You may have heard that there was a petition to the White House recently to advocate the construction of the Death Star. It received so many advocates, the White House was compelled to respond, and they produced this little gem.
This got me thinking about the purpose of building the Death Star in the first place, and whenever I do this, I invariably start wondering ‘why would the Empire do this?’ The Death Star would be enormously expensive to build, staff, maintain, and operate. It is essentially guaranteed to be plagued with design flaws, since what you’re doing is taking a design originally devised by Geonosians (who are hive-oriented, flying insectoid creatures) and adapting it to human occupants and then building it under contract from the lowest bidder. Also, if you find yourself in the midst of trying to quell a burgeoning rebellion, making a super-weapon that blows up planets is more likely to increase the sympathy for the Rebellion than decrease it.
I’m getting ahead of myself, though. Let’s go through this more methodically.
Blowing Up Planets? Why?
Okay, so the Death Star has the destructive power to blow up a whole planet’s mass. Fine. Here’s my question: Why is this necessary?
You don’t particularly need to destroy the actual physical mass of the planet, do you? Wouldn’t wiping out all life on the surface be sufficient? I would think so, since the thing you object to is not so much the sphere of matter upon which your enemies walk, but rather your enemies themselves. Killing everything on the surface of a planet isn’t really all that hard, when you consider that the Star Wars universe has access to things like tractor beams. Why shoot a super-laser when you can just get together a couple big tractor-beam ships and drag a huge asteroid on a collision course. Hell, you could just drag the asteroid over there, let her go, and BOOM–planet is screwed. This is bound to be cheaper and less prone to catastrophic failure. I mean, worse case scenario is your giant asteroid floats off and doesn’t hit the planet and you lose a few capital ships. You’re the Galactic Empire–you can soak that loss.
Then, even supposing you can blow up the planet and want to do so, that still makes it rather a bad idea. Planets, you see, are fairly useful entities to have around. Not only do they tend to contain things like minerals and water and so on, which are handy, they also act as good places to hide, establish bases, and are in all ways more useful than the massive debris field you’re seeking to replace them with. Seems like not the most efficient use of resources.
What About the Doctrine of Fear?
The whole reason the Death Star was built, though, wasn’t a tactical one; it was a political one. The idea was to create a weapon so damned scary that the whole galaxy would do what the Emperor wanted except without the need of a Senate to inconveniently disagree with him. It sounds okay on the surface, but it doesn’t actually work in practice. Never has. Sure, when the Death Star is in the neighborhood, folks will behave, but when it flies off somewhere, they’re still going to hate Palpatine’s guts. In fact, they seem all the more likely to help out (secretly of course) that rebellion that’s trying to overthrow the Empire. Why? Well, perhaps Machiavelli put it best:
…so long as you do not deprive [the people] of either their property or their honor, the majority of men live happily; and you only have to deal with the ambition of a few, who can be restrained without difficulty and by many means.
~Machiavelli, The Prince
What Machiavelli is getting at here is that you can do a lot of shit to people as their ruler and nobody will give you crap, but if you touch their homes or their families (specifically their spouses), they will go from simply being afraid of you to hating your guts. This a very, very important distinction. People who are afraid of you see there as being some chance of remaining on your good side indefinitely by simply listening to you, which will then allow them to live in relative peace. People who hate you have decided that there is no way they can live under your rule because they cannot tolerate your existence anymore. This happens if you blow up somebody’s planet (or somebody’s sister’s planet, or cousin’s, or wife’s, or if your kid was vacationing there).
Of note, most real-world despots who attempted to operate by the Doctrine of Fear have not come to good ends, and the speed with which they came to those bad ends was directly proportional to the amount by which the collected people of Earth hated their guts. The entire idea of rapacious tyranny has a long history of terrible, awful failure. It’s hard to imagine the Star Wars universe is substantially different.
Honestly, there is nothing wrong with the Imperial Fleet by itself. A fleet is hard to blow up all at once, you need it for a variety of purposes (not all of which are oppression related), it can do a number of things at the same time over a vast area, and, most importantly, you’ve already got one. The Death Star probably cost the same as, what, 150 Star Destroyers? Wouldn’t 150 additional Star Destroyers been a better buy? 150 Star Destroyers can destroy planets (or everything on top of them, and that’s what counts), they can be scary, and they are unlikely to go kablooey from one errant proton torpedo.
I imagine there were a couple accountants and high-level Imperial Bureaucrats who were thinking this, too. Of course, since they didn’t particularly relish being strangled by the Force, I’d bet they kept their mouths shut. Just goes to show, you should always ask your accountant’s honest advice before making massive investments like this. Then again, if Palpatine didn’t catch the hint the first time the Death Star exploded, I think we can safely say that a long and fruitful reign wasn’t in the cards for him.
George S. Patton once said “Fixed fortifications are monuments to the stupidity of man.” He was, at the time, referring to how the advent of combined arms, mechanized infantry, and mobile warfare had, more or less, rendered fixed defenses worthless in modern warfare. History has proven him right over and over again; hiding behind your wall or huddling in your fort not only fails to win wars, it can actually lose them.
And yet, we still love them so. Fantasy is awash in invulnerable castle after invulnerable castle; science fiction provides us with a stunning array of ridiculous space fortresses. Our hearts sing at the image of unassailable battlements flying the snow-white pennants of our allies. We look up and Minas Tirith and say ‘ooooooo!’
There’s just something about a really cool fortress, isn’t there? It hearkens back to childhood, where the tree forts with the retractable ladders kept away our little sisters and the right sign posted on a bedroom door would ward away any unsavory individuals from infiltrating our inner sanctum. We revel in that kind of invulnerability, that capacity to protect ourselves from the potentially harmful outsider. It’s basic, infantile obsessions with stability and security writ large.
It’s also complete bunk.
Think about the number of super-castles and space-bastions you’ve encountered. Now, ask yourself a follow up question: how many of them have really proven themselves as safe as advertised? Let’s face it, guys – anytime somebody wants to sneak in or out of a castle, they’ve done it. Sam and Frodo simply walked into Mordor, right? Minas Tirith was toast if it weren’t for Rohan and Aragorn’s army of ghosts. Both Death Stars were blown to smithereens by guys in tiny fighters. Wildlings jump over the Wall like it’s a sport. Andy Dufresne swam through a river of shit and came out clean on the other side. These impenetrable citadels are pretty much never unassailable. There is always a way in, and often all it takes is brute force. So, what does that say?
I think, perhaps, what’s going on here is the other side of that childish wish for security – the equally childish desire for power. For every kid that loves building sand castles, there’s another kid that loves to see the ocean wash them away. Often, they’re the same kid. Putting them together is great, but tearing them down is just as good. Why? Well, we gain the satisfaction of knowing we can protect ourselves (at least symbolically) and the added satisfaction that no one can be protected from us. Hell, isn’t that the basic ethos of the US Marine Corps?
When we see a fortress in science fiction or fantasy (or anywhere else, for that matter) we are observing humanity’s desire for order and stability. When we see one torn down, we witness humanity’s desire for chaos and change. This is a duality at the soul of what humanity struggles with all the time, everywhere. It’s in the news virtually ever single day. It controls our political spectrum, colors our dreams and fears, and determines where we build our homes and the kind of locks we put on our doors.
So, when Patton says those pretty castles and super-cool space fortresses are monuments to our own stupidity, he’s still 100% right. The thing is, though, that there isn’t a whole lot we can do about it. We still expect ambassadors in Libya to be safe when they hide inside particularly strong rooms. We still put our trust in our walls and our guns and our barbed wire, even though there’s a guy out there outmaneuvering us before we’ve finished laying the foundation.
Now, does this mean we stop trying to protect ourselves? Of course not. We couldn’t even if we wanted to. What it does mean, though, is that we should remember the lessons of those ancient (and currently unoccupied) fortresses of old and the ruins of those imagined fortresses of the supposed future – Change is coming. You can’t fight the Change, man. Learn to adapt.