The wars in Star Wars have been aggrandized and always have served the purpose of instruction to the viewer. In the original trilogy, war was depicted as an appropriate when the fight is just, a rebellion against a literal evil empire. In the prequel trilogy, the depiction of war swerved to the opposite end of the spectrum, showing that war can be a tool to gain power and undermine democracy. In both, the terrible consequences of war are brought to bear, from the destruction of Alderaan and its millions of people to the numerous deaths of soldiers on the ice fields of Hoth to the Battle of Geonosis. Drawing in the cost of war has become a main theme of Star Wars television narratives, The Clone Wars and Rebels. In both shows, soldiers often die ingloriously in battle, casualties that viewers are forced to accept as part of the story. The Clone Wars, which ran for over five seasons, took this perspective to heart with its clone troopers.
Clone troopers were introduced in Attack of the Clones, soldiers created by the aliens of Kamino based on the DNA of Jango Fett (played by Temuera Morrison). The clones, as presented in second installment of the prequel trilogy lived up to their namesake, appearing and sounding identical in every regard. Yet, in The Clone Wars, the show took the idea of soldiers who by their very genetics should be identical to each other and turned it upside down by introducing characters and storylines that allowed clones to develop into distinct individuals. Two story arcs best represent this aspect of The Clone Wars, the story of Domino Squad which began in “Clone Cadets,” and concludes in “ARC Troopers,” and the “Umbara Arc,” about a military campaign on the shadowy world of Umbara.
The first story arc is built around the solidly anti-clone fact that not all clones are created equal, a complete refutation of the idea of the clone. The members of Domino Squad, a training squad on Kamino, are forced to work together despite inherent differences in personality and approaches to fighting. In short, in “Clone Cadets,” Star Wars is highlighting that the soldiers who initially appear factory made are more than duplicates, but individuals who are being sent to war. The realities of that war then come home in the next installment, “Rookies,” in which two of the clones introduced in “Clone Cadets,” subsequently die in a Separatist attack on their post. The final installment specifically about the clones, “ARC Troopers,” addresses the clones’ emotional attachment to the place of their birth, and climaxes with the death of a clone too deformed to serve on the front lines. Of the members of Domino Squad, all but one end up dying over the course of The Clone Wars’ broadcast. The value of clone trooper lives is examined on a broader scale in the “Umbara arc.”
The Season Four multiple episode arc focuses on the 501st Legion of the Grand Army of the Republic, nominally always under the control of Anakin Skywalker through the war. However, this storyline begins with the command of the legion being transferred to the four-armed Besalisk Jedi, Pong Krell. Tasked with helping Obi-Wan Kenobi, in charge of another division, in taking a valuable target on the planet Umbara, tensions immediately rise as Krell orders the clones into combat with strategies that result in high casualty rates. The cost of the battle is both seen and heard, from numerous clone troopers being killed, but also careful attention given to their dying cries. As the 501st is hit with increasingly high casualty rates contrasted with an indifferent Krell who believes the ends justify the means (clones dying, even when safer options are available), clone troopers resolve to stage a coup to remove Krell from command. When Krell is finally apprehended, he openly boasts about his efforts to see the clone troopers slaughtered, viewing them as expendable. This lack of recognition of their individuality is maintained by Krell refusing to address clones, even their highest ranking officer, by the names they have adopted over the course of the war. Instead, Krell insists on using their clone identification numbers, which exist like inventory labels for the soldiers.
That The Clone Wars introduced a character, a Jedi no less, who reverts to this nomenclature for the clones so late in the show’s broadcast, is indicative of the show’s intent to spotlight how individualistic the clones have become through the show. From the beginning, clones reject their numbered identities and adopt names to distinguish themselves from their genetic kinsmen. Foremost is Captain Rex, the best known and most loved clone trooper. Besides adopting the name Rex, Rex also personalized his armor, a trait which spreads to other troopers as the show continues – in essence, taking even the one absolute feature that makes all clone troopers identical and making it uniquely theirs. This individuality, inside and out, is what makes the “Umbara Arc,” such a powerful statement on war within Star Wars. In no other story in the prequel era is it made as clear that lives matter and that war consumes them. Even clone troopers, ostensibly created entirely for the purpose of dying in war, have valued lives. The depiction of war in the “Umbara Arc,” then is anything but glorious or flattering. Instead, it is terrible and comes with high cost.
On a lesser scale, Rebels continues the unflattering depiction of war, but this time set against the just war positioning of the original trilogy. There are no longer vast armies clashing across the stars by the time period of Rebels, but the human cost of war is constantly addressed by the on screen death of rebel pilots in dog fights with Imperial TIEs and in the opening of “The Antilles Extraction,” depicted by the destruction of an unarmed transport complete with its captain begging for mercy before his crew’s death. Ironically, the idea of ‘clone’ soldiers in the form of storm troopers is flipped on its head, with storm troopers, identical in appearance, are rarely accorded opportunity to be recognized as individuals before their deaths. The best exception would be in the opening moments of Season Three’s premiere, “Steps into Shadow,” when Ezra Bridger, a Jedi apprentice, dabbles with the powers of the Dark Side to force an Imperial soldier to turn his weapon against his comrades, who frantically and fearfully fight to comprehend their pending deaths.
The third season of Rebels is not quite to its midpoint, but it’s almost certain to contain more scenes of rebel deaths, especially at the hands of Grand Admiral Thrawn, introduced in the season premiere. The overarching message of Star Wars will undoubtedly continue, as well. War is not great, it’s not glorious, and it comes with an incredible cost of life. In the prequel trilogy, which wraps itself around the Clone Wars first referenced by Alec Guiness’ Obi-Wan Kenobi in 1977, serves as both a warning of the misuse of war and as a generally anti-war message underlined by the cost in lives of both those who serve in it, but also those who are also affected by it. In the original trilogy, the terrible nature of war is not swept under the triumphant fanfares of John Williams, but coexists with the success of heroes in a just war. The juxtaposition of the two trilogies, each further supported by the animated shows set in the respective time periods, adds up to a cautious message about war. So far as the creators behind future films, television shows, novels and other content of the franchise adhere and recognize these principles, then the wars of Star Wars will remain a warning, and not an endorsement, of the most violent tendencies of human nature.