You Rebel scum. The poor Galactic Empire always gets painted as the murderous bad guys in Star Wars. But from a certain point of view, one can sort of empathize with the Emperor’s legions in their collective anger towards the Rebels. After all, Alliance forces obliterated not one but two Death Stars, killing over 2 million Imperials in the process.
Those were men, women, and dianogas with families, many of whom likely joined the Empire out of a wholly non-evil desire to serve the galaxy. That kind of wholesale destruction begs the question of whether the Rebels cemented themselves as the biggest terrorists in the galaxy by unlawfully blowing up both Death Stars.
Before we talk about all the personnel aboard, lets consider whether both Death Stars were lawful military objectives themselves. Under the law of armed conflict not everything can be attacked at will—certain places and persons are legally protected from attack. For example, the Geneva Conventions forbids intentional attacks civilians or religious and cultural sites. Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions defines military objectives as “those objects which by their nature, location, purpose or use make an effective contribution to military action and whose total or partial destruction…in the circumstances ruling at the time, offers a definite military advantage.”
Unfortunately for the Empire, both Death Stars fit that bill neatly and were therefore valid military objectives. The Death Stars were not designed to be floating research labs or peaceful exploration vessels. Instead, both were purpose-built military doomsday lasers intended to cement the Empire’s control over the galaxy. From wiping out Alderaan to destroying massive Rebel Mon Calamari cruisers in a single shot, the destructive power of the Death Stars significantly contributed to military action.
In the wake of Jedha, Scarif, and Alderaan, the first Death Star proved itself as a weapon unmatched by anything in the fledgling Rebel arsenal. The weapon threatened the very existence of the Alliance, not to mention thousands of innocent people across the galaxy. Destroying it therefore offered an absolute military advantage to the Rebels. Doing so would not only neutralize the most terrifying weapon the galaxy had ever seen, but it would also eliminate a tremendous amount of other enemy equipment and personnel.
Let’s also not forget that at the time of the Rebel attack, the first Death Star was not on some mercy mission to Yavin. It was there to, as Tarkin so eloquently put it, crush the Rebellion in one swift stroke, thereby ending the galactic civil war. Given the threat of imminent destruction, Rebel forces had an absolute right to act in self-defense and attack the Death Star. Even though the Rebels were initially on the offensive against the second Death Star, they had a similar right to self-defense once it started reducing the Rebel fleet to ash.
The Emperor’s presence on the second Death Star was an added enticement for the Rebels. As the leader of the Galactic Empire and commander-in-chief of its military forces, the Alliance rightly recognized that killing the Emperor would grant them an undeniable military advantage. Given his total control over Imperial forces, his death would likely decapitate the Empire and send its military into chaos and disarray. Therefore, there is no question that both Death Stars were valid military targets.
Now what about those millions of poor Imperial souls who lost their lives to the Rebels’ treachery? Sadly, even though most of them didn’t even fire a shot, the throngs of Stormtroopers, officers, and other military personnel were perfectly legal targets.
The law of war dictates that only combatants or those directly participating in hostilities may be targeted. Combatants include anyone engaging in hostilities in an armed conflict on behalf of a party to the conflict. Imperials aboard both Death Stars were combatants by virtue of the fact that they were uniformed soldiers of the Empire. Imperial troops aboard the Death Stars may not have been leaning out of windows actively firing their blasters at Rebel ships, but nevertheless their status as Imperial soldiers effectively painted a bullseye on their backs. That means that it was perfectly legal for the Rebels to target every uniformed Imperial, whether an ace TIE pilot or stormtrooper on sanitation detail (sorry, Finn) aboard both Death Stars.
Don’t tell the Imperial propagandists, but the Rebels acted perfectly within the law of war when they destroyed both Death Stars. While the destruction of both battle stations led to a sobering loss of life, at least it made for a great fireworks show.