Sunday, June 24, 2012

Why the destruction of the first Death Star doesn't leave most mourning

[Originally posted at Ana Mardoll's Ramblings.]
[This could be seen as an extremely rough partial draft of a post I've been meaning to write about the role negative information (what wasn't said, what didn't happen) plays in the interpretation of fiction.  This is the first Death Star, in the original Star Wars.]

Its essentially the same mechanism that lets us not care when Luke blows up the Death Star and kills everyone on it- they aren't "real," they're just props to showcase the hero.
No. No, no, no. No.
That is not why blowing up the Death Star is considered an acceptable, even laudable, act of self defense.
I've been meaning to write an article on this for years, maybe someday I'll get around to it, but for now the short version.
When the Death Star is built it's an idea. When it first sets sail it's thought of as a deterrent. This ultimate power will cause the rebellion to collapse due to fear. That's what the higher ups say. When it is planned to be used against the planet with the Rebel base it becomes an overpowered weapon of war.
Then it blows up Alderaan. An unarmed non-rebellious planet with no strategic significance.
When the order was given there was no secret as to why, there were plenty of witnesses none of them sworn to secrecy. The goal was to publicly kill an entire planet full of innocent people to anoint the Death Star as a weapon of terror. Not a theoretical deterrent. An actual engine of mass murder whose purpose was to kill innocents until the other side backed down.
In that moment everything changed. Before then the Death Star was like the USSR's nuclear arsenal: there was no solid evidence it would actually be used in anything outside testing and demonstration. After that moment it was unmistakably a tool whose intended use was the annihilation of civilian populations.
Everything changed except for one thing: the absolute loyalty of everyone on the Death Star.
We don't shed a tear for them not because of what they are, but because of what they aren't. Not because of what they do, but because of what they don't do.
When the order was given no one tried to stop it. Not on the bridge, not in weapons control, not anywhere. With their part in the deaths of all those on Alderaan still on their hands no one tried to do anything. The imperials walk unaccosted through the halls. The engines run, The weapon charges up.
We don't see Tarkin running through the halls with his loyal bodyguards as they dodge incoming fire. We don't see a stormtrooper charging the loyalists in a desperate attempt to reach the weapons controls screaming, "For Alderaan!" We don't see the detention area being filled with those who tried to object to the whole mass murder thing. We don't see Vader tightening up security because of the threat of mutiny, we don't see the insurgent stormtroopers and TIE pilots and technicians and cafeteria workers getting together for a strategy meeting in a barricaded part of the Death Star.
We don't see an engineer crawling through maintaince tunnels in the hopes he can get to, and disable, the power source for the weapon before it can be fired again. We don't see someone saying that the trip to Yavin IV will take longer because sabotage has the engines running at less than peak efficiency.
We don't see threats used to keep the crew in line. We don't see nervousness that the person sitting next to a given imperial might be part of the mutiny waiting for the ideal moment to strike.
We don't see turbolasers being turned against the station itself by their operators. We don't see computer technicians trying to do whatever they can* to make Alderaan not happen again. We don't hear anyone saying, "Never again."
We don't see the resistance struggling to the last moment to stop that damned gun from going off. We never hear the battle cry, "Remember Alderaan!" We don't hear Tarkin say, "Evacuate? What the hell do you think I've been trying to do for the last twelve hours? We're cut off from the hangar bays!"
We don't see so much as a single person being relieved of command for refusing to obey orders. We don't see so much as a single person expressing moral qualms.
We don't see resistance. We don't see steps taken to thwart resistance.
What we do see is business as usual with all evidence supporting the idea that every single person there is a willing participant in mass murder. And that's why not a lot of grief is had for them. Because by their inaction they condone and moreover support mass murder. Vader and Tarkin couldn't run the station by themselves, and there's no evidence anyone who helped them do it was under any kind of coercion.
By their choices we condemn them, because they had the power to save billions, and they chose instead to be loyal mass murderers. Set pieces would not be judged so harshly. The population of Alderaan was composed of set pieces, yet their deaths are seen as tragic. Because they didn't go along with mass murder.
Now imagine if it had been slightly different, what if the Death Star were mostly populated by slaves? Or what if the imperials onboard had abducted people to be their mates. Or what if there were even a hint that those affected by the blowing up of the Death Star weren't there of their own free will?
Well that would change everything. The Death Star would probably still need to go (though a less than loyal population might open the door to other options besides kill everyone) but the ending would be much more down, and anyone who even thought about gloating would be clearly evil.
* "She doesn't even have access to the firing codes, she works on the guidance system." He says with far too much arrogance and not nearly enough respect.

There was a follow up post after it was suggested that the morality was simpler:
Fandom [...] has come up with these arguments. But they're a tiny minority of the people who have seen Star Wars. Jane Moviegoer isn't thinking about that. 
Your explanation still ascribes moral agency to the people on the Death Star- they're people who made bad choices. [...] Bad Guys go Boom because that's what happens to Bad Guys. And we know they're bad because they blew up a planet and killed Obi-Wan.
Actually, that's not from fandom, unless I am fandom all by myself. That's from something I was planning to write in on an entirely unrelated to Star Wars topic as an example of how common and necessary it is t o make judgments on what doesn't happen. It may not even be occurring on a conscious level, but how we interpret things depends very much on what we don't see.
Seriously, why are they bad guys?
[Added] To clarify, I'm not asking for a detailed moral argument. You started your explanation of typical experience from a premise of them already being bad guys, how does one reach that point? [/added]
It's not the armor. Han and Luke wore that.
It's not the affiliation, Leia was part of the imperial government.
It's not the location, every single one of the main characters was on that battle station at some point.
Them being badguys is entirely about negative information: None of them take off a helmet and say, "I'm John Watertreader, I'm here to rescue you." None of them get denounced by Darth Vader saying, "You are part of the Rebel Alliance and a spy." None of them do anything to resist.
With the exception of those tiny few directly involved in shooting at something (planets, ships, people), those non-actions are the only things that separate those on the Death Star when it explodes from the heroes.
Whether people are aware of it or not, they're judging those characters on what the characters didn't do.


  1. I think the difficulty is that you're ascribing moral agency to cardboard cutouts. Yes, if they were real people, they would all be monsters - and how likely is that, that you'd get the thousands of people needed to crew such a vessel and none of them would have any moral qualms? But they aren't real people. They are a painted background for the heroes to be heroic against. The heroes have to shoot unambiguous bad guys, so there must be unambiguous bad guys for them to shoot. Without the Death Star, there is no Luke Skywalker Hero of the Rebellion - there's just Luke Skywalker Discontented Moisture Farmer.

    1. I think that kind of skips the point though. If there were a line that said most of the workers on the Death Star were slaves they would still be cardboard cutouts, but the destruction of the Death Star would be judged quite differently in light of their deaths.

      The population of Alderaan is composed of cardboard cutouts, it's destruction is judged differently.

      Cardboard cutouts or not, they're getting judged by the viewer, and they're getting judged for what they did or didn't do.


      As for the odds that no one has moral qualms, I don't know, but I think the population of the Empire makes it vaguely more likely. How many people on earth could be found who would be that way after imperial indoctrination? How many earths would it take to have enough such people to fill a station with them? The Empire includes a lot of planets.

      But more than that, suspension of disbelief and judgement based on actions are not mutually exclusive.

    2. I believe I see your point, and this is where deleted scenes are best left deleted. You've seen the Biggs clip? ( if not.) He's pretty much the only significant person we see who straddles more than one faction - he's going to the Imperial Naval Academy, but he's still planning to be a rebel. That complicates things hugely, precisely because he's someone who's a little more subtle than "my side good, other side bad"; he can at least pretend to get along with the other side for a while, which is more than any of the major characters ever do.

      What's left in the film, with Biggs excised, is: you are on a side, you are blatantly on that side, and you stay on that side. There are no Imperial admirals who defect, any more than there are traitors in the Rebel camp. What I'm trying to get at, I think, is that it would be narratively impossible for the Death Star crew to rebel and therefore one can't castigate them for their lack of rebellion.

      (Which turns into the sort of character-aware-of-narrative thing that you do so well...)

  2. I think this debate results from erroneously assuming that these are exclusive viewpoints. They're not; judged from a Watsonian perspective, the crew of the Death Star are arguably morally culpable for the destruction of Alderaan. (What about the catering staff? Janitors? The Death Star is enormous, more like a small country than a ship; is every inhabitant of a nation culpable for atrocities its military commits? Is every member of the military?)

    Regardless of those questions, from a Doylist perspective there *is no* Death Star crew. The audience feels the destruction of Alderaan as a bad thing not because it is a horrific war crime that kills billions, because for the audience those billions don't exist. Leia and Ben do exist for us, because they are characters; they suffer when Alderaan is destroyed, they feel bad, and therefore we feel that it is a bad thing. There is no depiction of any character feeling bad about the destruction of the Death Star--they are all elated--and therefore so are we.

    However, as I said, these are not opposed readings. The people of Alderaan do not exist; they were never filmed, and thus logically cannot exist within the movie. No matter how much you watch it, how carefully you comb through it, you will not find any of them (except Leia, of course). The people of Alderaan logically must exist; the movie makes no sense without them. Leia must have family, friends, a culture, so that Tarkin can threaten her with their destruction.

    Both these statements are true, because they are true within different contexts.

  3. Initially I wrote up a comment disagreeing, but realized that I actually agreed more than I initially thought.

    The question “what about the good guys on the Death Star?” doesn't occur in the viewer's mind while watching the movie because the movie itself is not interested in the question. The movie never shows a single scene that would cause a viewer to wonder if everyone in the Empire is as evil as those in power. The movie devotes its screen time elsewhere; so in this sense the film dismisses moral ambiguity by not giving it any screen time. Negative information, as I think you would say, dismisses certain perspectives by not feeding them, so to speak.

    Of course, once we have our Clerks-style conversations and once we sit back and think about the movie, we can look at the movie from different points of view. The movie leaves a lot of empty room so that we can discuss different interpretations of the scenes (for example, maybe the reason the Stormtroopers were such terrible marksmen is because they were secretly allowing Leia and the rebels to escape), but in terms of the movie's own concerns, moral ambiguity just isn't one of them.

    So the movie won't arouse mourning in us, it ignores the question. The only time someone would mourn the destruction of the Death Star is if the viewer themselves brought something to the table that made them feel distressed at the destruction of the Death Star. And, much like you said, it is because we are never shown anything to cause us to question their loyalty to the alliance, that we are predisposed to just file all of the Death Star's crew under the “bad guy” category.

  4. I agree with your overall point, and believe it covers a good range of ground.

    I'm not sure how much of the following argument I agree with myself(Just War Theory is still a bit more grey than I'd like):

    Shouldn't this also fall under an 'acceptable targets in war' discussion? The Death Star is a military base writ large. Military forces by their nature are legitimate targets in warfare. Yes, any military base or structure will contain some non-combatants(janitors, etc), but the primary purpose of an attack on the Death Star is not against the non-combatants. Soldiers are assumed to be willing to die for their cause- in practice no battle or war will entirely avoid casualties or deaths even on the winning side. Anyone going into a war has a non-trivial chance to die.

    One of the parts of Just War is that you don't intentionally target civilians and non-combatants. It tends to get hand-waved more than followed unfortunately (even and especially in WWII, like massive bombing campaigns against cities). It gets used to excuse collateral damage- not every bomb or explosion is going to land on target, regardless of the portrayal of laser-guided munitions from the first Gulf War.

    If an enemy decides to base their troops in and around hospitals or civilian populations, then things devolve into a hostage situation with no good answers. On one hand, their military chose that location and put those civilians at risk; on the other the attacking side still directly causes those civilian deaths.

    Contrast with the target of the Death Star- an entire planet, with assumed billions of non-combatants. Most of whom were probably apathetic to the rebellion if not supporters of Imperial power.

  5. "Or what if there were even a hint that those affected by the blowing up of the Death Star weren't there of their own free will?"

    Well, we are at least shown that Vader is perfectly capable of and willing to kill subordinates at the slightest provocation; it's hardly a stretch to assume that by the time a soldier (who may have signed up for different reasons) realizes the true nature of the Death Star and what it's intended for, he's already in deep enough that trying to back out would result in execution. This is especially true because remember, up until the first few scenes of the movie (when we're informed the Senate was dissolved) many soldiers on the Death Star might have considered themselves loyal to the Republic and assumed that the Senate would never allow the weapon to be actually used as anything but an inactive deterrent, etc, etc.

    By the time they realized otherwise, things were already at the point where all orders would carry the implicit message of "or die."

    You could go on to argue that it's cowardice that keeps them from resisting, of course, but I don't think it's a stretch to assume that there's at least some coercion involved when the price of any sort of failure is shown to be death.

    1. I meant to respond to this so long ago, sorry for the delay if you're even still around.

      Maybe I just need to watch Star Wars again, but I don't think we are shown that Vader is willing and able to kill subordinates in the first movie. At that point he's still on a leash, as Leia puts it, and I don't think the killing starts until the next movie when Vader is allowed off-leash as a result of his previous leash holder dying in the destruction of the Death Star.

      If we had seen Vader killing for insubordination in the first movie, especially if someone had expressed doubt about blowing up planets and wound up dead as a result, with horrified colleagues looking on, I think that would have changed things a lot.