If the Death Star was the size of a small moon, I think it's safe to assume there were hundreds of thousands- if not millions of individuals stationed inside. Does this make Luke a war criminal, considering a large amount of those on board were probably not enlisted in the ranks of the Imperial Army and were instead contractors, bounty hunters, those imprisoned, etc?

I've read a handful of novels but don't recall specific troop estimations ever being stated. Of course there is moral justifications in the Death Stars' destruction. I suppose if the U.S doesn't face charges for dropping two atomic bombs, then why should the Rebels have to answer for their actions?

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    This question has been asked by Jay and Silent Bob before, to no conclusion of course.
    – Ghanima
    Mar 3, 2015 at 0:36
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    "History is written by the winners." So no, I feel there is not the slightest chance of the winners deciding that Luke is a war criminal for destroying the device that could take out a planet. Mar 3, 2015 at 0:43
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    This very question was discussed in Kevin Smith's movie Clerks. Randal posed to to Dante, and a customer overheard and joined the discussion. youtube.com/watch?v=iQdDRrcAOjA
    – steveha
    Mar 3, 2015 at 2:59
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    It should be noted that (in the here and now) the popular conception of what constitutes a war crime is very inaccurate. Mar 3, 2015 at 3:00
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    I like this question from the standpoint of questioning violence and not blindly worshiping heroes. +1 Mar 3, 2015 at 4:04

4 Answers 4


War crimes are generally defined as actions taken during war time that violate agreements regarding what is and is not acceptable in war. Therefore, it's impossible to say how Luke's actions would be viewed without knowing what conventions of warfare (if any) are agreed upon in the Star Wars universe. However it seems highly unlikely that Luke's actions were far enough out of the ordinary to be considered a war crime.

Grand Moff Tarkin and the Emperor himself both referred to the Death Star as a "Battle Station," and considering its massive armament it is obvious that it was a military installation. Destroying it was therefore an ordinary event in the course of a war: the destruction of enemy military hardware. Just because there may have been civilians/non-military personnel on board doesn't make it any less of a valid target. The army doesn't take a look at the crew roster before sinking a ship: if it's a threat, it can be taken out.

Also, whatever the population of the Death Star, the population of Alderaan was far, far greater, and the Death Star's potential future victims could easily number in the trillions. It is explicitly stated that Alderaan was peaceful and was not a military threat to the Empire. Therefore, if anything, the destruction of Alderaan was a war crime.

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    I agree. Relevant from an Earth point of view: making the civilian population or individual civilians, not taking a direct part in hostilities, the object of attack; - probably valid to say that any civilians on the death star are "taking a direct part in hostilities, as support personnel for a military installation"
    – The Fallen
    Mar 3, 2015 at 1:03
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    Well... The army doesn't really sink ships, now do they? That's what we have a Navy for. Mar 3, 2015 at 7:01
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    "Also whatever the population of the Death Star, the population of Alderaan was far, far greater..." - I'd grant that this is probably true based on the numbers given by Lucas but is it necessarily so? On Alderaan the population is spread across the surface of a larger sphere while on the Death Star they are spread across the internal volume of a smaller sphere.
    – chucksmash
    Mar 3, 2015 at 14:26
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    Trying to answer my own comment question above. My Alderaan stand-in, Earth, has a radius of 6371km and a surface area of ~510 million square kilometers. Meanwhile, the Death Star has a radius of 150km. If one assumes there is one floor every 10 meters within the Death Star than that would come to more than 1.4 trillion square kilometers. That's nearly three times the surface area of the Earth and nearly nine times the land area of Earth. So geometrically at least the Death Star could have been more populous.
    – chucksmash
    Mar 3, 2015 at 15:07
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    @haneefmubarak Artillery and mobile missile defenses would disagree.
    – Zibbobz
    Mar 3, 2015 at 15:58

The key concept that you are missing is proportionality. To quote Luis Moreno-Ocampo, Chief Prosecutor of the ICC, in 2006:

Under international humanitarian law and the Rome Statute, the death of civilians during an armed conflict, no matter how grave and regrettable, does not in itself constitute a war crime. International humanitarian law and the Rome Statute permit belligerents to carry out proportionate attacks against military objectives, even when it is known that some civilian deaths or injuries will occur. A crime occurs if there is an intentional attack directed against civilians (principle of distinction) (Article 8(2)(b)(i)) or an attack is launched on a military objective in the knowledge that the incidental civilian injuries would be clearly excessive in relation to the anticipated military advantage (principle of proportionality) (Article 8(2)(b)(iv)).

Article 8(2)(b)(iv) criminalizes:

Intentionally launching an attack in the knowledge that such attack will cause incidental loss of life or injury to civilians or damage to civilian objects or widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment which would be clearly excessive in relation to the concrete and direct overall military advantage anticipated; Article 8(2)(b)(iv) draws on the principles in Article 51(5)(b) of the 1977 Additional Protocol I to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, but restricts the criminal prohibition to cases that are "clearly" excessive. The application of Article 8(2)(b)(iv) requires, inter alia, an assessment of:

(a) the anticipated civilian damage or injury;

(b) the anticipated military advantage;

(c) and whether (a) was "clearly excessive" in relation to (b)

In this respect, it is not the number of civilians you are likely to kill that matters. What matters more is the number of civilians you are likely to kill relative to the military advantage. In this case, destroying the Death Star would have been a decisive victory and was unavoidable in achieving that victory.

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    Good answer +1. But it should be noted that the Star Wars universe does not necessarily follow the Geneva Convention.
    – Null
    Mar 3, 2015 at 3:37
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    @Null: True, but we have to have our definition of a war criminal in order to ask if he was one. It is something of a moral consensus.. To quote the asker: I get that he wouldn't be prosecuted or anything to that nature. This question is more of a morality standpoint, using our laws and society as a parallel Mar 3, 2015 at 4:05
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    @Null: not least because the Empire came into existence a long time prior to the creation of the Geneva Conventions. And was far, far away. Mar 3, 2015 at 14:15

The Death Star was a flagged warship of one belligerent, the attackers were using clearly identifiable warships of their own. Therefore blowing it up is fair game, especially as it was currently attempting to destroy the attacker's planet.

The above applies the Geneva Convention to the situation. As other galaxies may not be signatories of that treaty ( or may have crumbled to dust several stellar lifetimes before the convention was written) we can also apply the concept of the victor generally decides what was a war crime, and what was not. From our own history, Hiroshima and Dresden were considered legitimate targets as the attacking side won. That same side also decided that Operation Reinhard etc. was rather bad form and had the organizers hanged for their (completely legal at the time and place) efforts.

If we rewrite history just a little bit, and have the Nazis not try to attack both the UK and Stalin at the same time, it's likely they would have ended WWII somewhere around 1943 with the Reich occupying most of Europe. Everyone on the war crimes list would have received medals instead.

So, by simple extrapolation we can conclude that Skywalker's actions would not be a war crime on account of his side won. If his side had lost he would not have lived long enough to be tried for his actions - his ship would have been blown up with him in it.

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    It's not clear that the holocaust was comparable to the bombings of Hiroshima and Dresden. I quite agree that Nuremburg was victor's justice, but it wasn't as simple as "anything any loser did was a crime and anything any winner did wasn't". Was anyone prosecuted for the bombing of Coventry or Pearl Harbor? Of course the loss of life in both cases was rather less than your examples, so even if nobody was prosecuted it doesn't mean nobody "should" have been for Dresden, but my general point is that the prosecutions weren't just, "you're German, you killed someone, we'll hang you". Mar 3, 2015 at 10:29
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    Didn't say that. I said that the organizers of Operation Reinhard received a noose for their efforts only because their side lost. The USA has never been all that sore about Pearl Harbor - it was a very legitimate target and they got caught napping. For another example, Rommel was well respected by Churchill and Patton. Had he been captured or outlived the war there is no chance he would have been on trial for anything.
    – paul
    Mar 3, 2015 at 15:17
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    For the record, "Operation Reinhard" = the holocaust in Poland. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Reinhard It is not true that rounding up millions of civilians and then murdering them in cold blood was "completely legal at the time and place".
    – dmm
    Mar 3, 2015 at 22:20
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    It had a name, approval of the government, a large budget, scheduled rail service, substantial personnel including top-rank officials .... Under the legal system in place in occupied Poland (basically whatever Adolph said) deporting a particular ethnic group to the camps was legal. No one was prosecuted for their actions until after the war.
    – paul
    Mar 3, 2015 at 23:43
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    @paul: I'm no expert in international law, but Germany was a signatory to the Hague convention of 1907, in which Article 46 concerns occupied territory: "Family honour and rights, the lives of persons, and private property, as well as religious convictions and practice, must be respected. Private property cannot be confiscated". But then you just hit the issue of whether international law has any legitimacy at all, or if Hitler as dictator had the sovereign right to ignore it. The Nuremburg courts explicitly said that he did not, ofc they were somewhat biassed. Mar 4, 2015 at 11:00

Yes, Skywalker would be treated as a potential war criminal, subject to trial by military tribunal.

The best way to see how someone like Luke Skywalker would be treated under U.S. law (buttressed by whatever international treaties the U.S. has signed) is to look at what happened to unaligned individuals who conducted similar attacks on large military installations and vessels. Unfortunately for this discussion, such attackers usually end up dead, either dying in a suicide attack or being killed by local police/military to end the attack.

Looking further up the hierarchy of the terrorist organizations behind such attacks, terrorist leaders are typically treated as unlawful enemy combatants. As an example, al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for the 2000 bombing attack of USS Cole. Under U.S. law, in particular the Military Commissions Act of 2006, members of al-Qaeda are classed as unlawful enemy combatants and are subject to trial under the military tribunal system that the MCA sets up. And so Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, the alleged mastermind of the Cole bombing is being tried under that system today.

So Luke Skywalker, an unaligned and therefore unlawful enemy combatant, would likely be subject to trial under military tribunal if apprehended. He would also very likely be subject extra-judicial killing thanks to the AUMF which is how U.S. force is currently authorized to assassinate terrorist leaders.

Some good news for Skywalker: waterboarding and other previously authorized methods of "aggressive interrogation" were prohibited early in the Obama presidency. I note with satisfaction that in this at least the U.S. once again treats prisoners better than Emperor Palpatine.

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    Not literally being as bad as the dark lord of the sith is a pretty low bar to be proud of.
    – Racheet
    Mar 3, 2015 at 10:06
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    Those examples do not really work - I mean, noone is discussing the fact that the Empire would treat him as a criminal. It's about the view an outside observer of the war should take.
    – Deltharis
    Mar 3, 2015 at 13:27
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    @Deltharis is right. Of course the Empire would regard Skywalker as a criminal. But consider that the "unlawful enemy combatant" classification and (closed) trial by military tribunal have both been criticized, even within the US.
    – KSmarts
    Mar 3, 2015 at 16:45
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    True, plus the fact that Luke in fact IS aligned, they are dubbed "The Rebels" by the government, but the "Alliance to Restore the Republic" has a proper name (which even has the fact that it is aligned in it), an elected Head of State at the top of a formal (civilian) government and a military branch, making it effectively able to be formally at war with the Empire. So the comparison doesn't really fit: The Allliance soldiers wear uniforms and have warships/vessels with their insignia. I'm no lawyer, but AFAIK that fact alone would make it hard to classify them as "unlawful enemy combatants".
    – BMWurm
    Mar 3, 2015 at 17:29
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    Terrorist leaders aren't "unlawful combatants" because they aren't aligned with a particular state. They're unlawful because they disguise themselves as civilians. Members of a militia not part who have insignia visible at a distance, bear arms openly, have a commander responsible for his subordinates, and obey the laws of war are lawful combatants. So are members of regular armed forces of a government or authority not recognized by the people who have captured them. The laws of war recognize both sides in a civil war as lawful combatants, as long as both sides act like it.
    – cpast
    Mar 3, 2015 at 17:43

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