America’s latest TV fixation: Nuclear war in Pakistan
Autumn has arrived here in Washington. The air has grown crisp, and the leaves are starting to change color. The city is abuzz about the sudden success of the local baseball team, the latest machinations on Capitol Hill, and the fast-approaching presidential election.
Also causing much excitement is the arrival of the season’s new crop of television shows — and especially a political thriller called “Last Resort.” A key plotline of this series, which debuted last month, revolves around an American nuclear strike … on Pakistan.
How curious that this new series envisions a strike on Pakistan, when it is Iran that so dominates American public debate about nuclear matters. Iran, Americans are often told, is menacingly building nuclear weapons — and could, not far down the road, be on the receiving end of a US military assault (albeit of the non-nuclear variety).
But no, “Last Resort” is all about Pakistan. Deep beneath the ocean and off Pakistan’s coastline, Marcus Chaplin, commander of the ballistic missile submarine USS Colorado, is asked to nuke that nation. He defiantly refuses, arguing that the order was not issued through Washington’s proper chain of command. A crew on another US military submarine, furious at Chaplin’s refusal, attacks the USS Colorado. Back in America, news reports announce that Pakistan (not the turncoat sub) has assaulted Chaplin’s vessel. Soon thereafter, two nuclear missiles detonate inside Pakistan.
Even by Hollywood’s standards, this plot is preposterous. I can think of absolutely no scenario that would prompt Washington to order a nuclear attack on Pakistan. A 9/11-style assault on America, traced to Pakistani militants with clear ties to their country’s security establishment? No, the US would restrict any military response to non-nuclear punitive strikes. What if Pakistan nukes India and the US retaliates on the latter’s behalf? I can’t possibly fathom Pakistan ever taking such action against India, much less America responding with nukes. Or what if Pakistani extremists seize power in Pakistan — along with the nation’s nuclear assets — and then unleash nuclear firepower across the US east coast? Perhaps, if it retained retaliatory capacities, Washington might sadly resort to nuclear tactics — but I (unlike others in this town) can’t imagine Pakistani extremists ever nuking America.
The relationship between Pakistan and Hollywood is a fascinating one. Decades ago, when Cold War exigencies produced relatively cordial US-Pakistan ties, Hollywood engaged Pakistan effusively. As my blogger colleague Nadeem F. Paracha has illustrated with his photo histories, American film stars often visited Pakistan in the 1950s to meet dignitaries and shoot movies. In the subsequent decades, likeable Pakistani characters became entrenched in American television culture. Think of the hapless yet respected restaurant owner Babu Bhatt in “Seinfeld,” or the cheerful Pakistani exchange student Raja Musharraf, whose year at a Wisconsin high school was chronicled in the short-lived “Aliens in America” sitcom.
Only more recently, with the souring of US-Pakistan relations, has Hollywood painted Pakistan with a relentlessly hostile brush. Several years ago, a writer for a popular crime series peppered me with questions about what a hypothetical Pakistan-patented attack on America would look like. Who would be the most likely perpetrator? How would the US respond? In the end, the show featured an episode in which the LeT carries out terror attacks in America.
There’s a simple reason why American movies and television shows so often portray Pakistan negatively: Audience preferences. It’s no secret that anti-Pakistan sentiment is strong in America. Hollywood producers aim to attract and maintain audiences. By airing Pakistan-hostile content, they are providing material that will resonate with (or at least not alienate) viewers. A similar dynamic played out — and to some extent continues to play out — with the anti-Arab images that contaminated Hollywood in the 1980s and 1990s.
Back to “Last Resort,” which does contain at least one thread of reality. Chaplin, the commander who defied orders to nuke Pakistan, is a likeable character who manifests sympathy toward the Pakistani people — unlike his civilian bosses back in Washington. This juxtaposition captures the tendency of the US military to be more supportive of Pakistan — and of close ties with Pakistan — than their civilian counterparts (the US-Pakistan relationship, after all, has historically been dominated by military, not civilian, links).
Chaplin and his crew, fearing arrest or worse if they return to American shores, decide to seek refuge on a picturesque island. At that point, Pakistan is forgotten and the plot falls back on the trite themes of isolation, survival and romance.
Still, that jarring nuke-Pakistan plotline lingers. And so does the thought that Pakistan simply can’t catch a break. From the rancorous deliberations in Congress about future aid packages to sensationalist television shows, it’s often hard to find anyone saying anything nice about beleaguered Pakistan.
Those days of American film icon James Stewart hobnobbing with the Pakistani leadership in Lahore have, sadly, long since passed.
The author is the program associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.