A guest post by Ken Breese (@BerlingsBeard)
In the wildly popular Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Edwards, 2016), audiences are shown many new aspects of the well-known galactic conflict that started the franchise almost forty years ago. One such thought provoking aspect centers around the morally deplorable actions perpetrated by members of the heretofore known righteous Rebel Alliance.
These confronting character representations and actions expose the tension, no matter what side of a conflict one is on, between ‘fighting the good fight’ and the moral compromises made and evil paths chosen in a quest for victory by those we might consider heroes. SPOILERS AHEAD!
Two characters stick out immediately from Rogue One as emblematic of this tension: Captain Cassian Andor and rebel leader Saw Gerrera. The behavior and actions of these characters cannot be fully understood without first contextualizing the two broad philosophies that separate the evil Galactic Empire from the good Rebel Alliance.
We can look to the canon texts that have been created over the years to inform our understanding, specifically Star Wars: The Clone Wars (Filoni, 2008 – 2014) and Star Wars Rebels (Filoni, 2014 – ?) animated series as well as the saga Episode IV: A New Hope (Lucas, 1977).
In The Clone Wars, there are two general philosophies that, with some overlap, loosely define how the Galactic Republic prosecutes war against the Confederacy of Independent Systems: that of the Jedi Order and of the Republic Military.
In episodes 19 and 20 of The Clone Wars season 3, both of these philosophies are aptly verbalized by two characters that have immense narrative weight across many Star Wars stories: Wilhuff Tarkin, then only an Admiral, and Obi-Wan Kenobi, a Jedi Master and General.
Turning to the text, we witness Admiral Tarkin discussing the Jedi as war-fighters, “I find their tactics ineffective. The Jedi Code prevents them from going far enough to achieve victory, to do whatever it takes to win. The very reason why peacekeepers should not be leading a war” (The Clone Wars S3.E19 “Counter Attack”).
However, Obi-Wan offers an alternative take, “Unfortunately, war tends to distort our point of view. If we sacrifice our code, even for victory, we may lose that which is most important: our honor” (The Clone Wars S3.E20 “Citadel Rescue”). In this quote, we realize honor to be defined as a keen sense of ethical conduct or integrity. It is interesting to note the opening ‘fortune cookie’ statement at the beginning of S3.E20, “Citadel Rescue,” reads “Without Honor, victory is hollow.”
These two competing visions of how to conduct war, as well as how to deal with conflict, are why the Jedi Order are ultimately destroyed by the Galactic Military at the end of the Clone War. The destruction of the Jedi Order ushers in the era of the Galactic Empire, a vicious and totally unscrupulous organization that will use any means necessary, paramount the destruction of the Jedi Order, to achieve what they define as victory: domination of all peoples and their resources. For this reason, above all, the Galactic Empire is justly called the Evil Empire.
Interestingly, it is the Grand Master of the Jedi Order, Yoda, who provides the truest of all insights in the waning days of the Galactic Republic, “No longer certain that one ever does win a war I am. For in fighting the battles, the bloodshed, already lost we have” (The Clone Wars S6.E13 “Sacrifice”). Unfortunately, Yoda’s prediction is all too true and the Jedi Order does ultimately, and crushingly, lose the Clone War.
With the rise of the Galactic Empire, the philosophy of ‘victory by any means necessary’ is spread far and wide. The Galactic Empire stays on a war footing and their permanent industrialization of war material to further dominate the galaxy and engage in armed subjugation of all peoples does not only dishonor, dehumanize, and terrorize these free peoples but those who carry out such acts.
However, in such a scenario we are not surprised when the free peoples begin to take steps towards forming the Rebel Alliance. In the early days of this effort, seen in the animated Rebels series, we witness two instances where the philosophy of the Jedi Order is kept alive and incorporated into some of the rebel groups forming throughout the galaxy.
Not surprisingly, it is Yoda who acts as the agent of the Jedi philosophy by calling on the young Jedi Padawan Ezra Bridger to make a choice, “How Jedi choose to win, the question is” (Rebels S2.E18 “Shroud of Darkness”). Thankfully, we see that Ezra makes the honorable choice, as he communicates to fellow rebels, “How we choose to fight is just as important as what we fight for” (Rebels S3.E8 “Iron Squadron”).
This brings us to Rogue One and the depictions of Cassian Andor and Saw Gerrera. Neither character is from the rebel group that Ezra Bridger belongs to and it shows. Both characters have embraced the philosophy of the Galactic Empire: victory by any means necessary.
Interestingly, in marketing materials and articles in the run up to the release of Rogue One, Cassian Andor is described again and again as “not just a straight-laced officer … he’ll do whatever it takes to keep his intelligence operation running” (Inverse, Entertainment Weekly, StarWars.com).
Very quickly in Rogue One, we are shown how heartless Cassian can be, as he murders a rebel informant in a dank back alley to keep from being found out by the Empire’s storm troopers. Later in the film, Cassian is ordered by a Rebel Alliance superior to assassinate the father of his traveling companion, Jyn Erso. Though, we can see Cassian visibly hesitates, but ultimately, he does not question the order. Near the finale of the film, Cassian stands in front of a group of “spies, saboteurs, and assassins” who have all, ostensibly, committed dishonorable acts in the name of the Rebellion because they believed in the righteousness of the Rebel cause.
By this point in the film, Cassian has thankfully disobeyed orders to personally assassinate Jyn’s father, but that doesn’t change the fact that Rebel bombers did, in fact, kill Jyn’s father.
In Cassian, we can see a story of redemption and a character that has lived an evil philosophy in the interest of doing good, only to realize such methods will ultimately cost him his humanity. Instead, Cassian chooses sacrifice and honor as a means to achieve victory. We can see a reflection of the choice posed to Ezra by Yoda here. In the end, Cassian chooses wisely.
Not so for our second character, Saw Gerrera.
Originally created for season 5 of The Clone Wars, we meet Saw on his jungle home world. There, he is one of three leaders of a faction of freedom fighters struggling against the repression of the Confederacy of Independent Systems. His faction is aided in this fight by material and training from the Jedi Order. Saw cares deeply for the people of his home planet and their freedom, considering himself a patriot. Saw and his faction are ultimately successful in their fight, thanks in large part to the actions of the faction’s leader Steela Gerrera, his sister, and Ahsoka Tano, the Jedi Padawan who advised them.
When we met Saw in Rogue One, over two decades later, he is a very different character. Years of constant fighting have twisted and changed him into a reflection of Darth Vader, the fallen Jedi, both physically and philosophically.
In the run up to Rogue One’s release, Forest Whitaker, the actor portraying Saw described him thusly, “He’s talking about how you maybe make compromises that may harm people, or may harm the situation, or people may question it, but if you’re doing it for the good, there’s a positive thing about that. But what does it make you become? And how do you change as a person?” (Entertainment Weekly).
Indeed, Saw was also described as “he has become something — and it’s not quite a hero. Rather, he’s a man who has tried to do the right thing by occasionally doing questionable things” (Entertainment Weekly).
In Rogue One, we see that Saw’s body has been destroyed in the decades of fighting. Now the leader of a terrorist group called The Partisans, Saw’s left arm, legs, and feet are entirely robotic and he must always wear a special chest-unit that allows him to breath normally. The sound of Saw’s breathing is the same as Darth Vader’s famous in-take / out-take of mechanized breath.
To extract information, Saw commands the torture of an innocent pilot by subjecting him to a mind scrambling octopoid creature known as a Bor Gullet. This torture scene is a reflection of the mechanized means the Empire uses to torture its victims, from Kanan Jarrus to Leia Organa and from Han Solo to Poe Dameron.
Saw and his Partisans are considered extremists and terrorists by other rebels and have split with Rebel Alliance. Though, as the Rebel Alliance apparently relies routinely on assassinations, the hypocrisy is plain to see.
When we leave him, Saw has been fighting for over half his life and is a fallen character. He has fully embraced the dishonorable philosophy of the Empire: the ends justify the means.
One might imagine if the entire Rebel Alliance might have fallen into this philosophical trap had not the teachings of the Jedi been fully realized in empathy and naivety of Luke Skywalker as well as the politics of restraint and diplomacy practiced by his sister, Leia Organa.
Thankfully, with the stories of Luke and Leia already having been written, we know that the philosophy of the Jedi Order wins out in the redemption of Darth Vader. (Though, interesting to note that in The Force Awakens, three decades after the victory of the Rebel Alliance, Leia has been cast in the same light as Saw: a warmonger and terrorist.)
As a post-script, it was very difficult to find female representations / text speaking about the philosophy of the Jedi Order. The best example is Ahsoka Tano when she utters, in two separate instances, the phrase, “You’re beaten!” to her vanquished opponents. That is, Ahsoka does not kill her opponents and instead defeats them with the implicit offer of surrender. It is important to note that in neither of these two instances do the opponents surrender.