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Visions of Vader: The Dark Lord in Popular Memory

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                “Here,” Thalsan Antex says, motioning me over excitedly. It’s daybreak on the one of the moons of Kallamos, and the bright red sun just peers over the horizon, painting the cliff faces with bloody light. There’s little vegetation here, only a few scrubby trees that barely reach my knees and a few patches of dry, stubborn grass. There’s no animal life to speak of. We’re far from the planet’s only spaceport—far from any habitation.  I pause to survey the landscape, stark but somehow beautiful. We may be the only sentient beings for hundreds of miles in either direction. Out here, it’s just the two of us—and all the ghosts. 

                I met Thalsan while I was researching my last book: Cogs of the Imperial Machine: Oral Histories of the Stormtrooper Corps.  There are very few self-admitted Stormtroopers these days, though at the fall of the Empire the corps numbered in the hundred millions. Some are in jail for war crimes. Some have died, either fighting on any of the sides in the great Galactic Schism or from old age. Most have taken their amnesty and quietly exited the limelight, back to their home planets to lay low and avoid memories—or their victims.

                Thalsan—not his real name—has found it impossible to forget his eight years in the Stormtrooper Corps. He runs a small support group for other former stormtroopers, where they meet once a month to talk about life in the New Republic and dealing with the memories of their time serving the Empire. He’s brought me out here, though, to tell me something else—or rather about someone else.

                He kneels down next to a shallow indent in the rock, about a foot in diameter. “If you look right here,” he said, “you can see where he landed.” He’s right— you can vaguely distinguish the shape of bootprints, as if someone landed from a far enough height to stamp them into the rock.

                “That’s exactly what he did,” Thalsan assured me. “Vader saw the nationalist leaders were getting away by speeder—he ordered us to stay up there while he took care of the matter personally”. He points to the edges of the cliffs—a towering 300 feet above us. “They fired at him, but he had his lightsaber—“ here, he indicates a preternaturally smooth gash in a nearby boulder, “and just flicked ‘em away—threw them right back at the shooters.”

                Next to Palpatine himself, Darth Vader is the most enigmatic man in Galactic history. Most of the records relating to his past as Anakin Skywalker were destroyed during the fall of the Galactic Republic, and most people who knew him prior to his turn were killed during the Empire’s reign (largely at his own hand). There are precious few physical relics of Vader—he owned no land nor buildings, no home of his own. According to his officers he had no possessions other than the armor on his back and his lightsaber—both lost in the destruction of the Death Star II. Presumably, Vader had quarters in the Imperial Palace, but the palace was so utterly destroyed during the effort to retake Coruscant that it is impossible to tell where they might have been. As the Galaxy rebuilds following years of agonizing civil war, Vader’s marks on the Galaxy—the destruction he left behind—are slowly being erased.

                Here, on Kallamos’ many moons, one small trace survives. Thalsan has asked me to take no holos here, nor print the exact location of the site, though he knows it is likely it will be discovered soon anyways. Even he can’t really say why he still comes out here, years after the battle (and the war) had ended. “To center myself,” he says, finally. “I’d hate it if this place became some kind of tourist trap, or if it got nuked from space to make sure it didn’t become a pilgrimage site for the neo-Imperials.”

 I sent all my interview subjects a copy of the final draft of my book before it went to print. We’d discussed the campaign on the Kallamos moons—among many others—in our long interview session, but this particular story didn’t make the final cut. Thalsan didn’t mind, but he did offer a rather stunning critique of my book. “You know,” he’d written to me, “there’s really not any anything about Vader in here.”

“It’s not really a book about Vader,” I explained. “It’s a history about the people who made up the lowest rungs of the Empire—the rank and file.”

“But you don’t really understand the Empire if you don’t understand how we felt about Vader,” he replied, insistently. “Especially not the corps. I mean—in a weird way, he was one of us.”

That got my attention. The idea seemed totally absurd to me—Darth Vader had a number of ceremonial titles, though he was usually addressed simply as ‘Lord’ or ‘Darth’ (an ancient Sith honorific that had more religious significance than military). In the waning years of the Empire he was understood as the Supreme Commander of the Imperial Navy, though he seemed to serve more a rogue agent, demanding men and ships wherever he found them necessary. Capricious and cruel to both his enemies and his allies, intractable, inhuman, seemingly invincible, Vader in my mind was a class unto himself. What on earth would members of the Stormtrooper corps, the most disposable of all Imperial units, see themselves having in common with the feared Dark Lord?

The purpose of this article is not to write another history of the decline of the Old Republic and the rise of the Empire—there are plenty of those. It is not another biography of Anakin Skywalker or Darth Vader. Rather, this article is a study of the image of Vader—how he served as a symbol of Imperial might during the two decades he served Palpatine, and how that image still persists today among the people who lived through the Galactic Civil War.

Back on the Kallamos moon, we settle on a large flat rock. Thalsan rolls himself one of the sweet-smelling cigarillos they smoke on the world below, lights it, and take a deep drag.

“I don’t know where to start,” he said, finally. “We—we knew what was going on, you know? You didn’t sign up to be a Stormtrooper because you thought you’d be a Moff one day. Some days I didn’t think I’d ever actually see that pension I was paying into—and you’d get officers who acted that way too, treat you a walking blast dampener or rebel target practice or whatever. You’ll probably never even see the guy who’s sending you off to die on some lonely nowhere. And then…” he takes another deep drag, thinking hard.

“Then you hear Lord Vader is coming aboard to oversee this campaign personally. Your captain looks like he’s going to cry, or pass out, or shit his pants, or all three. He sweeps into the hangar like—like a nightmare. Vader was huge. I never got close enough to really tell, but I don’t think I even came to his shoulder. He just—he just looked mean, with his mask, and the breathing—any time he was near it got all quiet, and it sounded…like a countdown.”

“To what?” I asked. He shrugged.

“Calamity, maybe. Vader—it wasn’t like getting some hardass officer transferred to your unit. It was like a force of nature—like an ion storm had just come on board. Some people thought he was a droid, and I can see why. But that’s not—he was supernatural, you know? Godlike.”

“Did you…prefer him, to other higher ranking Imperials?” I asked, cautiously. Thalsan hesitates, rolling another cigarette.

                “It wasn’t—quite like that. Vader would kill troopers, just like he’d kill officers he thought they weren’t—loyal, or competent, whatever it was that would set him off. We were scared of him. But—the thing is, no matter how much he scared us, he scared the rebels even more. And man,” he sits back, taking a deep drag. “What a trip that was. It was like—like if a thunderstorm threw lightning down when you needed it. When Vader was fighting with you—and he would, he’d come right out to the front lines, sometimes he’d charge ahead of his—and any doubt you maybe had about the job, or the Empire was gone. Like that.”

                Thalsan’s attitude was not an uncommon one. Even before he enlisted in 12 BBY, the Imperial machine had taken notice of Vader’s inexplicable appeal. Before Wilhuff Tarkin’s ascendance to Grand Moff and the galaxy-wide adoption of the Tarkin Doctrine, the Imperial Security Bureau had a small but reasonably funded propaganda wing to sell the new order to skeptical former Republic citizens. It’s not a surprise that Vader featured prominently in many of their designs—at over two meters, he cut an imposing figure in real life, and the armor he wore at all times carried that same sense of awe into two-dimensional likenesses. The armor, especially his iconic mask, also lent itself to propaganda efforts—other leaders of the Empire rose and fell in the Emperor’s esteem, they grew old and aged—but not Vader. For all intents and purposes he was immortal, unable to be killed, unable to be stopped even by the ravages of time, if they affected him at all. He served as a visual metaphor for Palpatine’s enduring reign.

                Most of the posters meant to go up quickly in well-trafficked areas (or over anti-Imperial graffiti) were fairly predictable: SECURITY, declares one poster, featuring Vader with his fist clenched, mask angled upwards towards a light source—presumably a brighter future for the Galaxy. HE’S WATCHING OUT FOR ALL OF US reads another, featuring Vader in an unusual pose: back turned, arms clasped behind him the small of his back, feet shoulder width apart, staring out of a starry viewport. This image is an intriguing one—the artist must have had some personal experience with Vader, as this pose is described in many accounts by officers and bridge personal who had the (dis)pleasure of hosting the Sith onboard their ship. In a sea of dynamic poses—Vader leading troops to battle, Vader crushing a rebel caricature beneath his boot, Vader strangling a traitorous Imperial—this one seems almost tranquil, though the power inherent in Vader’s stance cannot be mistaken.

                Even as the Empire slowly faded out their overt propaganda (some have cynically attributed the decline in positive messaging to Palpatine no longer feeling the need to pretend to be anything other than a despot) Vader’s image remained a popular staple on posters recruiting for the Imperial Navy. “I WANT YOU!” Vader declares, holding out a black-gloved finger accusingly at the viewer. “Give him the weapons he needs!” exhorts another, this one chillingly aimed at children in their early teens. For someone as famously impersonal as Vader, the posters play on something very intimate in the viewer—urging one to become a weapon in his hands, wielded by some kind of vengeful guardian. Despite Vader’s famed tendency to perform the same summary executions on his own troops as often as he did Alliance soldiers, these posters embrace images of trust—that submission to Vader (and perhaps, the Empire in general) is worth the risks for the protection it brings.

                The most famous (or perhaps most widespread and parodied) enlistment poster may be the most accurate, according to Thalsan. Vader charges forward to an audience composed of rank and file members of the navy, under the banner HE CAN’T DO IT ALONE! His lightsaber ignited, drawn back and ready to swing, Vader hurls himself towards and unseen foe while his men look on as silent spectators.

                “Sometimes,” Thalsan remarks, looking at the image displayed on a datapad, “you got the idea that Vader could. I mean, that the only reason there was a Stormtrooper corps—and an Imperial Navy—is that Vader couldn’t be everywhere at once.”

                This does not seem to be from lack of trying. In his book Palpatine’s Paladin: Darth Vader and the Imperial War Machine,  Othor N’galla calculates that Vader only spent 478 standard days on Coruscant from the fall of the Republic to his death on the second Death Star—leaving a staggering seventeen and a half years spent in the field. How much of that time on Coruscant was leisure, and how often he was actually actively fighting while off-planet is impossible to say for certain, but the numbers are unsettling.

                Much has been made of Vader’s zealotry, his seemingly limitless capacity for atrocities in the service of the Empire and his unwavering loyalty to the man ultimately responsible for all of them. It’s what gives an eerie ring of truth to the posters that bear his likeness—they exhort citizens to become automatons, to throw down their lives in the service of the machine, but they demand no less that what Vader himself actually gave. I asked Thalsan about the statistic, and whether or not it changed how he thought of Vader.

                “Well--,” he started, then stopped.  His mouth twisted. “I want to say no—that’s my first instinct. You know, “that sounds right”. The way Vader—I mean, he was a lot of things, but not a hypocrite. He walked the walk. The Empire was his life—until the end, I guess.”

                “And what do you think about the accusations that Vader killed the Emperor?” I asked.

                Thalsan was quiet for a very long time. “I didn’t believe it at first,” he said, finally. “I mean—you’re the one with the numbers. Vader was the Empire. Yeah, the Emperor was the ruler, and Vader answered to him, but…” he shook his head. “I just can’t imagine what was going through his head. What would make him snap like that. I mean—his son, sure. But how does a Vader have a son? How does he have twins? He’s not…” he trailed off here, looking thoughtful. “I mean, I guess I never thought of him that way. Personally, you know.”

                Indeed, it seems as though no one who encountered Lord Vader wasted any time wondering about who he was outside of his role as Supreme Commander and the Emperor’s enforcer. Palpatine, though his writings stretch from subjects such as philosophy, government, and his dark Sith ideology, left no records on what his apprentice was like in private. Outside of Palpatine, Vader had no one who he might have taken into his confidence. Vader’s impersonal exterior is what made him such an effective and enduring symbol—either of order and stability, as the Imperial propogandists would suggest, or of the terror and brutality that linger in the memories of his victims. If it occurred to anyone that Vader might have had desires or ambitions outside of the Imperial Navy, he proved so imposing a figure that no one dared pursue those questions. 

                “Would you have thought of Vader differently, if you knew he had a life outside the Empire?” I asked.

                “I mean, did Vader know he had a life outside the Empire?” Thalsan challenged me. “I sure would wonder about the kind of person who abandons their kids for their work—or their politics, whatever. But I mean—“ he shrugged again, uncomfortable. “Yeah, I guess now it makes sense to wonder why someone would give themselves all the way for a lifetime of fighting.”

                “Did anyone ever wonder?”

                Thalsan threw up his hands. “Do you ever wonder about—I don’t know, a collapsing star?” he countered.  “Or a wild reek? I mean, you don’t have time to wonder—you need to get out of the way. All that’s for scientists—or professors, in your case. I don’t know.”

There is only one person still living who could claim a ‘personal’ relationship with Vader—and perhaps answer some of these questions. Luke Skywalker is notorious for declining to speak about his father, after an ill-fated campaign to rehabilitate his image in the early years of the New Republic inspired yet another wave of the anti-Vader sentiment he was hoping to alleviate. Nevertheless, in the interest of scholarship I made an effort to reach out to him for comment-- or at least, to give him fair warning about my article's publication. He was gracious but firm in his rejection, speaking with an eloquence that stresses just how far from Tatooine the former farmboy has come.

He seemed surprised when I asked if I could quote his exact reasons for refusing me. Despite our difference in opinions, I believe Mr. Skywalker's words highlight an uncomfortable truth about the work of studying the Empire:

"For his entire life, even before he became Darth Vader, people made my father into a symbol. To the Jedi he was the Chosen One, and then to the Galaxy he was the Hero With No Fear-- which may sound like just words to you, but to him they were heavy things to carry. My father was more than the suit he wore or the crimes he committed for the Empire. There was a real person behind that mask, and I am grateful I had a chance to know him, however briefly. I wish people would remember that."