Obi-Wan leaving Anakin to burn on Mustafar was one of his more unmerciful moments in the Star Wars saga.
Obi-Wan Kenobi has a reputation for being a gentle and morally upright Jedi in the Star Wars films. And yet, there was at least one ethically-murky situation wherein Obi-Wan made a questionable choice. After defeating Anakin on Mustafar at the end of Revenge of the Sith, Obi-Wan left him to die a slow and painful death, instead of putting his “brother” out of his misery.
Dealing a devastating blow from the high ground, Obi-Wan watched as Anakin’s dismembered body was engulfed in flames from the lava below. The humane act would have been to mercifully kill Anakin instead of leaving him in agony like Obi-Wan chose to do. Obi-Wan also knew the threat Anakin posed to the galaxy, as evidenced by his “bring balance to the Force” speech. What could have been going through Obi-Wan’s mind to leave his friend and student to suffer such a cruel fate — both in his horrible burning and in his survival, allowing him to become the galaxy’s most reprehensible villain?
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The most obvious answer is that Obi-Wan simply couldn’t bring himself to kill Anakin thanks to the bond they shared, but this seems flimsy when you remember he had no issue with literally disarming (and dislegging) Anakin moments earlier. This battle was obviously an emotionally-devastating event for Obi-Wan, but the hard part, dismembering Anakin, was already done. Killing him would have been the least Obi-Wan could do for a man who was like family to him.
Even if Obi-Wan thought that certain death was minutes away for the burning mass of flesh that was once Anakin, the kind thing to do would have been to not let him suffer a second more. Obi-Wan couldn’t even bear to watch Anakin burn and struggle to climb back up the hill. His decision to walk away comes off as cold and callous, which is uncharacteristic of Obi-Wan. Then again, the noble image people have of Obi-Wan is too unrealistic. He is only a man, after all, and can make mistakes, though a mistake of this magnitude is one that should have haunted him for the rest of his life.
There is one in-canon justification for his heartless decision that aligns with some previous motifs in Revenge of the Sith. According to the canon novelization of the same name by Matthew Stover, Obi-Wan was not concerned with mercy when leaving Anakin. He knew that he could not break the Jedi Code and murder an innocent man. The heinous idea of killing an opponent after they had already been disarmed in combat appears two other times in the film. First, when Anakin decapitates Count Dooku at Palpatine’s behest, and the second when Mace Windu wants to kill Palpatine after he finds out he is a Sith Lord. Anakin fails the first time when he kills Dooku, but stops Mace Windu from breaking the Jedi Code the second time.
As cold as the Jedi Code can be, Obi-Wan was making the right choice in his mind not to kill Anakin after the battle had already been won. However, there is a difference between killing a defenseless opponent out of bloodlust and sparing a friend from unavoidable physical and emotional agony. It may have been a morally-grey situation, but the ever-strict-structuralist Jedi chose to live in a world of black and white. The novel also states that Obi-Wan chose to leave Anakin’s fate up to the Force, which is a lazy excuse to remove blame from himself. Obi-Wan’s actions, cleaving up Anakin’s body, sealed his fate and he knew it.
Obi-Wan’s choice to leave Anakin was just the last way that Obi-Wan failed him as a Jedi Master. Obi-Wan even says himself while they fight that he failed him, which is demonstrative of the fact he had already given up on Anakin returning to the light side. It was still a heart-wrenching moment, but Obi-Wan ultimately made a repugnant choice in the name of being nominally righteous. This understated moment paints Obi-Wan in a brutal light in the Star Wars movies, one which may be closer to his true nature than what’s on the surface.
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