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How Star Wars Saved American Triumphalism

With its departure from realistic warfare and its nominal embrace of the underdog, the franchise got American kids back into war.

| Thu Aug. 15, 2013 1:13 PM EDT

The following excerpt from Tom Engelhardt's book The End of Victory Culture is posted with permission from the University of Massachusetts Press. Part 1, "The Secret History of G.I. Joe," can be found by clicking here. It first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

1. "Hey, How Come They Got All the Fun?"

Now that Darth Vader's breathy techno-voice is a staple of our culture, it's hard to remember how empty was the particular sector of space Star Wars blasted into. The very day the Paris Peace Accords were signed in 1973, Richard Nixon also signed a decree ending the draft. It was an admission of the obvious: war, American-style, had lost its hold on young minds. As an activity, it was now to be officially turned over to the poor and nonwhite.

Those in a position to produce movies, TV shows, comics, novels, or memoirs about Vietnam were convinced that Americans felt badly enough without such reminders. It was simpler to consider the war film and war toy casualties of Vietnam than to create cultural products with the wrong heroes, victims, and villains. In Star Wars, Lucas successfully challenged this view, decontaminating war of its recent history through a series of inspired cinematic decisions that rescued crucial material from the wreckage of Vietnam.

To start with, he embraced the storylessness of the period, creating his own self-enclosed universe in deepest space and in an amorphous movie past, "a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away." Beginning with "Episode IV" of a projected nonology, he offered only the flimsiest of historical frameworks—an era of civil war, an evil empire, rebels, an ultimate weapon, a struggle for freedom.

Mobilizing a new world of special effects and computer graphics, he then made the high-tech weaponry of the recent war exotic, bloodless, and sleekly unrecognizable. At the same time, he uncoupled the audience from a legacy of massacre and atrocity. The blond, young Luke Skywalker is barely introduced before his adoptive family—high-tech peasants on an obscure planet—suffers its own My Lai. Imperial storm troopers led by Darth Vader descend upon their homestead and turn it into a smoking ruin (thus returning fire to its rightful owners). Luke—and the audience—can now set off on an anti-imperial venture as the victimized, not as victimizers. Others in space will torture, maim, and destroy. Others will put "us" in high-tech tiger cages; and our revenge, whatever it may be, will be justified.

In this way, Star Wars denied the enemy a role "they" had monopolized for a decade—that of brave rebel. It was the first cultural product to ask of recent history, "Hey! How come they got all the fun?" And to respond, "Let's give them the burden of empire! Let's bog them down and be the plucky underdogs ourselves!"

Like Green Berets or Peace Corps members, Lucas's white teenage rebels would glide effortlessly among the natives. They would learn from value-superior Third World mystics like the Ho-Chi-Minh-ish Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back and be protected by ecological fuzzballs like the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi. In deepest space, anything was possible, including returning history to its previous owners. Once again, we could have it all: freedom and victory, captivity and rescue, underdog status and the spectacle of slaughter. As with the Indian fighter of old, advanced weaponry and the spiritual powers of the guerrilla might be ours.

Left to the enemy would be a Nazi-like capacity for destroying life, a desire to perform search-and-destroy missions on the universe, and the breathy machine voice of Darth Vader (as if evil were a dirty phone call from the Darkside). The Tao of the Chinese, the "life force" of Yaqui mystic Don Juan, even the political will of the Vietnamese would rally to "our" side as the Force and be applied to a crucial technical problem; for having the Force "with you" meant learning to merge with your high-tech weaponry in such a way as to assure the enemy's destruction. Looked at today, the last part of Star Wars concentrates on a problem that might have been invented after, not 14 years before, the 1991 Persian Gulf War: how to fly a computerized, one-man jet fighter down a narrow corridor under heavy antiaircraft fire and drop a missile into an impossibly small air shaft, the sole vulnerable spot in the Emperor's Death Star.

Here, Lucas even appropriated the kamikaze-like fusion of human and machine. In Vietnam, there had been two such man-machine meldings. The first, the bombing campaign, had the machinelike impersonality of the production line. Lifting off from distant spots of relative comfort like Guam, B-52 crews delivered their bombs to coordinates stripped of place or people and left the war zone for another day. The crew member symbolically regained humanity only when the enemy's technology stripped him of his machinery—and, alone, he fluttered to earth and captivity.

At the same time, from Secretary of Defense McNamara's "electronic battlefield" to the first "smart bombs," Vietnam proved an experimental testing ground for machine-guided war. Unlike the B-52 or napalm, the smart bomb, the computer, the electronic sensor, and the video camera were not discredited by the war; and it was these machines of wonder that Lucas rescued through the innocence of special effects.

In James Bond films, high-tech had been a display category like fine wines, and techno-weaponry just another consumer item for 007. For Lucas, however, technology in the right hands actually solved problems, offering—whether as laser sword or X-wing fighter—not status but potential spiritualization. This elevation of technology made possible the return of slaughter to the screen as a triumphal and cleansing pleasure (especially since dying "imperial storm troopers," encased in full body carapaces, looked like so many bugs).

The World as a Star Wars Theme Park

Not only would George Lucas put "war" back into a movie title, he would almost single-handedly reconstitute war play as a feel-good activity for children. With G.I. Joe's demise, the world of child-sized war play stood empty. The toy soldier had long ago moved into history, an object for adult collectors. However, some months before Star Wars opened, Fox reached an agreement with Kenner Products, a toy company, to create action figures and fantasy vehicles geared to the movie. Kenner president Bernard Loomis decided that these would be inexpensive, new-style figures, only 3 ¾-inch high. Each design was to be approved by Lucas himself.

Since Kenner could not produce the figures quickly enough for the 1977 Christmas season, Loomis offered an "Early Bird Certificate Package"—essentially an empty box—that promised the child the first four figures when produced. The result was toy history. In 1978, Kenner sold over 26 million figures; by 1985, 250 million. All 111 figures and other Star Wars paraphernalia, ranging from lunch boxes and watches to video games, would ring up $2.5 billion in sales.

By the early 1980s, children's TV had become a Star Wars-like battle zone. Outnumbered rebels daily transformed themselves from teenagers into mighty robots "loved by good, feared by evil" (Voltron) or "heroic teams of armed machines" (M.A.S.K.) in order to fight Lotar and his evil, blue-faced father from Planet Doom (Voltron), General Spidrax, master of the Dark Domain's mighty armies (Sectaurs), or the evil red-eyed Darkseid of the Planet Apokolips (Superfriends).

Future war would be a machine-versus-machine affair, a bloodless matter of special effects, in the revamped war story designed for childhood consumption. In popular cartoons like Transformers, where good "Autobots" fought evil "Decepticons," Japanese-animated machines transformed themselves from mundane vehicles into futuristic weapons systems. At the same time, proliferating teams of action figures, Star Wars-size and linked to such shows, were transported into millions of homes where new-style war scenarios could be played out.

In those years, Star Wars-like themes also began to penetrate the world of adult entertainment. Starting in 1983 with the surprise movie hit Uncommon Valor, right-wing revenge fantasies like Missing-in-Action (1984) returned American guerrillas to "Vietnam" to rescue captive pilots from jungle prisons and bog Communists down here on Earth. In a subset of these—Red Dawn (1984) and the TV miniseries Amerika (1987) are prime examples—the action took place in a future, conquered United States where home-grown guerrillas fought to liberate the country from Soviet imperial occupation. Meanwhile, melds of technology and humanity ranging from Robocop to Arnold Schwarzenegger began to proliferate on adult screens. In 1985-1986, two major hits featured man-as-machine fusions. As Rambo, Sylvester Stallone was a "pure fighting machine," with muscles and weaponry to prove it; while in Top Gun, Tom Cruise played a "maverick" on a motorcycle who was transformed from hot dog to top dog by fusing with his navy jet as he soared to victory over the evil empire's aggressor machines, Libyan MIGs.

War Games in the Adult World

It took some time for political leaders to catch up with George Lucas's battle scenarios. In the years when he was producing Star Wars, America's post-Vietnam presidents were having a woeful time organizing any narrative at all. In the real world, there seemed to be no Lucas-like outer space into which to escape the deconstruction job Vietnam had done to the war story. The military was in shambles; the public, according to pollsters, had become resistant to American troops being sent into battle anywhere; and past enemies were now negotiating partners in a new "détente."

Gerald Ford, inheriting a collapsed presidency from Richard Nixon, attempted only once to display American military resolve. In May 1975, a month after Saigon fell, Cambodian Khmer Rouge rebels captured an American merchant ship, the Mayaguez. Ford ordered the bombing of the Cambodian port city of Kampong Son and sent in the Marines. They promptly stormed an island on which the Mayaguez crew was not being held, hours after ship and crew had been released, and fought a pointless, bitter battle, suffering 41 dead. The event seemed to mock American prowess, confirming that rescue, like victory, had slipped from its grasp.

Jimmy Carter, elected president in 1976, had an even more woeful time of it. Facing what he termed a Vietnam-induced "national malaise," he proposed briefly that Americans engage in "the moral equivalent of war" by mobilizing and sacrificing on the home front to achieve energy independence from the OPEC oil cartel. The public, deep in a peacetime recession, responded without enthusiasm.

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In 1979, in a defining moment of his presidency, Carter watched helplessly as young Islamic followers of the Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini took 52 Americans captive in the US embassy in Teheran and held them for 444 days. In April 1980, "Desert One," a military raid the president ordered to rescue the captives, failed dismally in the Iranian desert, and the president was forced to live out his term against a televised backdrop of unending captivity and humiliation that seemed to highlight American impotence.

Only with the presidency of Ronald Reagan did a Lucas-like reconstitution of the war story truly begin at the governmental level. The new president defined the Soviet Union in Star Wars-like terms as an "evil empire," while the Army began advertising for recruits on TV by displaying spacy weaponry and extolling the pleasures of being "out there" in search of "the bad guys." In Nicaragua, Angola, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, the Reagan administration managed to portray the forces it supported as outnumbered "freedom fighters" struggling to roll back an overwhelming tide of imperial evil. This time, we would do the hitting and running, and yet we—or our surrogates—would retain the high-tech weaponry: mines for their harbors and Stinger missiles for their helicopters.

Meanwhile, planners discovered in an intervention in Grenada that, with the right media controls in place and speed, you could produce the equivalent of an outer space war fantasy here on Earth. No wonder that a group of junior officers at the Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth responsible for aspects of the ground campaign used against Iraq in 1991 would be nicknamed the Jedi Knights.

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