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In the Star Wars prequel trilogy (and in the Clone Wars TV show) we see that Darth Sidious fooled the galaxy gradually.

The Republic was reorganized into the Galactic Empire with the people's consent, Palpatine having convinced them that the Jedi were traitors. Aside from a small group of perceptive individuals (like Padme, Bail Organa, and Mon Mothma), we get the impression that during the reign of the Empire the average person (citizen or officer) might believe that the Empire was in the right.

Consider the fact that:

It seems as though the Emperor needed to keep up appearances of being good and wanted the imperials to believe that as well.

However the Empire has some really evil names like Death Star and Star Destroyer that would likely tip people off that the Empire was evil.

I realize that the construction (as well as probably the name) of the Death Star was kept secret before it's completion. Star Destroyers, however, were plentiful before that.

Did the average imperials (such as stormtroopers, officers, or admirals) know that they were the "bad guys"?

If they don't consider the Empire to be evil, then how can they justify the Empire's action to themselves?

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    Why do you say the Imperial forces are the bad guys? – Greenstone Walker Nov 30 '15 at 23:15
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    The difference between a patriot, a rebel and an insurgent is point of view. The stormtroopers were pretty sure they were fighting terrorism - the thing that made it evil was malice of forethought. – Sean Boddy Dec 1 '15 at 10:12
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    Nobody has mentioned Han Solo's background yet. From the wookipedia page: 'Solo then entered the Imperial Academy at Carida, serving with distinction. He was kicked out, however, when he stopped an Imperial officer from beating a Wookiee named Chewbacca with a neuronic whip for resisting capture.' This seems to suggest that he believed that the Empire was a positive force in the galaxy until he became aware of insider information- namely its institutional racism. – Floegipoky Dec 1 '15 at 23:43
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    Do Americans realise that they are evil? ;) – JamesRyan Dec 2 '15 at 16:29
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TL;DR:

In general, the perspective of the Imperial leadership can be broken down into a few broad categories. In order of how common each of these attitudes were, from most common to least, the categories are:

  • "We're not evil. We're committed to establishing law and order, and a more equitable social structure than the Republic ever managed to create. Even if we are forced to maintain control by using force and instilling fear, the ends justify the means."

    • The default position of almost all the highest ranking Imperials, echoed by many of their underlings.
  • "We're the good guys, even though we sometimes do bad things. We only do bad things when the bad guys (i.e., everyone who opposes us) force us to. And however bad the things we do might be, we're still better than the bad guys. And of course, if the bad guys didn't keep causing trouble, we'd never do anything remotely unpleasant."

    • Probably most common among mid-tier and rank-and-file Imperials who had been indoctrinated into the Imperial mindset and didn't question it.
  • "We're the goo... Wait, we just did WHAT? Okay, that's clearly evil, and we're obviously the bad guys, so I quit."

    • Less common than the previous categories, but more common than you'd think. This was the path adopted by former Republic loyalists who tried to maintain their allegiance after the creation of the Empire, but were intellectually honest enough to accept the growing evidence that the Empire was inherently evil.
  • "We're totally the good guys. Wait, we just lost the war? Those rebel scum. Wait, we did WHAT during the war? And the Emperor was actually a WHAT? Oh... I guess we really were the bad guys. Crap. I didn't know, I swear!"

    • For many in the Imperial rank-and-file, the conviction that the Empire was good remained intact until after the war ended and the Empire's atrocities could finally be brought to light. Many people who had formerly fit in one of the previous categories now found themselves in this one.
  • "We're evil, and that's awesome, but our ultimate goals include elements that will benefit the masses, like law and order... Still, we're also in this for ourselves."

    • Very rare indeed - I've only found one or two people who clearly belong in this bizarre category: Yupe Tashu (see below) and Darth Vader. And the former was largely a fraud, trying to be something he really wasn't. As such, it is possible that Vader alone fits this category.
  • "We're evil, and that's awesome - no qualification, no higher purpose, just evil. Screw law and order - that's just a cover story. Really, this is all about power and bending an entire galaxy to the will of one man. Nothing else matters."

    • This was the most honest appraisal of the Empire, and only one person subscribed to it: Palpatine himself. Everyone else was doing his bidding, and although no one realized it, everything they did was designed to cement his position and enable him to obtain his real goal: to become a god and enslave the galaxy.


Most Imperials didn't consider themselves to be evil:

Here's how Moff Tarkin described Imperial history in his memoir:

The factor that contributed most to the demise of the Republic was not, in fact, the war, but rampant self-interest. Endemic to the political process our ancestors engineered, the insidious pursuit of self-enrichment grew only more pervasive through the long centuries, and in the end left the body politic feckless and corrupt. Consider the self-interest of the Core Worlds, unwavering in their exploitation of the Outer Systems for resources; the Outer Systems themselves, undermined by their permissive disregard of smuggling and slavery; those ambitious members of the Senate who sought only status and opportunity.

The reason our Emperor was able to negotiate the dark waters that characterized the terminal years of the Republic and remain at the helm through a catastrophic war that spanned the galaxy is that he has never been interested in status or self-glorification. On the contrary, he has been tireless in his devotion to unify the galaxy and assure the well-being of its myriad populations. Now, with the institution of sector and oversector governance, we are in the unique position to repay our debt to the Emperor for his decades of selfless service, by lifting some of the burden of quotidian rulership from his shoulders.

By partitioning the galaxy into regions, we actually achieve a unity previously absent; where once our loyalties and allegiances were divided, they now serve one being, with one goal: a cohesive galaxy in which everyone prospers. For the first time in one thousand generations our sector governors will not be working solely to enrich Coruscant and the Core Worlds, but to advance the quality of life in the star systems that make up each sector — keeping the spaceways safe, maintaining open and accessible communications, assuring that tax revenues are properly levied and allocated to improving the infrastructure. The Senate will likewise be made up of beings devoted not to their own enrichment, but to the enrichment of the worlds they represent.

This bold vision of the future requires not only the service of those of immaculate reputation and consummate skill in the just exercise of power, but also the service of a vast military dedicated to upholding the laws necessary to ensure galactic harmony. It may appear to some that the enactment of universal laws and the widespread deployment of a heavily armed military are steps toward galactic domination, but these actions are taken merely to protect us from those who would invade, enslave, exploit, or foment political dissent, and to punish accordingly any who engage in such acts. Look on our new military not as trespassers or interlopers, but as gatekeepers, here to shore up the Emperor’s vision of a pacified and prosperous galaxy.
- Star Wars: Tarkin

Tarkin, like most Imperials, tended to overlook the excesses committed by the Empire, preferring to focus on the triumph of "law and order" over the indulgence and corruption of the Republic:

But perhaps it was enough to know that law and order had finally triumphed over corruption and indulgence, which had been the hallmarks of the Republic.
- Star Wars: Tarkin

Sometimes, they were forced to make their own excuses when confronted with Imperial brutality. In the Clone Wars, the Separatists had captured a moon called Antar IV. Republic spies were sent to the moon to foment dissent and resistance to the Separatists, and soon led thousands of pro-Republic guerrillas. When the Clone Wars ended with the defeat of the Separatists and the foundation of the Empire, Palpatine ordered the moon's inhabitants to be arrested and executed for treason. The Republic (now Imperial) spies on the moon asked for permission to extract their guerrillas, who - after all - had remained loyal, and fought the enemy at great risk to themselves, but the request was denied, and Imperial troops killed everyone on the moon, regardless of which side they had fought for. Tarkin supported and agreed with this move - which would later be known as the Antar Atrocity - but also understood, in an intellectual sense, why so many of the Imperial/Republic spies on the moon defected after the slaughter began:

The Imperial directive to make an example of the moon had made perfect sense to Tarkin at the time. He wasn’t a retributionist; it was simply that separating friend from foe would undoubtedly have allowed many Separatists to flee into hiding. Eliminating them en masse on Antar 4 was preferable to having to hunt them down later, in whatever remote regions they found shelter. His actions had conveyed a message to other former CIS worlds that defeat didn’t grant them absolution for their crimes, or assure them that the Empire was ready to welcome them back into the fold with open arms. The message had to be made clear to Raxus, Kooriva, Murkhana, and the rest: Surrender all former Separatists, or suffer the same fate as the population of the Gotal moon.

Still, Tarkin could see how a Republic officer like Teller might feel betrayed to the point where he would attempt to wage a campaign of revenge against all odds. The military was filled with those who refused to accept that collateral damage was acceptable when it served to further the Imperial cause. In the absence of order, there was only chaos. Did Teller expect an apology from the Emperor? Compensation for the families of those who had been unjustly executed? It was witless thinking. Multiply Teller by one billion or ten billion beings, however, and the Empire could face a serious problem...
- ibid

Although Tarkin once said that the Imperial approach was evil, albeit for rhetorical purposes:

"And this time you’re going to crush your opponents before they have a chance to organize.”

“That’s called pacification, Captain," said Tarkin.

"It’s rule by fear. You’re not just demanding submission, you’re generating evil.”

Then evil will have to do.

Teller stared up at him. “What transforms a man into a monster, Tarkin?”

“Monster? That’s a point of view, is it not? I will say this much, however: This place, this plateau is what made me.”
- ibid

Imperial leaders were comfortable with the idea of maintaining power by instilling terror in their subjects, because they believed it was all for the greater good:

Tarkin resumed his stance. This was how the Empire would conquer and rule, he thought: through might and fear... Tarkin was taking the massive ship right into the middle of it, placing not only himself but his own pilots and everyone else in peril.
- Star Wars: Tarkin


Some Imperials thought they were the good guys, even though they sometimes did bad things:

The old Ahia-Ko people believed the water was so pure, it could take from you your sins and leave you a better person.

If only that were true.
- Imperial Admiral Rae Sloane's thoughts while showering, Aftermath

And:

“Why be a rebel? Why join?”

“To destroy the Empire.” She shakes her head.

“No. Too easy. That’s just the paint. Scratch off the color, there’s something personal underneath it.”

He again shows her his teeth—bared in a terrible smile. “Of course there is, Admiral. The Empire hurt people close to me. Family. Friends. A girl I loved, once. And I’m not alone. All of us in the New Republic, we all have stories like that.” He coughs. His eyes water. “We’re the harvest of all the horrible seeds you planted.”

But we kept order in a lawless galaxy.”

And you did it with a closed fist instead of an open hand.”

“You have a way with words for just a pilot.”...

The woman nods, and then turns and leaves without another word.
- Imperial Admiral Rae Sloane and her captive, Wedge Antilles, Aftermath

Note that Sloane doesn't disagree with Antilles' assessment vis á vis the Empire's closed fist.


One Imperial appeared to embrace evil, but admitted that his support of Imperial brutality was partially motivated by the desire for "law and order":

Yupe Tashu, a non-Force-user, fancied himself a historian and occultist of the Sith, and served as an advisor to Palpatine. After the deaths of Vader and Palpatine, he continued to wax poetic about the virtues of the Sith, but he was essentially a fraud and a lackey.

It’s not just about law and order. It’s about total control. We will always come back for it. No matter how hard you work to beat us back, we are an infection inside the galaxy’s bones. And we will always surge forth when you least expect it.
- Yupe Tashu, advisor to Emperor Palpatine, Aftermath

He says this to Wedge Antilles, his captive; when Wedge responds by threatening to kick his teeth in, Tashu gleefully replies:

A vital spike of anger and hate. Born of the hopelessness I’ve planted in you. A terrible little seed. I can’t wait for it to grow its wretched tree and bear its ugly fruit.
- ibid

For all his efforts to convince others that he was essentially an acolyte of the Sith, he still comes across as a phony. Like almost all Imperials, he ultimately justified the Empire's brutality by appealing to the greater goal of law and order. Still, he - unlike the vast majority of his fellow Imperials - acknowledged that the Empire was also interested in power for its own sake.


Some Imperials realized that they had been the bad guys after they were defeated at Endor:

“This isn’t some kind of inspirational story. Some scrappy, ragtag underdog tale, some pugilistic match where we’re the goodhearted gladiator who brings down the oppressive regime that put him in the arena. They [the Rebel Alliance/New Republic] get to have that narrative. We are the ones who enslaved whole worlds full of alien inhabitants. We are the ones who built something called a Death Star under the leadership of a decrepit old goblin who believed in the ‘dark side’ of some ancient, insane religion.
- Imperial General Jylia Shale, Aftermath

And:

The Empire had little interest in learning the ways and tongues of other cultures. They didn’t even want their people to learn on their own time.

(Sinjir is reminded of the time he found the young officer studying Ithorese, of all things. That young, fresh-faced fellow, sitting cross-legged on his cot, a long index finger scanning lines of the alien script. Sinjir broke that finger for him. Said it was better than any administrative punishment—and faster, too.)

(Sinjir is also reminded: I am a terrible person. Guilt and shame duel in his gut like a pair of hissing Loth-cats.)
- Former Imperial Loyalty Officer Sinjir Rath Velus, ibid

But of course, others didn't, and accused their opponents of being the evil ones:

The rebels—because that’s what they are, rebels, criminals, deviants — did what they did with almost no war machine in place. Insurgents, all of them.
- Moff Pandion, ibid

And:

“Is this who we are now? Reduced to common hostage-takers? Perhaps the Galactic Empire truly is fading, like a star gone bright and then soon to dust. At least with the likes of you at the helm.”
- Moff Pandion, ibid


Sometimes, a previously loyal Imperial learned of something so horrible and wicked that they could no longer deny the evidence that the Empire was evil.

In such situations, they would often defect - sometimes en masse. An enormous increase in defections from the Empire took place shortly after work began on the first Death Star, with countless scientists and technical personnel fleeing the base where the battle station was being built:

Motivated by grievances against the Empire, many had fled and become fugitives. The count was so high, in fact, that COMPNOR had compiled a most-wanted list of missing scientists and technicians who had held high-priority security clearances. The disappearances were often offered up as an explanation for harassment attacks against Imperial bases and installations.
- Star Wars: Tarkin

This passage, which comes just after the description of the Antar Atrocity, paints a compelling picture: Erstwhile Imperial loyalists had their confidence in the regime shaken by the mass murder of friend and foe alike on Antar, and were then deployed to begin work on an unprecedented weapon that would enable the Empire to commit genocide on an even larger scale. This created a nightmarish scenario in which a regime that was clearly willing to perpetrate unthinkable atrocities would have the means to do so on a mere whim. Such a prospect was too much for many Imperial personnel to ignore, and so they abandoned their previous allegiance to the Empire and either went into hiding or became active in the movements that would later coalesce into the Rebel Alliance.

This also happens in the new Disney Canon novel Lost Stars. A highly regarded Imperial officer named Thane Kyrell despises the Rebellion until he witnesses the destruction of Alderaan firsthand; his faith in the Empire is shaken. He is then deployed to a Spice mining world called Kerev Doi, where he discovers that the Empire has enslaved the entire Bodach'i species to punish them for resisting Imperial rule. He defects that night.

When the Imperial brass realize that Kyrell has gone AWOL, the Imperial Security Bureau interrogates his friends. The ISB agent says:

“He’s not the only one who lost people,” Ronnadam snapped, but then his expression grew more thoughtful. “And he’s not the only officer we’ve seen falter. The same offenses that would have gotten a man cashiered two years ago are now handled on a case-by-case basis... for now. There will of course be a penalty to be paid, but if Lieutenant Kyrell returns to duty in short order, he can continue his career without undue difficulty.
- Star Wars: Lost Stars

Clearly, so many Imperial troops defected after the destruction of Alderaan that the Empire was forced to be lenient in its handling of defection, in the hopes of getting some of these valuable personnel back.

In short, it was possible for an Imperial to realize that the Empire was evil, but most people who had such an epiphany ceased to be Imperials shortly thereafter.


Of course, there was one Imperial who knew that the Empire was evil to the core, and rejoiced in its depravity and cruelty, without any pretenses of serving a greater good:

Emperor Palpatine.

Eventually the dark side would grant him infallible foresight, but until such time future events would remain just out of clear sight, clouded by possibilities and the unremitting swirlings of the Force. He had made himself lord of all he surveyed, but he had much to learn. Actions meant to topple him from his lofty perch wouldn’t end with the successful containment of this most recent fiasco. But he would deal with any who chose to challenge him with the same precision he had applied to exterminating the Jedi. And he would not allow himself to be sidetracked from his goal of unlocking the secrets many of the Sith Masters before him had sought: the means to harness the powers of the dark side to reshape reality itself; in effect, to fashion a universe of his own creation. Not mere immortality of the sort Plagueis had lusted after, but influence of the ultimate sort.

As his Empire swelled, bringing more and more of the outer systems into its fold, so too would his power unfurl, until every being in the galaxy was held captive in his dark embrace.
- Star Wars: Tarkin

Even Vader seems to have had nobler purposes in mind at times - order, an end to conflict, and an aversion to destruction:

With our combined strength, we can end this destructive conflict, and bring order to the galaxy!
- Darth Vader to Luke, The Empire Strikes Back

But Palpatine, and only Palpatine, knew that the goal wasn't law and order, or an equitable social structure, or peace; the goal was simply to control the galaxy and make himself a god.



Regarding the names used by the Empire for their military matériel:

The idea that the name "Destroyer" suggests willful evil just doesn't make sense. A Destroyer is a type of naval vessel in the real world, and "Star Destroyer" presumably means "Destroyer that does stuff in space instead of in the water".

In naval terminology, a destroyer is a fast maneuverable long-endurance warship intended to escort larger vessels in a fleet, convoy or battle group and defend them against smaller powerful short-range attackers. They were originally developed in the late 19th century as a defence against torpedo boats, and by the time of the Russo-Japanese War in 1904, these "torpedo boat destroyers" (TBD) were "large, swift, and powerfully armed torpedo boats designed to destroy other torpedo boats." Although the term "destroyer" had been used interchangeably with "TBD" and "torpedo boat destroyer" by navies since 1892, the term "torpedo boat destroyer" had been generally shortened to simply "destroyer" by nearly all navies by the First World War.

Before World War II, destroyers were light vessels with little endurance for unattended ocean operations; typically a number of destroyers and a single destroyer tender operated together. After the war, the advent of the guided missile allowed destroyers to take on the surface combatant roles previously filled by battleships and cruisers. This resulted in larger and more powerful guided missile destroyers more capable of independent operation.
- Wikipedia

Naval vessels are intended for use in war, and war is about destruction. It would be ridiculous to call a combat vessel a "Hugs and Kisses Ship", because it is designed to destroy other ships, not cuddle with them.

Of course "Death Star" still strikes most people as a much more frightening, vicious, and unapologetically aggressive name, and - as explained above - many formerly loyal Imperials defected when they learned of the plans to build the first Death Star. But I suspect that the Emperor's stance was, at least in part, "Once I have a Death Star, I can afford to lay my cards on the table, because... wait for it... BECAUSE I WILL HAVE A DEATH STAR. By the time people hear about it and get upset, I'll be able to blow their planets up if they complain, so who cares what people think?".


Update:

In the new canon novel Bloodline, Leia's thoughts about this subject are revealed:

“At the beginning of the war against the Empire, just as the Imperial Senate was dissolved—” She swallowed hard. “My ship was captured by the Devastator. That was Darth Vader’s flagship at the time. He personally brought me to the Death Star, where he— where he questioned me.”

Comprehension dawned in Casterfo’s eyes. “You mean…” Just say it. “I mean he tortured me, for hours. While a couple of his Imperial stormtroopers watched.” Sometimes that got to her when nothing else did. The troopers had been soldiers of the line. Some of them had honestly believed they were doing the right thing, or so she told herself.

But how could you believe that after you watched a nineteen-year-old girl writhing on the floor and screaming for mercy that never came? How could you stand there and watch that girl convulse in helpless agony without doing something, anything to help?

Apparently some people could.
- Star Wars: Bloodline, Claudia Gray


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    In the role playing game they address the "Destroyer" class in a completely different way saying that ships with that name are more like dreadnaughts and capital ships, and that the name "Star Destroyer" was taken specifically to cause fear and not a particular class... although I would like to see a "Hugs and Kisses Ship". – kleineg Dec 3 '15 at 20:41
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    @kleineg - I'm sure that real destroyers were named in part for intimidation. They started as submarine hunters, so they could be "Antisubmarine vessels". They chose "Destroyers" for a reason, probably because it sounds scary. "Dreadnought" was probably adopted for similar reasons - it literally means "fearing nothing". – Wad Cheber Dec 3 '15 at 21:01
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    @kleineg "The U.S.S. Hugs and Kisses... its five year mission... to seek and out destroy strange new worlds and civilizations..." – user11521 Dec 4 '15 at 18:18
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    The USS Hugs and Kisses (sponsored by Hershey) bringing chocolatey goodness to the farthest reaches of the Empire. – FreeMan Dec 4 '15 at 18:22
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    Wall of Text rolls a natural +20 against your eyes. You die horribly. – Omegacron Feb 11 '17 at 3:29
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Some viewed the Republic as a corrupt bureaucratic nightmare where nothing could be accomplished. The Galactic Empire was a chance to make a government that worked.

But perhaps it was enough to know that law and order had finally triumphed over corruption and indulgence, which had been the hallmarks of the Republic. - Tarkin: Star Wars, ch. 6

Did they think it was evil? Apparently not.

Most of the former Republic accepted the Empire without complaint, but there were many bands of resistence fighters and Separatist remnants lurking around the galaxy. Lords of the Sith: Star Wars, ch. 2

In Palpatine's speech at end of Revenge of the Sith

By bringing the entire galaxy under one law, one language, and the enlightened guidance of one individual, the corruption that plagued the Republic in its later years will never take root. Regional governors will eliminate the bureaucracy that allowed the Separatist movement to grow unchecked. A strong and growing military will ensure the rule of law.

Palpatine did see the Republic as antiquated and corrupt. Their differences in language and species caused nothing to happen. The Senate couldn't even decide to stop a blockade around Naboo or help the crisis on Geonosis. Palpatine demonstrated that the Republic was flawed, and he offered an alternative that appealed to many.

Sidebar

Everyone is the hero of their own story.

A hero says “I have a good side and a bad side. I have to suppress my bad side and choose my good side.”
A villain says “I only have a good side.” - Salt Lake Comic Con FanX 2015 – Heroes, Villains, and Anti-Heroes in Harry Potter: Who’s Who? Panel

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    Nngh. Why do people keep forgetting that Palpatine and his Master before him were the ones who'd been encouraging the senate's 'uselessness' in the first place? You don't get to call out the flaws in a system when you've been deliberately instrumental in causing them. – Shadur Dec 1 '15 at 15:59
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    You do if you're an evil mastermind who manipulates the public to achieve his own ends. – Simpson17866 Dec 1 '15 at 16:10
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    Or if you genuinely believe they are flaws that need addressing, but need something to prove the point. It's unethical, but it may not be strictly incorrect. – Sobrique Dec 1 '15 at 16:28
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    And it's not like we don't see anything like this in modern governments. – Zibbobz Dec 1 '15 at 17:40
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    @Tony: Joss Whedon has said that interesting bad guys don't see themselves as evil. Their actions make sense to them, as a means to accomplish goals they feel are worth-while. I'm not sure that's the case with George Lucas's bad guys and the Dark Side. Besides having their own twisted logic and goals, Sith sometimes take evil actions just for the sake of being evil. I think they know it. Run of the mill Imperial officers, OTOH, are probably mostly duped into being evil, because they don't realize that many things the Empire is built on are lies / deceptions. – Peter Cordes Dec 2 '15 at 5:26
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This is going to start sounding like a lecture, but bear with me:

First of all, we're approaching this subject with an (understandably) preconceived notion that the Empire is evil. Throughout Episode IV, V and VI, we view the Rebel Alliance as a force for good, the little guys fighting the super bad Imperial baddies. Every story has to have a protagonist and an antagonist, and the Imperials clearly fill their roles as the antagonist with their faceless stormtroopers, death-y death-stars and scary star-destroyers. They sure aren't the happy, cheery good guys.

But. BUT. Lets take a look at a similar situation. Lets look at the United States. Let's take a look at the military; the tanks, the guns, the soldiers. Military more often than not is meant to invoke fear, to invoke respect. You sure don't want to dress your army in clown costumes. You want your enemys to fear you, not laugh at you. Now, imagine for a moment that all you ever saw or knew of the US was its military. The guns, the airplanes, the soldiers with their sunglasses and kevlar. It would seem pretty terrifying. That's all you would ever picture when you heard the name "United States". Pure destruction, and terror, and military. You would have no idea that these soldiers are probably regular people like you and me. That singular, narrow view of the US would probably make the US seem a bit evil.

But as a citizen of the US, I can certainly tell you that we're not. Most people don't want to invade other countries. Most people don't even keep up to date with what the government or military does outside of the borders. Most people care what's on TV tonight, or getting home before dark, or eating dinner with friends. And you have to realize, the military can be referred to as one single entity, but it's made up of people like you or me. People who probably don't think of themselves as evil, but as people doing a job for the country they call home.

So, going right on back to the Empire, does the "Imperial" see itself as evil? Well, what is the Empire? If I'm up to date on current lore, the Empire phased out the clone program and started recruiting from the multitudes of planets that are part of the Empire. So, the "Imperial military", while headed by the insidious Darth Siduous, is, mostly, your average Imperial citizens. Each of those nameless, aim-less Stormtroopers cut down by Luke probably has a family, or a brother or sister (or some sort of alien-relation). And each of them probably had no idea that Darth Sidous was a Sith. Even if they had, would it have mattered to them personally? Their families probably had food on the table every meal, had a house to sleep in, had an Imperial check arrive every month to put in the Imperial Bank. They didn't go to bed every night worrying that their supreme leader was a wrinkled Sith. In fact, the idea of Sith and Jedi had become pure legend and witchcraftery, if look at the Vader's first scene on the Death Star. Sure, the average Imperial Citizen might hear news flashes every now and then about "Rebel Attacks on our Empire's Fleet" or "Terrorist Bombing of Imperial Star Station", but as long as they're not affected, they probably didn't care. What would you do if today you learned that your country had been headed by a Sith for the past 20 years?

So, did the Imperial's know they were evil? Did any army in history ever think they were evil? Did anyone being attacked by an army not think they were evil?

Here's my opinion:

The Rebels were fighting for their cause, because they KNEW the Empire was evil.

And the Imperials were fighting for their cause because they KNEW the Rebel Alliance was evil.

The victors always write the history books.

Here's a kinda related video that always makes me laugh

Are we the baddies...

  • So, you personally aren't and maybe most people in the US personally aren't, but the US is - in somewhat similar sense to the Galactic Empire in Star Wars. Which sort of answers the question - they didn't know because they weren't, personally. – einpoklum Dec 22 '17 at 16:13
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Did the average imperials know that they were the "bad guys"?

Generally no. They probably don't even think that they're the "bad guys". In fact, most of them probably don't think about the matter much at all and are probably more interested in just getting on with their lives regardless of who's technically in charge.

There's also evidence (prevalance of smugglers, Hutts who maintain privately-operated fortresses where they play by their own rules, bounty-hunters who the Empire pays rather than commands, well-armed and generally lawless populations that tend to significantly outnumber Imperial forces) that many people living within the Empire, and particularly on worlds along its fringes, see it as more of a nuisance to be avoided than something that they actively support, participate in, or oppose.

Outside of its struggle against the Rebels, there's fairly little evidence to suggest that Imperial rule was overtly oppressive to anyone who didn't actively fight back (you can have your blaster, get drunk in the local bar, hassle the newcomers for no good reason, and get your arm sliced off and no one will bat an eye, let alone bring Imperial forces in to help or hinder your activities). And not much stated about how much news about the Empire's military atrocities actually filtered back to the general population. Also bear in mind that a good proportion of the Imperials who are actually participating on the front lines are clones conditioned for obedience.

So the average sentient being living on an Imperial world and not participating in its military would probably not think they're on the "bad" team. They'd probably buy Palpatine's narrative about an ongoing war that started out with Trade Federation separatists, progressed to a near-successful assassination attempt by members of the Jedi Council (who most average beings probably cannot tell apart from the Sith that he's had publicly fronting the separatist army; given that both are deadly warriors with mystic powers and lightsabers from a layman's perspective) that left him horribly disfigured, and is simply still ongoing.

I imagine his propaganda would play well with anyone who doesn't have detailed insider knowledge about what was actually going on. Doubly so since for all their wisdom it doesn't seem like the Jedi ever mounted anything resembling a coordinated counter-information campaign of their own. Triply so since most would probably not really care that much as long as the conflict is not affecting them personally.

If they don't consider the Empire to be evil, then how can they justify the Empire's action to themselves?

How much do they know about the Empire's actions? You never see any journalists embedded with storm-trooper deployments.

But in any case, I imagine they'd justify it in roughly the same way we Westerners justify the number of innocent men, women, and children that our activities in the Middle East have killed. Collectively, as "collateral damage" in a time of war, and as something that most people decry, accept, and then forget about almost simultaneously.

Of course, you'd think the destruction of an entire planet is something that people will find out about, and a large enough atrocity that it can't simply be dismissed as "people die in war". Which does seem to be the case:

Once word of the world's fate got out, thousands of Alderanians who had been off-planet joined the Rebel Alliance. Alderaan's survivors became among the most dedicated soldiers of the Alliance, vowing never again to let the Empire destroy another world. Most Imperial military members from Alderaan immediately defected to the Rebellion.

...but also:

A few of the Alderanian survivors became supporters of the Empire, blaming the inept and traitorous first chairman Prince Bail Organa and the rebellion for opposing the Emperor and thereby destroying everything they had, even their loved ones.

So it seems the threshold for justification is when the Empire's evil becomes personally relevant. Which, from the standpoint of human history, is unfortunately accurate. Most people have shown themselves willing to shrug off any perceived or real evils that their nominal nation-state might inflict, so long as those evils are being inflicted upon someone else.

It's only the exemplars and the people with insider knowledge (like Padme, Bail Organa, and Mon Mothma) who will both recognize and take a stand against evil even when they don't personally have any skin in the game yet.

I think this is a case of art imitating life.

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    "Destruction of an entire planet" must be taken in context. The Empire spans millions of worlds, the biggest worlds have over a hundred billion people. We can assume that Alderaan was one of the bigger, and that, say, only a million of the worlds has a population over ten billion - so the total loss of life can be guestimated at around 1/100000th of the total population. In comparison, the civilian casulties of the 2003 war in Iraq were about 1/200th. So yes, it was a massive, brutal act of violence, all happening in an instant... but it's peanuts to most wars and insurrections on Earth. – Luaan Dec 1 '15 at 10:06
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    In the end, I'd expect most people would be more shocked by the target itself (a peaceful, safe planet), rather than the death toll - kind of like people were absolutely outraged by the terrorist attack on Paris recently, even though this kind of thing happens all the time elsewhere in the world. Sad, but probably true. – Luaan Dec 1 '15 at 10:07
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    "Kill one person, and it is a tragedy. Kill one million people, and it is a statistic" – Sobrique Dec 1 '15 at 16:26
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    It's not shown in the movies, but doesn't the EU (now Legends non-canon) claim the Empire was overtly oppressive? Of non-humans, for example? Also, reckless gun waving and arm-slicing action happened in the fringes of the Empire. I doubt you could show up at a bar in Coruscant and start shooting up the place with no consequences :) – Andres F. Dec 1 '15 at 21:02
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    @AndresF. Yes, but that's not inherently evil. Don't forget that our racial tolerance roots dwell in a big way on the genetic fact that we are more the same than different (that is, variations within a race are bigger than between races). The same need not apply with SW species - and we see specism all the time in the EU, even before the Empire (for example, the Mon Calamari). And again, look at the real world examples - people tend to care a lot more when they are oppressed, most don't care much about others being oppressed. – Luaan Dec 4 '15 at 8:49
10

In recent canon from Star Wars Rebels, there are specific passages that reflect the view from inside the Empire.

The Siege of Lothal, Minister Maketh Tua was aghast at the fact that Darth Vader is there.

I am sorry, my lord. I am merely a public official. I have no experience with such brutal tactics.

After this, Minister Tua tries to defect.

I've discovered the true reason the Empire came to Lothal.
...
There is another reason known only to a few and ordered by the Emperor himself.

The political class of the Empire may know of isolated incidences of their enforcers using brutal tactics to impose and maintain order, but those are rebel insurgents that are causing those problems.

However, at some level there are people who are sadistic and enjoy enforcing that order.

Minister Tau was a good person - though she came to realize that something stinks in the Empire. ... And a fish rots from the head. However, this was not an immediately obvious thing for a political - it was something that she came to terms with over time.

Now, about that order I mentioned above...

Admiral: I had your number scanned 7567, Captain Rex.
You were a hero once.
You and your kind brought peace to the galaxy. Why wold you lower yourself to fight with traitors. Where is your loyalty?

Rex: My loyalty was to the Republic, not your Empire.

Admiral: I serve the order you put into place, Captain.

(From Stealth Strike, Season 2 Episode 7 of Star Wars Rebels)

Yes, there are certainly bad apples in there. But from the perspective of many of the political class and even the officers in the navy - this is maintaining a hard fought order in an unruly galaxy. That there are still separatists or insurgents or rebels or whatever fighting the troops that are there to maintain the order - and escalating the violence. No, the Empire isn't evil from that perspective - its just trying to hold together the galaxy after the chaos of the clone wars, and preventing it from descending further into chaos by providing a much needed order.

  • Good answer. Maybe add spoiler tags on certain parts of it though. – RedCaio Dec 2 '15 at 4:16
  • What's so strange about a bureaucrat not having experience in torture for the purpose of extracting information? It's only to be expected in a bureaucracy that's not evil (and to a degree in an evil one as well). – jwenting Dec 2 '15 at 13:38
  • @jwenting the textual representation doesn't get the spoken tones, and the context around it is a bit more. There is a longer passage earlier about how she expects to deal with the rebels - she doubled the guards and increased patrols - what more do her superiors expect? To which it was replied that it is expected to punish the entire planet Lothal - a thought that never crossed her mind. – user12183 Dec 2 '15 at 14:05
8

In Legends continuity, Grand Moff Bertroff Hissa not only believed that the Empire was evil, but relished in it (with all the ham of a mustache-twirling villain):

To my fellow grand moffs, and to the grand admirals, other officers, stormtroopers, bounty hunters, slavelords, and slaves, I bid you all Dark Greetings!

The Glove of Darth Vader (emphasis mine)

Said officers, stormtroopers, bounty hunters, and others seem to take his comments right in stride rather than being shocked by his blatant display of evilness. So yes, it does appear that the Imperials know they are evil.

In fairness, Hissa only appeared in the Jedi Prince young reader books, aimed at readers 7-11 or so, making it unsurprising that the bad guys are more obviously evil. This isn't representative of all officers, as there are many more cases of officers in Legends continuity who genuinely believe that they are doing good work with the Empire (e.g. Pellaeon, Thrawn, Baron Soontir Fel). Still, this book is officially part of the Legends continuity, goofy though it was.

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    Have you ever had a friend or worked with someone with idiosyncrasies? Honestly, as long as he did his job well and wasn't obviously DOING villainous things, I'd prefer working with a guy like that quote over some of the (real-life) goths I've dealt with. A 'character' who gets results can have a lot of leeway for their personal habits, such as pretending they work for an evil organization or ending all sentences with "In accordance with the prophecy" – Jeff Dec 2 '15 at 22:04
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    A whole bunch of comments were recently deleted because they were off topic, and I think a lot of people are taking this quote too seriously. This is the way the character was portrayed in the book, and it's just one of those goofy yet technically canon things in Legends continuity (and should probably be taken as seriously as other technically canon things like the anti-Force). – Thunderforge Dec 3 '15 at 4:10
  • If you're looking at Legends Material, though, you have to look at Baron Soontir Fel, who clearly felt he was doing GOOD WORK through the galaxy by helping to maintain order and equality. – Mark Dec 3 '15 at 19:54
  • @Mark Added him to the list of better examples – Thunderforge Dec 3 '15 at 19:56
3

"Good" and "evil" depend on the values of the speaker. Someone behaving in accordance with the speaker's values is good (according to that speaker). A better question might be "what were the typical values of an Imperial citizen?"

2

We can only really speculate as to what the ordinary citizens thought about the empire. However, I think there is plenty of evidence from the films that the Empire had a deliberate strategy of ruling through fear and enforcing order through brutal repression.

For instance, after 3CP0 and R2D2 crash landed on Tatooine, the Empire were not simply content to interview the Jawas or the Lars family - they killed everyone who came in contact with the droids. Granted, they tried to make it look like the sand people did it, but it does hint at the fact that the empire does not trust ordinary people to co-operate with them.

Then Alderaan was destroyed for no apparent reason. You can't censor something like that, and the Empire is the only organization in the galaxy which would conceivably have the technological capacity to destroy a planet. The Death Star probably wasn't intended as a weapon for use against the rebels, but rather an instrument of fear - a threat to any would-be insurgents that dissidence is not tolerated, and that the Empire will go to any lengths to enforce its rule.

The citizens of the Empire almost certainly knew that they had a brutal and repressive government, that they had no real political representation at the highest levels of government, and that the Empire was prepared to kill innocent civilians to enforce its rule. They probably didn't go so far as to call them "evil".

But, as in the real world, knowing that you have a terrible government doesn't automatically mean that you will rise up against them. There would certainly have been some social class which was favoured by the Empire. They would have benefited from well-paid jobs within the elite tiers of the bureaucracy or business world, and would have stood to lose a lot from the collapse of the Empire. And then there would always be some members of the public who are incapable of thinking that their own government could do wrong so live instead in denial.

The out-of-universe answer is that George Lucas wasn't really thinking about these sorts of things when making the films, so the Galactic Civil War is really a very black and white story of good vs evil.

0

I don't think they believed themselves evil. They clearly believed in transparent order over mystery and chaos (which the Emperor orchestrated against the Jedi's way of things).

Evil implies they are aware that what they do is purely selfish. As part of the empire, they could perceive their actions as altruistic and for the "greater good."

As far as considering Death Star and Star Destroyers, if we are considering the EU - There is the consideration that the second Death Star was already in construct, not JUST to keep the empire in line, as the council hints in A New Hope. There is the consideration that the Death Star and Star Destroyers were created to destroy the invading army of force immunes. It is conjectured that the Emperor foresaw their coming and ordered the imperial engineers to develop the battle stations, as we saw them.

The imperial troops can easily see themselves as good guys in this light. Even if they were evil, no-shot, no-account, lazy, good-for-nothin's.

  • Star Destroyers were just a revision of the capital ship used in the clone wars. There is nothing ominous of their name any more than other ship class names. – user12183 Dec 4 '15 at 17:09

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