The Galactic Empire Was Evil but Were The Imperials?


Throughout the live-action and animated Star Wars properties, Palpatine’s Galactic Empire has been the spectre haunting the galaxy. In the prequel trilogy, Palpatine paved the way for the Empire. In the original trilogy, he saw the Empire explode spectacularly. In the sequel trilogy, he reinvented it and watched it explode again, also spectacularly. 

As I have argued before regarding the Jedi and the Sith, things aren’t always as cut and dry in the galaxy far far away. The Galactic Empire is presented as an irredeemably evil empire built on subjugation, domination, and genocide. That’s certainly true for Emperor Palpatine, Darth Vader, Grand Moff Tarkin, and a few of the other named imperials. But what does that mean for the average imperial? 

Who Enlists as a Stormtrooper for the Galactic Empire?

At the end of Episode III, we saw the clones execute Order 66. They turned against the Jedi and improbably murdered nearly all of them. These clonetroopers then became the very first stormtroopers. However, as Palpatine’s army expanded, the Empire began to accept enlistments. That was actually Luke Skywalker’s plan. He planned, like many others before him, to enlist in the Imperial army. He would be trained as an imperial, and then defect to the Rebel Alliance. It’s a pretty efficient (and free) way to develop a rebel fighting force. But what about the ones who don’t plan to defect?

Many of them likely joined the Imperial army for things like health insurance, money for college, stable employment, and an opportunity to see the galaxy. 

If the Galactic Empire is anything like other totalitarian regimes, it’s unlikely that reliable information spread easily. Random galactic citizens, especially those in the Outer Rim, probably had no idea about the various atrocities of the Empire. They likely believed the Jedi had rebelled against the lawful government, they didn’t know Alderaan had blown up, and they didn’t know the Wookiees were enslaved. 

Galactic Empire janitorial staff awaiting the arrival of the Emperor.
Look at all those poor doomed bastards in the background.

So, What’s Your Point?

My point is this: every story in Star Wars television and film involves someone who understands the Empire is evil and fights against it. Wouldn’t it be much more interesting to see a story from a different perspective? What must it have been like for the families of everybody working on the Death Star? Your mother, father, sister, brother, or friend is serving on the Death Star one day, and then Luke Skywalker blows it up. Then, after that, they throw a galaxy-wide celebration. Hooray! Your loved one died tragically! Let’s shoot fireworks! Luke becomes a mythic hero. 

If you didn’t know what exactly happened on the Death Star, who would you think is the bad guy? You think your loved one is serving his/her empire honorably, patrolling the galaxy and keeping everyone safe. Then, the people who killed him/her start saying they commited genocide? You don’t know what to believe, but you know your daughter/sister/husband would never commit genocide. Wouldn’t that be a compelling story? 

Disney is missing out on easy, compelling narratives when they refuse to contextualize and humanize the imperials. That person under the stormtrooper helmet probably isn’t a yellow-eyed lightning-slinging Sith. That’s probably just a kid in his (are they all dudes?) early twenties who couldn’t afford to go to college or who wanted a way off whatever impoverished planet he’s from. 

Some estimates suggest the first Death Star would have had about 250,000 people working onboard. Grand Moff Tarkin was one. There were probably a few genuine bad guys. Then, there were probably about 249,800 people who just needed a job. 

How do you feel about Luke Skywalker now?