The Good Fight: The Rebel Alliance & The Law of War

Back in the days when Star Wars was just the original trilogy and the beloved Holiday Special (that’s the correct usage for “beloved,” right?), things were fairly black and white for the Rebellion. Their struggle against the Galactic Empire was daunting, but the Alliance was portrayed as a scrappy but unified group that shared a common goal.

Fast-forward to Rogue One and Star Wars Rebels and suddenly the Rebels’ fight is not so simple anymore. Instead of a cohesive group of do-gooders, these new stories portray the Rebel Alliance in a more realistic fashion. We see the Rebellion as a troubled group dogged just as much by internal fractures as they are by Imperial forces.

Star Wars dialogue about the law of war? Be still my beating heart.

A big part of their internal struggle is deciding how exactly they should fight the Empire. The recent Star Wars Rebels episode “In the Name of the Rebellion” dove into the Rebellion’s debate about how to wage war. In it, Saw Gerrera confronts Mon Mothma over her unwillingness to take more extreme measures in the fight against the Empire. Mon Mothma fires back, accusing Saw of breaking the rules of engagement and killing civilians and prisoners.

In her fiery retort, Mon Mothma touches on some very real concerns that are at the heart of the law of war. Long ago, the Latin maxim “Silent enim leges inter arma” (or, “In times of war, the law falls silent”) spoke to the lawless chaos of war. While Saw Gerrera probably has that slogan tattooed on him somewhere, the belief that war was inherently lawless was discarded long ago. Laws, customs, and treaties developed over the course of millennia to help reign in war’s lawless carnage. Those rules collectively became known as the law of war.

The concept of trying to apply rules to something as destructive and frenzied as war might seem silly. However, the law of war serves to bring some semblance of humanity to warfare by protecting fundamental human rights and guarding against unnecessary suffering.

Perhaps the Ewoks need a bit of…mentorship in the fine art of not being carnivorous war criminals.

How the Rebel Alliances chooses to wage its war against the Empire is therefore a critically important decision—one that Mon Mothma gets right. Saw Gerrera sees the Empire as a brutal, unyielding foe who must be met with an equally brutal resolve. Imperial forces certainly have little concern for the law of war—to Saw Gerrera, that’s reason enough to show no restraint or mercy. He openly mocks Mon Mothma because he believes that the Rebellion is doomed to failure as long as it tries to fight honorably against such a dastardly opponent.

But Saw is blinded by his unbridled thirst for vengeance. His endgame is not a fight for the fate of the galaxy, but a bloodletting designed to make the Empire pay. His tactics of killing civilians and prisoners severely undermine the larger Rebel effort. In Rebel Rising, Saw’s forces assassinate an Imperial governor and intentionally massacre countless civilians in the process. Saw’s objective was to send a message to Emperor Palpatine about what the Empire was up against. In reality, the mass murder achieved virtually nothing and instead fueled Imperial efforts to portray the rebels as frightening terrorists.

The Galactic Empire would like to extend its warm appreciation to Saw Gerrera, whose generous battlefield foolishness helped make this propaganda campaign possible.

On real world battlefields, violating the law of war is often a similarly powerful motivator for enemy forces. Late in World War II, Hitler ordered his commanders at the Battle of the Bulge to be especially brutal during the battle to frighten Allied forces. In response to Hitler’s orders, Nazi forces in Malmedy, Belgium infamously executed 84 American prisoners of war during the battle. However, word of the “Malmedy Massacre” quickly spread through Allied ranks, sparking outrage that fueled American forces to break the back of the German offensive.

Mon Mothma’s choice to have the Rebels fight according to the law of war is a reflection of the Alliance’s ultimate goal of restoring the galaxy. She recognizes that the Rebellion has no chance at victory if it does not win over the hearts and minds of galactic citizens. The Empire’s willingness to violate the law of war is no excuse for the Rebellion to do the same. Stooping to the Empire’s level and trading in atrocities would all but forfeit the moral high ground and give citizens little reason to rally to their cause—a result that would doom their movement as much as any devastating loss in battle.

Saw’s tirade against Mon Mothma wrongly paints the law of war and rules of engagement as needless restrictions that handcuff Rebel forces. What he fails to see is that sticking to those rules can actually be a “combat multiplier,” or in other words, something that dramatically enhances effectiveness and helps accomplish the mission.

During the Gulf War, Allied forces used leaflets like the one below to tempt Iraqi forces to surrender by highlighting the protections and humane treatment they would receive. The leaflets showcased U.S. respect for the law of war and were a huge success on the battlefield, motivating large numbers of Iraqis to peacefully surrender.

Leaflet dropped during the Gulf War. The text on the backside read: The U.S. abides by the rules of the Geneva Convention. Ceasing fire will provide you humane treatment, food and water, medical treatment, shelter, and return to your homes after hostilities.

Lord Vader wasn’t the type to throw down his lightsaber just because Rebels played by the rules. Nonetheless, the Alliance’s respect for the law of war led to similar tactical successes. Although the Battle of Endor far from ended the war, countless Imperials surrendered to Rebel forces, including two super star destroyers. Similarly, the Galactic Concordance flexed the rule of law and law of war to help usher the final surrender of remaining Imperial forces, ending the Galactic Civil War. Those successes would have never occurred if Mon Mothma had cast aside the Alliance’s core values and let the law fall silent during war.

Rather than attend a class on the law of war, Saw Gerrera chooses obliteration by Death Star.