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Imperial Commander in Chief: A Review of Star Wars: Episode 3

Nicholas Powers May 25, 2005

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In Star Wars: Episode 3, Anakin Skywalker stands in for President Bush, a man tempted by power to give up his humanity. His real body is replaced, limb by limb, with machine parts so that when the black mask descends he is transformed into an apparatus of the Evil Empire. What little bipartisanship and will to compromise George W. Bush retained as he entered the White House was soon eclipsed by a heavy myopic mask of a crusader.

The drama here is the fall of men, hailed by a voice impossible to deny. If Louis Althusser, a Marxist philosopher, was in the audience, he might laugh at the resemblance between this drama and his own theory of ideological interpolation. In it he says that social control is maintained not by violence but by ideology, the calling out to an individual who hears not just the call but the promise of being, Althusser asserts that an inevitable split exists in each of us. Between whom we think we are, who we want to be and what we are afraid to become. In times of crisis these splits widen and threaten to collapse our identity. Ideology seals these splits. Anakin fears for his wife and believes the Emperor can save her and pledges himself to his new master. Bush, afraid for his soul after years of alcoholism, believes in God to save him, and pledges himself to his new religion. After 9/11, he turned to this divine voice again. It soothes doubt by giving him firm directions, evidenced by his 2003 State of the Union address, where he said, “The liberty we prize is not America’s gift to the world, it is God’s gift to humanity.”

The pleasure of believing in a larger cause is that one can sacrifice others without questioning if the claims of the cause are real. Darth Vader’s appeal stems from his unblinking cruelty – a twist of his gloved hand and the necks of incompetent officers snap.

Power becomes evil when it takes pleasure in itself, denies itself nothing. Enter President Bush. His conservative base is not conservative when it comes to waging war in the name of security. Voters who identify with him imagine themselves striding across the earth, gun in hand, to reclaim the world their fathers won for them, a world that was slipping back into the hands of the wretched of the earth.

This obsession with security fosters paranoid isolation. We need not respond to the world, only to God. Freud wrote, “What is characteristic of illusions is that they are derived from human wishes.” The benefit of the illusion of God is that we can have our wishes fulfilled without having to be held accountable for them.

It is this desire for power without responsibility that drives military experiments. Just as the Star Wars prequel opens, in timing that is more than mere chance, the Air Force has asked Congress to fund our first Death Star. Science fiction is becoming fact. The program, Global Strike, is a space-weapons system of satellites circling the earth, loaded with missiles that can hit cities with the force of a small nuclear weapon or use lasers to fry men to ash.

Why does our military need to dominate space? The usual answer is we must protect our nation from enemies. Yet what if our enemy is not rogue states or rising powers like China or India, but our own pride? Is that what is at stake, our privilege to represent Divine Will? Is that why one of the satellites is named “Rods from God”?

In contrast to our Biblical morality, we should balance a Greek myth. A court aide named Damocles flattered the tyrant Dionysius incessantly, until the emperor, tired of it, gave the aide a day in his life. After enjoying food, women and power all day, he lay in the king’s bed and was startled to see above him a sword held by a thin hair. He realized the lesson. Power is dangerous, both to those who wield it and to those in fear of it. Our Air Force has asked Congress for the money to build a sword in space. They believe the heavier the sword, the easier it is to wield.