How valuable is the Force in Star Wars really? Spiritually, the Force is the power that binds the Galaxy together. It is a well of potentially unlimited energy. Yet the humans and aliens who tap into it only have a small and limited selection of powers. In terms of grand strategy, the Jedi and Sith are not nearly as important as you would think. It’s the technology that really drives events in Star Wars, not magic.
Anakin’s journey to the Dark Side and Luke’s journey to the Light Side are great, compelling stories. Yet how important is any one person in the scale of an entire Galaxy? Star Wars is a sci-fi fantasy adventure so it tries to set up events so that one Jedi’s decision can change everything. But Jedi are very small compared to fleets or Death Stars or armies. Strategically, the Jedi are overrated.
The Great Jedi Theory
In history, there is an often-mocked concept from the 1800s called the Great Man Theory. This is the idea that a truly extraordinary person changes the world all on his or her own. But this falls into a kind of chicken and egg argument. What really ended slavery in the US? Was it Abraham Lincoln’s wisdom or was it economic and social forces that made an Abraham Lincoln possible? Modern historians prefer the more complicated explanation.
Thinking as a Star Wars historian, the “Great Jedi Theory” is as silly as the Great Man Theory. If you study the events, you’ll see the hero isn’t as big as he or she appears. Jedi are just not powerful enough to change the universe on their own. Luke Skywalker needed friends — a lot of them — to beat the Empire. Even Darth Sidious needed a weak Republic and a lot of Clone Troopers made from science to become the Emperor of the Galaxy.
In Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, a group of Imperial generals sit around a boardroom marveling at the power of the Death Star. Only Darth Vader argues that the Force is actually superior. “Don’t be too proud of this technological terror you’ve constructed. The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force.” When a general points out that the Force isn’t all that useful to the Empire, Vader “magically” suffocates him. But the general wasn’t wrong.
Even mighty Yoda cannot do everything with the Force. The Force can’t take you into space, it can’t fly you faster than light speed, and it can’t locate those pesky Death Star plans. A Force user is a powerful asset and will crush most Muggle opponents. Yet most battles in Star Wars are decided by non-magical soldiers and ships. And they certainly cannot destroy whole planets like the Death Star did or whole star systems like the Starkiller Base did.
On Geonosis, even 200 of the best trained Jedi Masters in the Galaxy are utterly outmatched by a much larger Droid army. They need legions of clone troopers to save them. At the beginning of The Phantom Menace, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Qui-Gon Jinn are completely checkmated by just two shielded Destroyer Droids. Only in the now non-canon Force Unleashed games is a Force-user actually powerful enough to defeat whole armies on his own.
One Jedi can’t win against an entire army. So, many battles in Star Wars, like at Naboo and Starkiller Base, structure themselves to avoid this problem. The movies isolate the Force-users into bubbles where they can have climatic duels away from the battle. Lightsaber fights are super cool, but in the big picture, they are not as significant as they seem. Naboo still would have been saved even if Darth Maul had killed Obi-Wan.
Battle of Endor
The difference in importance between the Force and technology could not be starker than at the Battle of Endor in Return of the Jedi. Luke Skywalker’s quest to save his father’s soul is an exciting drama. However, whether Luke saves Darth Vader or succumbs to the Dark Side, the future of the Galaxy does not change. Those events are again a small part of a much larger battle.
The real heroes of the Battle of Endor are actually Lando Calrissian and Han Solo. Han Solo shuts down the Death Star shields with the help of some Ewoks against all odds. Lando up in space, meanwhile, maneuvers the Rebel fleet around the Emperor’s trap. Then Lando and Wedge Antilles destroy the second Death Star. If it were not for ships, lasers, and brave pilots, the Rebellion would have lost. The Force was not a part of it.
Whether Luke was on the Light or Dark Side of the Force, the second Death Star was still going to be destroyed. Luke’s main contribution is distracting the Emperor and Darth Vader. Maybe if Darth Vader had been in command instead of poor, mild-mannered Admiral Piett, the Imperial Navy could have done better. But ultimately Luke’s actions are not greater than that of Han, Lando, or Wedge.
Not Worth the Risk
Then there is the real strategic mistake of Endor. The Emperor gambled literally everything on turning Luke to the Dark Side. He put his life, his second Death Star, and his Empire in jeopardy to set a trap for one man. Piett was not even allowed to attack the Rebels properly. The Rebel fleet never should have had an opportunity like they were given with Endor. What Darth Vader and the Emperor did was stupidly risk the lives of every soldier in the Imperial Navy for a theatrical backdrop to mess with Luke’s head.
Ultimately though, was Luke Skywalker worth the risk? How much value could Luke really contribute to the Empire if he were turned? He is a fantastic pilot, a great leader, and he did destroy the first Death Star. But even that victory was thanks to deliberate sabotage by its designer, Galen Erso. Really, all the Force did was help Luke aim.
Luke cannot destroy a planet or personally defeat the Rebellion. He is not the symbol of fear and power that the Emperor needs to keep the star systems in line. That’s the Death Star, which the Emperor allowed to be destroyed. Weirdly enough it was the Emperor’s faith in the Force that defeated him. Technology would have won the war.
“Size matters not”
The Empire was not built by the Force, it was built by Clone troopers made through science. The Empire was not defeated by the Force, it was defeated by a band of Rebels using smarter tactics. But does this make Force-users irrelevant? Are the individual stories of Skywalkers a distraction? Not at all.
It isn’t the scale or strategic weight of your life that matters. Heroism and drama do not need galactic implications. As Yoda says, “size matters not.” Nobody’s story is irrelevant. Luke’s battle with his father is important to him and thus it’s important to the audience. Star Wars can be about the big picture of huge space battles and the little picture of a family saga at the same time. That’s what makes it such a rich franchise.