Wednesday, 20 December 2017

How Far Would You Go?: Understanding Military Ethics in Rogue One

How far would you go to fight for what you believe? Would you be willing to die for it? Would you be willing to put aside your own values and goals if you thought it would allow a positive long-term outcome? Would you be willing to lose yourself in the process if it meant a better future for others? These are difficult questions and not ones easily answered. The fact of the matter is that fighting for anything is a difficult line of work, one that requires sacrifices, wit, and the ability to make difficult choices under pressure, choices which don't always have a clear moral path.

These are the issues at play in Gareth Edwards' Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. The backdrop is a simple conflict-a tyrannical regime and an idealistic Rebellion that seeks to overthrow it, but underneath that seemingly simple conflict the world is not so easily black and white. Both sides are strife with inner conflicts, challenges, and tests of their commitment to their cause. Both factions ultimately clash and play a dangerous game, but ultimately it is a test primarily for the Rebellion. How far can they go? Where does one draw the line?

The question of where a freedom fighter ends and a terrorist begins is not unique to Rogue One even for the Star Wars universe (the discussion had previously appeared in The Clone Wars and has since come up in Rebels), but the moral difficulties of war are brought to the forefront here. From the beginning, characters are forced to make difficult choices based on what they think is right.

In the opening moments, we are introduced to Galen Erso, a man who has put himself and his own family in danger to prevent the Empire from weaponizing Kyber Crystals. This man has risked his own life and continues to rebel even after he is recaptured. Meanwhile his wife Lyra Erso also chooses death over being recaptured. Jyn ends up in the hands of Saw Guerrera, who recruits her into the Rebellion, yet even this is a difficult situation. As we later learn, Saw ended up abandoning Jyn to prevent her family background (the daughter of an Imperial Science Officer) from being exploited and used as leverage by other Rebels.

Both the leading roles of Jyn Erso and Cassion Andor are depicted as being somewhat anti-heroic in their own way. Jyn has apparently led a busy life of crime under different aliases, and initially has no real interest in aiding the Rebellion. She only gets involved with them after they rescue her from an Imperial prison transport (and even then, she tries to ditch them as soon as her restraints are removed). When Jyn is brought before the Rebellion, her only reason for accepting their mission is on the grounds that they will make it easier for her to disappear. She also tries to leave as soon as her job is finished, even claiming to be okay with submitting to the Empire's authority. Only with a message from her father is she willing to reconsider.

Cassion, by contrast, is a lifelong member of the Alliance yet he also proves himself to be an anti-hero. His introductory scene sees him confronting an informant, not even from the Empire but from Saw's Renegade Rebels, about recent developments (Cassion is stated to work in "intelligence," a job that likely requires a level of deception and trickery). Although he is working for the good guys, Cassion is shown to be hard on the informant, refusing to accommodate his needs and trying to intimidate him into talking. This scene also climaxes with Cassion murdering said informant when he is unable to escape from the approaching Imperial forces.

Although we are introduced to several different Rebels, it is largely Jyn and Cassion who clash for much of the narrative. Yet we also see division among the Rebellion brought about by conflicting values in other ways. This starts to emerge when we are introduced to Saw Guererra, who is described as an extremist by Senator Mon Mothma. His methods are shown to be so unethical that he was cast out of the Rebellion and leads his own separate faction. When he meets with the defecting Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook, his first instinct is to resort to mental torture even though his prisoner was willing to co-operate.

Guererra is a man who has lost himself in war, both literally (as he himself states, "there's not much of me left") and figuratively. The man has been through several different resistance groups and fought in several different wars. His lifelong experience is reflected in his appearance. His body has largely degraded. Both legs are replaced by prosthetic and he appears to sometimes have trouble breathing. By this point in his life, he knows nothing else but fighting. He continues to fight because that is what he knows, but he has long forgotten the reasons why he fights.

It is fitting therefore that Guererra should choose to die on Jedha, even when an escape his possible. Galen Erso's message is a reminder of what the Rebellion stood for, but Guererra is so far gone that he no longer has a place in it. His only possible futures are death or endless meaningless fighting. He finally decides he is finished running, and allows himself to die. This is also why he tells Jyn to "save the rebellion, save the dream" hoping she will not lose her way like he did.

On the flip side of the conflict, we see similar division happening within the ranks of the Empire. The character of Bodhi Rook provides a small reminder of the fact that the Rebels are still fighting people. Rook is depicted as a fairly average and well-intentioned man who just happened to be on the wrong side of the conflict. He is not one of the high-level officers we are used to seeing, he is a low-level cargo pilot who just wants to do the right thing.

The theme of humanity in the Empire also comes up once again on Eadu, when Krennic threatens Galen Erso's engineering time. Although we don't know them personally, we are given the sense that they are people just doing a job. We see their expressions as they hear Krennic announce the presence of a traitor, and their worries as they try to figure out who it might be. Although the men were working on a devastating super-weapon capable of destroying entire worlds it is hard not to respect Galen's attempt to save them by confessing, or to feel sympathy when the Engineering team is executed anyway.

Yet in a very weird twisted sort of way one does sympathize with Krennic himself when he is faced with an even worse opponent: Grand Moff Tarkin. For all of Krennic's talk of peace and order, much of the Imperial sections of Rogue One revolve around the squabbling of these two officers. Tarkin ends up not only usurping Krennic's position running the Death Star but also steals credit for overseeing its construction. We start to realize that while Krennic is a dangerous threat who needs to be stopped, Tarkin is something far worse.

For all their talk of peace and order, the Empire in Rogue One functions in many ways as the architect of its own destruction. Its system is a prime example of the inherent flaw in authoritarian rule: submission is only ever a temporary solution. Sooner or later the people will break and fight back. No matter how many times the fight is suppressed the government will never earn their respect, and eventually will face its own downfall. Meanwhile a leader who earns their followers' respect (note how much more committed the Rebels are) is more likely to succeed.

Tarkin believes in control through force, as does Krennic, but far from a successful system of government the Empire is made up of different people struggling for power. Tarkin immediately uses his political influence to take over command of the Death Star and shows complete disregard towards Krennic. He even goes on to indirectly murder Krennic (along with probably thousands of other Imperial personnel) by firing the Death Star's laser at the Imperial base on Scarif. Tarkin's ambitions even overshadow his own loyalty to Darth Vader (who is more interested in completing the station than dealing with the infighting of his subordinates).

Ironically, this action will have dire consequences- had he not fired so quickly Krennic might have had time to report the Death Star's sabotage. Krennic also destroyed the archives containing the Death Star plans leaving the Alliance as the only ones with access. This move keeps the Empire from learning right away of Galen Erso's sabotage and indirectly allows the Rebels to find and exploit the weakness, leading to the Death Star's destruction and Tarkin's own death.

The Rebel Alliance is also struggling with the same issues, and the question arises of how far they will go. The primary voice of reason in this conflict comes from the Senator Mon Mothma, a politician who constantly struggles to reconcile the values of the Rebel Alliance with doing what needs to be done. Underneath her, we also have a general who issues Cassion orders behind Mothma's back- trying to turn an extraction mission into an assassination. This choice proves problematic as it ends up not only endangering his own people but also deprives the Rebellion of valuable intelligence.

The division that complicates the Rebellion is further reinforced with the introduction of the council. All its members voice different views on the issue of how to respond to the Death Star causing a heated debate. Jyn's account is doubted by several members, and a decision on whether to act becomes a concern. Though some of the issues brought up by politicians are not entirely invalid (i.e. questioning whether the Alliance has the military means to stand up to the Death Star) many of the politicians insist that they can avoid conflict if they don't engage. On the other hand, Admiral Raddus is immediately determined to charge into the fight not knowing entirely what he is dealing with. Mon Mothma has to balance both sides, even though her conscience tells her war is inevitable.

This brings up a question of loyalty that emerges throughout the film. The Empire is built on the expectations of blind loyalty, but the Rebellion's structure sometimes leaves room for moral conflict. Cassion in particular is frequently left to choose between his own values and his loyalty to the Rebellion first with Galen Erso (especially after receiving conflicting orders) and later in his decision to approach Scarif after being specifically told not to.

In these instances, the Rebellion's flaws are exposed. The pacifism of the council makes the majority of them (aside from Mothma and Senator Organa) blind to the threat posed by an Empire who presumably will not negotiate. Mothma herself is unable to do much more than prepare the few resources she has available to her. The only problem is that fulfilling the council's wishes would have had devastating consequences. Krennic was already inspecting the Death Star plans to check for sabotage. If Jyn hadn't disobeyed when she did he might have actually had time to find the structural weakness Galen had slipped into it, in which case the sabotage could have been fixed destroying the Rebels' chances.

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