When I was young I loved World War II. I read everything I could get my hands on about WWII, from military histories, to biographies to The Execution of Private Slovik , a non-fiction narrative of private Eddie Slovik, the only American soldier to be executed for desertion.
When I became older I read Theodor Plievier‘s Stalingrad and realized two things:
- War is horrible.
- World War II is the perfect setting.
Why else do you think it’s used in Star Wars, Star Trek and The Terminator?
Whoa, I can see the outrage. Star Wars is in a Galaxy Far, Far Away, dude, you’ve got to roll with the times. Well, it might be a galaxy Far, Far Away, but it’s still WWII. But let me describe the setting a bit before I prove my point.
During World War II is the start of true mechanical power. There were powerful guns, both in general use and humongous weapons like the Schwerer Gustav. But everything, absolutely everything, was controlled by humans.
No robots. No targeting computers. Fighters going head to head at ranges measured in yards. Streams of aircraft, each piloted by humans, each carrying enough death and destruction to kill thousands but each vulnerable to fellow humans.
No killer droids, no beyond horizon, fire-and-forget missiles. All of this adds up to the illusion that what humans did mattered. That it was some sort of “me against you” battle, not a great, big, chaotic melee where you could just as randomly get killed by your friends as by your foes. And the media was tightly controlled. Fighting, yes. Death, ok. Blood, pain and suffering? Bad for the home front.
And there was a clear good/evil dichotomy, something not seen in later wars, and not quite as felt in earlier ones, at least not for us (quick: who were the good guys in the American Civil War? The Boer War? The 12 Minute War?).
Put together, World War II is the perfect intersection of power and control. On one had you’ve got powerful guns, powerful abilities to destroy others. On the other you’ve got zero mechanized control – it’s all humans, humans, humans. You’ve also got classes of people who were superior to others: Pilots – the Knights of the Sky. Tankers – our Iron Fist. Submariners, the Wolves of the Sea.
And the war was slow. You knew that you were going to die before you dies. You could thrash around, trying to get out of your airplane, your burning tank, shove your intestines back into your gut and stagger back to a friend. And there were plenty of opportunities for friend-saves-friend scenarios: dragging your comrades to the foxhole/hospital/safe house.
So, what’s this got do do with Star Wars? Well, in Star Wars you’ve got spaceships, but they fly like airplanes, controlled by a person. In fact the pivotal moment is when Luke (human) disengages his targeting computer (machine) and takes control for the destroying shot. Even the scale is WWII: a few fighter/bombers against a spaceship the size of a fucking moon. Did anyone think about how many fighters a military installation of that size should be able to field? But no, we’re at the scale of a minor Carrier battle: a couple of wings at most (less than 100 airplanes).
And that’s all right, because we get to see Red 3, standing by. Red 3 is a person. If Red 3 buys the Tatooine desert farm it matters because there aren’t that many Reds to begin with.
Imagine it being Red 2 846 591. Ops, one of a million strong continent dies. Boo-hoo, who cares?
That’s why the big space battle in Return of the Jedi is seen as far off, with focus being on Luke (human, psychological and hand to hand battle) and Lando Calrissian flying the Falcon into the Death Star. The rest of the battle is just fireworks.
Same with Star Trek. It’s a WWII (one could say WWI) battleship fight. “Me engin’s can’t take any more, captn’!”. A couple of ships, controlled by human(oids) standing fast and slugging it out while human rescue parties run around putting out fires and fixing the damage.
Even today, a modern naval fight is a whole bunch of missiles hitting a ship and it goes boom, without much chance of fixing anything. That’s not very fun to watch.