The Empire’s prized planet-busting weapon was arguably the pinnacle of destructive technology in the Star Wars universe…at least until the First Order one-upped them with Starkiller Base.
If Darth Vader had not sliced him in half like a stick of butter, Archduke Poggle the Lesser would have been proud to see the terror inspired by the battle station his insectoid brethren designed and helped build. The existence and use of such a powerful weapon begs a major question: Was the Death Star an orbital violation of the law of war?
Speaking of Poggle’s industrious underlings, the Geonosians, the law of war is more complex than one of their branching underground hives. Also referred to as the law of armed conflict or international humanitarian law, the law of war has evolved over millennia and is deeply rooted in history. In its present state, the law of war is comprised of a network of international agreements (e.g. treaties, conventions, or protocols), international customs (i.e. general and consistent practices of states stemming from a sense of legal obligation), and other similar sources.
Just like other laws, the various aspects of the law of war exist to prevent or control conduct. The law of war has two prongs: (1) Jus ad Bellum, or, for those of us still recovering from high school Latin class, the conduct of going to war; and (2) Jus in Bello, which is the regulation or control of conduct within war. In real world combat operations, military attorneys known as Judge Advocates are there to advise commanders at all levels on the law of war.
Before someone like General Veers rolls his eyes and blasts me out of an airlock for raising the silly notion of rules for combat, Star Wars is no stranger to the core concepts behind the law of war. For example, Governor Tarkin himself acknowledged the difference between civilian and military targets in A New Hope when he threatened Leia with the destruction of Alderaan. Republic forces grappled with Separatist use of Twi’lek civilians as living shields in Season 1 of The Clone Wars. In Marvel’s Poe Dameron #4, everyone’s favorite bro, Poe Dameron, scolds a fellow pilot for breaking the rules of engagement by firing on First Order troops. While Star Wars may be littered with subtle references like these, scenes of galactic lawyers debating the rules are no more thrilling than the taxation of trade routes and senate hearings in The Phantom Menace. Nevertheless, that sort of foundation means that it is no stretch for us to apply the modern principles of the law of war to the Star Wars universe. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll use the real world rules that the United States follows in an international armed conflict.
The Death Star was the ultimate power in the universe, which means we should look to the law of war’s second prong, jus in bello, to best judge its uses. Four key principals make up the foundation of this prong: (1) military necessity; (2) distinction/discrimination; (3) proportionality; and (4) unnecessary suffering. Thanks to a suspiciously convenient design flaw (I’m looking at you, Galen Erso), the Death Star saw limited combat. Its two engagements provide a stark, but useful contrast. We’ll assess the destruction of Alderaan here and contrast it against the Battle of Yavin in a subsequent article.
Let’s state the obvious here: had they not been blasted into a fine particulate, Tarkin, Motti, and the whole gang would be in big bantha poodoo for the attack on Alderaan. As an underpinning of the four principles above, the law of war explicitly prohibits intentional attacks on civilians and non-combatants. Additionally, civilian populations are protected from direct attack. The Hague Tradition, named for the 1899 and 1907 Hague Conferences, also outlaws the attack or bombardment of undefended towns or villages.
If the law of war were illustrated, its various authors would have used a picture of a bunch of Alderaanians as the textbook example of persons you definitely cannot target. Alderaanian society was steeped in pacifism and its people generally possessed no weapons. The planet itself was also undefended, with no defensive fleet or orbital/planet-based offensive weaponry.
Despite this, Alderaan still had meaningful ties to the Galactic conflict and the Rebellion. One of the planet’s most prominent figures, Viceroy Bail Organa, was a founding member of the group. Princess Leia followed in her adoptive father’s footsteps, escalating her role with the Alliance as she got older. With two of the most powerful Alderaanians actively aiding the Rebellion, it’s reasonable to conclude that others on the planet were also involved with the group in some similar way.
The Empire might therefore argue that those circumstances offered a clear military advantage that outweighed the inevitable collateral damage of the planet’s destruction. Civilians do not enjoy an unending wellspring of protection. Pursuant to Additional Protocol I of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, civilians lose their protection while they take direct part in hostilities. Similarly, under Hague Regulation IV, Article 25, civilian structures can lose their immunity to intentional attack if their destruction would offer a definite military advantage. Imperials would argue that Bail had long forfeited his civilian protection due to his role with the Rebellion. The same goes for any Alderaniaans engaged in acts that were likely to cause actual harm to Imperial armed forces. For argument’s sake, we’ll assume that Organa and certain Alderaanian rebels lost their protection as civilians.
Ever the calculating tactician, Tarkin would forcefully proclaim that a high value target like Organa was a valid and necessary military objective. He would think the same of other Alderaanian Rebel agents. By destroying Alderaan, the Empire could achieve two critical military objectives with one swift stroke: (1) deliver a hammer blow to the Rebellion by eliminating one of its key leaders and sources of support; and (2) quell potential Alliance support in other systems by sending a resounding message about their fate if they rebelled. Accomplishing those objectives would destabilize the Alliance High Command, disrupt Rebel supply lines, and likely crush Rebel morale across the galaxy. Those would have been definite major military advantages. Although Tarkin conceded that Alderaan was not a military target, he would have coldly brushed that concern aside, reasoning that those military advantages demanded use of the Death Star.
Unfortunately for Tarkin and his comrades, the existence of military necessity does not justify using measures that are forbidden by the law of war. Military necessity is generally not a defense for acts in violation of customary and conventional laws of war. Protected persons, such as civilians, may not be intentionally targeted under any circumstances. Even dire military necessity is not an exception. Additionally, the concept of distinction and discrimination, set forth in Additional Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions, requires that military attacks be directed at military targets and combatants, not at civilians.
In World War II, Germans employed a concept known as Kreigsraison, which was frequently used to justify civilian casualties. Under Kreigsraison, a battlefield commander could set aside the rules of warfare if he determined that the military situation required it. German commanders repeatedly used the concept as justification for numerous brutal practices, such as attacks on civilian merchant shipping and the execution of prisoners. Their rationale was largely rejected in the Allied criminal prosecutions that followed the war. In United States v. List (the “Hostage Case”), the Tribunal was emphatic in its rejection of the concept, stating “[m]ilitary necessity or expediency does not justify a violation of the positive rules…the rules of international law must be followed even if it results in the loss of a battle or even a war.”
The Death Star was no precision weapon, which means that Alderaan’s entire population was unavoidably in its crosshairs. Distinction between a handful of military targets and swaths of civilians was therefore impossible. Furthermore, no amount of Imperial military necessity overcomes the prohibition against indiscriminately attacking the entire planet’s civilian populace. Consequently, Tarkin’s rationale cannot justify use of the Death Star against Alderaan.
As if Tarkin needed another reason to cast his Imperial Judge Advocates into the Great Pit of Carkoon, the Death Star also presents a proportionality problem. The concept of proportionality does not mean that the Imperials must fight Rebels with similar weapons. For example, if an enterprising Rebel soldier fires on Imperials with a DH-17 blaster pistol, proportionality does not mean that the Imperials can only fire back with another blaster pistol.
Instead, under Article 51 of Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions, proportionality is the requirement that in an attack expected to cause injury/death to civilians or damage/destruction of civilian property, such loss must not be excessive in relation to the anticipated concrete and direct military advantage. If the target is purely military with no known threat to civilian personnel or property, proportionality is not an issue. So, to go back to our woefully unequipped Rebel friend, if he was firing that trusty DH-17 on Imperials while standing in an empty and wide-open field on Lothal, the Empire could happily fire on him from orbit with a Star Destroyer’s turbolasers if they wished. Proportionality would not come into play, even though the Empire was effectively squashing an ant with an anvil.
However, in Alderaan’s case, proportionality analysis would be necessary. As discussed above, the Death Star’s lack of precision means that the death of civilians and destruction of their property was a given. Alderaan itself was not a valid military target, but Viceroy Organa and other Rebels on the planet were. Despite Organa’s importance to the Alliance, he was just one man. Furthermore, while many Alderaanians likely sympathized with the Rebellion’s cause, it’s unlikely that more than a small contingent of them were participating in a manner than would strip them of protection under the law. Reducing an entire civilian planet to an asteroid field in order to destroy a few Rebels and make a point to the galaxy is per se excessive. Even a very generous assessment of the military advantage gained in eliminating them would not outweigh the catastrophic loss of civilian life and property.
Ultimately, the Empire knew exactly what it was doing when striking Alderaan. Tarkin is no fool and he built his military career upon brutal yet effective tactics that routinely stepped over the line. From his ruthless beginnings reclaiming the Seswenna sector and committing the Antar Atrocity in the Tarkin novel to smashing resistance on Lothal in the Rebels TV series, Tarkin’s record speaks volumes about his approach to warfare. For a commander like him, a peaceful planet like Alderaan was always going to be the Death Star’s first target. Obliterating it sent a resounding message: If the Empire can so coldly destroy a pacifist planet like Alderaan, they would have no mercy for any system supporting the Alliance.
DISCLAIMER: The author is writing in his individual capacity. His views are expressly his own. He does not speak on behalf the Department of Defense or the United States Army.