Recently, I came across an article from Mike Ryan at Uproxx asking the question of whether Han Solo was actually a “captain” in the Rebellion in The Empire Strikes Back or whether he was simply referred to “captain” because he was captain of the Millennium Falcon.
I want to be clear here that Ryan acknowledges that there’s a canon answer to this question, but his intent is to focus on what the intent of the filmmakers was at the time of ESB. So I’m not at all being critical of Ryan or his article, which is a fun and thought-provoking read about whether Han was actually intended to be an official part of the Rebellion in ESB or not. He’s speculating from a filmmaking side of things, and all I’m doing here is not debating his conclusions but answering the question from the canon side of things.
Yes, Han Solo was a part of the Rebellion by the events of The Empire Strikes Back. But it’s a little complicated.
We technically don’t know when Han became an official member of the Rebellion or not, but there’s enough there to make it clear that he was regarded as such by others, even if he didn’t think so himself. A major event in this happened at the Mako-Ta Space Docks, the site of a massive battle between the Empire and the Rebellion in-between the Battle of Yavin and the Battle of Hoth. At Mako-Ta, the Empire ambushed the gathered Alliance forces, and the Rebellion barely escaped – with heavy losses. Several Rebellion leaders, including General Draven and General Dodonna, gave their lives to help the others escape. The Rebellion was scattered and lacking in leadership, which resulted in Mon Mothma issuing promotions for Leia Organa, Han Solo, and Luke Skywalker. Mothma promoted Leia to General, Luke to Commander, and Han to Colonel. Han makes it clear, however, that he doesn’t want to be a leader in the Rebellion, responding, “Hey, Mothy, I’m not going to be a colonel in any organization.” But Mothma recognizes that leadership isn’t just about titles, telling Solo, “I understand… but it doesn’t matter if you take the position, Solo. You are a leader, rank or not.”
So due to the fact that the Rebellion needed leaders, Mon Mothma simply made official what was already obvious: that Leia, Han, and Luke were leaders in the Rebellion. And technically (though ranks in Star Wars have always been a bit confusing), colonel is just one step below General, so it’s not at all surprising or out of nowhere for Solo to become a General in Return of the Jedi; regardless of whether Solo ever ‘officially’ accepted his promotion, it’s likely that he was regarded as a colonel-level leader anyway and thus his promotion to General makes perfect sense. In Star Wars (just like in our world), leadership is about far more than a title. Leadership is about the authority one has, the influence that he or she possesses, and what he or she does with it. So yes, Han Solo is unquestionably a leader in the Rebellion. He’s the one who came back at the Battle of Yavin, the one who put his name out there in front of the Empire as a part of the Rebellion, the one who fought for the cause and his friends, and the one who aided the Rebellion at Mako-Ta by dogfighting Darth Vader in the Falcon and then taking to an X-Wing to re-join the fight. Han Solo is a leader in the Rebellion.
But he doesn’t see himself that way, which is why it’s a bit more complicated than just a straightforward “yes” answer. He clearly isn’t comfortable with the promotion Mothma gives him and he rejects it, and that’s probably why he spends much of ESB planning to leave the Rebellion to pay off his debts. Han doesn’t view himself as a leader and doesn’t view himself as a part of the cause, even though others view him as both. All of that makes his promotion to General in Return of the Jedi, along with his leading the mission on the forest moon of Endor, all the more meaningful. He has finally committed. That’s important to the story being told by the films, and we mustn’t overlook that while discussing this topic.
So, I guess, the answer is this: Han Solo is a part of the Rebellion and is viewed as such by pretty much everyone but himself. He doesn’t want to commit, doesn’t want to get sucked in to this cause, and doesn’t want a promotion. But leadership is about far more than a tile, and Solo is one of the most important leaders the Rebellion has.