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The Ethics of Rebellion: How Rebel Causes Are More Than They Appear

Updated on December 21, 2016
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Jamal is a graduate from Northeastern Seminary and writes on a broad range of topics. His writings are based on other points of view.

Rogue One is not a political film, but does an good job showing the inherit problems in rebellions: a multitude of visions on how to wage it
Rogue One is not a political film, but does an good job showing the inherit problems in rebellions: a multitude of visions on how to wage it | Source

I just came back from seeing Rogue One and like everyone else who saw it, was impressed. It's gritty representation of the Starwars universe was not only in its deception of war, but the complications of rebellions. This article is not about the movie itself, but how it presented the concept of rebel morality and the complications that often arise there.

One of the defining characteristics of the Sryian Civil War is the numerous numbers of rebel factions.  It has made it hard to determine friend or future foe. (photo by REUTERS/Rodi) Said
One of the defining characteristics of the Sryian Civil War is the numerous numbers of rebel factions. It has made it hard to determine friend or future foe. (photo by REUTERS/Rodi) Said | Source

The Beauty of Grey

One of the things I thought was great about Rogue One was how it presented the Rebel Alliance in a more grey light. Watching the original trilogy, its plot and setting are very much black and white, good vs. evil. You know who the bad guys are: they’re the ones killing everybody and ruling with an iron fist. The good guys are the ones trying to liberate the galaxy from that control, and only killing the baddies.

Rogue One however presents a very different picture. From the start, we see alliance operatives and soldiers killing not only storm troopers, but anyone else who can compromise the cause or is just in the wrong place at the wrong time. It is definitely something not seen or hinted at in the original trilogy.

What’s more, the Rebel Alliance, while having access to high tech weapons and ships, is presented more as a mismatch of different groups rather than a single body. In fact, its only in Return of the Jedi that we get any sense of a higher leadership in the alliance and that view is fleeting. Rogue One greatly expounds on this however. The rebels are not only a made of different parties ranging from extremists to moderate, but also have discord within the core group.

Many of them seem to think the rebellion is a political statement against the Emperor and not a war. Others view it as active, military resistance. And when the revelation of the Death Star is revealed, all these threads start to come loose at the seams, exposing these fault lines, differing opinions, and personal investments.

A Mirror of Morality

Now for me this was probably my second favorite scene (anyone who has seen it knows what the first is). This presents a speck of reality to the fantasy of Starwars. Rebellions, while perhaps built on some sort of hope, are rarely ever entirely on the same page, and this makes judging their ethics and morality difficult.

The rebel operatives say that everything they did, they did for the cause, to free themselves from the Imperial Empire. And they did A LOT. They choose to go on the final mission because they need the payoff in order to be at peace with their actions. While that may be a rousing scene on the cinema screen, in the real world that view presents a whole new set of problems. Real rebels who make claims, even legit claims, that the regimes they fight are evil, often choose to engage in the same or similar activities when they feel it necessary.

This may include torture, intimidation, and considering innocent lives caught in the middle as collateral damage and involuntary weapons. The Syrian Civil War makes a tragic case for this. Not only are there over several, competing rebel groups involved of varying degrees, but there have been a number of claims that those groups have committed atrocities themselves. As I am writing this now, there is breaking news that a group of rebels blocked and burned a group of buses marked for refugee evacuation going to the towns, Foah and Keyfraya.

The concept of bringing all these different factions fighting the same enemy under one banner seems all but impossible. Like in Rogue One, many of the factions share different views of how to fight Assad’s Regime and more importantly, what should take its place: A more moderate society or an Islamic state? Some are friendlier towards the western nations while others consider them just as much an enemy as the regime.

This phenomenon is not limited to Syria. In Yemen and Sudan there have been accusations that supplies meant for civilians are instead commandeered by the very groups fighting for their ‘freedom’. In Afghanistan, the Taliban and Mujaheddin before them, while fighting against foreign invasion also intimidate and kill those who try to emulate anything other than their own interpretation of what that freedom looks like.

During the Vietnam War, the Viet Cong’s willingness to coerce local populations into supporting their cause to unify the country is another example. This included using them as human shields against American firepower. There are the numerous resistance movements against the Nazis during World War Two, who while fighting their blatant oppression, would also kill and punish collaboration with the enemy.

Even during the American Revolution, a resistance movement against the British Empire that turned into open war, collaboration was often punished by tar and feathering. Though something that is a cliche, if you were to see its effects, you may see the deliberate scarring of people as inhuman.

Finally, there is one of the first, famous rebellions, Spartacus and his army of former slaves and gladiators. Made famous by Kirk Douglas in 1960, one of the realities almost lost in the interpretation is that many people in his ragtag but successful army had different objectives than their leader. Many believe Spartacus wanted to flee back to his home and disband his army after defeating the Romans, but his army wanted to rampage across Italy killing and looting: even to Rome itself.

When France was liberated from teh Nazis, the French Resistance immediately set out to find collaborators and punish them.  Women found guilty had their heads shaved, both as humiliation and as the mark of a collaborator,
When France was liberated from teh Nazis, the French Resistance immediately set out to find collaborators and punish them. Women found guilty had their heads shaved, both as humiliation and as the mark of a collaborator, | Source

The Novelty of Rebellion

There is something very moving about the underdog who rises up against his tormentors and claims to fight for a greater cause. This comes all the more easily when the violence of those oppressors is naked and public for all to see. The fictional Imperial Empire blows up entire planets. Assad has gassed his own people. The Nazis killed millions for a racist ideology. The South Vietnamese government was corrupt and the Romans were as notoriously brutal as the Nazis and Assad after them.

In light of this, it seems easy who to back. Some of that may even be redactions that we tacked on later in history, but you support the side that is on the receiving end of the brutality. We project our ideals of humanity onto their fight and the media tends to support this vision of rebellion. Pure good against pure evil, black and white, right vs. wrong. Fight for what’s in your heart and hope will when the day.

I don’t believe that this is inherently a bad thing. It’s those ideals that allow portions of the world to prosper the way they are now. However, real world politics and human nature in general make this a hard path to follow, no matter how ideal. The primary issue being that the rebels who we think we should be supporting often have a different view of what constitutes ‘humanity’. That view often involves their worldview being the correct one and that it needs to be enforced by the same means as their enemies, or is exclusive to certain tribes, groups, or people.

In Rogue One, this difference of interpretation leads different groups to different levels of violence and what is justified. Ethics and morality, right and wrong, become shrouded in the grey. Rebel leadership is not on the same page. They even keep secrets to themselves. However, I think there is one clear right and wrong in the middle of this fucked up mess.


This painting depicts the fate of Spartacus's army after their final defeat by the Romans.  Many believe this could been avoided if the Army had backed Spartacus's plan to leave Italy, rather than plunder the land.
This painting depicts the fate of Spartacus's army after their final defeat by the Romans. Many believe this could been avoided if the Army had backed Spartacus's plan to leave Italy, rather than plunder the land. | Source

A Pure Rebellion?

Civilians and people trying to live their lives not doing any harm to anyone, should not be targeted, used as pawns, or considered pieces of collateral to be sacrificed. It is in their faces that true humanity becomes plain and as equally naked as the violence that afflicts them. While I have no answers for the politics and quagmire that makes up rebellion ethics and geopolitics, I do feel that one form of rebellion that is truly worthwhile, is supporting the civilians against those who would use them, whomever they maybe: government oppressor or rebel.

Whether it be in action by bringing in refugees as has happened with many European families, active protests, or becoming one of the support personnel who tries to go to these places to help them: these are rebellious acts that make a difference. These are what give hope in what seems like a hopeless situation.

Because as the movie says, rebellions aren't the only thing built on hope. Our existence as human beings, as a race and individually, also needs hope because it is what drives us to progress beyond the circumstances that surround us. War against an oppressive force is the ultimate expression of that struggle, but that key aspect of hope is what we all share. It is our rebellion and our humanity.

Civilians are the ones who pay the highest price for rebellion.  Syrian civilians are no different, but many people in America and Europe have did what they could to help them make new lives. While its not an army it is something: passive rebellion
Civilians are the ones who pay the highest price for rebellion. Syrian civilians are no different, but many people in America and Europe have did what they could to help them make new lives. While its not an army it is something: passive rebellion | Source

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