Good soldiers follow orders.
I’ve been slowly making my way through every Star Wars novel chronologically (a daunting task, truly), and recently, I finally reached Karen Traviss’ Republic Commando series. I have varying opinions on Traviss’ writing, but boy, did those books–along with some of The Lost Missions episodes of The Clone Wars–kick-start my thinking about agency in the Star Wars universe (and give me a heck of a lot of feelings!) Thinking about agency led me to three branches of sorts:
- Clone troopers
One of the biggest issues never tackled in the films is that of the clones and their (lack of) agency. The question of how much free will a clone has is a big one, and it’s addressed differently in different novels. In Republic Commando, clones have free thought and will, though, many don’t know a life outside of the army. In the young readers’ Boba Fett series, the clones are shown to have no free thought, acting literally as the tools they were created to be. However, most sources on the clones’ background have been moved to Legends status, which leaves us with much less solid evidence. Instead, they work well to simply shed light on different views people gained from watching the prequels that were very ambiguous on exactly how much agency the clone troopers had.
For a long time, I refused to believe Cody would turn on Obi-Wan, especially after watching The Clone Wars. They were joking as old pals, and then, the next moment, the commander is trying to kill off his general. I vehemently argued that Order 66 must have been somehow programmed into the clones, while others told me that the soldiers were just following their orders. While the Fives arc from The Lost Missions has now shown us that the clones did indeed have some kind of compliance chip manufactured into their brains, we still don’t completely know to what degree the biochips affected the clones when it came to Order 66. There are canonical deserting clones, such as Cut Lawquane, who showed that it is possible for a clone to think outside of their rules and order.
But then, reading Republic Commando made me realise that not every clone would have been as close with their Jedi commanders as Rex and Cody. It did, quite literally, change my view on the whole clone army. I had a very optimistic view of the Jedi, largely influenced by growing up and wanting to be one. That’s not to say I don’t still love the Jedi (because I absolutely do), but that I now realise that the galaxy as a whole–including the clones–had become disillusioned with the Jedi by the time of Order 66.
In a way, the clones are very much like slaves; Jedi, the slavers. They had complete control over the clones they commanded. Nothing shows this better than the Umbara arc of The Clone Wars in which a fallen Jedi, Pong Krell, actively made clones kill each other. It was only thanks to the clones that actively (though, not without difficulty) disobeyed their orders that they survived. The entire arc is largely about Rex trying to gain agency in an unfair war. He questions the point of the war and what will happen to the clones after. We, as the audience that knows the outcome of Revenge of the Sith, understand just how important these questions are to answer for the clones.
It is arcs like this that forever beg the question–at least, for me–of what Captain Rex would have done come Order 66. Would Fives’ attempt at explaining the truth have helped him actually find his own agency among the war and escape the future terror? Hopefully, one day, we’ll find out.
The Fives arc goes to show how little power the clones have when it comes to the bigger power, such as the Jedi, the Kaminoans, and even the Chancellor himself. Kaminoan scientist Nala Se and Shaak Ti even have an argument about whose property the clones are–right in front of Fives.
Fives: I am not a piece of hardware! I’m a living being!
Nala Se: You were created in our laboratories. You are Kaminoan property!
Shaak Ti: Correction. Technically, he is property of the Republic.
Slavery itself is rife in the Star Wars universe. As we all know, Anakin himself was a slave. His mother was a slave. Ahsoka acts as a slave in The Clone Wars. His past as a slave is a huge part of why Anakin struggled so much as he grew up within the rigid Jedi Order–he traded slavery for another kind of slavery. The Republic (and the Jedi, by extension) is complicit in the galaxy’s slavery problem by not actively fighting against it. There are reasons Jedi don’t, such as not being warriors (though, the war changed that). That’s not to say they’re right; but that’s also not to say they’re wrong. Either way, the Jedi Order did help perpetuate slavery within the galaxy simply by not acting on it when they had the power to do so.
And then the Jedi, who did take on an entire clone army without much question, still lack agency themselves. They are controlled by the Senate–and who are they to argue? To go against the Republic’s wishes as a war started could have been seen as treason (which, as we know, doesn’t end well for Jedi). That’s not to say they’re not complicit in a kind of slavery themselves, but they were also slaves to the Republic. The Order itself had no agency as a whole by the time of the Clone Wars. It had been swallowed by the toxic, bureaucratic mess of the Senate and completely swayed by Palpatine’s impressive persuasion. None of this is helped by the clouding of the Force thanks to the Sith. A kind of blindness for an Order so accustomed to guidance.
I fully believe that by the time they realised they were in too far, they had no way out. They were utter slaves to the Republic and to the chancellor. To leave would have meant the destruction of the Jedi in one form or another. Others would totally disagree with this view, and they’re completely in their right to, but I honestly don’t think there was any safe way for them to walk away from their own masters. They had lost their own free will as a peace bringing body. Whether the Jedi Order being destroyed in some way or another would have been good or not doesn’t change the reasons behind their actions. It’s hard to knowingly ruin your own home, attachments or not.
And there’s a sad irony in how Anakin Skywalker became a kind of slaver himself. He befriended his soldiers, like Rex and Fives, and was good to his men. He, of all people, would understand how it felt to not have control over his own life, though, it’s never made clear if he understood how little control the clones had. However, his kindness to his men didn’t stop him coldly watching Fives die because of his disbelief that Palpatine could do wrong. This didn’t stop him from sending soldiers, who had no choice, to their deaths. He held complete control of his men’s lives and barely seemed to give a second thought to the power he actually wielded much of the time. His own understanding of being controlled didn’t stop him from trying to control his own wife in the final Clovis arc.
It is largely thanks to Palpatine that there is such a huge lack of agency for most of the soldiers of the Republic. If there had been otherwise, gaining control would have been harder. The Sith lord definitely knew how to play the game. He truly is a brilliant villain for a brilliant series.
I would argue that Star Wars as a whole is hugely about agency. Even in the OT, with the rebels fighting against the strict domination of the Empire. It is especially true with Anakin, the Chosen One. Going from a slave to a Jedi, still controlled by strict rules and without much ability to control his own life, and then, going on to be controlled by the Emperor and still having no freedom. This, despite the last lines of the Sith Code:
Through victory, my chains are broken.
The Force shall free me.
The Force did everything but free him there. In the end, the story is resolved by his love for his son freeing him from the Emperor’s chains. It’s through this new found agency that he kills the Emperor, saves his son, and returns to his old master in the Force. While not everyone in Star Wars found the same freedom as Anakin, I believe the idea is there strongly throughout the whole series. I also believe that the message is a strong one: don’t let your freedom be taken without a fight.