Heir to Discord: What Star Wars Can Show Us about Keeping Democracy

George Lucas conceived Star Wars and its characters from experiences in his lifetime and observations of the world around him, using them to inspire the famous space opera. One such figure was Emperor Palpatine, the force-wielding Sith Lord who took over the Old Republic and created the tyrannical Galactic Empire, known for its white clad stormtroopers and mechanical planet destroying Death Star.  Lucas admitted that Palpatine was inspired by the character and actions of Richard Nixon, the disgraced President of the United States who resigned following exposure of his actions during the Watergate Scandal. His willingness to circumvent the law, believing himself above the laws, incurred the worst scandal in the history of White House. Only the Iran-Contra Scandal, the mishandled arms sales to Iran to obtain influence in the release of hostages, and the subsequent illegal funding of the Contra rebel groups in Nicaragua, all against the will of Congress, rivals it infamy.

Many authors and independent filmmakers, wanting to continue the Star Wars franchise beyond the original trilogy, wrote books, comics, small films, and video games, creating iconic characters and stories of the famous Expanded Universe. One character in particular stands out: Thrawn, Grand Admiral of the Imperial Starfleet, the last of Palpatine’s great commanders who once spread fear across the galaxy. Thrawn is a blue-skinned, red-eyed alien called a Chiss, blessed with a great mind and intelligence for strategy, and gifted with deep understanding of his enemy’s psychology, through his observance of alien art. Across three books published by famous science-fiction writer Timothy Zahn (and subsequent smaller works earlier in Star Wars’ chronological events), he leads the remnants of a shattered Empire in a great campaign that nearly shakes the Republic into submission. Fortunately for the Republic, Thrawn is assassinated before he can complete this campaign by the treachery of his own bodyguard.

Thrawn (along with his lieutenant, Captain Gilad Pellaeon) represents an Empire that is almost completely detached from its political masters, a nearly failed state, as the military leads the desperate campaign against the Rebel Alliance. The Moffs, governors, and advisors of the Emperor, much like the feared Wilhuff Tarkin, commander of the Death Star, are not even mentioned in the three books Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising, and the Last Command. From his Star Destroyer Chimaera, Thrawn wages galactic diplomacy by the sword, either negotiating from positions of intimidation, or destroying opposition with cunning ruthlessness. Never does he involve the political establishment that is alluded to, but never present until after his assassination. He acts on behalf of the government that exercise no oversight over the patriotic leader and his military staff.

So if Palpatine is Nixon, does Thrawn represent Ronald Reagan? No. if we think about the Thrawn Trilogy as a continuation of a narrative of imperial collapse, it’s symbolic of the gradual encroachment of the national security state on the institutions of political governance? He is really a caricature of Colonel Oliver North while Pellaeon and others are those of the National Security Council (NSC). North was an official in the NSC you was responsible for policy planning alongside John Poindexter, National Security Advisor, and cabinet officers like Casper Weinberger, Secretary of Defense. These and other faceless bureaucrats of the intelligence and defense community, were involved, and broadly interpreted their powers and flexibility in an environment of secrecy, hidden away from the halls of Congress.

While North was not destroying planets, he was attempting to address a continuous hostage crisis in Lebanon by terrorists. He was concerned about fighting the communist threat in Nicaragua. He executed executive plans to fund the Contras with money obtained from the arms sales, knowing he was violating federal laws established by Congress. His attempts to both involved circumventing and deceiving political leadership subverted the democratic process and committed the country to a foreign policy disaster with the knowledge of the President.

Though unclear how much Reagan knew, the Tower Commission, the presidential appointed body that investigated Iran-Contra, noted that the President was too disengaged with his national security staff. The United States possesses a very active national security state, with broad powers exercised by the President and his executive staff to fulfill the various roles of Commander and Chief, Chief Diplomat, Head of State, etc. While Roosevelt utilized his powers more exclusively as a single man in cooperation with his secretaries, modern presidents like Kennedy, Nixon, Reagan, and Bush weighed heavily on White House staffers and attached offices, like the National Security Council (NSC). By the 1980s, there was a political retreat by Congress from its post-Watergate reforms and involvement in national security formulation, as the NSC exercised ignorance of the Boland Amendments to fund the Contras in Nicaragua. So where are the political leadership (Reagan, Congress, and the Imperial Moffs)? They are still there, but they have either ceded powers of accountability voluntarily, or simply surrendered them from a position of weakness.

So what does the story of Thrawn have to say about our democracy and our ability to guerrilla wars or terrorism? It is easy for political leadership to surrender the prerogatives of the democratic system to national security, especially at times of perceived crises and severe psychological challenges to the morale of the country. North and Poindexter face a challenge to American legitimacy in the Middle East and Latin America, while political will from Congress is paralyzed to inaction. Both these men are gambling with little interest in the means of achieving their ends, but only driven by their own moral and political flexibility to uphold national interests at any cost.  

In Heir to the Empire, the Republic has backed the Empire into a corner, forcing the Imperial leadership to cede power to Thrawn whose intelligence and charisma earns the fear and loyalty of his troops. The national security apparatus takes control government, directing policy from warships light years from the capital, detached from government oversight. Thrawn and Pellaeon produce an army of clones that symbolize powerful dominance over all government, perpetuate policies enslaving a planet of professional assassins, and later negotiating with criminal warlords and smugglers to terrorize opposition.

In the end, both men are victims of overreach, both internationally and domestically. Thrawn is assassinated by his bodyguard, while Pellaeon is forced to conform to the wishes of his political masters whose power is restored. In real life, Congress holds the President and the scandal perpetrators accountable for their actions through a series of trials, government reporting, and official recommendations that strengthen legislative oversight of the national security state. But both have an ultimately sad result: the erosion of confidence in the government to uphold essential national interests for their citizens (see Zahn’s Hand of Thrawn) and to restore the balance between the national security state and political leadership. Today, the military and military industrial complex has a strong influence on policy, and the President has enormous resources at his (or her) disposal to obtain information and direct public debate on foreign policy issues. The same is true with Thrawn and his successor Pellaeon.  

We need to remember that the balance between freedom (civil liberties, due process, the checks and balances of gov’t) and security is delicate. The current state of world affairs is filled with uncertainty, fear, and violence, with adversaries like ISIS, who attempt to erode the legitimacy of America and the West. In the clamor for immediate action and satisfaction, we cannot overlook the need to hold government accountable to the laws of the land, and maintain our roots in the face of fear. By giving in, we are forfeiting the liberty of public discourse on important, nationwide issues to the faceless and unaccountable bureaucracy, whose interests are more easily corruptible than the mass of citizenry, or a single publicly elected leader like the President of the United States.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Chris says:

    I like the direction that you’ve taken this discussion, but I see stronger parallels between the Star Wars Universe and other periods of history, particularly Ancient Rome.

    The rise of Julius Caesar, the equivalency of military might with political power, and the fact he was killed by his body guards come to mind.


    1. I never made a connection from Thrawn to Caesar before. That’s interesting. Palpatine is my version of Octavian.


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