In Star Wars: The Force Awakens (the latest iteration of the franchise), it is revealed that stormtroopers are known to one another not by ‘names’ but by an assigned letter and series of numbers (e.g. f4570). The viewer also learns that stormtroopers are ‘programmed’ from a young age. As well as serving to emphasise the good/evil dichotomy and embellish the rebel’s status as ‘the just’ – because like the societies we inhabit they allowed names and individuality – this also goes someway to explaining the motivation of stormtroopers and provides a condition for our developing sympathy towards them. They are ‘brainwashed’ and hence not entirely at fault for their misdeeds.
In another scene, a stormtrooper is portrayed showing concern for a felled comrade and attempting CPR. This is also the first instance (I am aware of) in the Star Wars series that we see the blood of a stormtrooper, a result of blaster fire – prick them do they not bleed? But this scene does not anticipate a ‘humanisation’ of stormtroopers later in the film as it could have done; it is a plot device to establish the character of an individual stormtrooper (indicating ‘I am not like the others’, rather than ‘they are all like me’)
Whatever the influences behind Star Wars, which are undoubtedly many, one theme the original trilogy exploited was the trauma of Nazi Germany. Stormtroopers – the name is derived from tactical innovation of the German military in WWI – are like the rank and file Nazis doing the bidding of an evil dictator. This is an incredibly common theme in film and story – and one shared by JRR Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit; stories which were written, in part, in reaction to the Nazi’s and their ideology.
To return to the naming convention of stormtroopers: what the inclusion of the latest movie’s little explanatory detail (namelessness) should highlight, is not so much the Empire/First Order’s callousness toward individual dignity but that it was under George Lucas’ own regime that stormtroopers were given no name for decades.
George Lucas the director, not the Emperor conditioned the behaviours of the stormtroopers. He gave them no names, made them appear to lack intention, passion, (and dare I say it, ability) and covered their faces and bodies with “protective” clothing. But their iconic white and black outfit does not protect them. The darkside of the anonymity provided is that it protects the rebels, and ourselves by extension, from seeing the face of stormtroopers. As they lay anonymously in piles, it protects us from troubling ourselves with the question of whether we ought to grant them a moral status** – this is also the sordid aspect of being portrayed as ‘brainwashed’ (because they can be utterly innocent and simultaneously utterly irredeemable). Do stormtroopers dream of organic sheep? Do they have beds? Do they sleep?
George Lucas is far from the only director to exploit the psychological capacity for pseudo-speciation. Yet, there should be something discomforting about a metaphorical ‘just war’ which deploys one of the Nazis most heinous tactics – the dehumanisation of enemies – as done to the Jews, many Poles, homosexuals and other “Untermenschen”***.
In Star Wars, the dehumanisation of the stormtroopers, which serves the purpose of the Emperor, also happens to serve the purpose of the Rebels because it annuls their violence of sin.
Who is Who?
Marx’s famous dictum “history is written by the victors” may apply here. Who really are the ‘good guys’ in the Star Wars story? The ones whose tale involves the slaughter of many faceless, inconsequential villains by a guerrilla force? Or the inter-galactic empire with a, necessarily, complex functioning trade network?
Scepticism can also be applied to key elements of plot, such as the representation of the death star as a weapon used to annihilate planets on a whim (Why?). One of telling signs of a lie is when the explanation it offers fails to provide plausible motives. Is Star Wars and other stories like it just the story we tell ourselves to exonerate ourselves from any misdeed?
To return to JRR Tolkien. The Hobbit, like Star Wars was oriented toward a young audience. Perhaps that is why in Peter Jackson’s movie adaptations, so few of the band of the in-group (hobbits) meet their demise while the same can not be said for the out-group folks – goblins, trolls, orcs etc. – which are slaughtered in great numbers. Like the stormtroopers, we do not need to ask if these baddies deserve our sympathy. Just as the stormtroopers are faceless, these are ugly, stinky and make lots of aggressive overtures; there is also evidence that they are petty, unprincipled and fight with one another. While the movie portrays the Hobbits as fighting for their lives out of self-defence, this seems hard to countenance when considering objective factors, such as the trail of bodies.
Is it a case of intentions trumping consequences? Like the Rebels who respect individuals by giving them names, are the actions of Hobbits supported by some greater ideal that goblins lack? Ideals that we ourselves like to elevate?
Is this just another story we like to tell ourselves about ourselves? That our enemies are bad and irredeemable whereas we ourselves are dandy.
**It is interesting that those in hierarchical positions of power in the Star Wars universe (such as Darth Vader and the Emperor, or Kylo Ren**** in the newest film) do not, to my knowledge, harm the lowly stormtrooper out of vengeance. They do not harm these faceless minions (except indirectly) and when they are angry they kill high ranking figures (with faces) instead. The fact that they kill those more easily recognised as people, perversely emphasises their wanton violence despite the lower body count.
*** The strength of this psychological susceptibility is evident in the very fact that we cannot write ‘Nazi’ without invoking a face-of-evil generalisation (the Nazis are beyond moral consideration because they’re Nazis, now excised from their humanity and their Germaness); Hannah Arendt’s ‘banality of evil’ is one major exception to this.
**** As an aside I wonder if the choice of Ren as a surname was calculated as a subliminal play for the Chinese market – ren (人）meaning person in Mandarin Chinese.