May 4 2009 3:10pm

Alderaan: Billions Unmourned

I woke up this morning to one of the worst puns I’ve ever had to endure: today is Star Wars Day. Why? “May the 4th be with you.”

No idea who thought that one up, but it did bring to mind an argument I tend to have with my friends, usually after hunting and slaying a couple dirty martinis.

One thing always bugged me about Star Wars: the problem of the billions of unmourned people on Alderaan.

Remember? The peaceful planet? Destroyed in order to show off the power of a fully operational space station/weapon to a young princess? (Who, incidentally, was the only one left who was left impressed with the Death Star, as, well, everyone else was dead.)

I was almost four years old when Star Wars came out. I don’t honestly remember watching it in the theater, but I remember countless viewings on HBO when I was a teeny bit older. There was one viewing—definitely not the first—when it actually hit me what they had done. I had remembered the lightsaber battles, and the blasters, the horror of watching Obi-wan fall, and the scary-as-hell Vader. But the first time I actually comprehended the destruction of Alderaan it was like someone had slipped a horrible new scene into my favorite movie. How had I not realized the complete genocidal travesty of that one command before? I couldn’t believe it. They actually blew up a whole planet, vaporizing billions of lives.

What absolutely killed me after that, and it still boggles my mind to this day, is that after that scene, no one gives a shit about Alderaan again. Even when Leia finds out that there’s an extra special spice in the story—that the guy who blew up the planet and tortured her was her dad—the movies do not mention it again.

I’ve argued this, often at length, with friends. One friend decided to assume that there had been substantial group therapy—perhaps an Alderaan Ex-Pats Club—between the first and second movies. And then after Return of the Jedi, Leia was surrounded by teddy bears, and everyone knows that time spent with a pet can lower blood pressure. But really, the poor woman was written as a robot: she had her little, “No, Alderaan is a peaceful planet!” outburst, then she internalized the pain from then on.

Mick Bradley says essentially the same thing in this hysterical blog post. He also brings up another question: if Leia had been the hero, would we have cared more about Alderaan, her loss, and her torture?

I often wonder if it’s the disconnect we have when it comes to numbers. Watching an enemy take out one person, it’s close to us, we can identify with that person, it’s real, visceral. (Take the famous tank vs. solo protester at Tiananmen Square .) When it’s a crowd, or a city, or a planet, the horror is on another level. The emotions can still be pain and grief, but there’s a level of shock and disbelief that go along with it. Perhaps the psyche pads our acceptance of the event, because if we really comprehended what was going on, we might go mad.

It would have just been nice to have Leia mention Alderaan once or twice. For example, people wear black armbands to mourn a hell of a lot less than a whole planet. What about Alderaan cuisine? Did she miss it? “Damn but I miss the squonk burgers we had on Alderaan. That was the only planet that had squonk, you know.” And then C3PO would quip that squonk can be found on two other planets in the galaxy, and Han would turn him off and it would turn into a comic relief bit, with them ignoring the pain of the woman who had lost everything.

Can you imagine if Leia had been less of a robot and more like Bruce Wayne? That wuss saw only his parents killed in front of him. Dark Leia could beat the shit out of Batman, if you have “number of loved ones killed in front of you” as the fuel for your rage.

It would have been good just to have closure, that’s all. To blow up a planet and then never mention it again it just sloppy storytelling. Although it did have me yelling at Bail Organa at the end of Episode 3, “When you go back to Alderaan, make sure to pull out all investments and get a nice summer home off-planet! Trust me!”

(Admittedly, I’ve never read any novel tie-ins, but I did do some research on Wikipedia and learned that in later books Leia was not so ready to accept her heritage, nor the fact that Daddy had redeemed himself from having a hand in billions of deaths just by killing one dude. So it’s good someone picked up that plot thread, but for those of us who have only watched the movies, Leia’s grief and rage are an unfinished story.)

DG Lewis
1. DG Lewis
One Alderaanian dying is a tragedy; billions of Alderaanians dying is a statistic.
DG Lewis
2. Evan Goer
Right. Plus, among those billions of Alderaanian dead, there had to be at least several hundred thousand paparazzi blown up as well. Tell me that wouldn't take the sting out of it for any telegenic, media-savvy Princess like Leia.
Dayle McClintock
3. trinityvixen
When it’s a crowd, or a city, or a planet, the horror is on another level. The emotions can still be pain and grief, but there’s a level of shock and disbelief that go along with it.

"You know, we think if somebody kills someone, that's murder, you go to prison. You kill 10 people, you go to Texas, they hit you with a brick, that's what they do. 20 people, you go to a hospital, they look through a small window at you forever. And over that, we can't deal with it, you know? Someone's killed 100,000 people. We're almost going, "Well done! You killed 100,000 people? You must get up very early in the morning. I can't even get down the gym!"

-Eddie Izzard, "Dressed to Kill"

(Because it had to be said.)
Bill Spangler
4. Bspangler
If you're looking for more SW novels that talk about Alderaan's destruction, may I suggest JEDI ECLIPSE by Jim Luceno? The issue creates a significant rift in Han and Leia's relationship.
DG Lewis
5. Iain Coleman
@ trinityvixen:

I think I now understand Mr Izzard's support of the Labour party.
DG Lewis
6. totalitat
that the guy who blew up the planet and tortured her was her dad—the movies do not mention it again.

Darth Vader didn't blow up the planet; Grand Moff Tarkin did.
seth johnson
7. seth
It's kind of moot to focus on one questionable piece of storytelling in "A New Hope", when Lucas dumped barges of garbage on the franchise with the prequels.

I actually think everyone's response to Alderaan's demise is appropriate. This is the Empire, and if you ignore everything in the Prequels, you better bet that they had planet-erasing capabilities before the Death Star. With a guy like Vader calling the shots, their organization had probably delivered large scale genocide many times over.

The Death Star was just a progression of existing technology on a larger scale. Don't assume Hoth was the first planet to greet a herd of AT-AT people-stompers. The Empire had all kinds of methods available for killing every sentient being on a planet. Alderaan wasn't the first planet squelched by the Empire. The Death Star made the process quicker. Kind of a Hiroshima / Dresden debate.

The real scrutiny on this topic should be placed on Princess Leia offering up that other planet for sacrifice. Can't remember the name, now, but Vader said it was too distant for the demonstration. Leia tried to protect her friends on Alderaan by redirecting the violence on strangers..

Elizabeth Coleman
8. elizabethcoleman
One of the X-Wing books had a character who was Alderaanian and lost his family in the massacre. There was a nice bit where he went out to the wreckage and left a memorial, like thousands of other people had. I thought it was realistic and poignant. It sounds like people were selling kits, and coming up with suggested little rituals. I don't remember everything the character put in his offering, but I know one of them was a bio of Luke Skywalker that he thought his brother would like. (which made me realize, oh, yeah, these people are going to be ridiculous celebrities. Not many of the other books deal with that, either.)

The character didn't know what he should do to mourn, so he did this simple thing that others before him had done. It didn't miraculously end his pain, but it was something.
Luke M
9. lmelior
FYI, it was Dantooine that Leia claimed as the rebel base's location. The rebel base was abandoned, and the planet's population was considerably less than Alderaan. It's an extension of the moral dilemma where you have to decide which is the "better" choice: being directly responsible for one death or indirectly responsible for a large number of deaths.
Tudza White
10. tudzax1
I read a Star Wars novel, mainly because it was written by an author I liked, Michael Kube-McDowell. It occurs just after the final victory over the empire, and the detail I like is that the leaders of the resistance are now trying to keep their people from taking revenge.
Adam Whitehead
11. Werthead
The trilogy didn't really have time to delve into the tragedy and its full ramifications, but agreed that Leia shouldn't really have been happy and smiling at the ending given her whole (adopted) family had just been blown to smithereens ("Oh my God! They killed Jimmy Smits!"). On the other hand, they really didn't have time to get into it in Ep 4, and by the time Ep 5 kicks off it's three years later and you assume Leia has grieved and dealt with it in the interim.

That said, the premise of the argument is flawed. The status of Alderaanian refugees is addressed in several of the Star Wars Expanded Universe novels, along with issues about where they are allowed to settle, their political status (do they still get representation in the New Republic Senate when there are only a few hundred thousand left?) and so on.
DG Lewis
12. Monkity
Humans are much more schizophrenic in the SW universe, if they're even the same species at all. Also, warlike. But there's a counter-argument. How many Bikini islanders had time to mourn Bikini? How many native Americans had time to mourn the destruction of their ecosystem when the U.S. tested nuclear bombs all over the southwestern U.S.? My feeling when faced with an implacable Empire is that one looks either for a place to flee to, or a way to fight. Those that have time to mourn don't do so in front of the camera very often. And when they do, the public doesn't respond for long.

"Come with me if you want to live."
DG Lewis
13. Iain Coleman
Of course, if Leia had given in to her grief, she might have ended up like this.
David Goldfarb
14. David_Goldfarb
Along similar lines, it took me many viewings of episode 4 to notice just how casually murderous the good guys were. They kill two stormtroopers in order to get their uniforms, then they kill a couple of technicians so that they can get access to a tech station. Yes, the stormtroopers may just have been force-grown clones, and yes the technicians were complicit in genocide; but the so-called good guys (even Ben Kenobi) seem to have zero respect for life.
DG Lewis
15. toolco
@12 Monkity-

Comparisons to real world events isn't a counter-argument. The comparisons don't match anyway; Bikini was evacuated. And nobody's ecosystem was destroyed from the Alamogordo/ Nevada TRest Site tests.

Implacable Empires are not noted for offering compensation or admitting mistakes, either. I always wonder why nobody ever chastises the nuclear testing of, say, Russia.
Earl Cooley
16. shiva7663
With that shock of realization, the phrase "sick doggie snuff film" comes to mind.
Kurt Lorey
17. Shimrod
All over the southwest? Monkity, I am pretty sure that all of the atomic testing was located in one area in Nevada after WW2, in addition to the original single White Sands test.
James Goetsch
18. Jedikalos
Obi-wan really felt it, anyway :) "I feel a great disturbance in the force, as if millions of voices etc"
DG Lewis
19. KeithGap
There's something in George Lucas's story-telling style where he likes to underplay the emotional content of some of the tragedies that occur, like the Alderaan thing. Or, for instance, in the scene where Obi Wan and Yoda review the holo of Anakin slaying the Jedi. I much prefer the "direction" of the scene that Matt Stover uses in the excellent novelization of "Sith", where Obi-Wan practically collapses with grief over what Anakin has done. On the one hand, it is a fairy tale...on the other hand, it robs a bit of the possible emotional impact.
DG Lewis
20. TimmyC
Charles Stross' "Iron Sunrise" deals with a very similar topic (planet -- heck, system -- destroyed by WMD) but hits all the points Ep4 misses. The grief of the survivors, family, relatives is described, but he also talks about the social impact of the destruction on unrelated people, folks who are just dumbstruck by the tragedy of it. And to Werthead's comment @11, refugees from the dead system are addressed according to those points: where to settle, do they still have representation, financial matters now that the banks and property are all gone, etc.

But Stross takes a good quarter of his book (or more) to deal with this. In a summer movie, there's no way Alderaan's demise could be properly addressed, which is a bummer because I hadn't thought about Lafferty's points until I read this post.

Now I'm thinking about a suicidally depressing 12-hour miniseries about the aftermath of Alderaan done all high-budget, screenwritten by Ron Moore and directed by Frank Darabont, after which I'd probably cry for a week straight...
Jason Erik Lundberg
21. jelundberg
This always bothered me too, Mur. There's a very short scene in Robot Chicken: Star Wars Episode II that addresses this very thing...

Leia: Luke, what's wrong?

Luke: I just can't believe Ben's gone.

Leia: Awww, did the 80-year-old man you just met yesterday die? I mean, sorry if I didn't notice, I was a little busy thinking about my *entire family* and the other *two billion people* from Alderaan who were just vaporized into dust about three hours ago.

R2D2 beeps, translation: Ooooh, snap!
DG Lewis
22. Razorsharp
I've read the novelization for Return of the Jedi, and as Leia follows Wicket into the forest of Endor, she marvels at the events that have occurred thus far. She wishes that her parents were alive so she could tell them about it, as well as the strange little critters "leading scared, brave princesses to safety."

However, you're all right--she doesn't spend a lot of time mourning her adopted home--maybe because the loss is too great to think about. Either that, or she was fully aware that Vader would do (or at least was capable of doing) something like this...maybe her outburst was to make Vader pass over her as false bravery gave way to hysterics, though her panicked pleas seemed rather convincing.

After a while though she has two families to mourn--her blood family and her adopted one. Anyone else would crack. Maybe she keeps herself too busy to think about it?

All in all, Leia just doesn't seem like someone who spends a lot of time dwelling on sad things. I'd rather think she's just very pragmatic ("what's done is done; we can't bring them back, but let's honor those who are gone by pressing forward") than emotionless.
DG Lewis
23. Daryn Moerike
Alderaan had it coming. They were part of the Rebel Alliance and traitors to The Empire! I hope they all died screaming like pigs.
DG Lewis
24. Sasha von smacka
Why is everyone saying that vader blew up that planet?!Grand Moff Tarkins blew that planet vader had no control over the death star exept for paronoid officers in the death star.ok back in topic she i think was tramatised my the experiance so she would rather not talk about it.Kind off like me not wanting to talk about my old school.
DG Lewis
25. Sacalaca
Why is everyone saying that vader blew up that planet?!Grand Moff Tarkins blew that planet vader had no control over the death star exept for paronoid officers in the death star.ok back in topic she i think was tramatised my the experiance so she would rather not talk about it.Kind off like me not wanting to talk about my old school.
DG Lewis
26. Organa
There is in fact one moment in Ep.4 where it is mentioned: when the Trio arrive on Yavin 4 an old man (General Dodonna I think) comes up and gives Leia a hug. He says something like, I'm so glad to see you, when we heard about Alderaan we feared the worst. If I recall correctly Leia almost cuts him off, saying, we have work to do, grief has to wait.
Leia is not unfeeling or callous, but she knows that if she is to go on and do what she must do, she camnnot let herself think about what just happened. Think about it: Leia has just been sujected to torture and mind-probing for 4 days running. Her family, her friends, her home, everything she ever had was destroyed, everything she loved was taken away, and even her inmost thoughts were searched and exploited by the terrifying power of the Dark Side of the Force. If Jabba the Hutt stripped her naked physically, Darth Vader stripped her emotionally, mentally, ravaged even her secret thoughts with no care for her. They took everything: her freedom, her dignity, her privacy, even her home, family, friends... But they couldn't take her integrity. She won. Even if they killed her, she won. She would never betray the rebels, and all their torture, their destruction of everything she loved was in vain.
But life goes on, somehow. Two crazy boys come with a hare-brained scheme to rescue her. Leia has to get up and run, shoot, fight once more to survive. The Rebels have to be warned. There is a battle to win. If Leia let her feelings take hold of her, she knows she would go mad. In her head, oh! She lives it again every moment. Ah! She sees it before her every moment, the little green globe that was her world; oh! those sparks fly forever in her mind, the molten particles of her home! The flash was over in a few seconds, and the dust that was once a planet is left cold in the emptiness of space; but for her it is never over. What could she do but weep, weep forever over a world she lost, a world her new friends never knew, never can know, for nothing, nothing is left. How can she speak, when all words fail? How can she weep, when tears shed for a thousand years would not be sufficient to cool the grief of 2,000,000,000 dead- Alderaanian people, her people, for she was thier Princess, their protectress, yet she could not protect them, she could do nothing but stand by and watch them die, her own people!
She is not unfeeling. But she buries her trauma deep in her heart. Remember, she was trained as a politician and spy for the Rebellion. She can hide her emotions. Her heart, her mind, ravaged by Darth Vader, is too wounded to be shown, even to her closest friends. The fear is still there, the pain of which she cannot speak for fear that it would overwhelm her. Does she not wake in the night sweating, trembling, waves of terror washing over her as she re-lives those 4 endless days , or thinking she can hear the screams of her people crying for her, their Princess, to save them? Yet even worse is that deadly silence when she wakes in the dark and knows that those voices will never cry out again, for they are all dust, dust in the endless night. Ah! she will go mad, she will go mad! Somehow she must go on, must live again- live, how? for so many are dead- She must be strong. They did not break her then and she will not break now. So she works, she teases Han and Luke, bighting back tears, but laughing nonetheless. They are good people, and poor Luke has lost his home too. She will be strong for them. They cannot know how much it hurts. No one can see. It is hidden, and they cannot break in. No, no-one can ever break into her mind again. She knows she is paranoid, but she builds walls to keep the horror back. She will go on. She cannot mourn forever. She has to live, for the rebellion, for Luke and Han, for her parents who are dead, for Alderaan, her people, her home.
That is my take on Leia's silence after the Destruction of Alderaan. Some things we cannot speak of; they are too close to our hearts. Some speak long eulogies for their loved ones, others weep; Princess Leia turns with her heat and soul to the cause of the Rebellion, to carrying on her Father's work (Bail, not Vader, duh!). She is pragmatic, as "Razorsharp" says above. She knows what she has to do, and she does it. Her mourning she keeps strictly private. You do see it though, if you look: her sympathy with Luke over Ben's death, her distress, almost uncharactaristic sweetness to Han when he is tortured by Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back, her desperation when Luke says he needs to go face Vader in Return of the Jedi.

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