest is and always has been Sith vs. Jedi, which is more of a theological contest despite what misguided strategic analysts who don’t respect the conditional autonomy of constitutive ideas might think about it.

So, let’s review a little basic Star Wars history (and I am going to give the grade-school textbook version here, not the C-canon version). Once upon a time there were Sith engaged in an epic battle with Jedi, but the Jedi prevailed, set up their Temple on Coruscant, and proceeded to be the guardians of peace and justice throughout the galaxy for a thousand generations, including their cooperation with the Old Republic. The Jedi order is based on the notion that the Force has two aspects, the Dark and the Light, and that only the Light has merit: they are, pretty directly, Manichaean dualists. Meanwhile the Sith bided their time, adopting the Rule Of Two — always two there are, a master and an apprentice, no more, no less — and managed to survive in the shadows, waiting. Palpatine, a.k.a. Darth Sidious, after killing his master Darth Plageous, becomes basically the single most powerful Sith Lord ever, with a command of the Dark Side of the Force to make anyone quail in terror. But even this isn’t enough against an entire galaxy that thinks of the Jedi Order as a good thing, so he launches a cunning plan to utterly destroy the Jedi by corrupting the Jedi Order (getting them involved in the Clone Wars as generals) and then turning the galaxy against them (declaring them traitors, blaming the war on them) and then killing off most of them (issuing Order 66, Vader’s rampage in the Temple). Vader then proceeds to hunt down and destroy the rest of the Jedi that he can find, and only misses Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda because they go into deep-cover hiding and lie very low for almost two decades.

You will note that I did not mention as integral to the Sith plan anything like “take over galaxy,” “consolidate Imperial rule and overthrow Old Republic,” or “produce massive loyalty to the Sith among the general public.” That’s because all of that is totally irrelevant to the actual goals of Vader and especially Sidious, or, perhaps better, all of that is nothing but a means to an end. The end of the Sith plan is not, NOT, political. It is not about ruling the galaxy. (At least it’s not for Sidious; it might be for Vader, who seems to be a bit more committed to an ideological vision of a New Order in which stability is enforced with an iron fist and the squabbling of the Senate is put to rest…making him, perhaps, a dogmatic Schmittian fascist? Hmm). it is about wiping out the Jedi Order, and doing so thoroughly enough that it won’t ever be able to recover. That would be the “revenge of the Sith” indeed.

Now, remember that the entire Clone Wars was Sidious’ manipulation of events so as to eventually corrupt and discredit the Jedi. This makes the Clone Wars a distraction from the actual story, and sets a trap for anyone who gets bewitched by weapons porn and battle porn too easily — or who is already dispositionally predisposed to treat ideas and ideologies as masks for “what is really going on.” Clearly the Imperial command by the time of Episode IV falls into that trap category, regarding the Force and the Jedi as a quaint old religion…and thus demonstrating Sidious’ success: Jedi Order out, Jedi so thoroughly discredited that military commanders who once would have been serving alongside Jedi in epic battles think it’s a load of hogwash and “sorcerer’s tricks.” Han Solo doesn’t believe in the Force. The Rebel Alliance is trying to wage a guerrilla insurgency against an Empire whose leaders can literally kill people with their minds. And lots of IR-minded commentators think that the story here is about troop deployments, principal-agent problems, and the effectiveness of not of aerial bombing campaigns against disgruntled rebels. It seems that Sidious has succeeded even more than he might have realized, since he’s managed to delude most of us into watching the magician’s assistant instead of keeping our eyes on the ball.

Or maybe it’s not Sidious’ doing, but ours. Maybe we should blame our general incapacity to take seriously the variety of ideas and cultural materials out of which people — I mean actual people, not the strategic-instrumental ideals who populate most realist and rationalist IR theories, and animate most discussions of grand strategy — produce the actual goals that they actually pursue in a world that is vastly more complicated than any purified strategic simulation of it. As a field, IR and strategic studies in particular may have fallen into a nefarious trap by deluding itself into thinking, collectively, that there has to be some “real” (read: material-instrumental) purpose underlying pious pronouncements about ideas and ideologies and norms and the rest of it. The devaluing of one category of reasons in favor of another in an ex ante, categorical way (“yes, that’s what they said, but what they really meant was something else because no one actually means what they say if it’s about ideas and cultural values; what they really mean is about material interests and benefits”) strikes me as short-sighted at best and downright insulting at worst. As though the world were completely made up of nothing but strategic calculations of material benefit. And this is a methodological mistake too, since properly understood these models are ideal-typical, and are not supposed to actually represent anything in the world but are supposed instead to serve as explanatory instruments for what goes on in the world a lot of which involves case-specific deviations from the model. The trap closes even more tightly when we forget this, and confuse our models with the world, forgetting that our models are themselves derived from sets of cultural values…and might, as the Sidious example shows us, have been manipulated to achieve outcomes of which we are simply unaware.

All of which means: the rebellion is a sideshow. Sidious may even have let the rebellion flourish so as to flush out Force-sensitives who are pulled to act against the Empire for reasons they themselves can’t clearly articulate; as soon as they reveal themselves, they can be captured or crushed. It’s only us, caught in a trap in which we discount ideas and theologies in favor of material-strategic interests, who think that this is the main stage. The drive to expose something else as ideological false consciousness so that you can reveal the real material-strategic situation might itself be the most pernicious form of this syndrome, because it allows us to conveniently ignore the terrifying possibility that not all conflicts can be brought to heel through the judicious application of instrumental reason because not all conflicts are actually distributional. The fact is that there is no reasonable settlement that Sidious could be made to accept, and no material goal involving political rule that would constitute “enough.” Only the theological goal of wiping out the Jedi matters, and there’s no compromising with that.

And the political question that is thereby opened is: are our enemies, our foes, Darth Sidious? If so, we do ourselves a disservice by ignoring their ideology, and pretending that fighting them is a material-strategic issue. If not, we miss a whole host of opportunities for settlements other than extermination. Star Wars doesn’t answer this question, but it can be read as showing us the dangers of not taking ideas seriously, whether we’re in that universe or in our own.

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16 CommentsAdd yours

  • John - 2013-02-14

    Interesting points, but I have a comment/question (perhaps more the latter given my ignorance of the mythology behind Star Wars): you note that the ultimate goal of the Sith is to wipe out the Jedi, and I agree that much of the strategic maneuvers of Sidious make sense when we think of this as his primary aim. But why does the Sith want to wipe out the Jedi? Is it just for the sake of personal revenge? Or is it because the continued existence of the theological order of the Jedi poses a threat to the ability of the Sith to rule the galaxy unopposed?

    You mention that the Sith and the Jedi engaged in an epic battle “once upon a time” (or should we say long, long ago), but it is not clear to me what this battle was fought over (again, this is likely due to my ignorance of the cannon). Was this conflict driven by a struggle for political control of the galaxy? And does this political goal remain the underlying motivation for Sidious’s hunt to wipe out the Jedi? Is the larger conflict, then, one between different ideological claims about the spiritual order that should underlie the rule of the galaxy? If so, then the ends of the Sith are, indeed, political.

    If this is the case, then that the strategic blunders that enable to Rebellion to continue may be very problematic as the continued existence of these groups (who seem to respect the teachings of the Jedi) also pose a challenge to the legitimacy of the Sith Order. In fact, we could criticize Sidious’s strategy on the grounds that he overstates the importance of actual existing Jedi to the legitimacy of the “Jedi Order” (understood as a particular ideology of rule) itself.

    I’ve been really enjoying these posts, so please keep them coming.

  • Greg Sanders - 2013-02-14

    I think this argument may prove a bit too much. If Leia/Han/etc. are wiped out on the ground at Endor, Luke is more likely to despair which would preclude the Sidious’s ultimate defeat. The Principle and Agent analysis post does take seriously that wiping out the Jedi is the Sidious goal and isn’t based in an assumption of materialism.

    All that said, at the margins, ideas are way more important in this example and seriously under-weighted in the tactical discussion. Even on the Rebel Alliance side of things, their chances of winning would probably be best enhanced by top notch counseling for the remaining Jedi and force sensitives rather than one more Corvette.

  • PTJ - 2013-02-14

    I would argue that the Jedi/Sith opposition is a doctrinal dispute. Its political consequences are just that: consequences. Ultimately this comes down to a disagreement about what the Force is for.

  • Andy Hom - 2013-02-14

    I have a question similar to John’s (and be forewarned, I am similarly under-versed in the SW canon): if the goal is doctrinal/theological, is a massive, MASSIVE, political conspiracy the easiest or most direct (I dare not say most rational) way to go about settling scores? Is it even feasible? Were there no other ways of hunting down and discrediting the Jedi, such as covert assassinations, the use of remote clones, etc? Given how massive and multifaceted the plan the Sith hatch to accomplish their goal is, should we be talking about just how close they come rather than how badly they fail?

  • PTJ - 2013-02-14

    We should indeed be talking about how close they came. We should also be talking, in theological mode, about the Prophecy of the Chosen One who will restore “balance to the Force” and whether the Sith almost-success was in some way a necessary condition of the prophecy being fulfilled, precisely because things had gotten so out of balance with the ossified Jedi Order.

    In SW universe terms, nothing short of the overthrow of the Old Republic would have a hope of bringing down the Jedi Order because the Jedi were woven into the fabric of the Republic. And even the fall of the Republic might not have sufficed, which is why the Order first needed to be corrupted through military service and then discredited in the public eye.

  • Andy Hom - 2013-02-14

    I look forward to the ‘Star Wars in Comparative Mythology’ project, or perhaps just the Scmittian piece on ‘Intergalactic eschatons, katechons and tauntaun contingencies’.

  • Fred - 2013-02-14

    And I thought the most important thing was the merchandising. But then Spaceballs didn’t have a sequal, video games, toys, cartoons, books…..

  • João Carlos - 2013-02-15

    It can be infered from movies and the non-cannon (books, the game SWTOR, etc), that explain it. The Jedi are religious dissidents from the Sith that eventually destroyed their rivals. So, the Sith existed before the Jedi and consider the Jedi be a heresy. Eventually the Jedi won the religious war because the Sith had a problem controling themselves (it was frequent a sith lord kill other sith lord, while the jedi knights worked one with another). The Sith finally hide at the shadows and made the “only can exist one master one disciple” rule.

    The first and second SW trilogies are about the end of Sith-Jedi religious war, the destruction of the Jedi Order and finally the complete destruction of Sith. When DW kill the emperor, both die and there are no more Sith. Whatever Luke Skywalker made after that to try create a new Jedi Order (everything about it until now is non-cannon, but the last movie trylogy is coming…) is basically create a new religion that have both elements from Sith/Jedi religions (at non-cannon, the new Jedi Order have both dark and light side powers).

    Both sides were not only fighting for “rule the galaxy”. First, the jedi never wanted rule the galaxy, it is a sith thing. And the sith wanted no only rule the galaxy but first destroy their religious enemies. it was a religious war.

  • Charles Heck - 2013-02-18

    Well, PTJ has neatly elided the original debate, which was about the biggest strategic error of the Emperor, and moved things over to his favored position on the causes of conflict. That is to say, the neo-weberian value conflict position. As such, the majority of this post is a red herring, aka trap. I would argue that the biggest error of the Emperor was putting too much trust in Vader (The sort of argument that Plato or Morganthau would have made). At the end of the day, Vader doesn’t catch Luke at Hoth, Vader doesn’t kill him after he comes back to save his friends, Vader doesn’t stop Luke from blowing up the Deathstar, and to top it off Vader helps Luke kill the Emperor at the end of the trilogy. And this can all be traced back to his original decision to make Vader his apprentice, but at some point in this series of events the Emperor should have realized that Vader wasn’t going to get the job done. As a result, the Empire falls and the Sith are defeated for the time being. That the Sith and the Jedi have irreconcilable ideological differences doesn’t really tell us much about the specific failures of the Empire, that is to say HOW the Empire was actually defeated. This is relevant information that anyone in this galactic world planning an Empire or overthrowing one in the future would want to know.

  • Charles Heck - 2013-02-18

    Robert Kelly made a very similar argument, but didn’t go so far as to say that some psychological-decision-making complex on the part of the tyrant-emperor is the best explanation for why the Sith lost the conflict despite having superior resources at the point in the story where Luke enters the picture.

  • Darth Morganthau - 2013-02-18

    Jeebus. You claim the PTJ’s eliding issues and yet you repeat already discredited claims about Palpatine putting trust in Vader.

    You do realize that this post doesn’t exist in a vacuum but instead represents something like the third or fourth round of a discussion, right? You can’t talk “strategic mistakes” without some analysis of the relevant actors strategic and grand-strategic designs, which is a point already under contention in the first wave of posting triggered in response to Ackerman.

    But that’s the kind of one-dimensional thinking we’d expect from those who lack faith in the power of the force.

  • Charles Heck - 2013-02-18

    I would argue that the supposedly esoteric Sith/Jedi grand designs don’t
    really increase our understanding of why the Empire failed. I am not
    impressed with the attempt to discredit Kelly’s arguments, so your 6th generation analysis doesn’t warrant response. Obviously Palpatine put trust in Vader or he would have dealt with Luke himself.

  • Darth Morganthau - 2013-02-18

    Right. I suspect Kelly would be better off defending himself.

  • Daniel McIntosh - 2013-02-19

    Precisely. Why would any self-respecting Jedi want “balance to the Force” when the whole point of the Jedi is to embrace the light and reject the darkness? On the other hand, the Force itself–which, as we recall, is a manifestation of a living thing (either all life, or midichlorians, or whatever)–may have its own agenda. In that case, both Jedi and Sith are pawns in the process by which the Force regulates and balances itself. Politics, as conventionally defined, has a little to do with what the Force is up to as it does with the operation of the human immune system.

  • Edward Yee - 2013-02-20

    Supposedly it comes down to the Emperor’s own desire to have Luke take Vader’s place.

  • Edward Yee - 2013-02-20

    It should be added thought that the Rule of Two had a corollary that the stronger would destroy the weaker once there was a replacement apprentice ready — hence the outcome of Dooku vs. Anakin in Episode III, and Sidious’ words to Luke after the climactic lightsaber duel in Episode VI.

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