Star Wars: The Bad Batch Is About the End of a Forever War on Terror and what government and discarded forgotten veterans do in the aftermath

The Star Wars prequels are notable for a variety of reasons. In particular, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith stand out as some of the earliest mainstream blockbusters to engage with the idea of the War on Terror. As such, it’s fitting to see The Bad Batch deal with the aftermath of that.

In contemporary press, director George Lucas tended to downplay the idea that he was writing to the specific moment. Asked specifically if Revenge of the Sith was a direct commentary on the War on Iraq, Lucas explained, “When I wrote it (the war in) Iraq didn’t exist. We were funding Saddam Hussein and giving him weapons of mass destruction. We were going after Iran. But the parallels between what we did in Vietnam and what we are doing in Iraq are unbelievable.”

Lucas’ original Star Wars trilogy was explicitly shaped and informed by the filmmaker’s engagement with the Vietnam War. As such, it was no surprise that Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith had an eerie resonance with American interventions in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Just as with Peter Jackson’s work on the Lord of the Rings trilogy at around the same time, the prequels connected with something stirring in contemporary American culture, whether consciously or otherwise.

This is not a post hoc read on these films. In a contemporary piece, The Wall Street Journal discussed readings of Revenge of the Sith as “an indictment of the Bush administration for allegedly abusing power in order to wage war and persuade the American people to abandon central tenets of democracy.” In The New York Times, A.O. Scott praised Lucas for “jabbing his light saber in the direction of some real-world political leaders.”

The modern wave of nostalgia has brushed up against the turn of the millennium. There is clearly a strong desire to reconnect with the 1990s, as demonstrated by recent revivals like The X-Files, Will & Grace, the Friends reunion, or That ’90s Show. However, some of that wave has crossed over into the 21st century. The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power is obviously a nostalgia play rooted in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Nostalgia for the Star Wars prequels has become increasingly pronounced.

Star Wars: The Bad Batch Is About the End of a Forever War on Terror and what government and discarded forgotten veterans do in the aftermath

One of the interesting aspects of this cyclical nature of nostalgia is that it provides an opportunity for reflection. These throwbacks exist in a different world, and so there’s an interesting conversation at play between the past and present. Meaning and context shift as distance accrues between the original events and revivals riffing on them. To pick an obvious example, the paranoid conspiracies of The X-Files meant something different during the 1990s than they did during the 2010s.

This is very true of the War on Terror. When Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith premiered, the United States was caught up in a jingoist fervor. Only one senator, Russ Feingold, voted against the Patriot Act. When the French protested American intervention in Iraq, there was a grassroots campaign to rebrand French fries as “freedom fries.” When Dixie Chicks member Natalie Maines publicly decried the Iraq War, the band was marginalized and ostracized.

More broadly, the War on Terror was seen as a “forever war,” a conflict that could be sustained in perpetuity. In some ways, it felt like a defiant rejection that the fall of the Berlin Wall had marked “the end of history” and the triumph of liberal democracy. By definition, the War on Terror was an unwinnable struggle against an abstract enemy, one that would manifest much more concrete foreign interventions in countries like Iraq or Afghanistan. There were always enemies to fight.

Two decades later, the dust has settled. The Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were not literally forever wars, even if President Joe Biden conceded that the War in Afghanistan was “the longest war in American history.” In July and August 2021, the United States formally withdrew from Afghanistan, in scenes of chaos. In December 2021, the United States military formally announced that its combat mission in Iraq had ended. It brought an end to two concrete expressions of this endless wartime.

Star Wars: The Bad Batch Is About the End of a Forever War on Terror and what government and discarded forgotten veterans do in the aftermath

This new reality rippled through pop culture. As with the resonance of Peter Jackson and George Lucas’ turn-of-the-millennium trilogies, some of this was just synchronicity. While the film had been written and shot before the withdrawal, it was difficult to watch the sequences of the fall of House Atreides on Arrakis in Denis Villeneuve’s Dune without recalling images of the frantic American withdrawal from Afghanistan. It even held its North American premiere on September 11, 2021.

Inevitably, nostalgia for the culture of that era must explore the legacy of that conflict. One of the more compelling facets of The Rings of Power is the way in which it feels like a conscious effort to grapple with the legacy of Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy as an artifact of the War on Terror. At its most interesting, The Bad Batch does something similar with the legacy of the Star Wars prequel trilogy. The Bad Batch often feels like a show about what happens to soldiers at the end of a forever war.

Part of this is baked into the premise of the show, which follows a platoon of clone troopers that went rogue in the wake of Order 66. The basic structure of The Bad Batch is that of a “wandering hero” series, a staple of classic American television that includes classics like The Fugitive and Kung Fu. As Popmatters noted of The Incredible Hulk, this television template resonated in the wake of Vietnam, evoking “the overlapping tragedies of homelessness and disabled veterans.”

After all, The Bad Batch most directly evokes The A-Team, a classic television show about a group of specialist Vietnam veterans who find themselves fugitives from the law as they travel across America. The A-Team premiered in the early 1980s, at a time when American television was growing more comfortable acknowledging the trauma experienced by soldiers who had served in Vietnam. The protagonists of both Magnum P.I. and Miami Vice were also Vietnam veterans.

Star Wars: The Bad Batch Is About the End of a Forever War on Terror and what government and discarded forgotten veterans do in the aftermath

As such, The Bad Batch positions itself as a show about the veterans of a morally ambiguous war, who struggle to find a place for themselves in a universe following the end of that conflict. The tropes and conventions of The Bad Batch hearken back to classic television of the post-Vietnam era, but the show is obviously influenced by a much more recent set of foreign interventions that have only recently truly wound down.

This subtext becomes more overt in “The Clone Conspiracy” and “Truth and Consequences,” the mid-season two-parter that was released on Disney+ this week. The Bad Batch exists in the space between Revenge of the Sith and the original Star Wars, and so it captures the transition from the Galactic Republic to the First Galactic Empire under Emperor Sheev Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid). It is also about the transition from veteran clone troopers to a new conscripted army of stormtroopers.

What happens to these soldiers who returned home from a war that was not as valorous or as triumphant as they had hoped it might be? As with the Vietnam War before it, one of the big challenges in navigating the legacies of the War on Terror concerns the morality of the conflict. Much of the war was built on a lie; there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, after all. There was also a sense that abuses like “enhanced interrogation” and Abu Ghraib cast a long shadow.

“We were following orders,” complains a Clone Wars veteran named Slip (Dee Bradley Baker) early in “The Clone Conspiracy.” His drinking buddy, Cade (also Baker) opines, “Slip, we’re not bad men. But what we did was wrong.” It’s a heavy theme for an animated family television show, but it touches on timely and relevant issues about how best to talk about the aftermath of that conflict, as well as the disillusionment that followed.

After all, it is easy to blame veterans for the wars in which they fought. Vietnam veterans have talked about the stigma that they faced from civilians in the aftermath of that unpopular war, although there is some indication that veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan have not faced similar ostracization. The government often fails to provide for those who served — whether in terms of financial benefits or even just acknowledging a basic duty of care.

In The Bad Batch, the Empire plans to enact a “Defense Recruitment Bill” to build a “conscripted military.” What of the existing veterans? “They’re not droids to be simply shut down; these are soldiers who defended us, defended our worlds,” Senator Chuchi (Jennifer Hale) protests. “After all they have sacrificed, you now wish to discard them? Leave them with nothing? Is that how we repay them for our service?” She continues, “How can we debate commissioning a new army without a plan in place to care for our current one?”

As befitting a prequel trilogy that began with a conflict over the taxation of trade routes, The Bad Batch dives into the nitty-gritty of a government’s obligation to those who have served. Chuchi even proposes “a pension plan” for veterans, assuring them, “As difficult as it is to accept, your military service will come to an end. You get to choose what your lives will be.” It is a very timely sentiment that speaks to the fates of soldiers recently returned from controversial overseas postings.

The Bad Batch is sympathetic to these veterans without excusing the war. “Truth and Consequences” understands that soldiers are convenient scapegoats for the rulers that pursue these conflicts. When footage of the Empire’s war crimes on the planet Kamino are exposed, Palpatine blames the troops who “blindly followed orders, inflicting such carnage without hesitation” more than the officials who gave those orders. After all, George Bush and Tony Blair will never face war crimes charges.

As such, in its best moments, The Bad Batch is a surprisingly mature and clever extension of the War on Terror metaphor that informed Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. It builds on those central ideas in a way that acknowledges how much time has passed and how perception has shifted. It’s a smart engagement with not just the legacy of these movies, but the legacy of the events that shaped and influenced them.

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