Editor’s note: This article references a book that includes MWI staff and fellows among its editors and contributors.


A group of intrepid strategists recently authored Strategy Strikes Back: How Star Wars Explains Modern Military Conflict. The volume uses the Star Wars trilogy of trilogies to illustrate the application of strategic concepts in a relatable, fun way. The authors tackle means/ends analysis, counterinsurgency, civil-military relations, the bridge that strategy represents between military operations and political goals, and organizing, equipping, and training for conflict. There are probably scores of other angles available to examine strategy through the lens of the Star Wars franchise. One that was not explored fully was the applicability* of international law, particularly the law of armed conflict, in the context of the movies. With respect to the authors, this essay seeks to investigate this unmapped aspect of strategic planning and capability development as a complementary epilogue to the book, surveying discrete principles of international law through vignettes. Principles of law applied to weapons and character actions in the Star Wars series illuminate current and near-future initiatives to develop new weapons, doctrine, and the conduct of hostilities. Compliance with international law governing hostilities has a strategic dimension all its own, in terms of international criminal liability for senior commanders and even heads of state, the legitimacy of coalition military operations, and encouraging the lawful conduct of opposing combatants.

The Destruction of Alderaan

Episode IV saw the Empire’s Death Star destroy Princess Leia’s home planet, a hub of the rebel insurrection, using a “superlaser.” The Death Star’s weaponry warrants analysis through three lenses: the lens of whether the superlaser was a “laser weapon” within the meaning of international law; the perspective of a weapon so powerful and capable that it warrants comparison with nuclear weapons; and the analysis of the superlaser under “conventional” law of armed conflict analysis.

Employment of Laser Weapons

Assuming the Death Star’s superlaser was in fact a “laser weapon”—that is, a directed energy weapon used to achieve antipersonnel or antimateriel effects—there is no legal authority for the proposition that laser weapons, used  to kill, maim, burn, or otherwise injure or kill military personnel or destroy property or equipment violate the law of armed conflict. The US position on this issue, for example, is most succinctly stated in a 1988 legal memorandum noting “the use of a laser as an antipersonnel weapon . . . would not cause unnecessary suffering when compared to other wounding mechanisms to which a soldier might be exposed on the modern battlefield, and hence would not violate any international law obligation of the United States.” The memo boldly notes, therefore, “the use of antipersonnel laser weapons is lawful”—a departure from the normal formulation, which would examine whether a particular weapon or tactic is or is not unlawful.

The United States has signed on to Protocol IV (Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons) to the Conventional Weapons Convention, which prohibits “the employment of laser systems” to deliberately cause the “permanent blindness to unenhanced vision.” Accordingly, the US position is that the use of lasers to kill a combatant is permissible, but blinding him or her with a laser is not. The positions may appear inapposite, but they are not necessarily so; this is the way international law develops sometimes.

While the weapons themselves may not be lawful to use in an antipersonnel capacity, the constraints of distinction and proportionality still apply. That the Death Star superlaser might be a lawful weapon under international law does not relieve the Empire and Grand Moff Tarkin of the legal duty to employ such weapons proportionally and with distinction.

Employment of a Weapon that is by Nature Indiscriminate and Disproportionate

The destruction of Alderaan with the Death Star superlaser may be an allegory for nuclear weapons. If we view the superlaser as a “conventional” weapon similar, or superior, to the degree of indiscriminate destructiveness of a nuclear weapon, the law governing nuclear weapons is relevant.

Surprisingly, the law governing nuclear weapons is remarkably immature. The law of conventional military operations—infantry and armor in the attack, air-delivered ordnance, land mines, indirect fires, and close quarters battle—is fairly well governed because the law has been evolving over centuries of warfare. Relatively, nuclear weapons were invented yesterday, and have actually been used twice—really, once, in a two-drop aviation strike separated by only a few days. Aside from the nonproliferation body of law, the clearest statement of the “law” governing the actual employment of nuclear weapons was rendered by the International Court of Justice in the court’s 1996 advisory opinion.

As noted in a prior publication, in 1996 the International Court of Justice took up the issue of whether the use of nuclear weapons violated international law. The judicial opinion was advisory in nature only—that is, it didn’t decide a discrete “case or controversy” but rather is merely an insight as to how the court might rule if it were presented with an actual case to decide. Arguably, as a result, its value as precedent and binding legal authority rests on a less solid foundation than if the court were deciding an actual case between two states. Even so, the advisory opinion represents the best existing restatement of the law governing the use of nuclear weapons in armed conflict.

The advisory opinion noted that there is no treaty-based proscription on the use of nuclear weapons, nor has a customary norm evolved governing the use of nuclear weapons. The court observed, when applying ordinary law of armed conflict principles such as distinction and the avoidance of unnecessary suffering, the use of nuclear weapons could not possibly comply, but legitimized the possibility of the use of nuclear weapons in violation of these principles when the state uses nuclear weapons in self-defense because its very survival is at stake. (Of note, the US use of nuclear weapons in Japan probably would have failed that test.)

The superlaser’s use against Alderaan was far greater in intensity, impact, and disproportionality to the largest existing nuclear device, or even one hundred of the largest existing nuclear devices. The most powerful nuclear device in any world military inventory pales in comparison to the destruction wrought by the superlaser; while one hundred 1.2 megaton nuclear weapons would cause catastrophic damage upon detonation, they could not blow an entire planet apart, even if the planet were modest in size compared to Earth. Unlike the nuclear strike on Japan, which killed civilian noncombatants in local areas in and around Nagasaki and Hiroshima, the Alderaan attack killed every living soul on the planet—combatants, noncombatants, men, women, and children alike—causing “millions of voices [to] suddenly [cry]out in terror and . . . suddenly silenced.”  If the International Court of Justice advisory opinion remains “good law” twenty-two years after its issuance, it is difficult to believe the Alderaan attack, with a likely lethality and kinetic effect tens of thousands of times that of a nuclear weapon, would survive this analysis.

Conventional Law of Armed Conflict Analysis

The strike on Alderaan, like all conventional strikes, may also be analyzed from the perspective of the conventional four factors of the law of armed conflict: distinction, necessity, proportionality, and the prevention of unnecessary suffering. The Alderaan strike fails at least two of the four criteria for legitimacy and lawfulness under a conventional law of armed conflict analysis. The destruction of Alderaan was the subject of a spirited debate on the pages of the Washington Post and the Daily Beast about three years ago, as commentators Asawin Subsaeng,  and Sonny Bunch debated whether the destruction of Alderaan, strategically, was a sound move. The commentators even tread lightly into Just War Theory, but never address with precision the application of the law of armed conflict. Indeed, Bunch conflates the issue of military necessity with the law of armed conflict principles of distinction and proportionality when he cavalierly notes destroying Alderaan was “the least bad of all the alternatives” and equates it to the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki—both of which were targeted attacks that did not wipe Japanese civilization off the map. Military necessity is but one of the four principles that should not be violated when planning a military attack; it is not the end of the analysis. Were it so, the law of armed conflict would be gutted and neutered altogether, because generals would stop thinking about the use of force after they decide an attack is necessary.

Distinction. The law of armed conflict principle of distinction requires military strikes to distinguish between targets which are lawful military targets—opposing combatant forces, opposing combatant equipment, command and control facilities, fuel farms, ammunition storage facilities, etc.—and those that are ordinarily protected under the law of armed conflict—civilian objects, churches, libraries, civilian neighborhoods, universities, and other nonmilitary objects and places. The strike on Alderaan made no such distinction. It was complete and total annihilation. While collateral damage is not strictly prohibited under the law of armed conflict, the Alderaan superlaser strike was clearly excessive in terms of collateral damage. Unless the planet were completely militarized, its complete and total destruction, including all civilian facilities on the planet, clearly fails the principle of distinction, in that no effort was undertaken by the Empire to target specific military capabilities on the planet. The planet’s total and comprehensive destruction gave zero consideration to the principle of distinction and doubtless killed combatants (lawful military targets) and noncombatants, military equipment and civilian infrastructure alike. Violation of the principle by Kylo Ren on Jakku at the beginning of Episode VII, ordering the Stormtroopers to murder all the captured civilian villagers, marked a moral turning point for Stormtrooper FN-2187, later revealed as the story’s co-hero Finn.

Necessity. A second bedrock principle of the law of armed conflict is military necessity. This legal norm states that a thing, place, or person may be the object of military attack only if its attack offers a concrete and definable military advantage—that is, it is necessary to the military campaign. For example, an attacking Army brigade would comply with the necessity principle when it engages enemy light armored antitank vehicles in a prepared defense, but would likely violate the principle if it wantonly destroyed civilian water tanks storing water to benefit the civilian populace and its livestock. The civilian water tanks could be destroyed under the principle of necessity if the water tanks were being accessed by enemy forces for the benefit of the enemy’s military operations (i.e., to wet down unimproved helicopter landing zones to prevent brownouts).

The attack on Alderaan might have met the principle of necessity if Alderaan were a military stronghold, or hosted substantial rebel military capacity throughout the planet, such as training facilities, equipment, logistics supply, or weapons caches. The fact that thousands of civilians were also killed in the strike is irrelevant to the principle of necessity. It certainly affects the distinction and proportionality analysis, but strictly on the factor of necessity, the fact that noncombatant civilians were killed is not material. In determining military necessity, it is relevant how “saturated” Alderaan was with rebel military capabilities. If Alderaan, with a diameter of about 7,700 miles, were roughly the same size as Earth, then destroying an entire planet to incapacitate a few military bases in an area the size of Delaware or even Texas would not only be disproportionate, it would fail a basic military necessity analysis. On the other hand, if the Rebels had training bases, equipment, and deployment assembly areas scattered throughout the planet, the planet itself could become a lawful military object of attack. This principle is one reason responsible, modern military forces do not locate military medical treatment facilities near ammunition dumps.

Proportionality. This is the most misunderstood, misapplied, and incorrectly instructed of the four core factors of conventional strike analysis. The principle of proportionality states combatants may not inflict collateral damage (unintended effects on third parties) excessive in relation to the military advantage sought through any discrete military action. The principle applied does not mean there is a limit on the size of bomb that can be dropped on a company of enemy wheeled vehicles in open countryside—even though a 500-pound GBU-12 precision munition might be sufficient, dropping a 2,000-pound Quickstrike-J bomb would be equally valid under this law of armed conflict principle. The analysis changes, however, when the target is a house containing a squad of dismounted irregular fighters in a city, where the 500-pound bomb can be fused to limit collateral damage to surrounding civilian buildings, but the 2,000-pound bomb would level the block, no matter how it is fused.

If the entire planet of Alderaan were a lawful military target, then using the superlaser to destroy the planet likely does not violate the principle of proportionality. If, more likely, the planet were principally a “civilian planet” with some military targets on it, the principle of proportionality is violated by destroying the entire planet—along with the principle of distinction. In this manner, proportionality and distinction are separate concepts, yet obviously often closely linked by their nature and circumstance. Similarly, Luke Skywalker’s destruction of the Death Star in Episode IV by dropping two proton torpedos into the critical design flaw vulnerability of the exhaust shaft likely violated neither the principle of proportionality or distinction. Only combatants—Stormtroopers, officers and soldiers of the empire, and even civilian employees directly participating in Empire combat actions and therefore making themselves lawful targets—were apparently aboard the Death Star when it was engaged. Moreover, destroying the Death Star was not disproportionate, even where Luke knew the relatively modest proton torpedoes were targeting a critical vulnerability of the Death Star such that he knew the entire combat vessel would explode.

Finally, even if the “civilian” political leader Emperor Palpatine were on the Death Star when it was destroyed,** the law of war applied extraterrestrially would not have been violated. Civilian heads of state are normally immune from military attack, both by their status as civilians not directly participating in hostilities, and an unwritten norm immunizing attacks on heads of state. Nonetheless, where they present themselves as lawful military targets, such as Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi, appearing regularly in military contexts in uniform. Palpatine, by his presence on the Death Star—principally an integrated military command-and-control platform and aircraft carrier—would have subjected himself to lawful attack.

Unnecessary suffering. This is the sole criteria of the four which the strike on Alderaan may not fail. It is difficult to know, because it is difficult to measure or assess “suffering” when a planet is destroyed by a superlaser in an instant. The instant destruction, however, cuts against the principle of unnecessary destruction: even if the temperatures on the planet prior to its near instantaneous destruction were near-nuclear in degree of intensity, the destruction was immediate and without a shred of delay. Any high-intensity suffering was over in a few microseconds. Of note, the International Court of Justice advisory opinion examining the issue of the legality of the use of nuclear weapons cites several factors regarding the law of armed conflict, but reaches no conclusion as to the principle of unnecessary suffering in a nuclear attack.

The Law of Self-Defense.

State Self-Defense

Article 51 of the UN Charter contains the clearest statement of the authority of states to use force in self-defense. In armed conflict, or other military operational contexts, individuals’ and units’ authority to use force in self-defense is derived from the authority of states to do so.*** The trigger for the exercise of the “inherent right” of “self-defense” recognized and codified in Article 51 is an “armed attack,” which the ICJ described in depth in the 1986 case of Nicaragua v. United States. Augmenting the concept of self-defense in response to an actual armed attack is the international law doctrine of anticipatory self-defense. The principle was succinctly articulated in the 1842 Caroline affair, an exchange of letters between representatives of the United States and Great Britain protesting the capture and destruction of a ship used to support an armed insurrection. The principle of the use of force in self-defense against an imminent threat that has not yet been realized was articulated as a threat that is “instant, overwhelming, and leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation.” The principle disagreement among nations is the degree of imminence required to justify a use of force: the United States, for example, has recognized a principle of imminence far more removed in time than other nations. The Authorization for the Use of Military Force against Iraq, for example, articulates in its supporting findings a need to use force against Iraq to prevent it from proliferating or using weapons of mass destruction, even absent current and relevant intelligence supporting the determination of real-time imminence. The US view has evolved to read out the temporal element of imminence in favor of the “overwhelming” prong—that is, the greater the threat to state security, the further in time a threat may be considered imminent.

Luke Skywalker employs the concepts of self-defense and anticipatory self-defense in the final engagement of Episode IV. Luke and the other X-Wing fighter pilots defend themselves adequately from Imperial fighter attack, and Luke employs anticipatory self-defense when he successfully launches proton torpedoes down the exhaust shaft of the Death Star, to prevent it from firing on and destroying the rebel base camp on Yavin IV.

Individual Self-Defense

Han Shot First” has become popular culture Star Wars fan code for the controversy arising around modifications to the script of Han Solo’s Tatooine cantina confrontation with Jabba the Hut’s bounty hunter Greedo. Luke and Obi Wan Kenobi enter the cantina, known for hosting renegade drivers, to hire a fast spaceship (perhaps one that could make the Kessel Run in something like 12 parsecs). Han Solo is inside the cantina, where he is challenged by Greedo, who makes it clear he intends to take Solo into custody to deliver him to Jabba, with whom Han has an unpaid debt. Various versions of the film show Greedo firing first and missing, with Han Solo returning fire with a laser blaster and killing Greedo in the middle of the bar’s seating area. The original version shows Han firing first, after Greedo expresses his intent to deliver him to Jabba. The fact-dependent nature of the various versions of the script impacts whether Han Solo could avail himself of a self-defense justification for the shooting.

If Greedo drew a weapon and fired first, Han Solo is clearly without fault. If Greedo were armed and expressed a present, imminent intent to use his weapon, Han would be justified in firing first, under the doctrine of anticipatory self-defense—instant, overwhelming, and leaving no time for deliberation, under the Caroline formula. If Greedo were armed but did not express a present, imminent intent to use his weapon, but rather wielded the weapon merely to take Han into custody, the availability of self-defense is a closer question. However, if Greedo intended to take Han into custody to deliver him to Jabba, and Han had reason to believe Jabba intended to kill him rather than retrieve the repayment, and if that belief, under the facts and circumstances known to Han Solo at the moment of the engagement, were reasonable, Han Solo may successfully claim self-defense. The fact-dependent nature and the requirement of the individual combatant to engage in rapid, factor-based calculus in a particular tactical situation is apparent.

Finally, Solo must have known bounty hunters would be present at the cantina, and must have gone there for the purpose of allowing a confrontation to develop where the self-defensive use of force would be authorized. Solo may have been engaging in the technique of “spike to strike”—purposefully creating an environment to provoke a reaction, where the intended target places himself in a position where force could be used lawfully. This is exactly the same technique a ground force commander undertakes when he patrols a village where offensive targeting is unauthorized under the rules of engagement. He hopes to conduct reconnaissance by presence, drawing an enemy reaction that justifies engaging and killing the enemy. It’s a delicate kabuki the commander must manage—not too quick to trip the threshold to violence, and not too slow to react because it places the commander’s own forces in danger. Solo must have cleverly engaged in this technique to draw out a known adversary to kill him and eliminate a threat, and to deliver a signal to other bounty hunters. This technique doubtless sounds familiar to infantry and special operations commanders.

Modern military commanders, of course, have to apply something like the Han Solo test when determining whether a servicemember has used force in self-defense against an adversary, and must consider that the individual infantry soldier on a year-long tour in a place like Afghanistan may have to make this determination several times a day, every day, for three hundred patrol days, and make the right call each and every time.

The Offense of Perfidy

Episode VII: The Force Awakens shows a moment of purported reconciliation between Kylo Ren and his father, Han Solo. The two meet on an elevated walkway above a thermal oscillator on the Starkiller Base, and Solo appeals to Ren, hoping blood could run thicker than evil. Ren apparently wavers, leaning toward reconciliation, and drawing Solo into a position of vulnerability. Ren’s signals toward giving up his hardened stance was a purposeful illusion, as Ren activates his trademark red lightsaber and impales his father, before allowing his body to fall into the oscillator. This interaction and murder is a textbook war crime, constituting the offense of perfidy.

Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions restates the customary international law definition of perfidy, as “acts inviting the confidence of an adversary to lead him to believe that he is entitled to, or obliged to accord, protection under the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, with intent to betray that confidence.” Perfidy can take many forms, but classic cases include hiding lethal military capabilities under a red cross or red crescent, faking surrender, or communicating a false intent to give quarter. The crime is particularly grave because it is a gross breach of honor, and more importantly, undermines a force’s ability to accept surrender and end a combat engagement—if a “winning” combatant force cannot trust the intent of the “losing” combatant force to honor an expressed intent to surrender, the “winner” will be reluctant to discontinue fighting and casualties will continue to stockpile. At its core, perfidy undermines the parties’ ability to cease fighting.

Ren never displayed the characteristic white flag signaling truce or surrender, but his comments, body language, and conduct displayed a willingness to suspend hostilities and reconcile. Whether he had a change of heart at the last minute, or deliberately misrepresented his intentions, the offense was complete the moment he manipulated Solo into a vulnerable position, to which he would not have exposed himself but for Ren’s conduct. Ren’s perfidy had the strategic effect of denying the rebels the leadership and example of General Solo, and perversely steeled the resolve of the Resistance.

The Law of Interrogation and Duties Owed to Detainees.

Particularly in recent conflicts, since 9/11, treatment of detainees has had substantial strategic impact, perhaps more than any other legal concept other than CIVCAS (civilian casualty avoidance and mitigation). The United States has squandered moral credibility, political will, and solidarity with allies over the issue of detainee treatment, and caused substantial internal turmoil in allied governments. Senior leadership has been distracted by the controversies over Abu Ghraib, Camp Nama, black sites, and Guantanamo Bay detention, inviting increased scrutiny by Congress and human rights groups, and international condemnation of American detention practices. Detention is a big deal—at best, a strategic distraction, and at worst, a strategic Achilles’ heel.

The law governing interrogations has been the subject of great controversy, raising its head again during recent discussions and debates over the nomination and confirmation of a new US CIA director. The United States is, of course, a state party to the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. The United States implements the treaty through the application of the Torture Statute, 18 U.S.C. §2340A. The statute has undergone multiple controversial interpretations since 9/11, as various US agencies collaborated to review the CIA’s proposed Enhanced Interrogation Program techniques. The program ultimately was investigated and disavowed. Within the Department of Defense, interrogations became regulated by legislation reining in the more controversial practices.

In Episode VII, Kylo Ren’s forces capture and detain Rey, a Resistance fighter. Ren approaches her in captivity and applies psychic pressure using the Force to extract details from her mind about the location of a droid that contains vital operational information to the Empire. The interrogation, which appeared extraordinarily painful judging from Rey’s reaction, may have been of sufficient intensity and harmfulness that it rose to the level of torture. It is difficult to evaluate, of course, because “the Force” is a phenomenon that defies physical description, and therefore is difficult to describe in terms that could match with elements in the Torture Statute. Ren’s employment of the technique raises the issue of torture, however, and does little to improve perceptions of his adrift moral grounding and unbridled cruelty.

International law themes, many with strategic impact, run through the Star Wars trilogy of trilogies. The true student of strategy can’t leave law to the lawyers, but rather must integrate international law experts into strategic planning teams and the development of national and regional security policy. The impact of violations of international law and insufficient planning for mitigation is more relevant than ever, particularly in the light of near constant journalists’ presence, the outsized impact of human rights advocacy groups, and social media.

Star Wars can serve as a useful teaching tool for instruction on rules of engagement and the law of armed conflict, and illustrate the interwoven nature of international law and international relations—including the use of force between nations and nonstate actors, and statecraft. No student of strategy, extraterrestrial or terrestrial, can afford to ignore the impact of the law of armed conflict on use of force decisions, from the strategic down to the tactical, particularly in a hyperconnected world where localized tactical actions can immediately become strategic and broadcast to seven billion people.


* Within the context of this essay, assume international law applies intergalactically, the same as it applies terrestrially.  The Law of Space is a developing body of law all its own – primarily treaty-based – but will not be treated as lex specialis herein.

**  To illustrate the point that civilian political leaders are usually immune from attack except where they present themselves as lawful combatants (e.g., in uniform within a warfighting platform), suspend the actual timeline and assume Palpatine had ascended to the Emperorship in Episode IV.

*** If there is an individual right to self-defense as a function of international human rights law, its contours are the subject of separate analysis, and its scope is likely to vary significantly from state to state and legal regime to legal regime. For the instant analysis, the scope is limited to the authority of an individual to use force in self-defense in a military context, either during an armed conflict, or when a force is present and conducting military operations pursuant to lawful authority (e.g., peacekeepers present pursuant to a UNSCR or at the invitation of parties after a conflict).


Butch Bracknell is a retired Marine officer, international security lawyer, and member of the Truman National Security Project and the Carnegie Council on Ethics in International Affairs. Find him on Twitter (@ButchBracknell) and Weebly.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the US government.


Image credit: W_Minshull