Earth’s Wars Inspired Star Wars
Before Yavin, Endor and Scarif, there was World War II, Vietnam and Iraq
There’s a lot to love about Star Wars beyond exploding spaceships. There are spunky characters, magic space religions, fuzzy aliens, perverse love triangles and planets bristling with toothy fauna. But “wars” makes up half the title, and in many ways Star Wars has been modeled on the military and political character of World War II and Vietnam—and later Iraq and Afghanistan.
Right from the title crawl in A New Hope, Star Wars sketches out a conflict in which an out-numbered and out-gunned insurgency uses guerilla warfare and hit-and-run tactics to undermine a galactic superpower armed with weapons of mass destruction. As a rebel leader later observes in the third film, Imperial forces are “stretched thin” trying to hunt the rebels down, leaving key targets vulnerable to concentrated attacks.
It so happens A New Hope was released only two years after the fall of Saigon. George Lucas earlier had this little concept for an anti-war film set in Vietnam called Apocalypse Now—but instead passed that project on to Francis Ford Coppola. But Lucas still wanted to keep a thematic connection to the Vietnam War in the sci-fi series he was planning. A note written 1973 describes the story as “a large technological empire going after a small group of freedom fighters.”
Lucas intended the Rebels in Star Wars to represent the Viet Cong insurgents who resisted the overwhelming firepower of the U.S military. This metaphor was explicitly explored in the Battle of Endor in Return of the Jedi when hordes of indigenous Ewok teddy-bear aliens overcome a garrison of Imperial stormtroopers equipped with anti-gravity scout bikes and all-terrain armored walkers.
Unfortunately, the ground battle on Endor remains contentious. Even if the stormtrooper’s marksmanship and body armor prove ineffective against blaster-armed rebels, surely, they should stand up to Ewoks equipped with short bows and stone clubs? Though the film does establish that the Ewoks suffered losses, they seem light compared to the up to 2,500 Zulus who fell defeating the British at Isandlwana or the estimated 14,000 Vietnamese killed or wounded beseiging the French garrison at Dien Bien Phu. In other words—the film downplays a likely Ewok bloodbath.
Nonetheless, the Battle of Endor does depict how outgunned local forces can prevail through superior knowledge of terrain, ambush tactics, and greater motivation. Any tank commander knows that armored vehicles blundering through dense terrain without infantry to protect them easily fall victim to ambushes and close assaults, sometimes of a highly inventive nature.
However, most of Lucas’s battles were more clearly styled after World War II, and especially the German military. Even the term “stormtrooper” stems back to the German Strosstruppen battalions.
The ice planet Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back happens to share the name of a German general who in 1942 drove the 4th Panzer Army through Russian snowstorms in a futile attempt to rescue surrounded German troops slowly freezing to death in Stalingrad.
Rebel forces on Hoth are confronted by larger AT-AT walkers that even their specialized anti-tank weapons cannot penetrate—a terrifying situation also experienced by American G.I.s at the battle of Kasserine Pass as they battled German Tiger tanks. Unlike the Ewoks or the Viet Cong, the Rebels are forced to confront a superior force head-on over open terrain and do not prevail.
Even the blasters are mostly World War II small arms. The stormtroopers’ E-11 blaster rifles are based on the Sterling submachine gun devised in 1944 for British commandos.
The Rebels’ heavier A280 rifle is actually a thinly disguised German MP-43 assault rifle. Meanwhile, the long DLT-19 blaster rifle in A New Hope is a barely modified German MG.34 machine gun.
At top — a Star Wars E-11 blaster. Above — a Sterling submachine gun
But nowhere is Star Wars’ World War II inspiration more noticeable than in the space battles. Rebel X-wings and Imperial TIE fighters spray bursts of laser fire at each other at short range, juking and weaving to get a clear shot on their enemy’s tail. Defensive turret guns ward off marauding fighters, while huge capital ships deploy fighter screens and fire broadsides using large, direct-fire turbolasers.
Of course, not only would realistic space battles little resemble air or naval battles. For example, spaceships should not “bank” majestically in a zero-gravity environment. Star Wars’ space combat didn’t even reflect the capabilities of missile-armed ships and jet fighters in service during the Vietnam War.
The latter could travel up to twice the speed of sound and engage targets beyond visual range. When Star Wars flight simulators calculated the speed of an X-wing, they arrived at a figure of only 220 miles per hour—considerably slower than most World War II-era fighters!
Lucas’s initial screening of A New Hope to studio executives even used scenes from the B-17 bomber epic 12 O’Clock High to fill in for the special effects shots still in the works. The studio executives were not impressed, but they ought to have been—12 O’Clock High used gun-camera footage from real air battles, and many of the finished space battles scenes were made by translating spaceships on top of it!
Nonetheless, Rebel starfighters better resemble the third-generation fighter jets of the Vietnam War than their “technologically superior” Imperial opposites. The X-wings, Y-wings, A-wings and B-wings are multi-role fighters equipped with multiple weapon systems, hyperdrives for long-range strike capability, modular communication, navigation and repair systems, backseat weapon-systems officers on the Y-wing and rechargeable shields.
By contrast, Imperial TIE fighters lack these advantages, come only in single-role variants and require capital ships to transport them from one system to another. The TIE fighter’s expendable, mass-produced nature is meant to reflect the Empire’s villainy.
Another curious quirk to the original trilogy universe is that Imperial leadership and military personnel are exclusively white, male and human. In the Empire Strikes Back they also had English accents, a call-back to the American Revolutionary War.
While this was also true of the Rebels in A New Hope, by Return of the Jedi, the Rebel Alliance is a multi-racial coalition led by a female civilian commander-in-chief and an alien admiral. Expanded universe writers noted this contrast, causing the Empire to be portrayed as an explicitly patriarchal and xenophobic state.
The original Star Wars trilogy vaguely established that the Empire, a personalistic military dictatorship, had formerly been a democratic Republic before it was corrupted from within. Thus, the fall of the Old Republic served as the main plot of the prequel trilogy.
Lucas says he modeled the Republic’s seduction into authoritarianism on the self-destruction of Germany’s democratic Weimar Republic, in which an inconclusive election led to the appointment of Adolf Hitler to chancellorship.
The Galactic Senate
Like Hitler, Counselor Palpatine gins up or outright manufactures the threat of external enemies to shutdown democratic institutions—at first, using democratic means. Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith depict senators willingly voting to cede power to the executive branch and give carte blanche for military actions out of fear of military vulnerability.
Just as Hitler permanently suspended civil liberties to consolidate his rule in the wake of the burning of the Reichstag—ostensibly done by Communists, but likely by Hitler’s own supporters—Palpatine would use a failed attempt by the Jedi Council to arrest him as a pretext to order the murder his political opponents via Order 66 and establish a military dictatorship.
The war on terror was in full swing by the last prequel movie, 2005’s Revenge of the Sith. Media detailing Palpatines’ senate-approved laws cracking down on civil liberties clearly paralleled the Patriot Act formulated by the Bush administration to combat terrorism, which passed with strong congressional support in 2001.
The prequels also revisited earlier Vietnam tropes. Indigenous natives confront mechanized opponents in the Battle of Naboo and more successfully at Kashyyyk, where they prevail because they are defending a beachhead and are damned Wookies.
Attack of the Clones introduced awesome LAAT gunships bristling with turret guns and rockets that deploy troops directly into battle via open side doors using air assault tactics reminiscent of the helicopter-mobile air cavalry in Vietnam.
The prequel films also all depict entire armies of combat drones—er, droids—substituting for human soldiers, but they are not shown to be especially deadly, in part due to the vulnerability of their command-and-control nodes. Instead the low-cost droids rely on sheer numbers to perform networked ‘swarming attacks’—which some military theorists believe may be the future of warfare.
Nearly four decades after Star Wars hit the theater, the film Rogue One finally moved beyond the Vietnam and World War II paradigms to embrace the moral confusion of Afghanistan and Iraq. One of its key insights is that good guys in the original Star Wars trilogy are insurgents—the kind of combatants the U.S. military is usually fighting today.
The observation that the Empire’s overwhelming military might and deployment of air and ground assets in counter-insurgency operations across a global — er, galactic — theater made it rather similar to the U.S. military has been the source of amusing and intelligent parody.
However, the morally pristine Rebel Alliance of the original trilogy seems far removed from the ethical compromises and collateral damage a war of resistance would surely entail.
By contrast, in Rogue One, a Rebel spy blackmails and murders an informant to cover his escape. The Rebel Alliance has an extremist splinter group—a sort of ISIS to the Rebel Al-Qaeda—that tortures a prisoner and springs an ambush in a public market places that results in civilian casualties in a battle scene that clearly intended to evoke the urban warfare experienced by U.S. troops in Iraq.
The Battle of Endor
These ethically dubious actions aren’t presented as good things—the perpetrators are scarred by their deeds, and the Alliance is politically and militarily divided by them—but they reflect a sober acknowledgment of the moral perils rebellions against tyranny inevitably involve.
Later in the film, the Rebels dispatch an airstrike to take out a high-value target who it turns out is secretly a rebel sympathizer. Worse, friendly forces enter the target area of the air strike, but the spotter is unable to cancel the attack.
The sequence once again reinforces the inability to precisely control the consequences military violence. It’s a far cry from the sanitized warfare of the original trilogy.
Rogue One also shows that even the opponents of an evil regime can be crippled by infighting, and vary in their political convictions and their willingness to take risks. This explains both the failure of Syrian rebels to unite in opposition to Bashar Al Assad’s dictatorship in Syria and why Rebel Alliance space support almost doesn’t show up for the final battle of the film.
Star Wars is often dismissed as a vapid pop-culture spectacle devoid of meaningful social, political or historical critique. Undoubtedly, the lenses with which it portrays war and politics tend to look more to the past than the future.
Yet as each iteration of the sci-fi franchise revises its depiction of armed conflicts and the political and moral context behind them, the films continue to reflect America’s evolving experiences of and attitudes towards war.