Back in 2015 Amazon unveiled a promotional campaign for their TV adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s famous novel The Man in the High Castle.
The novel takes place in an alternate America where the fascists prevailed in WWII. Part of Amazon’s campaign involved plastering pseudo-Nazi and Imperial Japanese symbolism all over New York’s subway cars. The stunt was met with outrage and Amazon quickly scrapped the imagery. Presumably their marketing executives learned an expensive lesson – the hammer and sickle might be acceptable at kitsch bars and surplus stores but it’s still too soon break out the iron cross and the rising sun.
Like any nation the USA has its own recurring symbols. The mascot of the forest service – Smokey Bear – is fading into obscurity along with the goateed ‘Uncle Sam’ character but the bald eagle is still a popular fixture. The bird was pressed into government service way back in the 18th century as the centrepiece of the USA’s Great Seal. In a letter to his daughter Benjamin Franklin lamented the choice, calling the bald eagle “a bird of bad moral character” that “does not get his living honestly” owing to its tendency to steal prey from its smaller cousin the osprey. Of course it was never about that particular eagle it was just one of countless attempts to connect a newly minted nation with the might and majesty of the ancient Roman Empire.
Nowadays the most ubiquitous symbols of the US are commercial; shiny M&M characters, the stencilled face of Colonel Sanders and the placid, playing-card smile of the Starbucks mermaid but recently a new symbol has joined the ranks of American pop culture icons – the mask of the Star Wars stormtrooper. Travelling across America you see stormtroopers everywhere. There’s a stormtrooper version of every conceivable item of clothing or accessory. George Lucas’ familiar black and white exoskeleton has been emblazoned on everything from backpacks and lunchboxes to fighter jets and sports cars. Even the classic Campbell’s soup can has been given an Imperial makeover. Lest you think it’s all being pushed from above you don’t have to search for very long on the internet before you find the tip of an enormous iceberg of fan-made Star Wars artwork and costumes. For the real die-hards there’s the 501st Legion (who call themselves Vader’s Fist) – a group of dedicated cos-players numbering more than 17,000 people who have all bought or built their own aftermarket stormtrooper costumes.
Given the prevalence of stormtroopers in mainstream American pop culture I can can almost understand the confusion that Amazon’s executives must have felt after the backlash towards their ‘fashy’ ad campaign. After all, Disney was letting space-nazis practically goose-step their way down main street Disneyland every day. How did they get away with that?
The answer appears to be through sheer strength of numbers. With the release of several prequels and sequels over the last twenty years the Star Wars film franchise has grown from a classic sci-fi trilogy into a sort of self-sustaining industry. Disney bought Lucasfilm and the rights to the Star Wars brand for $4 billion back in 2012. Since then they’ve set about establishing a Star Wars ‘cinematic universe’ – industry shorthand for an open-ended release schedule of sequels and spin-offs. This massive expansion of the mythology has been bolstered by a marketing blitz that has saturated the landscape with Star Wars merchandise. But amid all the marketing it’s worth asking why the image of the stormtrooper in particular has been raised to the status of a cultural icon – especially in the US.
It would be comforting to assume that stormtroopers have been adopted as a form of cultural satire. After all, the Star Wars films don’t do much for the reputation of the stormtroopers. They’re depicted as bumbling foot-soldiers incapable of hitting anything with their weapons with a tendency to be outwitted by robots and overrun by teddy bears. But no matter how many times the films portray the soldiers of the Empire as hapless canon fodder there’s still something menacing about them. George Lucas named the Empire’s minions after the German Sturmtruppen (assault troops) of WWI. Concept artist Ralph McQuarrie took those German trench-raiders and gave them glossy-white space suits inspired by Shogun-era tatami armour. The end result was a retrofuturistic design that managed to tap into the leftover fear of fascist states.
In the original Star Wars trilogy scenes of ranked stormtroopers were staged in a conscious effort to mirror the Nazi rallies in Nuremberg. In the 1930s footage of Hitler’s rallies had instilled fear and awe both at home and abroad. When director Frank Capra set himself the task of answering Nazi propaganda on behalf of the United States in WWII he watched the footage from Nuremberg with growing despair. Describing his reaction to seeing Leni Reifenstahl’s Triumph of the Will Capra said:
“I saw that and it scared the hell out of me. I went back to my little chair and my office and my telephone and I sat there. I sat there and I was a very unhappy man. How can I possibly top this?”
In the end he decided that finding some homegrown spectacle to rival the Nazi parades wasn’t necessary. Instead he used their own imagery against them. The first chapter of Capra’s famous documentary ‘Why We Fight‘ is made up almost entirely of footage of mass demonstrations by German, Italian and Japanese troops accompanied by an ominous voice-over narration and broken up with animations showing fascism bleeding across the borders of Europe and Asia. By simply presenting the enemy in the way they wanted to be seen Capra counted on a sort of instinctive revulsion from American audiences towards scenes of massed soldiers marching in lock-step like robots. The cultural memory of those mass demonstrations was still vivid decades later and Lucas projected that haunting image right back onto the silver screen in 1977. So the question remains, how did a fictional imperial army that borrows heavily from fanatical German and Japanese military traditions come to dominate modern American pop culture?
It’s possible that stormtroopers are nothing more than a Halloween monster with a historical analogue – an acceptable alternative to simply dressing up in Wehrmacht or SS uniforms (though there are a disconcertingly large number of Americans who do just that while nonetheless baulking at the suggestion of neo-nazi sympathies). But American enthusiasm for Star Wars villains (including Darth Vader and the bounty hunter Boba Fett) seems to suggest some latent recognition of their own empire.
Until recently even describing the US as an empire was considered incendiary. Even now most US politicians would probably resist the label. But the United States has always had difficulty reconciling its stated values with the reality of its foreign policy. In the 2000 presidential campaign George W Bush declared that:
“America has never been an empire. We may be the only great power in history that had the chance and refused, preferring greatness to power and justice to glory.”
Making that claim with a straight face required not only a blindness to the sprawling US military presence abroad but a willful amnesia towards US history. While the founding political figures of the United States were generally isolationist that sentiment didn’t last. In the 1850s the US government used ‘Gunboat Diplomacy’ to force Japan to abandon its policy of isolation. Following the defeat of the Spanish fleet in Manilla in 1898 the US inherited a ready-made empire that included Guam, Puerto Rico and Philippines and thousands of islands scattered across the pacific. Likewise the island of Cuba found itself cut off from Spain and bound to the US in the sort of arrangement that subjects of the Ottoman or British Empires would have recognised as ‘suzerainty’. In the same year US marines helped overthrow the monarchy in the Kingdom of Hawaii.
Since that time the status of those islands has changed only slightly. The US congress ‘granted’ statehood to Hawaii in 1959 despite never having brokered any sort of treaty or settlement with the former kingdom. The Philippines gained independence officially in 1946 but were forced to accept a trade agreement that stifled the economy and allowed a more-or-less permanent garrison of US troops. Likewise Cuba remained a ‘protectorate’ of the US until the Cuban revolution in 1959 but the US maintained a foothold on the island in the form of a naval base at Guantanamo Bay. The now infamous ‘Gitmo’ was established in 1903 on an open-ended lease and, every year since, the US government has offered a payment of roughly $4000 dollars to maintain the legal fiction. For their part the Cuban government has binned every cheque in protest over the legal status of the base. Cuba is still paying the price for declaring its independence. US sanctions that had been in place since 1960 were loosened under President Obama but tightened once again when Donald Trump took office. Barring a sudden change of heart Cuba’s taxi drivers will have to keep maintaining their oldsmobiles for the foreseeable future.
The US acquired some of the Virgin and Samoan islands in the early 20th century and a referendum put to the population of the Northern Marianas Islands made them part of the US in 1975. However the inhabitants of those far flung territories still exist in a strange liminal state with partial recognition of independence and partial rights as US citizens. If the legal status of these islands is poorly understood by the American public it’s even more mysterious to those outside the country. When hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in 2018 the devastation and the delayed response by the US threw a spotlight on the territory. In Australia, reporting of the disaster tended to elicit sympathy closely followed by confusion as those watching asked ‘wait, so is Puerto Rico part of the US?’
Kal Raustiala – a professor of international law – asked the same question in a 2003 New York Times op-ed:
How does the United States rule its colonies? As a constitutional matter, and as a matter of U.S. policy, the federal government is completely supreme in the colonies. In American Samoa, the residents are not even citizens of the United States, only U.S. “nationals” — a euphemistic phrase for subjects. In the other colonies the residents are American citizens, but decidedly second-class. They do not vote for president. They do not have voting representation in Congress. And they do not enjoy the full protections of the U.S. Constitution.
But for most people it’s not tropical ‘protectorates’ that undermine the benevolent image that the US projects. Rather it’s the unbroken chain of military bases and aircraft carrier groups that encircle the globe which invite comparisons with Lucas’ Galactic Empire.
In the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union the US halved its number of foreign military bases but doubled the number of countries it operated in. Nowadays there are roughly 800 US military bases scattered across more than 80 countries. In spite of all the breathless commentary on China’s ascendancy it’s worth remembering that that the US still spends more on their military than the next seven countries combined.
Even the troops themselves sometimes find themselves having the ‘are we the baddies?’ conversation. In an article for the New York Times former US soldier Roy Scranton reflected on the legacy of the original trilogy.
“‘Star Wars’ managed a remarkable trick. Two years after the fall of Saigon and America’s withdrawal in defeat from a dishonorable war, Mr. Lucas’s Wagnerian space opera recast for Americans the mythic story so central to our sense of ourselves as a nation…Looking out over Baghdad on the Fourth of July, I saw the truth that story obscured and inverted: I was the faceless storm trooper, and the scrappy rebels were the Iraqis.”
For decades pro-interventionist politicians and their supporters have waged a PR-war on the home front to conflate criticism of US foreign policy with criticism of the men and women who carry it out. In this they’ve been spectacularly successful – to the point where the institution of the US military has found itself almost beyond reproach with the public constantly urged to ‘support the troops’. Dissent, the hawks reluctantly concede, should be reserved for the politicians but not directed at the military itself. In war, as in finance, the overriding American credo appears to be ‘hate the game, not the player’.
In the face of this taboo against criticism of military institutions the presence of Stormtroopers begins to make sense – all those bobble-heads and soft-toys and car decals could, in some way, be seen as a sarcastic response to those constant appeals to ‘support the troops’.
There’s certainly an aspect of trolling to Empire fandom. On Reddit – the self-proclaimed ‘front page of the internet’ – there is a forum dedicated entirely to dark-side apologists called The Empire Did Nothing Wrong. Its 440 thousand subscribers have taken it upon themselves to create a sort of revisionist history of Star Wars – framing planetary mass murder and galactic authoritarianism as necessary for peace and prosperity.
In the rules for their sub-reddit the moderators try to pre-empt accusations of crypto-fascism;
“In part because of our name and in part because of assumptions many carry with them into the community, we tend to be classified as something other than we are [sic]. Nevertheless, we do not claim nor aspire to […] a particular modern/terrestrial political worldview. We require that people leave their personal politics out of the community.”
Such defensiveness is warranted given that the name of their sub-reddit is a play on an infamous anti-semitic slogan used to troll online opinion polls – Hitler Did Nothing Wrong. Recently reddit has cracked down on crypto-fascist communities on the platform – banning sub-reddits like ‘Frenworld’ that used baby talk and cartoon clowns to spread hate speech and anti-Semitism but The Empire Did Nothing Wrong seems to have escaped any real scrutiny.
Some might see its popularity simply as confirmation of Poe’s Law – which states that there is no way to create a parody of extreme views so obvious that it cannot be mistaken by some as a sincere expression of the views being parodied. There are undoubtedly people that contribute to the community with tongue placed firmly in cheek but it’s equally obvious that others use the fandom to camouflage real fascist ideology. For evidence look no further than this 2017 post from someone asking ‘Do you really think the Empire did nothing wrong?’ and see if you can pinpoint where the edgy role-players end and the actual apologists for US imperialism begin.
Fascists don’t own Star Wars. Not yet anyway. But at some point the people that have reconciled themselves with playing the villain will take full ownership of that story and, once they do, it will be hard to get it back.
Trump’s election to the presidency has revealed deep divisions in American society. In the years since he took office more and more Americans have realised that their government – which has always had fascist tendencies – is now firmly following in the path laid down by nascent authoritarian regimes like those of Erdogan and Putin. Even if he fails to secure a second term it will be difficult for the political system to reverse course. To return to their ideals Americans will have to face the legacy of their actual empire. Some small part of that task might just include rethinking their love affair with the stormtrooper.
If humans are still around in ten thousand years they’ll sift through the 21st century stratum of North America and find stormtrooper toys the way we find clovis arrowheads. Thanks to the background radiation left behind by the nuclear bomb tests the people from that distant future will probably know something about the Second World War. But in the absence of any written history – lost to fragile hard drives and long-extinct file formats – they’ll probably assume that the fascists won.
The Guardian – Nazi-inspired ads for The Man in the High Castle pulled from New York Subway
New York Times – ‘Star Wars’ and the Fantasy of American Violence
Create AI – After 9 months, Reddit finally bans group spreading thinly veiled anti-Semitism
Reddit – We aren’t actually celebrating the comically evil space fascists on here, right?
Police One – Texas cop, ‘Star Wars’ stormtrooper hit the range in viral recruitment clip