Warning: This article contains spoilers for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Proceed at your own risk.
While the Star Wars franchise is primarily an adventure story, one cannot forget the vital part of the title: “wars.” The war between the Republic and the Separatists, the war between the Rebellion and the Empire, even the war between the Jedi and the Sith. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the first film in the series to delve into the realities of war. That’s not to say that the other films did not, but the heroes of those stories are larger than life figures: Jedi Knights, Emperors, Princesses, and Generals. Rogue One focuses on the lower-level soldiers, the ordinary people of the galaxy swept up in affairs beyond their control. Rogue One shows us the realities of a galactic conflict: the sacrifice, the cost, and the ethical questions that inevitably rise.
Good Isn’t Always Nice
The Rebel Alliance may be the “good guys” in the war against the Empire, but that does not mean they’re nice guys. Cassian Andor‘s establishing moment is when he shoots his panicking contact within Saw Gerrera‘s organization in the back. Tivik is already unnerved during their meeting, and after Cassian kills two stormtroopers who interrupt them, others are alerted to the commotion. Trapped, the only way out is to climb. But Tivik’s arm is injured, and he cannot make the ascent. Cassian cannot risk his capture; in Tivik’s current state, he will most likely tell the Empire everything he knows about Cassian. To solve the problem, Cassian takes the most pragmatic way out – removing Tivik from the equation. It’s an eye-opening moment as Cassian – one of our new heroes – dispassionately kills a fellow Rebel.
And that moment is hardly Cassian’s only moment conducting morally questionable activities for the Rebellion. When informed by General Draven that the mission is not the extraction of Galen Erso, but his execution, Cassian is initially committed to the new directive. It’s also not clear if the order to execute Galen is Draven’s directive, or if it came directly from Mon Mothma.
Either way, a high-ranking Alliance official has ordered the execution of an enemy non-combatant, albeit one seen as potentially responsible for the deaths of countless beings when the Death Star is operational. It’s only after spending time with Galen’s daughter, Jyn, and watching him try to protect his own engineers when Director Krennic orders their execution, which Cassian cannot go through with the order. In that moment, does Cassian see a reflection of Krennic in himself? Does he see that war has made he and Krennic more similar than he’d like?
Cassian is not the only member of the Rebellion who has done questionable things for the cause. All of the other volunteers for the Scarif mission were spies, saboteurs, or assassins. They all carried out their orders because they believed that the cause was worth it. When the Alliance Council refused to commit troops to Scarif to secure the Death Star plans, they all volunteered because if they didn’t, then every dark choice they made for the Rebellion would mean nothing.
The Alliance At War
Before the mission to capture the Death Star plans, the militancy of Saw Gerrera’s partisans caused a rift in their standing with the Alliance. Their extremist tactics caused civilian casualties, and their activities were denounced as terrorism by both the Empire and later commentators like Senator Ransolm Casterfo. Saw Gerrera grew increasingly paranoid as he waged his war, and resorted to using questionable tactics like torture using telepathic creatures. They could probe a subject’s mind to sense lies, but the creatures also have the side-effect of causing the subject to lose their mind.
During the Battle of Scarif, a Hammerhead corvette rams a disabled Star Destroyer, pushing it into the path of another. This action destroys both ships and causes their wreckage to collide with, and destroy the shield gate. What’s not clear is whether or not the Hammerhead and her crew were sacrificed in the maneuver. Did they survive the collision? Or were they deliberately sacrificed for the good of the mission?
When the Death Star arrives in orbit over Scarif, there is no call by the Rebel fleet to rescue their remaining comrades on the ground. They may have logically reasoned that any rescue mission was doomed to fail, but the possibility was not even brought up. Now in receipt of the Death Star plans, the priority for the Rebel fleet is the completion of the mission. The soldiers who made that a possibility are expendable. They have played their part. A retreat is called.
A New Perspective on the Past
The Battle of Scarif would not be the last time that the Rebels engaged in such tactics. Take the Battle of Endor for example. The mission is to destroy the second Death Star, but Mon Mothma makes it clear that their true target is Emperor Palpatine himself. Mon Mothma makes the decision to actively strike at the head of the Imperial government, and is willing to risk the Alliance’s greatest assets – the fleet, their most skilled warriors – to achieve that end. The Battle of Endor may have the goal of destroying the new superweapon, but make no mistake – the ultimate goal is the death of Palpatine. Not imprisonment, or even justice for his crimes, but an execution on the battlefield.
The grittier approach to war in Rogue One reveals so much about the series to date. The visually delightful space battles and lightsaber duels are impressive, but they mean so much more when informed by the morality (or lack thereof) involved in fighting a totalitarian empire. Perhaps we’ll see more of these shades of gray in the next Star Wars films.