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A Galaxy Not So Far Away: Stars Wars and Problems of Historical Scale

The passions of our staff here at Concerning History extend to the history of worlds beyond this one. A particular preoccupation of Bryan and Francis is the galaxy of George Lucas’s Star Wars. As with any creation originating in this world, however, Star Wars can both be influence by our own history and compared to it. This is the third installment in a series exploring how the past both informs this pop culture phenomenon and illuminates some of its oversights.

As mentioned in my previous post, historical scale matters when discussing any event in the past. The same importance of scale to understanding history holds true to fantasy and science fiction worlds. Now, there is obviously always a level of flexibility that needs to be extended to these creations. Establishing a believable world with an in depth history, various cultures and sociological structures, and a magic system (if we’re being honest about the genre, there’s always that) takes an incredible amount of work, so some “gaps” are fun to elucidate, but acceptable. However, the key balance with any type of worldbuilding is to make it believable enough that it does not rip the reader or viewer away from the story. That means that the scale, scope, and impact of certain ideas or events have enough realism to seem plausible. Think, for example, of The Lord of the Rings. It is plausible that six thousand armored Rohirrim could devastatingly impact the hordes of Mordor before Minas Tirith and then face daunting, but surmountable, odds when charged by twenty mumakil at the Battle of Pelennor Fields. One franchise, however, that consistently misses the mark when it comes to scale is the Star Wars universe. 

In the old pre-Disney era of Star Wars, the Extended Universe functionally struggled with scale. Any avid reader of Karen Traviss’ Republic Commando series will note that she consistently stated three million clone troopers prosecuted the Clone Wars across a galaxy of one hundred quadrillion sentient species. Today, the new canon lists that figure as 6.2 million clone troopers. Using the old number, that is one clone trooper per 333 million beings in the galaxy; such a force could MAYBE fight against Separatist cells on the capital planet of Coruscant, but never fight a war across the entire galaxy. For an even better perspective, there is one U.S. soldier for every 163 Americans today, and the United States military constantly needs to recruit volunteers as its resources and personnel are consistently under strain (even with the U.S. government’s nearly $1 trillion/annum budget). Moreover, when the United States prosecuted World War II, there were 16 million soldiers and sailors in uniform by 1945. Compare 16 million soldiers to prosecute a war on Earth, when the global population in 1945 was about 2.2 billion people (which is a very rough estimate) to 6.2 million Clone troopers to fight a war across a galaxy with a population 1 million times greater. While these numbers can be hard for us to really fathom, imagine if President Lincoln decided to fight the Civil War with the Old Army, minus its Confederate defectors, rather than recruiting volunteer regiments from Union states. The Union would have matched the South’s several armies of fifty to seventy thousand soldiers with a single field army of eleven to twelve thousand regulars. Even with better training and equipment, the war would have indeed been over in one battle.

The new Star Wars sequel trilogy has an even worse approach to scale, and its flaws are mostly related to the way the New Republic’s military and government are essentially wiped out in Episode VII and play no further role. This egregious mistake is frankly a sin in its sheer mendacity because it is completely unbelievable. Yes, the same lack of believability could apply to the clone armies, as I stated above, but at least the clone army was created on a secret planet without anyone’s knowledge for a decade prior to the war. There’s some shred of internal consistency to say Yoda was only able to bring 3 million clones to Geonosis, as that was what the Kaminoans had ready. In The Force Awakens, Starkiller Base’s “galaxy gun” wipes out the Republic’s capital system and its fleet, the equivalent of a nuclear weapon hitting D.C. and Annapolis. The Republic was certainly caught off guard, but the Abrams-Kennedy-Johnson triad used that scene to annihilate the Republic rather than rally it in a Pearl Harbor-esque manner. I waited anxiously for remnants of the Republic fleet to swoop in and aid the Resistance assault on Starkiller base. Why did I expect this? Because what superpower concentrates its entire military and political authority in one place and has no contingency to reply to a devastating attack when the use and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction are common knowledge? This one, apparently. There may have been certain storytelling reasons for this decision (essentially rebooting Star Wars and reconstituting the rag-tag Rebel Alliance), but its execution was severely lacking.

Now, we come to it at last, the greatest Star Wars sin of scaling: the conflict between the Light Side and the Dark Side as embodied in the Jedi Order and the Sith. What is this sin? It is the fact that the Jedi Order, the vaunted and hallowed paragons of the Light Side of the Force, number only 10,000 in number in a galaxy of 100 quadrillion beings. First, the Jedi are presented as the champions of peace and justice in the galaxy, sent by the Republic to resolve and mediate the toughest conflicts. They are essentially a wizard-monk police force. The Jedi do not even have the numbers to do this effectively on Coruscant, the location of the main Jedi Temple, nevertheless in the entire galaxy. For comparison, in NYC today there are 53 officers for every 10,000 residents to enforce the law. In the USA, there is 1 FBI agent for every 9,400 Americans. Each force, the NYPD and the FBI, have a total strength of 55,000 personnel and 35,000 agents. These two forces are responsible for patrolling the nation’s largest city of several million residents and investigating the nation’s toughest crimes in a nation of 325 million people. Both of these agencies are respectively five times and 3.5 times larger than the Jedi Order and do not even have one billion citizens to protect, surveill, or monitor. If you factor into this comparison that several thousand Jedi are younglings, young padawans not ready for fieldwork, or masters in charge of administering the Order, the number of mission-ready knights probably stands at closer to 7,000. Even if the Jedi were relegated to the Republic alone, not the entire galaxy, with its approximate population of 75 quadrillion beings, that means there is one Jedi Knight for every 75 billion beings in the Republic. 

The stark implications of these skewed ratios are massive. First, it essentially means that the Jedi are a statistical impossibility. It is a fluke that a Jedi even exists. Second, the Force can’t be presented as the energy field that binds and shapes all life if it only affects a statistically impossible number of beings in the galaxy (remember, adding in the Sith will bring us to a whopping 10,002 active Force users!). This means that Han Solo’s quip to Obi-wan Kenobi that the Force is essentially a myth is actually the truth rather than a cynical throw-away. Fourth, the Jedi cannot be labeled as “baby-snatchers” because they are taking one child out of every 75 billion people. Now, one could argue that there may be more Force sensitive people than there are Jedi, but the Jedi have constantly established that they send out Knights to recruit new younglings and there are no other orders of Light-side force users presented in Star Wars, either. While a few cells of Dark Side users pop up here and there, none of them rival the Jedi in size or skill, either. That still leaves the galaxy with, at best, 15,000 active Force users at any given time. Honestly, the problems with these numbers substantiates the way characters such as Rey, Finn, or Dinn Djarin think the Jedi are a myth. It’s because they (statistically) are. It is most likely, with such few numbers, that no one would even see or hear of the Jedi their entire lifetimes in the galaxy. 

A more realistic scale would put the Jedi Order’s numbers at somewhere around the 10 billion mark. That would then lead to a few realistic increases in scale. First, there would be several temples in the galaxy hosting several hundred thousand to a million Jedi. This would make the sentient beings on those planets aware of the Jedi, even if they did not interact with them. Second, it means that there would be one Jedi Knight for every 7.5 million sentient beings in the Republic, or every ten million in the galaxy. While that is still a huge number, it is roughly equivalent to having one Jedi Knight in each of the major metropolises on Earth rather than no Jedi ever even existing on Earth. Third, with many more people presenting Force sensitivity, the Force becomes a rare, but present, phenomena in the life of the galaxy. Sure, the Jedi are still elite warrior-monks, but there is at least a level of believability here. It also necessitates Darth Vader’s years-long crusade to hunt down Jedi who survived Order 66. If there were only 10,000 Knights when Vader assaulted the Temple and Sidious issued his notorious Order 66, it does not make much sense that so many Jedi would have escaped given how embedded they were in the Republic military. However, if Sidious’s plan involved wiping out ten billion Jedi and he had to contend with multiple temples and armies scattered across the galaxy, then it is reasonable to assume that Darth Vader has “mopping up operations” which would take him years to accomplish after the initial purge. 

Nevertheless, there is one scene in Star Wars where Lucas or his successors get scale right: the opening scene of Revenge of the Sith. That massive fleet battle over Coruscant, with thousands of capital ships vying for the control of Coruscant’s space is what a properly scaled fleet battle in the Galactic core should look like. It even has numerous Jedi on capital ships engaging in the battle if you watch the old Clone Wars storyline released on Cartoon Network before Revenge of the Sith hit theaters.

While I do not expect Star Wars to ever really care about these problems, this can serve as a fair warning to all would-be worldbuilders out there. Read history, think about the scope and scale of what you’re creating, and at least make your worldbuilding feasible so that those who read your work aren’t ripped from the pages or screen asking if your “Jedi” should even exist in your world at all.

 

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