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Star Wars: The Force Awakens — what’s up with the Republic and the Resistance?

Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

After I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I did what I'm sure all of you did — I talked to my friends about it. In these conversations, there was one thing almost everyone was confused about: what the hell was going on with the war part of Star Wars. The dialogue repeatedly references "the Resistance" and "the Republic" as if they're separate things, but it seems like they're allies in a war against the First Order — and the First Order seems an awful lot like the old Empire from the previous movies.

The movie doesn't do a great job explaining what's going on, but the answer is that it's a lot like a proxy war situation we've seen in real life: A foreign country (the Republic) is supporting an insurgency (the Resistance) against a nearby country (the First Order) that it doesn't like. Once you understand this, the plot of the movie makes a lot more sense — and the stakes for the next movie get even bigger.

What's happening in Star Wars is a lot like what's happening in Syria today



Here's the situation: After the events of Return of the Jedi, the decapitated Empire collapses into a fragmented series of successor regimes lead by various Moffs. The Alliance to Restore the Republic announces the formation of a New Republic, absorbs a number of star systems, and signs a peace treaty delineating borders with remaining Imperial leftovers.

Over time, at least some part of the former Empire becomes the First Order, which the Republic decides it wants to topple. Republic stateswoman Leia Organa establishes the Resistance inside First Order borders, which operates as a nominally independent insurgent group rather than an official branch of the Republic military. The Republic is supporting the insurgency — specifically, General Hux suggests in the film, with money and weapons. However, there's no in-text evidence that uniformed Republic military forces are directly engaging the First Order.

This is all spelled out in tie-in books and video games (both io9 and BirthMoviesDeath have helpful summaries) rather than stated explicitly in The Force Awakens, which makes the movie's action hard to follow.

That leaves us with a situation that's quite familiar from the real world: An insurgency, supported by a neighboring power, is waging a guerrilla campaign against a local regime. Consider a few famous parallels in the real world (these aren't moral equivalents, merely strategically similar):

  • Syrian rebels, supported with money and weapons from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, fight to topple Bashar al-Assad's regime based in Damascus.
  • The Viet Cong, backed by the North Vietnamese government, fight a guerrilla war to topple South Vietnam's government.
  • Shia militia organizations in Iraq, given money and IEDs by Iran, battle against the American-led occupation regime after the 2003 invasion.

This is probably why the First Order sees both the Republic and the Resistance as threats so dangerous that it's worth developing a superweapon to exterminate them. A 2009 paper by Yale University's Jason Lyall and West Point Col. Isaiah Wilson III found that governments are 87 percent more likely to lose when fighting insurgents backed by foreign powers than they are when facing insurgents without a foreign patron.

Though Lyall and Wilson's sample comes entirely from our galaxy, the logic behind it applies directly to one far, far away. External support gives the Resistance a base; if they're being pursued by First Order starships, they could flee to Republic space and the protection of the New Republic fleet. Moreover, the Republic has a huge tax base it can use to fund the Resistance, which means the Resistance can purchase a hell of a lot more X-Wings from Incom that it would be able to otherwise.

So from Supreme Leader Snoke's point of view, the distinction between the Resistance and the Republic is basically meaningless: They're both working to topple him.

What this means for Episode VIII (here be spoilers)



In galactic terms, by far the most important event of The Force Awakens is the Pearl Harbor–style attack on the Republic by the First Order. Starkiller Base (the Death Star-y thing) obliterates what looked like six or seven Republic planets, which likely killed billions of people and destroyed an unknown quantity of Republic military assets. This is very bad, to say the least, for the Resistance.

It's possible the Republic military survived the attack. The Star Wars universe is mind-blowingly huge; Yavin 4, Tatooine, Dantooine, Hoth, Dagobah, Endor, Bespin, Coruscant, and (ugh) Naboo weren't in The Force Awakens, and those planets are all pretty far apart. Presumably, the planets General Hux destroyed weren't the entirety of the Republic's holdings. That means part of the Republic's military could still be intact — and now it would be at open war with the First Order.

However, we do know the blow was at least very painful. Before the attack on Starkiller Base, one of the Resistance generals says they "can't count on" support from the Republic fleet, indicating that the fleet is either busy somewhere else or was crippled by the First Order's attack. Moreover, the Resistance lost a huge number of ships attempting to destroy Starkiller Base — one of the generals says they had lost "half of our fleet" partway through the assault, and more X-Wings were destroyed onscreen afterward.

This means the Resistance could be a hell of a lot weaker now than it was before. If the Republic is consumed by dealing with the fallout of the destruction of several systems, it may not have the money or military resources to help out the resistance anymore. If that's true, the Resistance would be much, much more vulnerable than it was before, making it unlikely that it could topple the First Order on its own. It seems like Rey's mission to bring Luke back and restore the Jedi Order is our only hope.

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