by David Goodner
Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker in ‘The Last Jedi.’ (Walt Disney Studios)
With new Star Wars movie “The Last Jedi” approaching release next week, fan theories abound about the possibility of Luke Skywalker becoming a so-called “Grey Jedi,” a knight who rejects dogmatic views about good and evil and strives to balance the Light and Dark sides of the Force. In other words, many fans want Skywalker to become an even deadlier warrior, while still claiming to be one of the good guys.
Why so much excitement for such a morally dubious hero? Perhaps we need only look to our present cultural and political moment for the answer. With the Democratic establishment offering only a weak resistance to the far right’s open embrace of fascism, many on the left are anxious to fight fire with fire and uncritically accept the antifa movement’s “punch a Nazi” black bloc tactics. Meanwhile, the average apolitical moviegoer just wants to see the good guys, whoever they might be, kick some ass — which is to be expected after years of escalating violence in Hollywood films that increasingly portray protagonists as loner anti-heroes.
If the Grey Jedi fan theory is correct, many critics will praise the film as a sophisticated commentary on today’s complex, dark, pluralistic society. Yet, what Disney is most likely to promote is a worldview that says violence is the answer to all our problems — albeit violence approved by “the very serious people” of the establishment.
In the real world, however, there is no middle road when it comes to violence, or justice. Killing has devastating consequences for the human spirit, regardless of which side is doing it. Only sociopaths are able to kill without remorse and psychic trauma.
In fact, modern psychological research suggests that the heroic young Skywalker himself exhibited the traits of a sociopath through much of the original Star Wars trilogy. But his refusal to kill his father, Darth Vader, in “Return of the Jedi” concludes his story with a clear cut rejection of violence and any moral shade of grey.
It would therefore betray his character arc, if Luke Skywalker became anything other than a staunch pacifist in “The Last Jedi.”
Our innate resistance to killing
One helpful tool to analyze “Star Wars” is the groundbreaking five-year research study, “On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society.” It’s author, Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman, finds that the vast majority of soldiers throughout human history have refused to kill at the moment of truth. Grossman argues that human beings have a profound, innate resistance to killing other humans, a resistance so strong that most people on the battlefield — even when confronted with imminent danger from an enemy soldier — will posture, flee, submit or temporarily become conscientious objectors, either by refusing to fire or by firing into the air or ground, rather than shooting to kill.
During the Civil War for example, evidence suggests that half of all soldiers never fired their weapons in battle, and only a small percentage of those who did aimed to kill. The same was true during both world wars in the 20th century. “Only 15 to 20 percent of the American riflemen in combat during World War II fired at the enemy,” he writes.
Firing rates for U.S. soldiers increased to 55 percent in the Korean War and 90-95 percent in the Vietnam War due to new conditioning techniques developed by the military to force enlistees to overcome their natural aversion to killing. But even when this is overcome, soldiers who are forced to kill are almost always scarred for life with immense guilt, shame and trauma. Grossman’s interview subjects from World War II, Korea and Vietnam were all haunted for life by the ghosts of the men they had killed.
Only two percent of men do not possess this innate resistance to killing, he finds. This small subset of people — in addition to being essentially murderous sociopaths — are responsible for the vast majority of killing in war.
Is Luke Skywalker a sociopath?
If we apply the findings of Grossman’s study to Star Wars, we can see that many of Luke Skywalker’s actions during the original trilogy are highly problematic, and may even fit the profile of a sociopath.
In “A New Hope,” for instance, Luke Skywalker shoots and kills multiple stormtroopers without hesitation while rescuing Princess Leia. Perhaps this ease at killing can be explained by the distance between himself and his enemies, or his use of laser blasters, which make the killings fairly sterile.
As Grossman finds, the innate human resistance to killing lessens the further away a soldier is from his or her target. A pilot or artillery operator may drop bombs on a city from long range without a corresponding psychological cost to themselves. Because they do not see the result of their actions firsthand, they can plausibly deny the truth to themselves about what they have done. This is why drone operators have much higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, than traditional fighter pilots. A drone hovers above its target after firing, taking pictures of the gruesome aftermath, rather than flying away during the detonation and subsequent explosion.
This may explain away Luke’s proton torpedo shot that blows up tens of thousands of people on the Death Star during the movie’s epic climax. The same dynamic might also justify a scene on the ice planet Hoth in “The Empire Strikes Back,” when Luke takes down two imperial AT-AT walkers, without having to actually see first-hand evidence of his kills.
The fact that the masks of the stormtroopers prevent Luke from seeing their faces may also have made it easier for him to pull the trigger of his blaster. As Grossman explains, the emotional distance between a soldier and his or her enemy also makes killing easier.
The U.S. military exploits this through classic dehumanizing techniques meant to turn enemy soldiers into inhuman “others,” thus making it easier to kill them. The new recruit, whether serving in World War II, Vietnam or Iraq, is taught that their enemy is not human. They are Japs, gooks, towelheads, hajis, dogs, terrorists, and a host of other epithets, but never humans with families, hopes and dreams. “Kill, Kill, Kill!” is repeated hundreds of times a day in basic training.
But how then do we explain Luke Skywalker’s killing spree in “Return of the Jedi”? After returning to Tatooine to rescue Han Solo from the clutches of Jabba the Hutt, Luke Force-chokes two Gammorean guards (a definitively Dark Side power) and, after recovering his lightsaber, goes on a one-man crusade, chopping down foe after foe with impunity, before blowing up a sail barge full of dozens of people, many of whom are slaves. This scene raises serious questions about whether or not Skywalker is, in fact, a sociopath.
As Grossman explains, the innate human resistance to killing increases the closer one gets to the victim. “This process culminates at the close end of the spectrum, when the resistance to bayoneting or stabbing becomes tremendously intense, almost unthinkable,” he writes. “The horror associated with pinning a man down, feeling him struggle, and watching him bleed to death is something that can give a man nightmares for years afterwards.”
Contrast Luke Skywalker’s actions in “Return of the Jedi” with his mentor, Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi. In the first Star Wars, Kenobi uses cunning, guile and self sacrifice to complete his objectives, not violence. When he saves Luke from the sand people, Obi-Wan imitates the sound of a Komodo dragon to scare them away, rather than killing them all. To get past the stormtrooper blockade in Mos Eisley, Kenobi uses a simple Jedi mind trick to talk his way out of a bad situation, rather than igniting his lightsaber.
On the Death Star, Obi-Wan stealthily avoids all confrontation to shut down the tractor beam preventing the Millennium Falcon from escaping. When he is finally face-to-face with Darth Vader, Kenobi allows violence and death to be brought upon himself rather than inflicting harm on another person, even someone as evil as Vader. In “A New Hope,” Obi-Wan Kenobi is a Jesus-like character, whose selfless and nonviolent act of self-sacrifice results in his resurrection as a Force ghost.
Although Obi-Wan cuts off the arm of a criminal earlier in the movie to protect the young and naive Luke Skywalker, Kenobi does not kill him. And the scene was probably necessary to foreshadow his lightsaber skills before his eventual duel with Lord Vader.
In “The Empire Strikes Back,” the Jedi Master Yoda tries to teach Luke Skywalker again and again that violence is not the way of the Jedi. When Luke refuses to heed Yoda’s teachings and runs off to Bespin in a futile effort to rescue Princess Leia and Han Solo from capture by Darth Vader, his use of violence to achieve his objectives is met with grave consequences. Just as the anarchist Black Bloc can never match the violence of the state, neither can a half-trained Luke Skywalker match the violence of Lord Vader, and Luke is severely injured and almost dies because of his folly.
Without some kind of alternative explanation, “Return of the Jedi,” at least at first, seems to imply that strength in the Light Side of the Force makes the Jedi even more efficient killers, only killers for good instead of for evil. The heroic Jedi music plays during Luke’s one-man berserker rage on Tatooine.
But it could be argued that Luke Skywalker was actually using the Dark Side of the Force during the opening scenes of “Return of the Jedi,” as the movie hinges on if Luke will fall to the Dark Side or not. Later in the movie, nonviolence is clearly Luke’s preferred strategy when he surrenders to Darth Vader and attempts to morally persuade him to “turn back to the good side,” rather than fight alongside the rest of the Rebel Alliance on Endor.
Later, thanks to the emperor’s manipulations, Luke Skywalker succumbs to his anger and hatred when he duels again with Darth Vader, eventually defeating him in a fit of rage. But at the last minute, Luke hesitates, refuses to deal his father a killing blow, and throws away his weapon rather than fight anymore.
It is only then, after Luke Skywalker renounces violence and refuses to kill his father, that he finally becomes a Jedi. This scene is a call back to Obi-Wan Kenobi’s self-sacrifice in “A New Hope,” as Luke becomes the victim of violence himself after the emperor attacks him with Force Lightning. And it is Luke’s turn away from violence, and his subsequent torture at the hands of the emperor, that finally convinces his father to return to the Light Side of the Force, and once again become Anakin Skywalker.
Grossman can also be used to analyze “The Force Awakens.” In one of the opening scenes, the new hero Finn, at this point still a stormtrooper, is ordered to participate in a massacre of innocent civilians. However, Finn refuses to fire, becoming exactly like one of the conscientious objectors Grossman details in his book. But Finn is still deeply traumatized by the massacre he witnessed, which becomes his main motivation for leaving the First Order and joining the Resistance.
Later on in the movie, Kylo Ren impales his own father, Han Solo, with his lightsaber, the most intimate and psychologically devastating method of killing. In the novelization of “The Force Awakens,” it is clear that Kylo Ren is horrified by what he has done. Rather than feeling empowered by killing his father, as Supreme Leader Snoke promised, Kylo Ren is weakened.
Alternatives to fighting
Grossman’s biggest contribution to the literature on warfare isn’t just his theory about human beings’ innate resistance to killing; it is also his corresponding thesis that the mainstream media, and violent video games, have replicated military conditioning to such a degree that most of our society is completely desensitized to violence.
“The media in our modern information society have done much to perpetuate the myth of easy killing and have thereby become part of society’s unspoken conspiracy of deception that glorifies killing and war,” Grossman writes. “A culture raised on Rambo, Indiana Jones, Luke Skywalker and James Bond wants to believe that combat and killing can be done with impunity — that we can declare someone to be the enemy and that for cause and country the soldiers will cleanly and remorselessly wipe him from the face of the earth.”
Perhaps it is this corrupting influence of violence in the media that has so many bloodthirsty Star Wars fans pining for the new movie to depict Luke Skywalker as a Grey Jedi willing to use violence to accomplish the greater good. A critical viewing of the original Star Wars trilogy suggests something different. There can be no balance of the Light and the Dark, no middle ground between good and bad, no compromise between violence and nonviolence. Anger, fear and aggression will always lead to the Dark Side, no matter how much we try to walk the line. Evil must be fought, yes, but not with violence. With compassion. Not with moral ambivalence, but with moral purity.
That’s why Luke Skywalker should be portrayed in “The Last Jedi” as a pacifist, an ideology consistent with his character arc in the original Star Wars, when both he and the Jedi Order stood for something meaningful, a morality that neither the violent left, right, or center will ever have.
Of course, all signs point to “The Last Jedi” making a very different kind of argument. What little is known of the plot suggests a centrist view of the world, where the violence of the ideological left feeds the violence of the ideological right, and where the violence of the center is the answer to both.
If true, then “The Last Jedi” will ultimately be just another forgettable Hollywood blockbuster, a movie about redemptive violence that claims to be smart and politically relevant, but one which fails to live up to the moral high ground that made the original Star Wars trilogy such a poignant cultural milestone.