This essay will contain spoilers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Star Wars: Before the Awakening, Star Wars: The Lost Stars, and the Star Wars: Visual Dictionary.
Before I get to the actual essay, the answer to the titular question is obviously no. The First Order is a group which uses Nazi iconography, speeches, and visual cues. They massacre a village of peaceful religious dissidents. They blow up the planet housing the capital of the New Republic. They slaughter a bar full of aliens just enjoying some drinks. Then there's the fact they commit the gravest offense of all by being involved in the death of the galaxy's greatest smuggler. They're the bad guys.
But are they that bad?
|Our fighting men and women hard at work.|
First of all, who are the First Order? We don't have much information to go on and the New Expanded Universe will undoubtedly fill in every bit of minutia from the organization's founding to its end but we have as much information as the viewers of A New Hope did about the Galactic Empire.
The First Order is the successor state to the Galactic Empire. At some point following the Battle of Endor, the organization founded by Emperor Palpatine dissolved and was reformed in a territory compromising both Outer Rim planets as well as the Unknown Regions. This successor state is led by Supreme Leader Snoke, has no Emperor, and employs Stormtroopers raised from birth rather than clones.
|Promotion opportunities abound for young go-getters.|
The exact details of this treaty are left vague but we know the First Order doesn't think much of them. They constructed new star destroyers in the Unknown Regions, trained stormtroopers on starships rather than on planets, and otherwise rebuilt their military strength in secret. Perhaps the most egregious of their violations of this accord is the creation of Starkiller Base, a planet-based hyperspace weapon which can and does inflict several times more devastation than the Death Star.
The Dark Side is in the details, though, and there's some surprising differences between the First Order and the Galactic Empire. Likewise, the political situation in the new trilogy is a far more complex one than in the original trilogy (albeit not as convoluted as the Prequels). These differences make, for me, the First Order a far lighter shade of black than the original Galactic Empire as well as the conflict a bit more gray.
First of all, the First Order and New Republic maintain peace for thirty years. The First Order may not have arisen immediately after the Galactic Concordance but assuming a continuity of government between the Galactic Empire and First Order, even if its reformed, is not an extreme leap of logic. Even so, it is not the Empire.
|Join the First Order Navy and see the galaxy!|
Note: A hereditary claim as well as Sith-based "keep what you kill" could be forwarded by Luke Skywalker given the possibility the midiclorians were manipulated by Emperor Palpatine or his master Darth Plaguis to create Anakin Skywalker (making Luke Palpatine's grandson as well as oldest surviving heir) but there is no indication Master Skywalker desires this post. His sister is likewise ill-disposed and guilty of multiple acts of treason against the Empire as well as terrorism against the First Order. Ironically, this would mean that Kylo Ren a.k.a. Ben Solo is the best candidate for Emperor of a revived Galactic Empire.
Whatever the case, an official peace treaty exists between the First Order and the New Republic. This is a treaty which, sadly, doesn't spell the beginnings of a lasting peace between the treacherous New Republic and the noble First Order. The Battle of Jakku spelled the end of the Imperial ability to continue fighting against the New Republic two years after the Battle of Endor but it did not in any shape or form convince its leadership of the latter's legitimacy.
Lost Stars has Commander Windrider speak of the Empire's coming revenge as well as plans in place to retake the galaxy. Before the Awakening also makes it clear the First Order is making incursions into Republic as well as neutral space. But it is the Republic who escalates things. Indeed, to use a colloquialism of fandom, Han shot first, or, more precisely, Princess Leia did.
"So afraid," he murmured. "Yet I should be the one who is scared. You shot first. You speak of the Order as if it were barbaric. And yet, it was I who was forced to defend himself against you."
-Kylo Ren, speaking to Rey, Star Wars: The Force Awakens novelization.
|The Captain of the Stormtrooper Corps is a mother to her men.|
It performs vigilante missions against First Order-friendly New Republic officials, works to formulate unrest (like it did in Before the Awakening), and is implied to perform actual military strikes against the First Order.
Certainly, the First Order recognizes Poe Dameron enough to identify him as the Resistance's best pilot. In short, the Resistance acts exactly like the Rebel Alliance did in the Original Trilogy. In the novelization, it's clear that Supreme Leader Snoke is less concerned with a full-out assault on the New Republic than he is in dealing with the Resistance and its continued activities. Destroying the New Republic is a bonus to eliminating the constant thorn in their side that is Princess Leia (as well as potentially heading off Luke Skywalker from joining her organization).
Proxy wars are nothing new but they're a surprising element to find in a galaxy as clear-cut as the Star Wars universe. It means the New Republic is engaged in covert operations which are very much an act of war. The fact not all members of the New Republic Senate support their activities doesn't make its culpability any less true. There is also the matter of Princess Leia attempting to involve Jedi Master Luke Skywalker in the war, an escalation which has the potential to change the balance of power for the resistance tremendously. The former Rebel Alliance commander has already demonstrated the ability to affect galactic affairs wholesale. He is, in short, a Person of Mass Destruction and a superweapon in the Resistance's hands.
No wonder the First Order had to react.
|Good speech. Needed a little less spittle, though.|
-General Hux speaks of the reprisal on the New Republic for their history of financing terrorism and insurgency.
Indeed, much of the First Order's so-called atrocities throughout The Force Awakens can be justified as attempting to prevent the return of such a dangerous radical. The village on Jakku was actively aiding the Resistance and shot at Imperial troops, the bar was a known den of piracy, and Hosnian Prime was a decapitation strike meant to hit a much-much harder foe. Hosnian Prime, after all, is the galactic capital and the location for the New Republic. As Grand Moff Tarkin, Force rest his soul, said, "You would prefer another target? A military target? Then name the system." Rather than blow up a planet with no weapons, they go against the only target which has the potential of actually crippling the superior-sized New Republic and allowing them to win the war.
Indeed, the superior size of the New Republic is something which helps justify the existence of Starkiller Base. While illegal according to the Galactic Concordance, superweapons are something which have a military application needed for smaller and less powerful states like the First Order. When faced with the cripplingly overpowered New Republic and its dramatically superior economy as well as war material, it falls upon the First Order's engineers to come up with devices to deter them from military action or defend their society against overwhelming force. With the Resistance able to fight off the First Order as badly as it did, clearly they needed such a device if they had a hope of defeating the New Republic.
|Clearly, the tragic loss of a friend and his first taste of battle drove FN-2187 to his killing spree.|
Unlike the Empire of old, which was composed of sleazy power-brokers and ambition-minded career men, the First Order is composed of individuals who genuinely believe in the Imperial system. The sheer outrage and personal betrayal individual troopers display at Finn's betrayal as well as their defensiveness at one of their people being accused speaks volumes of its different attitude toward troops.
Ironically, while Darth Vader never bothered to learn the number (or names) for any of his Stormtroopers, the First Order's leadership know Finn's number as well as react to it as if it were a name. Subjects are sent for re-conditioning versus execution. Before his treason, the Imperial leadership even have defenses for Finn from both Captain Phasma as well as Hux. This is a far closer empire than the Empire of the Original Trilogy, one might even say a family. A creepy, dysfunctional, family of Space Nazi wannabes and cosplayers but a family nonetheless.
|They should have named Starkiller Base the Peace Moon.|
So, General Hux, can I have my fifty credits for writing this tripe?