The USS Potemkin, or the Tea Party with its Finger on the Button
Yesterday (Thursday, September 27, 2012) saw the premiere of a heavily-promoted new drama series on ABC, Last Resort. The series is about a fictional American missile-carrying nuclear submarine, the USS Colorado, which disobeys an order to launch its missiles onto Pakistan and then declares itself to be independent of American authority.
While I generally eschew any programming on the major television networks, I decided to watch the first episode of this series, having an interest in the politics and strategy behind nuclear weapons which dates back to my late-Cold War childhood in the 1980s, when nuclear war was an ever-constant threat, and also as a result of my fondness for political and military dramas.
Judging from the first episode alone, Last Resort may well turn out to be a mediocrity as a dramatic venture, but I still found it interesting for reasons I will describe later.
A positive development that has come out of the vastly increased number of competing television networks in recent years is that they have been forced to improve the quality of the writing in their dramatic series to keep people interested. As opposed to the situation 20 to 30 years ago, when the vast majority of television was virtually unwatchable by anyone with a minimum of taste and intelligence, in recent years we have been blessed with a number of interesting series (some of which have already been discussed here at Counter-Currents, such as Breaking Bad). Last Resort seems to be molding itself after the several popular “mystery” series of the last decade (namely, stories which revolve around the gradual unraveling of a central mystery), such as Lost, Jericho, and Battlestar Galactica.
First, a brief recap for those who missed it. Of necessity I will stick only to the essentials of the plot, since a lot was crammed into this first hour. The episode opens with the USS Colorado, commanded by Captain Marcus Chaplin, engaged in picking up a team of Navy SEALs off the coast of Pakistan, who are returning from a top-secret, and unspecified, mission. The Colorado is then forced to avoid interception by a Pakistani naval vessel. After executing this mission, the vessel picks up some unexpected movements from other American naval ships in the vicinity. Captain Chaplin attributes this to domestic politics at home, as many of America’s top military officers are resigning in protest against the policies of the (unnamed) American President, who is facing impeachment by the House.
Expecting the remainder of their patrol to continue as per routine, the crew is shocked when an order is suddenly received from the Department of Defense, ordering them to immediately fire four of their nuclear-tipped missiles onto targets in Pakistan. Although the order is deemed authentic, the crew notes that the signal was transmitted over an emergency back-up network that is only supposed to be used if Washington, D.C. has already been destroyed in an attack.
Aghast at the notion of simply firing their missiles without knowing what is happening, the Captain and Lieutenant Commander of the Colorado decide to raise the sub’s antenna to see what can be picked up. Upon doing so, they find that American television stations are broadcasting their usual programming, making the idea that there has already been a sneak attack on Washington even less likely. (This is, incidentally, one of the checks that actual nuclear submarine officers are supposed to make while authenticating a launch order.) Captain Chaplin then contacts their on-shore command by radio and requests that the order be retransmitted through the Washington network. When their contact at command refuses to do this, Captain Chaplin refuses to obey the order, over the objections of several of his officers.
After a pause, the Colorado is contacted by the Assistant Secretary of Defense, who relieves Captain Chaplin of command, and replaces him with his second-in-command, Lieutenant Commander Sam Kendal. However, Kendal likewise demands that the launch order be retransmitted over the usual channel. The line goes dead, and shortly thereafter a conventional missile fired by another American vessel explodes near the Colorado, killing several of the crew and nearly sinking the sub. Although the submarine manages to survive the attack, the crew realizes that if they alert the American Navy to their whereabouts, they will likely be destroyed. Meanwhile, back in the U.S., the media reports that the Colorado was attacked and sunk by a Pakistani warship. Kendal turns command back over to Chaplin, who takes the vessel to the fictional island of Sainte Marina, which appears to be little more than a tourist resort of unidentified culture and ethnicity run by the local mafia, but which also happens to be the site of a NATO early warning station. While they are en route, another American vessel fires two nuclear missiles at Pakistan which detonate, presumably in retaliation for the supposed sinking of the Colorado.
When the submarine reaches Sainte Marina, the crew quickly assumes control of the island at gunpoint, in particular the early warning station. Some of the Colorado’s officers use the station’s communications equipment to contact relatives back in the U.S. to inform them of what has happened, but everyone they contact is shown being taken into custody by military personnel afterwards.
Then the station picks up a wing of American bombers approaching the island. Chaplin decides to stand his ground, believing that the bombers will destroy the island regardless of whether the Colorado is still there or not. Chaplin launches one of his missiles, targeted on Washington, D.C., and threatens to let it explode unless the bombers turn back. As they draw near, Chaplin at first believes his bluff has failed, and he prepares to signal the missile to self-destruct before impact. At the last moment, however, the bombers do turn back, although Chaplin thinks it wiser to let the people in Washington know that he is serious. The missile detonates, and as it turns out, it had in fact been targeted in the ocean, 200 miles off the coast of D.C. – close enough to be seen, but not close enough to do any damage (presumably, apart from whichever vessels happened to be in the blast area at the time, or wherever the resulting radioactive fallout from the explosion might end up). Chaplin then broadcasts a video around the world, explaining why he has taken the actions he has carried out, and declares that the Colorado will fire its remaining missiles upon any nation which sends military forces within 200 miles of the island.
At the end of the episode, Chaplin surveys the island with his officers, and observes that things have become so bad in America that he believes it would be possible to make a better life for themselves on the island. Kendal replies that he had believed they were simply trying to survive long enough to prove their innocence and clear their names so that they can go home, to which Chaplin replies, “Maybe this is home now.”
In spite of a few ridiculous plot holes, heady stuff, to be sure. Many of the concepts explored in the show – such as the morality of the use of nuclear weapons, the dilemma faced by the officers who command nuclear weapons of knowing whether or not an order to launch is genuine, and creating an independent nation through the threat of force, among others – are fascinating in themselves, and are issues that are seldom explored in the mass media.
Not entirely, however. During the 1980s and ‘90s, there was a Japanese manga series entitled The Silent Service, in which the Captain of a fictional Japanese nuclear ballistic missile submarine declares his vessel to be a sovereign state. Also, the idea of the officers of an American submarine questioning an order to launch their missiles was part of the plot of the 1995 thriller, Crimson Tide.
In my summary I ignored all the interpersonal drama and such, which was merely typical Hollywood fare. It is worth noting that Captain Chaplin is Black, which is in keeping with Hollywood’s oft-demonstrated tendency to cast non-White actors in the role of the savior of the nation/world. Also, several of the crewmen on the Colorado are women, and the producers naturally felt obligated to introduce a yawn-worthy subplot about tensions between the women and some of the male officers on the boat, who resent their presence. However, these phenomena are nothing new in multicultural America’s films and television series from recent decades, and have already been analyzed by others, so I don’t feel the need to dwell on them in this review.
Unfortunately, however, at least judging from this single episode, the concepts behind Last Resort are much more interesting than the series itself, which is hampered by bad writing. The plotting feels rushed – which may have been the result of the show’s creators wanting to set up the entire scenario in the first episode – and some of the plot elements feel far-fetched, such as the NATO early warning station, for example, which is apparently vital for international security, and yet seems to be manned and guarded by only two civilian technicians who let anyone walk in off the street as they please.
Much of the dialogue is also truly cringeworthy. My favorite example of this comes when Captain Chaplin is telling Kendal about the most recent letter he received from his son, who appears to be serving as a soldier in some unnamed Middle Eastern conflict. Chaplin says, “He says he’s jealous of me being surrounded by water. Guess it’s pretty dry where they are.”
First runner-up: in a scene set in Washington, a female engineer describes the technical specs of the Colorado while stripping down to her bra and panties – a bone thrown to the men in the audience for whom the action isn’t enough to keep them interested, I assume – when her date says to her, “God, I love it when you talk military hardware.”
Some other reviewers have also questioned whether the scenario depicted in Last Resort is actually realistic. As someone who has never served in the military, I cannot say with certainty, but my impression is that the men and women of the American military have loyalty to the state too much ingrained in them to ever seriously contemplate open rebellion, even against an administration they may dislike or in response to an order they may feel is unjust. Unlike other nations anywhere in the world over the last century, the American military has never openly challenged or threatened its military or political leadership. This might change if the socioeconomic situation in America deteriorates even more than it has already, although I don’t think we’re anywhere near that point yet.
I do give credit to the creators of Last Resort for raising issues concerning the politics and morality of nuclear weapons, however, which is something that has virtually disappeared from the American popular consciousness since the end of the Cold War. The average American seems to believe that nuclear weapons became irrelevant after the Russian threat receded, but the fact is that very little has changed since the 1980s.
Yes, America and Russia have both significantly reduced their arsenals since 1991, but the fact remains that both nations maintain nuclear forces consisting of several thousand warheads that are on hair-trigger alert, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, ready to deliver the apocalypse to any spot on the globe within 30 minutes or less (literally). Each nation has several thousand more nuclear weapons in storage which could be quickly reactivated.
Both nations also continue to actively prepare for the possibility of nuclear war against the other. And besides these two, seven other nations also currently possess nuclear arsenals. This is an important reality that needs to be understood by anyone contemplating our current geopolitical situation, and it is something that I plan to write about further in future essays for Counter-Currents.
Last Resort does base its scenario upon very real problems that have cropped up in the first seven decades of the world’s life with nuclear weapons. The question of how an officer who receives an order to launch his weapons can be certain that the order is legitimate is one that has perplexed those who would have to carry them out from the beginning.
A notable instance of this is the case of Major Harold Hering, a U.S. Air Force officer who, after 21 years of a successful military career, was in training to become a crewman in one of America’s many intercontinental ballistic missile silos in 1973. During the course of his training, he asked how, upon receiving an order to launch, he could know whether or not the order had come from a sane president. Having no answer to this question – the reality was, and remains so to this day, that there is no way to be certain – Major Hering was promptly dishonorably discharged from his duties by the Air Force.
Given the extremely short flight-times of the nuclear weapons in service since the 1960s, the decisions in a wartime situation involving them must be made so quickly that there is virtually no time for verification or reflection. As a result, the world has been at, and remains, on the brink of an Armageddon that may very well come about as the result of faulty equipment, a misunderstanding, or the intoxicated or unbalanced state-of-mind of a political leader.
Concerning the other side of the sanity coin, in foreshadowing his actions later in the episode, Chaplin early on references the story of Ronald Reagan firing all those who were on strike in the air traffic controllers’ union in 1981. According to Chaplin, Reagan was warned that he would be viewed as crazy for doing this. In response, Reagan gestured toward the Soviet Union and said, “That’s exactly what I need that bastard to think.” I am not certain if this is an actual quotation – if so, I’ve never heard of it before – although it is nevertheless true that the idea of making the American President seem crazy was at one time a part of American strategic planning.
A perennial worry throughout the Cold War was whether or not the other side genuinely believed that the man with his finger on the button would actually press it in a crisis, knowing full well that he would be bringing unprecedented death and destruction upon his own nation as well as the enemy’s. Surely only a madman would willingly use weapons that would wreak devastation on a scale previously unknown in human history. Nixon’s solution to the problem was to quite literally try to convince the world that the President – himself – was actually insane. He termed it the “Madman Theory.”
How far Nixon actually took this doctrine was previously unknown, but recently declassified documents have shown that an exercise held in October 1969, in which nuclear-armed bombers were dispatched in large numbers towards the Soviet Union and which only turned back from its borders at the last moment, was ordered as a component of Nixon’s Madman Theory. Fortunately, the event didn’t cause the Soviet leaders to come to the conclusion that a pre-emptive strike on the U.S. was the only hope for their survival.
Therefore, Last Resort deserves some credit for depicting the truly bizarre world brought into being by the uncomfortable realities behind our ongoing nuclear standoff with the rest of the world.
Ultimately, however, the most interesting aspect of this show for me wasn’t its supposed realism, and certainly not its mediocre writing, but rather what it says about the state of the American popular consciousness. The idea of an armed uprising against the American government by its own people is virtually unknown in popular culture. I can only think of two other examples. One would be the 1964 novel and film Seven Days in May, about an American General who attempts a coup against an administration which he believes to be soft on Communism, although he is made out to be the bad guy in that scenario rather than a sympathetic figure.
By the 1970s, in the wake of the Kennedy assassinations and Watergate, it had become acceptable to depict the American government as the villain. Perhaps the quintessential film of this sort from the time is 1974’s The Parallax View, in which a journalist stumbles across a political assassination conspiracy and is himself murdered. This was an interesting development, although films from this time usually featured lone crusaders who are stopped before they can make others aware of the truth. This remained true up through the 1990s, when films like JFK and series like The X-Files dealt with the evils of the American government, but which stopped short of actually depicting mass resistance.
More germane in relation to Last Resort, however, was the series Jericho which aired on CBS between 2006 and 2008. In Jericho, 25 American cities are suddenly and simultaneously destroyed in nuclear explosions, crippling the nation. The attack is at first believed to be the work of terrorists, but later in the series it is revealed that the bombs were actually part of a massive false-flag operation carried out by elements of the U.S. government in league with an evil corporation, made out to appear suspiciously like Halliburton.
Jericho backed off somewhat from the more radical implications of such a story, however, by assuring us that there was still a “good” U.S. government in another part of the country that opposed the machinations of these rogue elements. Opposing the “bad” government were ordinary American citizens, working with surviving parts of the American military. The series ended as civil war was about to break out.
In spite of the series’ attempt to deflect blame toward the tired trope of an “evil corporation,” we must give some credit to the makers of Jericho for bringing Americans’ fears about a corrupt government more interested in profits than its people, and false-flag terrorist attacks, to the screen, and of actually arriving at the point of depicting a popular uprising. (The series was cancelled before they could do so, unfortunately.)
As we know, Hollywood always has its finger on the pulse of America, attempting to project the peoples’ fears and fantasies onto the screen to keep viewers tuning in. If the idea of a populist revolt against the present order of things has suddenly become fodder for prime-time television, this suggests that the barometer of American dissatisfaction and rage with business as usual may very well be approaching the point of desperation. Typically, the very forces which enable and depend upon things remaining as they are now are attempting to profit from this mood.
Last Resort has the potential to achieve something similar to, or perhaps even better than Jericho. Indeed, all of the elements are there – government conspiracies, false-flag attacks and so forth – but in Last Resort, these ideas are in play from the very beginning. If utilized properly, and if the show’s writers and producers are a bit daring, they might just end up articulating – and thus seeding – the idea of dispensing with our current government and replacing it with something different.
Some of the dialogue at the end of the episode suggested that the writers may indeed be planning to take the series in such a direction. During his address to the world, Captain Chaplin says, “From our submarine, we have watched as the fabric of trust between the government and its people has been torn . . . As for myself, and the men and women of the USS Colorado, we love our country. We would gladly die for what it represents, but we do not recognize or obey a government that tries to murder its own.” A bit later, when Chaplin is reflecting on his actions with his officers, he says, “What happened to the country I grew up in? They’ve made it all a mess.”
Clearly, the makers of Last Resort want viewers to see in Chaplin a mouthpiece for their own dissatisfactions with our current political situation. And the symbolic value of declaring independence from the U.S. government has definite secessionist overtones. This is again confirmed in the closing dialogue. After Chaplin deplores the state of America, he says, “We could do better. Right here. Start from scratch.” Just what type of new society he has in mind remains to be seen. Although the only precedent for the idea of Americans securing a new state from the wrath of their government through nuclear deterrence is from novels written in support of radical political perspectives, namely Ecotopia and The Turner Diaries. An interesting pedigree.
In spite of the many warts in this first episode, I will definitely give Last Resort a chance. Given that it is a Hollywood production, I have already steeled myself for likely disappointment. I find it hard to believe that its makers won’t be tempted into some sort of cop-out. We are likely to find out that the real villain is, once again, some evil faction that simply needs to be exposed and stamped out by the “good” forces in government, or perhaps it will be yet another evil corporation. Only time will tell. Regardless, the fact that our government is being depicted as the bad guy with greater and greater frequency, with good men and women rising to fight rather than defend it, surely suggests that the writing on the wall concerning America’s future can be seen even from Beverly Hills.
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