After our not-so-flattering analysis the Death Star’s strike on Alderaan, Tarkin probably would have reassigned us with the rest of the battle station’s Judge Advocate attorneys to the spice mines of Kessel to be smashed into who knows what. While our analysis demonstrated that Alderaan’s destruction was a grave breach of the law of war, that does not mean that any use of the battle station falls into the same category.
We should feel a little pity for poor Director Orson Krennic, Governor Tarkin, and all those hardworking Geonosian builders. Despite all of the Galactic Empire’s resources and military prowess, their prized battle station was barely around for two combat engagements before some womp rat-murdering farm boy from Tatooine blew it up. Fortunately for us, the epic battle at the end of A New Hope provides an excellent chance to more fully assess the big question: Was the Death Star really just a gigantic floating war crime in space?
Once again, our analysis centers on four key principles: (1) military necessity; (2) distinction/discrimination; (3) proportionality; and (4) humanity/prevention of unnecessary suffering.
1. Military Necessity
In last week’s article, we saw that the Empire had no military necessity for destroying the peaceful planet of Alderaan. The Empire publicly tried to spin its destruction as a necessary act to safeguard security. However, in reality, they had intentionally obliterated a civilian populace. But Yavin IV was categorically different. The pristine moon hosted the Alliance’s secret central base, which was the priority target the Imperials had been relentlessly hunting for.
Given Yavin’s importance, Admiral Motti, General Tagge, and the other Imperial Joint Chiefs would have rushed to green light the Death Star’s next laser light show by concluding that targeting the moon was undeniably necessary. The U.S. Army’s Field Manual 27-10, which covers the law of land warfare, defines military necessity as those measures indispensible for securing the complete submission of the enemy as soon as possible that are not forbidden by international law.
Imperials would first argue that attacking Yavin IV was a military requirement to eliminate the threat posed by the Rebellion, which formed the basis for their military necessity to attack. By the time of A New Hope, the Rebellion was not simply some disparate and disorganized group of agitators. From the Empire’s point of view, they had become a legitimate threat.
The Empire saw the Rebels as a mounting terroristic threat to its citizens. This view was driven in part by the fervent actions of some splinter Rebel cells, including the Plasma Devils squadron from Marvel’s Darth Vader comic and the Free Ryloth Movement from the Lords of the Sith novel and Rebels TV series. These cells often publically struck nonmilitary targets, causing alarming collateral damage. Despite often acting independently of the larger Rebellion, the Empire saw them as a single entity jeopardizing galactic stability.
The larger Rebellion’s ever-growing capabilities in armaments, espionage, and combat operations further fueled the Empire’s position that a decisive strike was essential. When the Death Star was completed, the Rebels weren’t fighting with mere Ewok spears or energy slingshots. They had amassed a sizeable fleet manned by highly skilled leaders, pilots, and soldiers.
Calculated Rebel espionage operations, such as the theft of the Empire’s top secret five-year plan in Rebels, compromised critical Imperial information. The Rebellion repeatedly showcased its ability to leverage that sort of information into effective attacks on Imperial forces, culminating in the operation to steal the Death Star plans, which we’ll soon see gloriously depicted in Rogue One.
Therefore, the Rebellion had graduated from a pitiful band (admit that you just read that in Emperor Palpatine’s voice) into a sophisticated military force. Moreover, the growing swell of political support for the Alliance only enhanced the problem they posed. Influential Core World leaders like Mon Mothma and Bail Organa gave the Alliance a foundation of key legitimacy. Additionally, the Empire’s own tactics, such as Darth Vader’s brazen attack on Princess Leia’s consular ship, was readily galvanizing more political support for the Rebel cause. To the Empire, this combination threatened to trigger a repeat of the mass galactic secession that led to the Separatist Alliance and the awful destruction of the Clone Wars. Given this very real threat, the Imperials had an ample military requirement to pursue a pivotal strike against the heart of the Alliance.
Yavin IV presented the Empire with the target they had been chasing for years: a centralized collection of Alliance leadership and military forces. For years, the Rebellion’s decentralized structure made it incredibly difficult for the Empire to deliver any type of crippling blow. Imperial leadership therefore knew that catching the Alliance military en masse was their single best chance to end the conflict. Yavin IV was that chance.
Destroying the base would wipe out everything the Rebellion had built. The Alliance’s command and control would be gone and the bulk of its weapons and supplies destroyed. If that were not enough, the strike would doom Rebel morale, undoubtedly eradicating any remaining support for the group across the galaxy. That kind of distinct military advantage makes it clear that use of the Death Star against Yavin IV was an indispensible means of securing the Rebellion’s complete submission. Thus, the Empire had a major military necessity to destroy the moon.
Next, unlike Alderaan, Yavin IV did not present the same types of major complications with distinction/discrimination. Recall that discrimination/distinction requires that military attacks be directed at military targets, not civilians or their property.
Unlike Alderaan, Yavin had no civilian population that would have been indiscriminately targeted by the Death Star’s attack. The moon’s original inhabitants, known as the Massassi, were long extinct. That left Rebel military forces as the only tenants on the planet. So, the Empire would face no issues with distinction/discrimination as to civilians on Yavin.
Likewise, the Empire’s attack would not have violated the law of war’s protection of civilian property. The Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 and the 1954 Hague Cultural Property Convention establish a general prohibition against attacking cultural property, including buildings dedicated to religion and historic monuments. The Rebel base sat within an ancient Massassi temple. Given the temple’s age and cultural significance it would be considered galactic cultural property and would therefore enjoy general protection from attack.
However, even protected places can lose their status and become valid military objectives. Article 52 of Additional Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions defines a military objective as “those objects which by their nature, location, purpose or use make an effective contribution to military action and whose total or partial destruction, capture, or neutralization, in the circumstances ruling at the time, offers a definite military advantage.” Furthermore, civilian property can lose its protection when the enemy misuses it. Cultural properties like the Massassi temples are no exceptions.
Despite being located in an ancient temple, the Alliance’s military headquarters on Yavin IV had certainly become a military objective based on its refurbished purpose and use. The temple had effectively been transformed into a major military fortification, complete with a command and control center, weapons, star fighters, and supplies of munitions and fuel. Accordingly, the Alliance’s Property Brothers-style conversion represents a misuse that would strip it of any protection under the law. While the temple may have originally been cultural property, its use as an Alliance headquarters made it a clear military target. Thus, there are no issues with distinction/discrimination when targeting it.
The inevitable destruction other unused temples in the attack would also not trigger a law of war violation. While their loss would certainly have been a serious concern, it was necessary under the circumstances, as we’ll see in our proportionality analysis.
Use of the Death Star against Yavin IV also would not violate the principle of proportionality. Generally, the principle dictates that the incidental loss of civilian life or property must not be excessive in relation to the anticipated military advantage. In Yavin IV’s case, civilian life was not an issue. However, as we noted above, obliterating the entire moon would destroy a fair amount of important cultural property. Despite the baseline rule, the law of war allows for the destruction of civilian property if military necessity imperatively demands it. In other words, protected property may be destroyed if necessary. This is also known as the “Rendulic Rule,” named for German General Lothar Rendulic, who employed scorched earth tactics in World War II, devastating large areas of northern Finland as his forces withdrew.
In Yavin IV’s case, wiping out an entire planet and its cultural property to destroy one base seems excessive on its face. But consider the alternative facing the Empire. They theoretically could have staged a conventional attack that would have spared the planet. The Rebel base was heavily shielded, similar to Echo Base on Hoth, which means that ground combat would have likely been necessary. Imperial troops would have to land and fight their way through the Yavin jungle before assaulting the temple. Once there, they would face a brutal and protracted battle through each level of the temple. Imperial units would inevitably suffer heavy losses with no guarantee of capturing or eliminating any high value targets. While the Rebels would also take casualties, their key assets would likely escape, just like in The Empire Strikes Back.
Alternatively, the Death Star gave the Empire the ability to achieve all of its goals with a single kyber crystal-enhanced shot. They would expend far fewer resources and would suffer no casualties in the process. Under those circumstances, that sort of huge military advantage is not outweighed by the costs of destroying the planet.
4. Humanity/Unnecessary Suffering
Finally, use of the Death Star on Yavin IV would not violate the principle of humanity. The Hague Regulations forbid using arms calculated to cause unnecessary suffering. Star Wars has its fair share of these, whether it’s Lok Durd’s defoliator cannon from The Clone Wars which could wipe out organic beings, or the Empire’s dreaded T-7 ion disruptor rifles which were used to disintegrate beings atom-by-atom. Even though the Death Star’s superlaser had incredible destructive power, it was not calculated to cause unnecessary suffering. Instead, it was intended as a tool capable of instantly wiping out large targets. So, despite causing a catastrophic loss of life, the superlaser remains a valid weapon.
In the end, the Empire would not have violated the law of war by using the Death Star on Yavin IV. Had the Death Star not been blown to smithereens, Tarkin would have offered a stern nod of approval at this sort of analysis. Because of this, the Alliance must have been relieved that Luke put a proton torpedo up the battle station’s gut. After all, there’s definitely no way the Empire would ever build the exact same weapon again…