September 27, 2023

Was the planet’s destruction a justifiable military strategy?

In a previous article (“The politics of a Galaxy Far, Far Away”) I compared Galen Erso’s work on the Death Star to that of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s work on the Manhattan Project, which produced the world’s first atomic bomb. Continuing on with that train of thought, I will now discuss the Empire’s use of the Death Star and the destruction of the peaceful planet of Alderaan. In this article, I will make the following two arguments:

  1. The Death Star was a valid integral aspect of the Empire’s larger strategic deterrence program.
  2. The destruction of Alderaan was justifiable as a potential means to prevent further galactic warfare.

Since the use of the first nuclear weapons in 1945, the world’s most powerful militaries have implemented a policy known as strategic deterrence. Spoken plainly, deterrence is the ultimate combination of “peace through strength” and President Theodore Roosevelt’s “walk softly and carry a big stick.” In other words, you ensure the enemy knows full well that you have the biggest weapon available and you will not hesitate to use it. In doing so, you guarantee you never have to.

In our universe, the “big stick” is of course nuclear weapons. The United States has the largest arsenal of nuclear weapons in the hope that they will never have to be used. In the Star Wars universe, the equivalent would have to be the Death Star. On a galactic scale the Empire had many enemies, so it would make sense that it would create such a weapon for the purpose of deterring those enemies from ever waging all out war. Now the unfortunate naming of the space station and the oppressive means by which the Empire obtained the resources for its construction are matters for another time, but I firmly believe that the idea of the Death Star was a valid means of strategic deterrence from a galactic standpoint.

Before I delve into my discussion about the justifiability of destroying Alderaan, I want to make a few points that may make it easier to understand my argument. The first is that I would argue that many of our feelings about the Death Star and the Empire in general stem from our view of Grand Moff Tarkin. At a minimum the man was cruel, ruthless and calculating. Quite possibly he was downright evil. For this discussion however I would ask that you temporarily dismiss your thoughts of him and take this strictly from a military perspective. Secondly, even though the majority of Star Wars fans side with the Rebel Alliance, from the Imperial perspective, they were insurgents that had to be put down. The term “terrorist” is now even being used in Star Wars novels. Lastly, as art imitates life, the real life comparison I will be using to make this argument is the Allied Forces’ use of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end World War II. Any loss of life is tragic, so I do not in any way wish to minimize the hundreds of thousands of lives lost those days or the millions lost over the course of that war.

In the final analysis, what is war? War is a complex game (for lack of a better term) of numbers. This may sound inhumane, to which I would respond that war in its very essence is inhumane. Commanders must continually analyze the numbers and take calculated risks. Parameters to consider are along the lines of resources available, estimated casualties, possible civilian casualties, and even predicted public response.

Approximately 200,000 souls were lost when Little Boy and Fat Man (the names given to the atomic bombs) were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This number is startling, however the justification was that by taking those lives, hundreds of thousands (possibly millions) of lives would be spared by avoiding a full land invasion of the main islands of Japan. The world’s population at that time was approximately 2.4 billion so casualties those days equate to about 0.08% of the entire population.

When Tarkin coldly said, “You may fire when ready,” Princess Leia helplessly looked on as approximately 2 billion of her fellow Alderaanians “cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced.” Again, 2 billion is an incomprehensible loss of life, but now it is necessary to put this number on the galactic scale because that is level at which this war was being waged. Various sources put the Star Wars galactic population at upwards of 1 quadrillion sentient beings. That is a 1 followed by 15 zeros. So although 2 billion may seem an unacceptable amount of casualties, it amounts to a mere 0.0002% of the population with which the Empire was concerned. Note that proportionally this is less than what was lost in 1945.

The other argument against Alderaan’s destruction was that it was peaceful, weaponless, and mostly civilian. I agree. I do not condone purposefully attacking targets that are widely civilian. Alderaan however was home to Bail Organa, a key leader in the Rebel Alliance. Symbolically speaking, this was a crushing blow to the insurgents across the galaxy. Additionally, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were both vastly civilian targets, and military historians (a majority, not all) have deemed that justifiable in that it brought a “swift end” to World War II.

In the end, in order to maintain peace in the galaxy, it is understandable that the Empire would employ an enormous space station as a method of strategic deterrence against large scale attacks. If it thought that Alderaan’s destruction would dissuade the rebellion from waging further war, its destruction was also justified.

So what do you think? Might there be a bit of truth to what I’ve presented, or am I completely off-base? Leave me a comment, let me know, and as always, may the Force be with you!

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