Star Wars, Storm Troopers, and the Banality of Evil

My wife and I recently confronted a parenting crisis I had long feared. Coming home from preschool one afternoon, our four-year-old asked, “Is Darth Vader Luke Skywalker’s father?” We had agreed to put off the Star Wars movies until our son was older. Apparently, the preschoolers hadn’t got the message. Which forced us to ask, did we really want Justus to experience the story—one that we both love—through the recital of some pint-sized spoiler? Moreover, given the increasing buzz generated by Star Wars: The Force Awakens, how long could we really hope to insulate him? In the course of the emergency parental meeting that ensued, we decided that our son was likely mature enough to handle the original trilogy with few problems. Over the next few days, we were pleased to discover that we were right; Justus watched the movies with the perfect combination of captivation and composure.

But in addition to their entertainment value, the movies also prompted significant conversations about the nature of evil. As those who have seen the movies will likely expect, many focused upon the characters that exhibit evil in spectacular forms, most of all Darth Vader and the Emperor. Is Darth Vader totally evil? Why does the Emperor want to rule over everybody in the universe? And so on.

More unexpectedly, however, he also had a number of questions about the Storm Troopers—those menacing yet seemingly mindless drones that populate Star Wars, instinctively carrying out the bidding of their masters. Most of all, he wanted to know, why were they doing what they were doing? Why were they helping the likes of Darth Vader and the Emperor? Even while stammering out an answer that was either cogent or distracting enough to placate a four year old, I recognized that such queries had brought us face-to-face with some of the thorniest questions of moral psychology and the mystery of evil, questions for which there are few true answers.

After all, when one inquires into the motivations of those, like Darth Vader or the Emperor, who exhibit evil in spectacular forms, there generally appears to be a satisfactory, though never fully rational, answer. Why do they do evil? Few have treated such questions with greater insight than Augustine, who would teach us that they do so because they are overwhelmed by the libido dominandi, the lust to dominate. Even if—as Augustine goes to great pains to argue—this libido is ultimately self-defeating because the one who “seeks mastery is mastered by the lust for mastery” (City of God, I. preface), in the near term it brings victory over others. And the actions of the Emperor and his apprentice are clearly and calculatingly ordered to this goal of expanding their dominance.

But what is it that drives the Storm Troopers to their dread deeds? Here the former explanation seems to fit poorly or to explain only partially because the nature of their necessarily subordinate positions within the machinery of empire means that the Storm Troopers will always themselves be dominated. Even acts that extend their rule over others simultaneously reinforce them as subservient, dominated by their masters. But would not the libido dominandi in its purest expression—such as that which we perhaps find in the Emperor—revolt against such subordination? The near certainty that it would suggests that we must look further in our search for an explanation.

As we do, we might recognize that this is not solely an academic concern set long ago in a galaxy far, far away. Rather, making the connection that George Lucas clearly invited by naming them “Storm Troopers” in the first place, we might see that some answer to this and similar questions is necessary to explain atrocities far closer to home, such as the Holocaust. If it is not simply the refined, individualized expression of the libido dominandi that moves the Storm Troopers, whether on Hoth or in Hamburg, then what is it? In the literature on atrocity, three competing, though not mutually exclusive, explanations figure most prominently.

First, one might contend that the Storm Troopers are driven by other personal or psychological motivations, most of all hatred. Perhaps it is the case that the Storm Troopers harbor a profound spite for the Rebellion and its members, that at a fundamental level they hate their “way of life,” much as George W. Bush repeatedly claimed about those behind the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Such claims mirror arguments that attribute the Holocaust almost exclusively to the influence of anti-Semitism.

But, second, it may be that the Storm Troopers act less out of personal animosity than out of the attempt to attain some kind of social goal. Perhaps they sincerely, however mistakenly, believe that the Empire represents the best possible hope for establishing peace and justice in the galaxy and that the extermination of the Rebellion is a necessary means to such an end. A contemporary analogue of this explanation is found in Daniel Goldhagen’s work, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, which argues that those who perpetrated the Holocaust are characterized by “the common denominator … that they were all Germans pursuing German national political goals.”1 This should remind us once more that simply being socially oriented is not sufficient to make someone or something good. Rather, as Reinhold Niebuhr suggests with his updating of Augustine’s insights, the pursuit of such social goals is often predicated upon a kind of “sublimated egoism” that may require self-denial but that does so in the pursuit of a social aggrandizement that indirectly benefits oneself and frequently injures others.2

Or it may be, finally, that the Storm Troopers’ participation in evil arises not so much out of animosity or the desire to reach a perverse social goal as out of a vacuous thoughtlessness that pursues personal ambitions without reflecting upon their larger significance. Granting that we know little about them, one might surmise that there are certain benefits that Storm Troopers are trying to obtain through their service to the Sith. Perhaps they are seeking positions of higher rank, or better food, or even just to avoid having their megalomaniacal boss force-choke the life out of them. If so, they would have deep similarities with the depiction of Adolf Eichmann that Hannah Arendt renders in Eichmann in Jerusalem. In a climactic passage, Arendt writes of Eichmann, “Except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his own personal advancement, he had no motives at all.”3 Arendt’s sketch of Eichmann and his role in the Holocaust elicited strong opposition even when it was initially published in the 1960s, and it has encountered larger obstacles since the publication of Bettina Stangneth’s Eichmann Before Jerusalem, which seeks to lay bare Eichmann’s long running and deep-seated antipathy for the Jews as well as his sympathy with Nazism’s policy of extermination. Nevertheless, even if Eichmann himself does not fit the character description Arendt gave, certainly there were others who did, others who thoughtlessly participated in the Holocaust simply as a way of advancing their own personal ambitions.

When we reflect upon the heinous mystery that is evil—whether it is in the form of the Emperor, the Storm Troopers who monitored Mos Eisley or those that menaced Munich, or in more modern manifestations—our focus routinely falls upon determining what is wrong with them. And such a focus is by no means entirely misplaced, for if we are to counter evil, we must have at least some rudimentary comprehension of its dynamics. But we must never forget that evil is not just “out there” but that it disfigures our very selves, that within the grammar of the Christian faith the language of evil is not primarily to be a language of blame but of confession.

In the Storm Troopers of all ages, then, we find a mirror held up to ourselves that forces us to ask where our animosity, sublimated egoism, and ambition have made us too agents of evil and that calls us to pray to God and work with dedication that such evils may be rooted out from our lives and our world.

  1. Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (New York: Knopf 1996), 7.
  2. See, for instance, Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1932; reprint, 1960). One can discern deep continuities between this argument and those made for instance in Augustine, City of God, Book V, especially chapters 12-19.
  3. Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York: Viking Press, 1965; reprint, New York; Penguin Books, 2006), 287.
Bradley Burroughs

About Bradley Burroughs

A native of western New York, Bradley Burroughs earned his Ph.D. in Christian Ethics from Emory University. He lives in Dayton, Ohio, and teaches at United Theological Seminary.

Bradley Burroughs

Bradley Burroughs

A native of western New York, Dr. Bradley Burroughs earned his Ph.D. in Christian Ethics from Emory University. Integrating his research in contemporary Christian ethics, modern social theory, and understandings of virtue, his first book project analyzes competing understandings of politics in contemporary Christian ethics. Brad lives in Dayton, Ohio, and teaches at United Theological Seminary.

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