A Star Wars Exploration of the Law of Armed Conflict—Part II

Dueling lightsabers in space environment

Previously in the first part of this Star Wars-themed blog series, we examined the surprisingly nuanced legal realm of war crimes. To do so, of course, we examined through a lens forged a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away—and by taking a look at the galaxy’s most sinister protagonist-turned-antagonist-turned-protagonist again, Darth Vader.

In this blog sequel, we’ll continue to examine the alleged war crimes of Mr. Vader as carried out in the finale of the Star Wars prequel trilogy, Episode III, and then the beginning events of the original trilogy as depicted in “Rogue One” as well as that trilogy itself.

Episode III

“Revenge of the Sith” starts with 22-year-old Anakin Skywalker rescuing the leader of the Republic, and detaining his hostage-taker, Count Dooku. The chancellor urges him to kill Dooku. Anakin hesitates. (Even in the Star Wars universe, apparently, there is something wrong with killing detainees.) But the chancellor insists and Anakin obeys.

So, that’s a war crime.

Detainees must be treated humanely, which especially includes not getting murdered. This is true even for someone like Dooku, a war criminal himself. While this is a clear-cut offense, Anakin and Chancellor Palpatine were the sole witnesses, so the prosecution team might never know it happened.

Later, Anakin helps the chancellor with some light treason. For that, the chancellor renames him Darth Vader and tasks him with executing Order 66, an order identifying all Jedi as traitors. Vader heads to the Jedi Temple, where he kills who knows how many Jedi off camera, then turns his lightsaber on a room full of young Jedi trainees, who are all about 8 years old.

Most defense lawyers probably do not want to spend their day explaining why it was acceptable for their client to assault a room full of children. But that is the task for Vader’s defense team today. In their paramilitary Jedi training, the “younglings” were learning how to use weapons of war, like the lightsaber. But is that enough to qualify them as lawful targets? It’s unclear, and it’s possibly a moot point. The younglings in Episode III are depicted as unarmed and unable to fight someone like Vader, so the tribunal might be tempted to find that they had surrendered and were therefore entitled to humane treatment as detainees.

Rogue One and the Original Trilogy

Vader’s role in “Rogue One” is brief but crucial to his case.

In the film, he meets with the Death Star’s developer, to scold him for using the new weapon to blow up a city. In the previous movies, Vader was a foot soldier, only responsible for his own acts. Now, as a military commander, he’s also vicariously responsible for his troops’ acts if he fails to take reasonable precautions to stop them from committing war crimes.

Would Vader be responsible for the Death Star’s first firing? In this scene, he reprimands a subordinate for blowing up a city, so let’s assume that Vader had established some basic rules of engagement, including not blowing up entire cities. Rules are a reasonable precaution, but only if they are enforced. A verbal reprimand seems like an awfully light punishment for such a severe crime. Then again, a reprimand might be a severe enough response when it’s coming from a space wizard who can choke people just by pointing at them.

Vader’s responsibility for the Death Star’s subsequent firings is more straightforward. If blowing up a planet is a clear-cut war crime and the Death Star keeps doing it while Vader is in charge, then he would have a hard time explaining why he took every reasonable precaution to stop the violations.

Does Vader have any hope in the argument that the Death Star only targeted lawful Rebel targets, and it just happened to destroy the rest of the planet as well? No, because blowing everyone up does a poor job of distinguishing between the lawful and unlawful targets. In addition, combatants may not disproportionately use force; for example, by carrying out attacks whose anticipated military advantage is substantially outweighed by the anticipated harm to civilians. Blowing up a planet simply because there are some rebels on it is by definition disproportionate.


Vader commits plenty more interesting war crimes, but it’s hard to outdo genocide. The offense is so severe and so easy to prove (the debris of a blown-up planet is pretty hard to miss) that Vader’s prosecutors would likely focus their case on Order 66 and the Death Star.

In his role as Order 66’s executioner, Vader intentionally targeted unlawful targets and he often did so with vastly disproportionate force by using the Death Star. One only wonders just how many counts of genocide Vader would face for each race, nation, and culture that the Death Star destroyed.

Of course, this is all an over-analysis of fictional events. But these fictional events in the Star Wars movies help more vividly illustrate the rules and norms of war. Now you can spot war crimes in real time in your favorite action movies, and perhaps even defend that occasional prospective client who is accused of some interesting war crimes.