10 July 2011

Insurgency USA

At a time when the United States is maintaining two objectionable occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, American TV viewers are watching shows that place Americans in situations not unlike those of occupied Iraqis and Afghans.

The US is occupying two countries with a combined population of 60 million people and battling multiple resistance movements in each. Additionally, no less than six different countries (Libya, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan) are being sprinkled, or showered, with US bombs and cruise missiles.

Despite that, there are not many works of cinema or television being made that would have Americans or American-like people invade and occupy places, terrorize them from the air or burst into homes at night to drag away fathers and sons. Presumably proof enough that Americans would not find shows like that enjoyable.

The kind of shows American TV viewing public does like have Americans or American-like people standing up against outside aggressors wrecking their lives and homes to wage desperate, but determined and righteous battles of survival and freedom.

The premise of the series Falling Skies, early in its run on TV in America is that there has been a successful alien invasion of Earth. The viewer has the opportunity to follow partisans of the '2nd Massachusetts Regiment' as they try to survive, protect civilians in their midst and fight the alien occupation.

The apocalyptic event in the series The Walking Dead, whose first season has just ended, is a deadly virus that kills millions of people only to bring them back as zombies. The world finds itself overrun by zombies rather than by aliens, but the story works in much the same way. It follows a small group of survivors, a mix of combatants and non-combatants, desperately trying to survive against the zombie tide and looking for a hope of a normal life.

Television series V, whose two season long run recently ended, portrays aliens who come to Earth and purport to be benevolent, but are actually working to subjugate the human kind. The main protagonist of the series finds herself participating in, and eventually leading a resistance movement that springs up against them. Branded terrorists, they carry out attacks against the newcomers to try to thwart their plans in what seems to be a loosing battle.

Slightly older shows in the same mold are the cult classic Jericho (2006-2008) and the enormously successful Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009). In Jericho the USA is paralyzed by an apparent terrorist attack with nuclear weapons. A small town in rural America must overcome a breakdown of production, trade and communication. Utilities are knocked out and medical facilities no longer operate. The town must defy violent 'Ravenwood' mercenaries – a stand in for Blackwater, accommodate refugees, and withstand an attack by a down on its luck neighboring town.

Battlestar Galactica has the human kind decimated in a surprise attack by artificial life forms. Only those aboard space ships when the attack occurs survive. Military and civilian vessels alike gather in a small fleet and try to flee to safety. On the way they must evade and fight off the far more powerful aggressor seemingly bent on their extinction.

The movie Battle: Los Angeles (2011) has the US military fight a desperate battle to evacuate civilians and defend the city of Los Angeles from a shock & awe style invasion by aliens. Terminator Salvation (2009) portrays a resistance movement fighting against an artificial intelligence and its killer machines on behalf of a decimated human kind. Lastly, a remake of Red Dawn itself is scheduled to hit cinemas later this year. This time around the Wolverines are to battle a North Korean occupation.

One thing such works easily deliver is moral clarity. In Battle: Los Angeles before heading into battle a Marine unit the movie follows is given a pep talk by its lieutenant:
"Here is the situation, marines. We are facing an unknown enemy. We don't know how strong their forces, or what they are capable of – but one thing we do know is that we are fighting for our land, our families, our home, our country god dammit!"
It is not a speech that could be credibly delivered by a US lieutenant in a movie set in Afghanistan. The United States is pursing a number of wars that Americans do not know why they are being fought for, but in the TV alternative that has them fighting alien invasions, killer robots, even zombies what Americans are fighting for could not be clearer.

This clarity is the outcome of the fact that for Americans on TV shows the land where the fighting is taking place, is also the place where they live. In the real world however the United States, like the antagonists of such shows, fights exotic peoples in their own, faraway countries. For places on the receiving end of US invasions, blockades and bombing campaigns the United States military is the alien menace of American TV shows.


  1. Incidentally, have you played Fallout? The 1996 videogame?

    Here is one example where the US government is shown as something different.

    It takes place in a world after United States more or less wins a two-hour nuclear war against China, but only after some major American cities are also lost in the fallout.

    This game is situated in Los Angeles (or what remains of it) and its outskirts.

    Although people have been brought to a primitive lifestyle, as they have been forced to retreat and live in the desert wilderness, some super-advanced US military technology is still to be found in secret abandoned military bases.

    If you ever go to raid a radioactive military research facility in a peripheral region in the game, you'll find plasma rifles and plasma pistols that burn the flesh of your enemies on contact. If you ever get kidnapped by a group of super mutants, you will find yourself in a newly reoccupied research facility where a Forced Evolutionary Virus radioactively transforms humans into giant super-soldiers with a 5/6 chance of death and failure.

    The point is that this game shows that the US government's nuclear weapons were tip of the iceberg, and that they intended to use super soldiers produced by Forced Evolutionary Virus, armed with the most dangerous plasma weaponry every created. When you see the super mutant army armed with all its laser and plasma weapons, you see a small glimpse of the terror that the fictional US government intended to unleash on the Chinese. They are treated like an ancient evil, that created technology which should never have been meant to be used on other human beings.

    (The premise of the game is that an accidental creation of the FEV experiment ends up living and morphing into a century-old psychic creature that is pushed to the mad delusion of scavenging former military technology and ressurecting that old war on a lower scale, in the name of Unity. The army that his delusion plan produces is like a ghostly shell of the army that the US government intended to produce.)

  2. Yes, actually I did, but I don't remember it that well.

    Of course in Fallout 2 you were paired against the Enclave, the remnant of the US government and at the end had to kill the president.

  3. Naturally no stereotype fits an entire group, but in general Americans have highly romanticized ideals about America's relationship with the rest of the world. A surprising number are also deeply religious, and meet any criticism of American motives with the patented Sweet Smiles For The Hellbound.

    This is indeed reflected in their popular films. Remember the cloyingly sappy "Independence Day"? It won an Academy Award for special effects, but the space-aliens-invade-earth-only-to-be-stopped-cold-by-Mom-and-apple-pie plot was just comical. I gave up the effort not to laugh out loud when the "president", played by Bill Pullman, says, "I may be the president, but damn it, I'm a fighter pilot", and proceeds to lead the attack. In any scenario where even a single staff officer survived, he would tackle the president rather than let him climb into the cockpit - the death of the president would be too demoralizing for Americans to be worth it even if he were the best fighter pilot alive.

    The little knot of brave Americans holding out against incredible odds ( a la "We Were Soldiers") is a popular theme. It actually happens often enough to make it credible, and American courage is legendary, but the us-against-everybody trope is a hard one to overcome. To be fair, I suppose every nation paints itself in the most attractive light for public consumption. Keeps military recruitment numbers up.

  4. By coincidence entirely, I mentioned the film "Independence Day" (I remembered only because I couldn't wait to see it when it came out)without ever noticing that you have featured it only 2 posts down.