Is the U.S. military a fighting force for good engaged in a battle against darkness and evil like the Rebel Alliance from "Star Wars," or a hegemonic superpower bent on subverting everything to its will like the Galactic Empire? Apparently, it depends on who you ask.
In a photo recently published to the Defense Visual Information Distribution Service this week, a U.S. Army M1A2 Abrams main battle tank assigned to Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 67th Armor Regiment, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division is seen flying a red-and-black flag emblazoned with the telltale symbol of the Rebel Alliance from the beloved science fiction franchise during gunnery at the service's McGregor Range in New Mexico back in September.
Certainly, the Defense Department's obsession with "Star Wars" is well-documented, and many U.S. troops and DoD personnel see themselves as part of the Rebel Alliance. In fact, this isn't the first time that Army personnel have been spotted making their allegiance to the rebel force known: A 2019 Army press release regarding soldiers assigned to the East Africa Response Force (EARF) preparing to deploy to Gabon also features a photo of a Rebel Alliance flag flying above an installation at Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, a major hub of U.S. military activity in the region.
When queried by Task & Purpose about the presence of the Rebel flag at Lemonnier, a U.S. Africa Command spokesman responded that the command and the EARF "certainly support restoring order ... And if groups like al-Shabaab or other terror groups are on the wrong side of our forces then it will be a very bad day for them." (The spokesman also noted that the flag was likely raised by an individual soldier "with intent to bring a light moment of morale to an otherwise very serious business and mission.")
If the Army sees itself as the Rebel Alliance, then who exactly is the Empire in this scenario? According to the AFRICOM spokesman, it's anyone who opposes "order," which in the case of the EARF is violent extremist organizations like ISIS that have flourished across the Middle East and Africa in recent years.
But as any fan of "Star Wars" knows, this characterization doesn't really make sense. In a 2018 conversation with James Cameron, "Star Wars" creator George Lucas noted that while he was initially inspired by rebellions like the American Revolution to create the political dynamics and themes of the film franchise, America had gradually morphed into its own form of "empire" by the time the Vietnam War broke out. Indeed, the victory of the Ewoks as a small group using asymmetric warfare over the highly organized Galactic Empire in "Return of the JedI" was an explicit allegory for the Viet Cong's success against the U.S. military during the conflict.
"The irony is that, in both of those, the little guys won. The highly technical empire -- the English Empire, the American Empire -- lost," Lucas told Cameron. "That was the whole point."
Lucas's point persists today. The U.S. military may currently be the dominant armed force on the planet, with China and Russia as not-so-close second in terms of defense spending, but despite this, the Pentagon recently found itself all-but-defeated after a 20-year conflict with a less-advanced group of insurgents in Afghanistan and embroiled in a "defeat ISIS" mission in Iraq and Syria with no end in sight. (Even the "order" element of AFRICOM's 2019 statement evokes shades of the Empire.) President Ronald Reagan may have declared Russia the "evil empire" in his famous 1983 speech in an appeal to classic black-and-white, "good vs. evil" morality, but in terms of actual real-world military dynamics, Lucas' allegory may be far more accurate, minus the whole "blowing up planets" thing.
If the Army doesn't get it, at least the Space Force does, sort of: in 2021, the freshman service branch swore in a major general with Imperial Stormtroopers and Darth Vader looking on -- and when asked if the DoD endorses the values of the Empire, then-Pentagon spokesman John Kirby demurred: "We support and defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic." Not exactly the most affirming answer.
Sorry, folks, but if you believe in founders' intent, then you have to trust Lucas' interpretation of his own work here. The U.S. military is the Galactic Empire -- and unfortunately, no number of Rebellion flags will change that.
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