It starts, as these stories always do, with a sleek spaceship swooping out of the void, headed for trouble.
Follow the camera as it lingers lovingly on the ship: a chrome wonder in blue and gold, its swooping lines recalling the retro futurism of the old Concorde supersonic airliners, the symbol of utopia deferred. It’s on an urgent mission, bearing Sen. Padmé Amidala to the imperial center of Coruscant — a planet-spanning art deco New York — on a mission to stave off war.
Eight years after the skirmish above Naboo that served as the close to Episode I, the Galactic Republic is at peace, in the sense that it is not technically at war. A peculiar, deathly-still quiet sits across the polity like the still air before a thunderstorm. Frustrated — or emboldened — by the government's inability to keep public order, thousands of star systems have voted to secede. It is not yet clear what this will mean, and the Republic has not yet voted to try to restrain them. In fact, it is not even clear that the Republic could restrain them, because the Republic doesn't appear to have any sort of formal military.
At least, not yet. That's why Amidala is here: to fight down the attempt of those we might call the Federalists to bring the Separatists back by force. For the first time in remembered Republic history, a group of Senators, spurred by the secession, is proposing that the Republic raise a standing army.
We don't know yet how the boosters of this army have sold it. With fulminations of blood and thunder or promises of peace and security? As an army to defend democracy? A weapon so terrible it will never have to be used? But we know that it scares the shit out of Amidala, who we last saw in a minor shooting war on her home planet, and who very much does not want to see the same thing break out on a galactic scale.
No sooner has Amidala's ship docked on a landing pad near the Senate — a dreamworld knock-off of the United Nations complex in Manhattan — when a bomb goes off, scattering the party. One of Amidala's assistants is critically wounded; she lays dying on the landing pad, her body abandoned as the guards rush the senator away to safety.
In the parlance of the world where George Lucas and his cowriter Jonathan Hales sit writing — California, United States of America, the earliest 2000s — it's a terrorist attack. But more than an attack, it is an assault: an assassination attempt on a sitting Senator, and therefore on the Senate itself.
In the shooting script — though not in the movie — Lucas and Hales play up the import of this moment. “I was the target but, more importantly, I believe this security measure before you, was the target,” Amidala tells the Senate. “I have led the opposition to build an army ... but there is someone in this body who will stop at nothing to assure its passage.” Offering the separatists violence will only prompt more violence in return, she warns: “Many will lose their lives. All will lose their freedom. This decision could very well destroy the very foundation of our great Republic. I pray you do not let fear push you into a disastrous decision.”
Finally, she begs them to vote down the Military Creation Act, “which is nothing less than a declaration of war! Does anyone here want that? I cannot believe they do.”
It is a strange and pathetic performance. Amidala — the staunchest opponent to war — cannot believe that anyone before her seeks war; that anyone sees any opportunities in mass violence, mass government spending, the mobilization of vast fleets and armies, and the similarly vast expansion in authority they promise. She cannot bring herself to believe that anyone wants one. Not even as the war fever swirls around her, promising clarity and purpose to a polity and its politicians creaky with disappointment and rank with the whiff of failure.
Welcome to Decline and Fall, a Heat Death series about history, America, and Star Wars. As always, we’re Asher and Saul Elbein, your humble guides. Last time, we discussed Episode I, wherein a relatively minor crisis in galactic trade flared up in ominous warning of coming trouble, and the 1990s, which contained their own portents—domestic terror attacks, corporate consolidation—of encroaching doom.
When we rejoin the story in May 2002, Episode II: Attack Of The Clones has just hit theaters. Nine months previously, a series of shocking terrorist attacks have rocked another imperial center.
Let's start with the obvious. On September 11, 2001, a group of undercover agents from the international Al Qaeda network — the private army of rogue Saudi billionaire Osama bin Laden — took control of four American airliners and successfully crashed three of them into the New York World Trade Center and Washington's Pentagon, the home of the Department of Defense.
In military terms, the airliner assault was immediately described as the worst attack on U.S. soil since the Empire of Japan's surprise 1941 raid on Pearl Harbor. But that comparison substantially understated both the audacity and the historic damage — both in real estate and psychic terms — of bin Laden's commandos.
For all the battleships sunk by Japanese dive bombers in 1941, Pearl Harbor was a military base on an occupied indigenous kingdom, out in the middle of the far-off Pacific. By contrast, 9/11 — as it was soon totemically known — was a targeted assault on the very center of American military and financial power. Adding insult to injury, it was carried out using one of the greatest symbols of 20th century utopian modernity: the passenger jetliners which had made crossing the planet as easy as taking a night-bus. The airline industry and the great age of globalism had put every major city on earth, and most of the minor ones, within a day's journey of each other — and now the jet fuel that made those journeys possible was used to sow flaming death in the very heart of American power.
The attacks were also a disturbing bit of blowback from America’s own foreign policy. Bin Laden's private army had been covertly armed, trained and funded by the United States itself, in order to fight as anti-Soviet paramilitaries in Afghanistan. It was a useful little war one which not only served to bleed the Russians out in endless, grinding counter-insurgency, but also as a useful safety valve for young Gulf Arab men whose restlessness, political awakening, and frightening new religiosity, Riyadh and Washington both agreed was best directed elsewhere.
Afghanistan was the elsewhere: a comfortably distant frontier for violence that might otherwise have been directed closer to home. And out of the hell of that war, fueled with American and Saudi cash, a new form of Islam crystallized: a swaggering, misogynistic warrior culture, wedded to the imagined puritanical virtues of the austere desert past. This macho revival proved an extremely seductive package for aimless Muslim kids across the Western alliance, from Germany to the Persian Gulf. For young weirdos turned off by the hegemonic package of McWorld — as American political scientist Benjamin Barber called it — jihadi groups like Al Qaeda offered something like what the Jedi would offer Anakin Skywalker: purpose, and a chance to reject an alien future in favor of a apocalyptic, martial fantasy of clashing civilizations.
Luckily for them, a good chunk of American culture was jonesing for a similar hit.
Hours after the planes brought the towers down — in a brutal parody of a decade of Hollywood destruction of American landmarks — United States commandos were on their way to Afghanistan, where bin Laden's fighters had their base. (Saul and Asher sat with Papa Elbein, the three of them crowded around a tiny television, fiddling with the antennae so we could capture a blurry broadcast depicting rockets from the anti-Islamist opposition arcing into the Afgjan capital of Kabul.) Within days the Taliban were faltering before commando attacks and air strikes; within weeks they had been routed to the mountain frontiers with Pakistan, and U.S. politicians were talking about building a new democratic bulwark in Afghanistan.
That was the background against which Attack of the Clones opened, and the war fever and sense of paranoia it opens with — the ponderous, pompous questions about freedom versus security, about the nature of democracy itself — feels ripped straight out of that time. The result is a film that accidentally functions as a period-piece-cum-satire of 2002 America, filtered (lightly) through the peculiar lens of a creature-feature space opera; the arguments and conflicts between its characters tracking the ones that happened on cable news, as the nation's leaders dragged and cajoled it towards yet another new war.
Keepers Of The Peace
Unlike America on the eve of 9/11, however, the Republic in Attack of the Clones is not prepared for a fight. Its only centralized fighting force appear to be the warrior monks of the Jedi Order, a cloak-wearing, mystical, multi-species police force of magic adepts. While genuinely dangerous fighters in certain situations, they have generally been able to quell disputes with a minimum of force and a maximum of moral authority.
The Republic has been at peace so long, however, that Jedi power may be yet another institution that has rotted without anyone particularly noticing. Its masters — elected head Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson, bald badass) and elder statesman Yoda (Frank Oz, Kermit-voiced and CGI puppeted) worry that their Force powers, including the precognition with which they attempt to guide the Republic, are dwindling.
In a conference regarding the secession crisis, Yoda mentions that Count Dooku, a former Jedi still well-respected by the Order, has cast his lot in with the Separatists. In another universe, or iteration of the Republic, this might have offered shared ground for diplomacy — one imagines a scenario in which the Jedi function something like the medieval Catholic Church, a transnational supra-state that works (with mixed effectiveness, of course) to guide and smooth out tension between belligerents.
But that would require a Jedi Order that was politically independent — and if the Jedi ever were that, they aren’t anymore. By the time we meet them, they are politicized servants of the state, rather than its peoples: they are guardians of the Republic, not (if you will) guardians of the galaxy. As things are, Dooku’s defection to the Separatists is a very bad sign, because he was once at the center of the Order itself, trained by Yoda and the old master of Episode I’s Qui Gon Jinn. The story of how he ended up throwing his lot in with the Jedi’s enemies isn’t explored in the film. But if a great and respected Jedi master can abandon the Order, then it’s another bit of evidence the Jedi are in pretty dire shape.
Yoda ascribes the Jedi’s troubles to the rising power of the Dark Side, an aspect of the Force powered by passion and animal spirits, as opposed to the cool, dispassionate contemplation of the Jedi, who call their version (of course) the Light Side. Whether we should accept this cosmology is debatable: many great spiritual traditions, including versions of the Eastern philosophies that Lucas drew on for the Jedi, have found a place for the darker passions: anger, envy, greed and fear. The Tantric tradition turned to the intentional violation of Hindu taboos — sex, carnivory — to power their magical rituals with the white-hot power thus released. And the American Buddhist psychologist and teacher Tara Brach often speaks of Buddhist temples protected by grim and frightening demons — a sign that these creatures, too, serve as portals to sacred space.
The Jedi, however, do not take this view. (We might even say that their failure to account for and integrate the dark side is what dooms them.) They are austere and deliberately passionless, seemingly celibate and sworn to a dignified poverty. Cloistered in their soaring Coruscant temple, they are thus insular, dogmatic, and as sclerotic as the Republic they serve — a combined priest-class, diplomatic corps and group of enforcers, answerable only to the Senate executive.
That is Chancellor Sheev Palpatine, the former senator of Naboo. (And, as you’ll know if you’ve been following along, the secret architect of the current Republican crackup.) It’s been years since the Naboo Crisis got him the top job, and he’s looking very well indeed. We rejoin him in conference with the Jedi, debating what to do about the secession crisis and the attack on Amidala. It’s not clear precisely what they could do: despite their job of serving as enforcers as well as negotiators, the Jedi are stretched nearly to the point of collapse. They tell Palpatine as much to his face. If war comes, Windu warns, “you must realize there aren't enough Jedi to protect the Republic. We are keepers of the peace, not soldiers.”
Palpatine demurs. “Master Yoda, do you think it will really come to war?”
Yoda looks half asleep, as though he is dreaming of some better time and place, a long way back and very far away. “Impossible to see,” he rasps. “The Dark Side clouds everything. But this I am sure of —”
His eyes snap open, but there is no hope in them. He is old, almost past aging, and a crisis is coming that he can neither see the borders of nor understand. Averting the crisis seems impossible: war, at least, he can imagine. “Do their duty, the Jedi will.”
Not to head off the apocalypse of war — but to fight in it.
The Senator And The Jedi
The war question in Attack of The Clones is centered on two different characters: both provincials from the verdant planet Naboo, each come to Coruscant in search of two very different visions of power.
Chancellor Sheev Palpatine — Amidala’s predecessor as senator — is one. He appears for most of the movie as a committed—if old and rather weary— democrat forced to take reluctant steps to protect the Republic. Beneath his affable charm lies a Jacksonian ruthlessness—which, in Episode 1, saw him use the Naboo crisis to electioneer his way into the Republic's top executive office. (He isn’t planning on stopping there, either.) We considered him at length last time around.
So let’s turn our attention to Senator Amidala — who we met at the top. She’s the wide-eyed, devastatingly earnest former head of the planet's elected monarchy, who has become the leading voice of the peace movement, not that we’ll see much of them. Her aristocratic sense of noblesse oblige has brought her to the capital to do some good, goddammit, although we never really see her doing any. Whether or not this was intentional on Lucas' part, Amidala comes across as a caricature of a late 20th Century Democrat, all bleeding heart and useless procedural objection. She was a former lanyard nerd (she later reveals she had her first kiss in the legislative youth program) who now, as Senator, is grimly focused on the righteous cause. But she offers no onscreen plan of how to stop the Republic's ongoing dissolution, or of what a post-separatist Republic might look like.
Amidala is thus a tragic figure of imperial decline: too scrupulous to cash in on her position, too indecisive and politically inept to exercise power, and above all, too inexperienced to see through the plans being woven around her like spider’s silk.
A principal aspect of those plans involves the Jedi themselves. Two Jedi, specifically, who we meet them in an elevator on their way to offer their protection to Amidala, as Palpatine has ordered. The senior member of the pair is Obi Wan Kenobi, (Ewan McGregor, ably scrubbed up after Trainspotting), former apprentice of the late Qui-Gon Jinn. But with him is a new face, or at least a young one aged up: his apprentice, Anakin Skywalker (now played by a smouldering Hayden Christensen), an omnidirectional torpedo of rage sublimated into sex and sarcasm.
To be fair, Skywalker has a lot to be angry about: in Episode I, the Qui-Gonn Jinn bought him from the junk dealer who had owned him but left his mother, Shmi, behind in slavery — and then had the bad grace to die, leaving Skywalker in the care of a hopelessly outmatched, nagging Kenobi.
The pair do work pretty well together, as long as the problem is one that can be solved by bros swinging lightsabers. Almost immediately, they foil another attempt on the senator’s life, and — through a series of hair-raising chase scenes through Coruscant's three-dimensional traffic jams, and a strangely heartwarming encounter with an old friend of Kenobi's in a 1950s style diner — trace a piece of the assassin's kit to a hidden planet called Kamino.
But when they actually have to talk to one another, the two reveal themselves to be somewhat at odds. Kenobi is experienced, but also a bit too inculcated in the ethos of the Jedi Order to show any specific empathy. He loves Skywalker but seems awed, jealous and a bit frightened of the younger man's raw power, which seems — ominously — to flow from his deep well of anger and loss. Skywalker, in turn, chafes under Kenobi's tutelage and yearns for someone to let him off the leash. Both men give the strong sense that they are grasping toward a reconciliation and deeper understanding that neither can bend enough to reach.
Watching Skywalker, the freedom that the Jedi offered him seems a lot like another form of servitude: a constricted apprenticeship inside a grim, stifling and self-serious organization. To the extent they are interested in him at all, it is as a tool: executor of the Messianic, perhaps even apocalyptic, vision of one who will "bring balance to the Force."
What this will mean, no one can say — but what it means now is that Skywalker has almost no control over his own life. Which is why, perhaps, Amidala will come to be so attractive. If nothing else, she represents a way out.
For Amidala, meanwhile, Skywalker is going to prove to be many things: most crucially, here, a distraction.
The Fall of Padme Amidala
Attack of the Clones, it must be said, is a weird movie: perhaps the most genre-bending of the Star Wars films. There’s something gleeful about its willingness, nay, commitment to smashing together as many of the great genres of American blockbuster as possible. It is a costume drama, full of heaving bodices and loud declaiming. Then it is a twisty noir mystery, full of clues and tradecraft. Then it is a smoldering will-they-won’t-they romance. Finally, it is a war movie, with gunships and open set piece battles between Republic and Separatists.
The novelty of this approach was not appreciated at the time. The film made $658 million — over a billion dollars in today’s currency — but seemed to do so without anyone really … liking it. In particular, the romance in the film was greeted with hoots of derision when it premiered. Even now, with the prequel reclamation project fully underway, it is not fondly regarded.
This makes sense, because the relationship between Anakin Skywalker and Padme Amidala is deeply unsettling, whether intentionally or otherwise. When Kenobi heads off in search of his missing planet, and the source of the plot to kill Amidala, he leaves his apprentice to guard the Senator in a secluded lake house on Naboo.
Given that he seems to have noticed how Skywalker looks at Amidala — “Your thoughts betray you, Anakin'' — as well as his apprentice’s issues with impulse control, it is hard to call this anything but negligence. And indeed, with the two of them left alone, the vibes are all kinds of off. Skywalker is clearly obsessed with her. He doesn’t easily take no for an answer; acting (fairly persuasively, you have to admit) like an entitled teenager, elbowing his way into her space, turning every conversation into double-entendres and come-ons. Amidala is clearly put off by him at first, and not in a particularly sexy way: she’s five years older than him, last saw him as a small child, and clearly feels no initial romantic attraction toward him at all.
This was often dismissed when the movie came out as bad acting, or bad casting. But there’s a more disturbing reading available, given the forced nature of their interactions, the Jedi facility with mental magic, and Anakin’s often mentioned raw power: that he is in some sense controlling or influencing her, deliberately or otherwise. The film actually raises that possibility, incidentally—during a grassy picnic on Naboo, when Amidala playfully asks if Anakin is going to use a Jedi mind trick on her, he laughingly responds that “they only work on the weak-minded."
Which, reader, is not precisely a “no.”
Either way, three crucial things happen between them, which will set the stage for everything that follows — and we really do mean everything, in this movie and the rest of them. Let’s take them one at a time.
First, Anakin Skywalker and Padme Amidala fall in love, however awkwardly and with whatever creepy, unsettled questions about consent. Not much to say about this: it’s fated, so it happens — adding “doomed romance” to the list of literary tropes we’re working with. Skywalker is a sworn celibate; Amidala a (supposedly) powerful Senator. It’s not good for either of them, but they do it anyway, and the tension between those two things will propel the next phase of the story.
Then, in a small moment that looms large in hindsight, Skywalker debates with Amidala about politics while picnicking on Naboo. He tells her he doesn’t think the system works; she, teasing, asks him how he’d want it to. His response is earnest: “We need a situation where the politicians sit down and discuss the problem and agree what’s in the best interest of all the people and then do it,” he says.
She smiles. “That’s exactly what we do. The trouble is that people don’t always agree.”
He doesn’t smile. “Well, then they should be made to.”
When you first watched this, it likely felt a bit heavy handed. Today, however, it recalls every bit of early-COVID fulminating by tech influencers on the best way to fight a pandemic. Growing up, Skywalker was many things, but foremost among them was a self-taught engineer. His view of society is, perhaps, an engineer’s view: a vast machine, its ailments as bugs or broken parts, requiring a strong and dispassionate hand to repair it.
This is, of course, a deeply reactionary mindset. But it also bespeaks a person whose entire identity rests around his ability to repair things. And if the tragedy of the Jedi is their inability to integrate or understand passion, then the deep and abiding tragedy of Anakin’s life is that he is, at heart, a fixer. And one who will manage to break everything he touches.
But it’s also worth noting that Amidala doesn’t present any real rebuttal to the arch-conservative position. Her response— “That sounds an awful lot like a dictatorship to me”— is clearly meant to be a trump card. Thus she is flummoxed by Annakin’s sly, joking-but not-joking, “Well, if it works…”
There’s a lot that she could potentially have said to him. That when one person captures the full authority of the state, it tends to rot them —and if not them, then their children. That whatever good they can do in a few years of unitary rule — think of young, swaggering Saddam Hussein or Muhammar Qadaffi, building public works and cutting through red tape — is well outweighed by all the damage they do after.
She could have added, perhaps, that their oppression is perhaps the least of it — what’s worse is the bad government that the oppression ends up covering for, as the leader becomes paranoid and isolated, both micromanaging and out-of-touch, as critical problems go perennially unsolved. That the constant, grinding tension of democracy now staves off far worse, far more sudden cataclysm later.
But the Republic has had a thousand years of peace, remember? It may be that no one now remembers anything else, and that “Democracy is good and dictators are bad” is a liberal piety that everyone holding to the civic religion of the Republic says without much thinking about it, or much ability to defend in front of skepticism. As Queen Jamilla, the new (elected) ruler of Naboo’s human population tells Amidala, “The day we stop believing democracy can work is the day we lose it.”
That’s both a heavy-handed foreshadowing and tip-of-the-hand by Lucas about the threat posed by Anakin. Watching in 2022, it was easy to empathize with the wish for someone to just make things work — and also with Amidala’s inability to explain just why that urge didn’t lead anywhere good. Between that impasse, the state is falling apart.
But all this is largely foreshadowing, because their pastoral idyll is quickly interrupted by nightmares. Skywalker dreams his mother Shmi — whom he was forced to leave behind on Tatooine when he was ‘rescued’ from slavery — is in mortal peril. Ever impulsive, he announces he’s setting off to find her — equally impulsive, she announces she’s going with him.
After that, things happen quickly. The senator and the warrior monk return in her chrome spaceship to Tatooine — a frontier planet where Skywalker grew up, and which he hasn’t returned to in years. He returns to the junk shop owner who used to own him and his mother, who tells him that he sold her to a “moisture farmer,” who freed and married her. (Another place in Star Wars, incidentally, where the consensual nature of a relationship is somewhat … iffy.)
That moisture farmer named Lars welcomes Skywalker and Amidala in, where they meet his son and soon-to-be daughter in law — a nice pair, Owen and Beru, who will play a pivotal role in a later phase of the story. A grim Lars reveals that Skywalker’s mother has been taken by the Tusken Raiders, sometimes called Sand People — an indigenous, apparently nomadic group of Tatooineans who likely preceded the human colonization, which seems to have pushed them to the edges of society, from which they eke out a living raiding the settlements of the colonists.
Sometimes the Tusken bands take prisoners, and it seems those prisoners do not often survive. And thus when Skywalker finds his mother tied up inside a Tusken camp, she’s already at death’s door. She lives just long enough to recognize him, and to tell him how proud she is before dying in his arms. Her death leaves Anakin sitting alone in the dark, stewing in his own terrible guilt, regret — and rage. A lightsaber ignites against the wall of a tent, and soon enough the desert air is split by screams.
And then Skywalker is back with Amidala, who is softening towards him. He is clearly distraught; she asks him why, and it comes out in a burst. “I... I killed them,” he almost shouts. “I killed them all. They're dead. Every single one of them... and not just the men, but the women and the children too. They're like animals, and I slaughtered them like animals! I hate them!”
The whole thing is a bleak warning of what lies ahead for Skywalker. He is confessing to a war crime: the wholesale slaughter of noncombatants by a self-appointed executioner. Perhaps worse, from the perspective of the Jedi, he admits that he has done it through a loss of control — a crime of passion, as his power overcame him and left death in his wake that he did not intend.
But Amidala’s response to it is generally overlooked, and actually quite interesting: she tells him his anger is natural, and then the two leave it there. (She also apparently never tells anyone — until, perhaps, the violence has come home, at which point it’s too late.) The moment plays very oddly against everything we’ve seen about her so far: her professed love of good governance, her paeans about the horrors of war. Her forgiveness of Anakin’s massacre — or willingness to ignore it, or compartmentalize it — also suggests something not at all flattering about her: that she doesn’t regard wanton violence against the indigenous people of Tatooine as such a big deal.
Given that she’s from Naboo — a planet where the indigenous people largely live underwater, and until recently had no real voice in planetary (which is to say, human settler) affairs — it raises some dark questions about what she considers to be acceptable violence, and how far she believes the rule of law is really supposed to go.
Above all, however, the romantic tensions of the film serves a critical purpose: it takes Amidala off the board at the time when her guidance — in the name of peace — is most needed in the Senate. Maybe a better way to say this is that she allows herself to be moved off the board, ostensibly for her own safety, by Chancellor Palpatine, at the precise time when things are at their most fraught, and the question of whether the Republic will militarize is most active. She opens the movie fulminating about the dangers of war, and then quickly leaves town to save her own skin. By the time she returns, it will be, again, far too late.
Whether this is a mistake, an example of moral cowardice or a function of Palpatine’s skill at sizing up and dispatching rivals — or some combination of the three — doesn't really matter. What matters is that Amidala ends up enthusiastically in the middle of the conflict that kicks off the war she has been trying to avoid. It wouldn’t even be much of a stretch to say that she does her best to provoke it.
All of which is to say: the saga of the first trilogy of Star Wars is supposed to be about the fall of Anakin — and the Republic — to the Dark Side. But in her own way, faced with her moment, Amidala falls too, and her fall is in many ways the more tragic and pathetic, because it forces her to look right at her ideals and betray them, right at the moment when they matter most.
The more immediately pressing action, however, is happening elsewhere. So let’s turn our attention to Obi-Wan Kenobi, now wearing an invisible fedora and functioning, not very effectively, as a film noir hero. Having uncovered the existence of the missing planet Kamino — the home of a cabal of legendary clone architects — he flies out alone, to a place far out beyond the boundary of Republic space.
Like so many Star Wars setingss, Kamino lies out on the frontier — beyond even the negotiable governance of the Outer Rim territories, giving the sense that perhaps there is far more political life in the Galaxy than just what we see in the Republic. Also like many Star Wars planets, we only see one of its ecosystems: a vast, storm-lashed ocean, from which the cloners’ facilities protrude like oil derricks as manufactured by Apple, all soft white and rounded corners.
There Kenobi is greeted by tall, elegant aliens who appear to be expecting him. They are happy to finally meet a representative of the Jedi, they tell a visibly-baffled Kenobi, especially given the expansive — and expensive — amount of product the Order has apparently requested. On a tour of the facility, Kenobi sees that product first hand: thousands of identical boys and men learning, eating and training for battle.
These are clones — copies, we will find, of Jango Fett, the very bounty hunter who masterminded the attempts on Senator Amidala. (Bounty hunters are a Star Wars motif we’ll return to in greater detail at some point: freelance violence workers who are common features of the Galaxy’s criminal and extra-legal underworld, especially on the frontier.) But while Fett moonlights as a for-hire assassin, providing genetic material to the Kaminoians seems to be his main gig. And from that data, they’ve produced something akin to human machines.
The Fett clones are a manufactured slave army, cooked up in sterile, antiseptic test tubes; their genomes altered to make them quick to grow and quick to obey, with far less willpower or self control than normal humans. (Not that we’ve seen too much of either from most humans in this movie.) Lama Su, the Kaminoan foreman explicitly compares to that other form of slave army we’ve seen knocking around Star Wars — robots. Clones, he remarks with a smooth salesman’s patter, are capable of independent thought and action, making them “immensely superior” to droids.
But who ordered these clones, anyway? They were ordered a decade prior by “Sifo-Dyas”, Su explains a long-dead Jedi Knight, though the Jedi Order has apparently never heard of it. (The army must have cost a fortune, too — who paid, and where they got the money, is never really explained.)
The question of whether the Republic will militarize has thus already been settled, unilaterally, by whoever posed as the dead Jedi. A readymade army—paid for, pliable and programmed—is available to be put to use, as soon as it is needed.
The form this army takes actually matters a great deal. Later, it will be christened the Grand Army of the Republic — a name Lucas borrowed from the preeminent 19th Century American organization of veterans of the Union Army. And like their cousins in that faraway galaxy, Lucas’ Army of the Republic will take up arms against the Confederacy in a great Civil War — in their case, the Confederacy of Independent Systems.
But behind the names, the form of these armies — and the outcome of their mobilization — is very different. The Union Army was a mass, draftee-driven project which harnessed the power and population of an entire nation-state to the cause of war; the Southern Confederacy (which took a similar approach, though less effectively) was defeated by what amounted to a nation-in-arms, however grudging much of that support might have been. That shared experience of total war — and even more, the internal revolution in government, administration and taxation that it required — transformed the Union from loose confederacy of provinces to modern, centralized state.
We could argue that this possibility was available for the Galactic Republic too: that the war against the Secessionist Confederacy might have shaken the dead weight from bureaucracy, Senate and Jedi Order, forcing internal reforms to secure the taxes and soldiers necessary to fuel the massive expenditures of a war. Any such undertaking would have necessarily required the Senate to rethink how to get buy-in from society, to raise resources, to inspire populations, to reconstruct a new mythos — “As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,” roars the Battle Hymn of the Republic — that might inspire a new iteration of the state, and new generations of its citizens.
But the premade (and prepaid) clone army, like the new model navy of sleek triangular warships that will transport them to battle against the Confederacy, forestalls all that. The Galaxy will get war, all right. But it will not be a war waged by an army of citizens who are asked to sacrifice in the name of a national project, and who are therefore able, conversely, to shut it down by refusing to sacrifice.
Instead, war will be the unitary decision of the dysfunctional Senate, and it will appear, at first, to have no cost. (Except, of course, for the violence inflicted on civilian populations when professional armies fight among them.) But by the time any of that materializes, it will — again, again — be far too late.
Lucas tips his hands on this, in two notes that play very much off the subsequent (but chronologically earlier) films of Episodes 4 through 6. When Kenobi first sees the Grand Army of the Republic, it’s an ominous sight: thousands of men in white, skull-like helmets that recall the Imperial stormtroopers of the later movies, marching in lockstep formation. The accompanying reveal of the new Republic armada — complete with ships-of-the-line that look very much like the Imperial Star Destroyers of the later movies — suggests that the campaign they are embarking on will not, in fact, save the Republic, whether or not they win.
It is a scene that seems deliberately to recall the 1934 Nazi Nuremburg Rallies, captured in Leni Riefenstal’s Triumph of the Will. And it’s one that makes it very clear what Lucas has in mind here. The Republic is over. It’s just that nobody in power — well, nobody save one — recognizes it yet.
Grounds For War
The war has to break out somewhere, though. And so Kenobi follows the fleeing Jango Fett to Geonosis, another Outer Rim world not so far, galactically speaking, from Tatooine.
Geonosis is that rarest of things in the Star Wars universe: a truly alien world. Where Kamino is identified with water and the production of life (albeit antiseptic) Geonosis is desert, dry and barren. Its insectoid rulers are droid manufacturers — arms merchants of a different cut than those on Kamino — and the battle droids that served as a ready-made army for the Trade Federation in Episode I are made in their image.
There are some looming—and rather uncanny—historical overtones to all of this. Attack of the Clones debuted about six months before Colin Powell’s fateful appearance at the U.N. to lie about Iraqi stores of nuclear weapons. Geonosis’ status as a militarized desert planet where nefarious and exoticized alien forces plot to build weapons of mass destruction foreshadows the propaganda that, the year after it premiered, the American government would throw its weight behind in the lead up to its invasion of Iraq.
Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, the capstone of the first trilogy, came out in 2005, 18 months after the invasion and about six months after the fateful Second Battle of Fallujah. That fight — a brutal house-to-house battle between the U.S. Marines and allied auxiliaries and a diverse coalition of insurgent groups — ended in an American victory. But it also showed that the seemingly decisive victory of Iraq was becoming an endless, catastrophic quagmire with a horrendous human cost, and no exit in sight.
It parallels, in other words, the conflict unfolding here. All of which is to say that Star Wars is often very dumb and clunky but as a map of American history — or a humunculus map of the American psyche — it is often very, very acute. (Part of this is due to the deeply stupid animal passions that move this great beast of a country: If Lucas were more artful, he’d be less suited to the job of being America’s Virgil.)
Geonosis also serves as the provisional capital of the Seperatist Confederacy: the place where the movement’s true leaders have gathered.
They are an interesting bunch of corporate overlords: The Trade Federation, the Techno Union, the Commerce Guild, the Banking Clan and (we swear we’re not making this up, this is Lucas for you) the Retail Caucus. Many of these entities are either arms manufacturers like the Geonosian droid makers, or steady customers of them. Their stated reasons for leaving involve excessive taxation and corruption — which is another way of saying that large power blocs in the Republic no longer feel it serves their material interests to be a part of it.
But also, it looks a lot like moneyed interests funding a breakaway movement — rather like the 1933 schemes by American conservative business interests to replace socialist-curious Franklin D. Roosevelt with a business-friendly dictator. (It was going so well, after all, in Germany.) You might also compare it to how the tense alliance between American corporate interests and American democracy, held together during the Cold War, unraveled afterward — the absence of external threat encouraging corporate mini-states to burst from the body politic and pursue their own ends on a global scale.
Kenobi, who’s been spying on all of this, sneaks away to relay news of the gathering forces to the Republic. But in the middle of warning them, in a classic Star Wars trope, he’s swarmed by battle droids, captured, and brought before a figure who, thus far, we’ve only heard mentioned as the leader of the Separatist cause: the tall, austere Count Dooku (Christopher Lee, dignified and menacing).
Dooku is a fascinating figure, described as a political idealist but garbed like European aristocracy. He is, after all a count — in European terms, a member of high nobility with sizable political holdings, a step below the quasi-kingship of a duke. And from this aristocratic position, he very astutely diagnoses the situation that has arisen under the Jedi’s nose: that a malevolent force has taken over the Senate and is driving it according to its own dark, antidemocratic design. Obi-Wan, who believes deeply in both the Jedi Order and the Galactic Republic, refuses to accept this, accusing Dooku of lying.
Dooku, naturally, has left out a crucial detail: that he himself is working directly with Palpatine to provoke an armed conflict to overthrow the Republic, betray the Separatists, and replace the whole thing with a centralized dictatorship.
So it’s not actually a problem for Dooku that Kenobi has managed to get a warning out to the Jedi Order and Republic leadership. His interrupted message will serve the same rough political purpose as the famous September dossier would in the leadup to the Iraq invasion: a document published by the British government in September 2002 (a year after 9/11; two months before Attack of the Clones) that alleged the government of Iraq was holding weapons of mass destruction.
The British Sun followed that announcement with a notorious headline: “Brits 45 minutes from doom.” The machinery of war had already begun clanking by the time the movie premiered. Not a shred of it would turn out to be true — like Kenobi’s frantic message, it was bungled intelligence, the result of an effective put-up job by dark and war-hungry forces within an apparently democratic government. But by the time that became clear it was — yes, again, again, forever — too late.
If the unfolding Iraq propaganda push proved anything, it’s that even those dark and war-hungry forces need to manufacture an excuse in order to get apparently democratic societies to go along. And so Kenobi’s message — Separatist military forces gathering on the Outer Rim — gives Palpatine his casus belli.
True to form, he initially soft-peddles it, pleading for peace presenting himself as reluctant to rush into anything. And yet … well, there’s a crisis on! There’s just no time for the Senate to vote on the matter of war. (Or, as chief Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson would put it during the spinning of the Iraq War: “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.”) Meanwhile, Amidala, the head voice of the peace faction, is out of the picture — because he moved her, and she allowed herself to be moved.
Amidala has given her vote to Sen. Jar Jar Binks, a walking, talking definition of subalternity. As we’ve said, he’s introduced in Episode 1 as an utter loser, despised by his fellow Gungans who he now (conveniently) is supposed to speak for on the galactic stage, at least according to Naboo’s human community, who are the only faction of the planet the Republic seems interested in.
He also, notably, owes his entire position in society to his ability to be useful to human settlers like Amidala and Palpatine. And Acting-Senator Binks — a title which really never stops being funny — proves tremendously useful, easily maneuvered by Palpatine into calling for him to be made supreme executive during the crisis.
Jar Jar Binks gets a whole speech here in the shooting script which suggests how Lucas and his co-writer Jonathan Hales think about the moment, though the film excises it, probably because the high dignity of the speech is almost impossible to reconcile with Binks’ cartoonish and embarrassing patois. But it’s a pretty revealing exchange, because it lays out the influences extremely clearly: this is a Caesarian event. The Republic now needs a strong hand to take control and, ah, fix things.
“Who can deny these are exceptional times?” the script has the Gungan declaim. (Please, just imagine it in his voice.) “Exceptional times demand exceptional measures! Exceptional measures demand exceptional men... And when the shadow of war has dispersed and the bright day of liberty has dawned once again, the power we now give to the Supreme Chancellor will be gladly, and swiftly returned. Our ancient liberties will be restored to us, burnished even more brightly than before!”
Right on cue, Chancellor Palpatine comes in. “It is with great reluctance that I have agreed to this calling,” he says, more in sorrow than in anger. “I love democracy... I love the Republic. The fact that this crisis is demanding I be given absolute power to rule over you is evident. The power you give me I will lay down when this crisis has abated, I promise you.”
But what if the crisis never abates? The idea of emergency dictatorial powers within a theoretically democratic setting goes back to the Greeks; was perfected by the Romans; and is now understood as the preferred method of legitimacy for authoritarian regimes the world over to seize power from a deadlocked legislature to head off a crisis that never seems to end.
In America, the crisis of 9/11 became the fuel for a more subtle but equally far reaching revolution in the role of the the executive; a subtle sidelining of Congress’ role in foreign affairs; the passage of the notorious Patriot Act and the enormous edifice of illicit spying, torture, lawless arrests and secret prisons that it enabled, and which never (despite several changes of administration) really went away.
These sorts of power grabs aren’t immediately fatal — America, so far, has gone on ticking. And some systems — like the Roman Republic, or the long-lived “people’s dictatorship” of the Mexican Institutional Revolutionary Party — have managed to make elective dictatorship work by enforcing strict term-limits on the dictator’s control. But they’re a fine line to walk, and they require a very strong state apparatus. Mexico, for example, only got there through a decade of civil war, one which left most of the victorious revolutionary coalition dead in a protracted orgy of assassination and execution, resulting in a party too powerful to be coopted by any one ruler. The U.S. gradually expanded its state power, through ebbs and flows, over the century-and-a-half since the internal revolutions allowed by the Civil War.
The Galactic Republic doesn’t have any of this. As presented to us, it’s a loose body bound by tradition, procedure, civic religion and comity. Its liberal institutions are too bound by forms and norms to prevent, say, corporations from growing powerful enough to wage independent war on Republic planets. That weakness gives ammunition to the idea that a democracy simply doesn’t work — which plays right into the hands of the fascist forces festering inside the system, waiting to consume the Republic from within.
Thrilling War Stories
The thing about crises is that they have seductive logic, one that’s easy to get swept up in. So: Skywalker and Amidala — now fully and, to everyone’s apparent relief, gracefully — in love, manage to display the spark of what genuinely works about them as a narrative couple, i.e that they bring out the recklessness in one another. They too have seen Kenobi’s capture, live on the video screen, and now each eggs the other on to further heights of crazy. Amidala identifies that Skywalker wants to go after Kenobi but feels like he shouldn’t — so she announces that she’s going, and if he wants to protect her he’d damn well better come to.
They arrive on Geonosis and go through a bit of action-movie business in the droid factories that doesn’t really matter, but which displays Amidala as more than willing to casually kill nonhuman but clearly sentient living beings. (So much for peace.) Finally and inevitably, the duo are captured by the Geonosians and — as likely Republic spies and definite murderers of large numbers of the local citizenry — are immediately sentenced to death alongside an immensely annoyed Kenobi.
Here is where the film ratchets into its last genre: pulp war film. The Geonosians favor a very Classical — late Roman or Golden Age of Hollywood — method of execution: death by arena beast. The subsequent and strangely antiseptic fight scene ends with all arena beasts dead or sidelined, and the meddling Republic mass murderers very much alive. And so the Geonosians shift to a rather more modern form of execution: firing squad.
But as the army of battle droids march in, the cavalry seemingly arrives — the entire fighting force of the Jedi Order has slipped into the arena, and now set to work butchering battle droids and bug people alike. It doesn’t actually go well. For all that Star Wars often casts the Jedi as superheroic, it seems much of their power rests on mystique, not actual martial skill. As such, most are clearly unused to fighting in a full-dress battle, and many sword-swinging Jedi fall in the storm of blaster fire — although Jedi Master Windu manages to kill the bounty hunter Jango Fett, leaving his 10-year old son an orphan cradling an empty helmet. (Another carelessly violent act that will have ugly after-effects.)
Only the arrival of the real cavalry saves the remaining Jedi: several platoons of clones, led by Master Yoda, deposited by a fleet of military dropships festooned with the geared circle of the new Republic military. There is something strikingly American about the vehicles; for all their futuristic design, the dropships function like Blackhawk or Huey helicopters — open cabins housing Republic infantry, firing what look like laser versions of .50 cal machine guns.
This engagement sets the template for the years of war that will follow: a Jedi elite officer corps leading an army of slave clone troopers against the robot armies of the Separatists. The resulting clash rapidly spills out of the arena and out onto the barren rock plains of Geonosis, in a somewhat desperate and impromptu open battle: two ready-made armies slamming together for the first time, both designed for battle right out of the box.
This first battle ends with a Republic victory, but not a decisive one. The Separatist leadership gets away. The Geonosians reveal that (unlike the Iraqis) they actually have begun the design of some sort of doomsday weapon. Skywalker and Kenobi are able to confirm that Dooku is, indeed, a member of their ancient enemies the Sith, but it costs Anakin a hand, and they don’t get him, either. And now the First Galactic Civil War—remembered subsequently as the “Clone Wars’ — is officially on.
Was all of this inevitable? On a previous episode of Decline and Fall, Patrick Wyman argued that it was — that once the Naboo crisis spiraled into an open insurrection, something had begun that was almost impossible to stop.
But maybe not. Maybe without two huge, evenly-matched armies ready-made and ready to go, one side would have landed a decisive knockout blow, and that would have been that. Maybe the Republic would have dissolved. Maybe there would have been saber rattling and a long cold war. Maybe even — perish the thought, because no one is buying tickets to this movie — reform and peace.
But having two large militaries essentially gift-wrapped and delivered to the opposing sides starts the war and allows it to be sustained at high intensity from jump — requiring none of the ramp up that a draftee-powered “nation in arms” approach requires. Once the shooting starts, everyone’s out of options, and flowing in the direction of least resistance.
Palpatine is sitting pretty, with supreme power, and a happily sidelined Senate. As the chief executive of a theoretically strong but practically fraying power, he’s successfully consolidated the strongest potential opponents to his rule — the corporate sector and other dissatisfied factions— lured them out, and forced them into a ruinous war against an army he has built for the purpose of humbling them, one which will also give him a perpetual excuse to keep the power he’s amassed.
But crises also have a way of lingering long past the point by which they’re useful—and manufactured military crises can very quickly become real ones. The war that’s just begun isn’t going to end for the next 50 years— it will only be pushed further to the margins, to bubble up into a second and third Civil War, kicking off a period of spasming violence that will lead to the final dissolution of the whole damn state.
Episode II: Attack of the Clones is the story that really kicks everything off after the overture. “Begun, the clone wars have,” Yoda intones at the end of the film. With them comes the long Star War. And neither is going to end anytime soon.
This has been Decline and Fall, a Heat Death series on Star Wars and America.
Next time on Decline and Fall: the nominal end of two wars--one real, one fictional. Till then, may the force be with you.