What's your favorite star war? True to its name, each era of Star Wars — from the original trilogy to the sequels — is defined by a specific galaxy-spanning war. But the Clone Wars occupy a staggering amount of material within Star Wars canon.
The Clone Wars as depicted in the prequels and The Clone Wars cartoon lasted only three years, and yet, even before the launch of The Clone Wars Season 7, we have a staggering 121 episodes (60 hours) devoted to this period of time in Star Wars, unequaled throughout the saga.
But what were the Clone Wars actually fought over? The answer reveals why this war is so important, and why, despite being (mostly) a cartoon, it's the most realistic depiction of war in the entire saga.
In the opening crawl for Revenge of the Sith, we learn "there are heroes on both sides" of the Clone Wars. If your first response to this is to incredulously say "really?!" you're not out of line.
In Revenge of the Sith, it feels like not only are there no heroes on the Separatist side of the war, but perhaps none in the Republic either. Whereas the Rebels versus the Empire or the Resistance versus the First Order is fairly clear-cut, figuring out who the good guys are in the Clone Wars is actually pretty hard. It may have been more accurate to say: "There are no heroes. Evil is everywhere."
The leader of both sides of the Clone Wars was the same person
So what started the Clone Wars? Put simply, the Clone Wars was a war waged by the Galatic Republic to prevent various star systems from seceding from a larger galaxy-wide union. The Senate of the Republic didn't want to enter the war at first, and had their hand forced for two reasons. First, the Separatists had an army of battle droids that was too big to ignore. Second, an army of clones was mysteriously created to aid the Republic without their knowledge, and came in very handy when they needed it.
But what makes the Clone Wars so weird is that the entire thing was basically a fake war orchestrated by one political mastermind. Who's at the very top of the Separatists? Darth Sidious. And who's in charge of the Republic? Chancellor Palpatine (aka, Darth Sidious). It's kind of like if we found out in The Rise of Skywalker that General Leia Organa had been controlling Snoke the whole time, or worse, was Snoke.
When you boil it down to that Palpatine planned thw entire thing, the Clone Wars is not only totally ridiculous but also creatively brilliant and sort of peerless when it comes to other big science fiction and fantasy epics. Babylon 5 comes close with its "Shadow War," but that's kind of an outlier. Most big fictional space wars have clear good guys and bad guys.
Weirdly, the Clone Wars is also a civil war like the one central to the original trilogy. But, in the OG films, the "good guys" are the Rebels, and the bad guys, the establishment, are the "Empire." If you leave out the fact that the same person was technically in charge of both armies, the Clone Wars is a flip of the civil war in the classic trilogy because the "good guys" are the clones and the Jedi fighting for the establishment, which ends up working — just not the way they thought.
Who are we supposed to root for in the Clone Wars?
What makes the Clone Wars weird is that seen from the inside, it appears to have distinct heroes and villains. For a villainous example, you've got Wat Tambor of the Techno Union Army, a green-headed steampunk bastard who makes super-battle droids at the behest of black-cape wearing Count Dooku. These droids, along with the "roger roger" Battle Droids from The Phantom Menace, make up the majority of the Separatist armies.
On the Republic side, you've got "loyal" Clone Troopers and heroic Jedi generals. You know these guys are good because, well... mostly because you're told they are, even though the audience knows for a fact that Clone Trooper armor looks suspiciously like Stormtrooper armor. (The only people who were surprised the clones turned evil are the same ones who were shocked to learn that Palpatine was a secret Sith.)
Even though we're supposed to hate them, the Separatists come pretty close to winning the war, but it's kind of a joke because every single Clone Trooper in the Republic army is embedded with a secret order (66) to kill their generals. The Separatists don't have an equivalent of this, but their de facto leader — Darth Sidious — does eventually send Darth Vader to murder all their leaders after sending them to Mustafar for their own protection. To put it another way, both sides are actually doomed to have their leaders murdered once the war reaches a certain point: the moment when the Empire can be created.
Despite all this, when you watch The Clone Wars — including the upcoming Season 7 — you're still encouraged to root for the clones. This is weird because most of these characters will end up becoming Order 66 murder-machines by the end of Revenge of the Sith. The "good guys" of The Clone Wars are actually all walking time-bombs, re-programmed to kill the only actual good guys in this whole mess: the Jedi.
Then again, are the Jedi really off-the-hook just because they didn't know about Darth Sidious?
Space taxes and the Jedi role in The Clone Wars getting out of hand
Presumably, the only reason Sidious/Palps was able to manipulate the Separatists into, well, separating was that the Republic had some issues with wealth distribution. The Phantom Menace makes it clear that the seeds of the Clone Wars are sown with taxation issues on planets far away from the core of the Republic's influence. So at least a few of the planets who joined the cause of the Separatist had legit beef with the way they were paying taxes to the Republic.
In Attack of the Clones, former Jedi Count Dooku is called a "political idealist," implying that even the Jedi admit things within the Republic are not ideal. So, right there, on some level, the Jedi of the prequel era have been kind of bought-off by the Republic, even if they pretend like they haven't been.
Sure, the Jedi begrudgingly become generals of the Clone Armies, but they don't half-ass it once the battle begins. They're in it to win it, even though they're fighting for a government they already kind of know is corrupt. Could the Jedi have formed their own Rebel alliance against Palpatine and stopped the war way earlier? Probably.
The Clone Wars prove war is the only source of wealth in Star Wars
This is the most crucial and hilariously tragic thing about the Clone Wars: It's a giant conflict designed to justify the existence of both sides. This theme is more blatant in The Last Jedi, but in the Clone Wars, it's the main fact that pervades the entire war. Literally the whole set-up is designed to create infrastructures and industries that benefit Palpatine and his plan for the Empire.
And yet, even though he's the mastermind, some of the unwitting players in the Clone Wars benefit as well. Palpatine obviously profits both literally and figuratively from the military-industrial complex he manufactures, but the Jedi also gain.
Basically, they finally have a justification for their basic job description. The Jedi are supposed to be protectors of the Republic, but prior to the Clone Wars, they pretty much sit around on their asses telling Qui-Gon Jinn to chill out. Once there's a secret Sith Lord and a bunch of Separatists planets to deal with, the Jedi are a little more invested in the affairs of the galaxy. So, even though the can't admit it, the military-industrial complex preserves their way of life, at least until it ends all of their lives.
On some level, Palps knew all of this. In The Last Jedi, Luke accused the Jedi of "vanity," and you could argue that the only reason they were hoodwinked into fighting the Clone Wars at all, was because they were vain enough to believe that the war needed them to fight it.
The Clone Wars, were, in essence, started because Palpatine needed an elaborate conflict that would get the galaxy screwed-up so profoundly the only solution would be to create the Empire and kill all the Jedi. He's the only person who wins when the Clone Wars end, even though nobody fighting on either side is remotely aware they're all being manipulated. Basically, Palpatine is like a guy who wants to sit in a karaoke club by himself, so his plan is to organize an unfair karaoke competition and invite everyone to perform. (Wait! Stay with me! I'm going somewhere with this ridiculous metaphor.)
The trick is, he's also the guy running the karaoke machine, and even if you were to select one song — say, "Islands in the Stream" — Palps is just going to press a button and make "Total Eclipse of the Heart" play instead. By the end of it, everyone ends up looking like a bad singer, and he brings down the house with "Love is a Battlefield," which sounds great, because he rigged the microphones to make him sound amazing, too.
So unlike the other two wars in each of the respective Star Wars trilogies, the Clone Wars was the only major conflict that was entirely rigged from the beginning. Its beginning, middle, and end were all plotted out by Palpatine to create a context for him to build the Empire and assume absolute power. And, unlike the other two wars which Palpatine was a major player in Star Wars — the Rebellion against the Empire, and the Resistance against the First Order — this was the only war Palpatine's side actually won.
The Clone Wars are the only Star Wars conflict that actually resembles real life. In our own world, war is rarely a question of good vs. evil. More often than not, it's about a small group of people leveraging countless lives for the sake of accruing power and wealth. In that sense, the Clone Wars are the realest star war in all of Star Wars because the entire thing was just a front for one man's shadowy rise to power.
THE CLONE WARS WILL DEBUT NEW EPISODES ON DISNEY+ STARTING ON FEBRUARY 21