This Star Wars article contains spoilers for both the canon and Legends timelines.
The history of the Star Wars universe is soaked in blood, guts, and rusty machine parts. For all of the fantasy, hokey religions, romance, and heroism, Star Wars paints a very depressing picture of war: in the end, no matter how catastrophic the conflict or how ultimate the victory, there’s always more violence to come.
To those who have just joined the fandom in the past year, and gone back and watched the original films, that unfortunate legacy of galactic conflicts is most evident in The Force Awakens, a movie that shows us a galaxy far, far away that hasn’t changed much in 30 years. Three decades after Luke, Han, Leia, and the Rebellion won a decisive victory against the evil Empire, the galaxy is still suffering from the same exact problems: fascism is still running rampant, whole planets are being destroyed, sons are forced to kill their fathers, and slavery still exists in some places. If you were lucky enough to see A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi in theaters back in the 70s and 80s, then maybe you left The Force Awakens wondering what the fight was all for.
Granted, the cyclical nature of the conflict in The Force Awakens is due in part to J.J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan’s careful recycling of what came before. After all, 2015 was the year of the nostalgia-make, and these filmmakers knew how to tap into our need for deadly battle stations, epic duels, and intense dogfights in space without changing anything at all about the core story. But The Force Awakens isn’t the first time a new generation of heroes has inherited the conflicts of the past in Star Wars.
In fact, the never-ending battle between the forces of good and evil is the common thread that ties almost every major Star Wars adventure – whether it’s a movie, book, comic, or video game – together. From the dawn of the Jedi, to Golden Age of the Sith, to the founding of the Old Republic, to the rise of the Galactic Empire, to the birth of the New Republic, Star Wars is comprised of countless stories about the fall of one faction and the rise of another. Of course, that’s to be expected – we’re talking about a franchise called “Star WARS.” Yet, it’s still pretty surprising that until this year’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, no Star Wars film has ever presented itself as strictly a war movie.
Unlike the main saga films, with their larger-than-life heroes, princesses, exotic planets, and magic powers, Rogue One is a story about the troops on the ground – those brave warriors who don’t possess Force powers and won’t necessarily make it to the end of the film. The movie presents the conflict between the Empire and the Rebellion in a much more gritty way, as Rebel soldiers rush down the beaches of Sarif while laser fire from a monstrous AT-ACT blows past them. Here, there is no Jedi to save them. Jyn’s team must depend on each other to stay alive and complete their mission.
Interestingly enough, even though they’re meant to be peacekeepers and not soldiers, a Jedi-less battlefield is a pretty rare occurrence in the galaxy far, far away, considering they’re the superheroes of the Star Wars universe and are featured in pretty much every war story in the films and the larger Expanded Universe. War is as much a part of the Jedi DNA as it is Star Wars‘ as a whole. (It would be pretty lame if the Jedi never got to use their lightsabers, after all.)
To understand the Star Wars universe’s bloody history and the series’ first proper war film, we have to look back at the best war stories throughout both the Legends and canon timelines:
Dawn of the Jedi
Dawn of the Jedi, a Legends comic book series by John Ostrander and Jan Duursema, tells the story of the Je’daii Order, the predecessors to the Jedi, and how they discovered and learned to harness the Force on the planet Tython. The birth of the Jedi began when the mysterious pyramidal starships known as the Tho Yor led pilgrims from across the galaxy to the planet in order to study the mystical energy. This was a pilgrimage meant to unify the various native species of the galaxy, but it eventually tore them apart into factions.
In the earliest days of the Order, the Je’daii developed a balance between the light side and dark side of the Force, as represented by the planets two moons – Ashla (light) and Bogan (dark). Of course, it was a balance that would inevitably break, a tipping scale that would never quite find the middle again. A series of conflicts on Tython – the Despot War and the Force War against the Infinite Empire – set in motion millennia of conflicts between the two sides.
This era is a startling indication of things to come for the Jedi, who continued to seek a perfect balance in the Force where there wasn’t one. In the end, discovering the Force on Tython was like opening a Pandora’s box that led to the creation of the Jedi’s greatest enemy: the Sith. Those early members of the Je’daii Order who sought to use the Force for power became known as Dark Jedi while those who practiced the light side became the Jedi Order. For thousands of years before the Sith, the Jedi were their own worst enemy.
Tales of the Jedi
Several tens of thousands of years after the birth of the Jedi, the galaxy was in even worse shape. The Jedi were split in a series of civil wars and schisms that eventually led to the birth of the Sith on the planet Korriban. Dark Jedi exiles traveled to the planet, conquered the native species (also known as the Sith), and interbred with them to form the Sith Empire. This new enemy of the Jedi would remain hidden in the shadows for millennia until two unlucky hyperspace explorers led the Sith Lord Naga Sadow and his forces back to the Republic. This was the start of the Great Hyperspace War.
Back in the early 90s, writers Tom Veitch and Kevin J. Anderson and a string of artists began telling the stories of the Knights of the Old Republic – the Jedi who protected the galaxy millennia before the events of the Prequel Trilogy and the eventual Jedi Purge that led to the end of the Order. Spanning 35 issues, Tales of the Jedi introduced noble Jedi Knights such as the ill-fated Qel-Droma brother, Ulic and Cay, and their friend Nomi Sunrider, and fleshed out the early history of the Sith.
While the “Golden Age of the Sith” arc covered the Great Hyperspace War, most of the rest of the series was about the Freedon Nadd Uprising on the planet Onderon and the Great Sith War that followed. These conflicts led to the fall of Ulic Qel-Droma to the dark side and the rise of Exar Kun, the new Dark Lord of the Sith.
The Great Sith War was only the first of the Old Sith Wars, an era of 50 years of continuous fighting between the Republic and the Sith that claimed millions of lives, shattering planets across the galaxy. At one point, Exar Kun even caused a star to go supernova, destroying a whole cluster of planets. The series of conflicts culminated with the First Jedi Purge and the Sith Civil War, which brought both Orders to the brink of extinction.
Knights of the Old Republic
Knights of the Old Republic picked up where Tales of the Jedi left off, as another bloody struggle between the Jedi and the Sith was about to devastate the galaxy. The stories of the Mandalorian Wars, the Jedi Civil War, and the resurgence of the ancient Sith Empire were told in a series of video games by BioWare and in a comic book series written by John Jackson Miller. While this is widely considered to be one of the best eras of the Star Wars expanded universe, it’s also one of its most tragic, as the Jedi continued to fail to maintain the peace in the galaxy and at one point turned on each other in an unprecedented civil war.
After a war culture known as the Mandalorians (under the influence of the ancient Sith Empire) almost conquered the Republic in the years after the Great Sith War, a new threat to the galaxy emerged. Revan and Malak, the two Jedi commanders who led the Republic to victory against the Mandalorians, turned to the dark side – war often corrupts good Jedi – and declared themselves the new Dark Lords of the Sith. Their Sith Empire, with their mighty fleet and the Star Forge that built it, was not the true Sith Empire, though. Darth Revan’s forces were meant to test the strength of the Republic before the arrival of the true Sith Emperor in the Galactic Wars to come. (This is going to get a bit confusing.)
The Republic once again prevailed against this Imperial force – with the help of a rehabilitated Revan, who, after having his mind wiped by the Jedi, rejoined the Order. As you have undoubtedly guessed by now, this victory would not last for the Jedi. Of course, the defeat of Revan’s Sith Empire led the near extinction of the Sith, as well. The remnants of the Empire splintered into several war tribes that fought against each other for control of what was left of the Sith. During this time, three Sith Lords – Darth Traya, Darth Sion, and Darth Nihilus – rose in power to form the Triumvirate. Their mission was to exterminate all of the Jedi in the galaxy, and they almost succeeded.
Interestingly enough, the tactics these Sith Lords used to wipe out the Jedi were not unlike those used by Darth Sidious/Supreme Chancellor Palpatine thousands of years later during the rise of the Galactic Empire. They attacked from the shadows, influencing galactic affairs and seducing Jedi to the dark side until the Sith had the ranks to embark on a purge of the Jedi. History, of course, is so often lost after several millennia, but it continues to repeat itself nonetheless.
While the Sith Triumvirate eventually fell and there was a time of relative peace for the Republic, the true Sith Empire reemerged from the Unknown Regions of space to conquer the galaxy. This reinvigorated push for power was the beginning of the end for the ancient Sith Empire, as a whole people gave way to just two: a master and an apprentice.
If you want to experience this era of Star Wars – and I really suggest you do, even if it isn’t technically canon anymore – you’ll want to first read Miller’s comic series in full, then play Knights of the Old Republic and Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords, and then jump into the Star Wars: The Old Republic MMORPG. There are a couple of companion novels for The Old Republic too, if you really want to get every last drop of story.
The Clone Wars
By the time of the Star Wars film saga – which takes place thousands of years after the era of the Knights of the Old Republic – the way the Jedi and the Sith waged war against each other had changed. The Sith operated from the shadows, taking apart both the Republic and the Jedi Order through political maneuvering and by instigating conflicts across the galaxy. Eventually, Darth Sidious, hiding in plain sight as Supreme Chancellor Palpatine, got the war he needed to distract the Jedi from the looming threat of their greatest nemesis. Thus began the Clone Wars.
The Clone Wars era is certainly the franchise’s most ambitious multimedia project. This era of Star Wars, which spanned much of the 2000s, comprised of many great war stories told through movies, two TV series, video games, and tons of comics. Perhaps the best of these stories was Genndy Tartakovsky’s 2013 Clone Wars microseries on Cartoon Network, which picked up not long after Attack of the Clones. The series saw prequel heroes Obi-Wan Kenobi, Anakin Skywalker, Padme Amidala, Yoda, Mace Windu, and even the Nautolan Jedi Master Kit Fisto (who fought in a particularly entertaining underwater battle on Mon Cala) thrust into a war to preserve the Republic. Clone Wars also featured one of the earliest appearances by Asajj Ventress, a Dark Jedi who worked for Sith villain Count Dooku. The tragic former Jedi apprentice is easily one of the best characters to come out of the Clone Wars. In her Clone Wars appearances, she faced off against Anakin in a dogfight above the planet Muunilinst and in a climactic lightsaber duel.
The Battle of Muunilinist took place four months into the Clone Wars. General Kenobi led the Clone Army to the city of Harnaidan, the headquarters of the InterGalactic Banking Clan, the commerce guild that funded the Separatists. While Kenobi’s men attacked the city head on, the Clone Army’s elite ARC troopers infiltrated the city and neutralized its defenses. The battle culminated with a duel between Obi-Wan and the bounty hunter Durge, who was a seemingly immortal Gen’Dai (a species made up formless muscles and nerves; they have no bones), and the Republic took the day, taking many of the leaders of the IGBC prisoner.
Another early battle of the Clone Wars took place on Jabiim, a planet plunged into a civil war between Republic loyalists and a Separatist-backed faction of rebels, and it was one of the bloodiest battles of the Clone Wars. General Kenobi was presumed dead early on in the battle, when the Separatists led by Asajj Ventress and Jabiimi rebel Alto Stratus gained the upperhand over the waning Republic forces. Anakin Skywalker, who was still a padawan learner at this point in the war, had to lead a masterless pack of Jedi apprentices and a small band of clone troopers against overwhelming odds. In the end, the battle claimed the lives of many Jedi, and the Republic was forced to retreat. You can find this story in the Dark Horse comic series, Star Wars Republic #55-58. It’s grim business, as we watch Jedi masters and padawans die one by one, and is a good measure of how violent Star Wars can get.
One of the great clone trooper stories was told in the Republic Commando video game, which followed an elite unite known as Delta Squad on a series of missions during the war. You play as Delta-38, the leader of the squad, from his early education and training on Kamino to deployment on Geonosis, the planet on which the Clone Wars began. Very early on, you witness first-hand the assembly-line nature of the Clone troopers, who are bred to become killing machines for the Galactic Republic, and ultimately expendable to the generals and commanders they follow into battle. The overall tone is much darker, too, with a very liberal approach to violence, blood and gore, and exploding Geonosians. Republic Commando tackles the horrors of war by putting you in the shoes of an “ordinary” soldier. These soldiers are powerless to change the galaxy around them, and by the end of the game, the hopelessness of their predicament is in full display. They are expendable when it comes to the larger war effort.
The Clone Wars animated series told many, many war stories throughout its six-year run. One of its most memorable is the Battle of Umbara, a mission led by Obi-Wan, Anakin, and Jedi Master Pong Krell, who revealed himself to be a traitor working for Count Dooku. Krell had foreseen the end of the Republic and the Jedi Order and the rise of a new, oppressive galactic power. Krell chose to save himself and ally himself to Dooku instead of succumbing like the rest of Order. The treachorous Jedi Master planned to sabotage the Republic’s campaign on Umbara, leading many clone troopers to their deaths, in order to preserve the Separatist’s control of the planet. In the end, Krell failed and was executed as a traitor. This story gave yet another example of how war could change an honorable Jedi and turn him to the dark side. The truth – that the Republic was facing its dying days – was too much to bear for Jedi such as Krell and Count Dooku.
Of course, we all know that Krell’s vision came to pass. Although the Republic defeated the Separatists in the Clone Wars, the once benevolent government was irrevocably changed, as Supreme Chancellor Palpatine established the Galactic Empire and declared himself ruler of the galaxy.
Galactic Civil War
At last, we arrive to the era of the Rebellion. This is the era in which countless citizens from across the galaxy rose up against Palpatine’s evil Empire. The Galactic Civil War had no shortage of heroes. While Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia Organa, and Han Solo might be the eras most well-known Rebels, there were plenty of others who risked their lives for the cause.
Star Wars Rebels, for example, is the story of a band of rebel operatives who fought against the Empire before there even was an organized Rebel Alliance. Captain Hera Syndulla, secret Jedi Knight Kanan Jarrus, the Force-sensitive Ezra Bridger, Sabine Wren, Zeb Orrelios, and a droid named Chopper disrupted many Imperial operations before they eventually joined with Rebel Alliance, including several operations on the oppressed planet Lothal. These rebels also came face to face with Grand Moff Tarkin, the Grand Inquisitor (a hunter of Jedi), Darth Vader, and even the resurgent Darth Maul. Of course, while these rebels won some early victories against the Empire, they were no match for the Emperor’s war machine, and they were forced to rely on guerrilla warfare to accomplish missions.
But by the time of Rogue One, things had really turned. The Rebel Alliance had become a powerful opposition to the Empire, capable of facing Imperial forces head on. The Emperor hoped that his secret superweapon, the Death Star, would give his Empire the edge it needed to annihilate the Rebellion and end the conflict once and for all. Yet, like many rulers at the peak of their power, he severely underestimated the resolve of Rebels such as Jyn Erso and Cassian Andor, who launched a mission to steal the plans to the Death Star in order to find its weakness.
We all know what happened next. I won’t recount the events of the Original Trilogy here, and I’ll assume you already know A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi are the franchise’s key war stories. From these three films, the rest of Star Wars‘ bloody history of war and conflict expanded.
I should quickly note two other great war stories from this era of Star Wars – Battlefront: Twilight Company and Lost Stars. Both novels tell stories about characters from both sides of the war, and do a great job of painting a much grayer picture of the conflict – the Rebellion isn’t entirely good and moral, even if their cause is the just, and the Empire is made up of many loyalists but also those who don’t completely agree with the Emperor’s methods. Lost Stars spans most of the Galactic Civil War, leading up to its end at the Battle of Jakku, where the newly-formed New Republic dealt the decisive blow against the remnants of the Empire.
The Force Awakens
Things come full circle in The Force Awakens, which takes place 30 years after Return of the Jedi. A galaxy which had been freed just three decades earlier was once again under the threat of an oppressive faction known as the First Order – the direct result of a weak and corrupt New Republic Senate and the machinations of old Imperial sympathizers who sought to restore the Empire to its former glory.
Those who sought to lead the galaxy for a better tomorrow after the fall of the Empire learned nothing from the failings of the Old Republic. Even a veteran such as Mon Mothma, a benevolent leader who had witnessed the death of the Republic, couldn’t help but plant the seeds of the New Republic’s destruction after she reduced the government’s military power. When the First Order’s war machine returned from the Unknown Regions to conquer the galaxy, the New Republic was no match.
If The Force Awakens (and Star Wars as a whole) teaches us anything about the endless cycle of freedom and oppression in the galaxy far, far away, it’s that democracy never seems to work. Senates full of corrupt, do-nothing politicians ultimately lead to the decay of governing bodies, which are always replaced by empires that have no problem keeping the galaxy in line through sheer force. So ineffective was the New Republic that even Leia Organa, one of its founders and starkest defenders, broke off from the government to create her own Resistance group against the looming threat of the First Order.
Like the Empire and its Death Star, the First Order built its own superweapon, Starkiller Base, which could wipe out entire planets in a single shot. The First Order, which was led by the mysterious Supreme Leader Snoke and his triumvirate of lieutenants – General Hux, Captain Phasma, and Kylo Ren – used this weapon to destroy the New Republic capital on Hosnian Prime, seemingly putting an end to the fledgling government once and for all.
Even Luke Skywalker, the great hero of the Galactic Civil War, faced defeat at the hands of the Knights of Ren, a new order of dark side users who sought to finish what the Sith had started and eradicate the Jedi once and for all. Despite training new Jedi after the Battle of Endor, Skywalker’s students were no match for the power of the dark side. The Jedi were once again slaughtered, and Skywalker – like Ben Kenobi before him – was forced to go into exile.
While the Resistance defeated the First Order during the assault on Starkiller Base at the end of The Force Awakens, there’s more than a tinge of tragedy to Han Solo’s words to Leia after they’re reunited: “I went back to the only thing I was ever any good at.” To which Leia replied, “We both did.”
Wars are fought throughout the galaxy’s history, battles are won, and for what? There doesn’t seem to be any progress in the galaxy far, far away. No peace in sight.