In Other Words

Dear Uncle Sam…

Why do India and Pakistan see America in such opposite ways?

Early in the 1950s, Saadat Hasan Manto, arguably Pakistan's greatest prose writer, defined, almost inadvertently, a type of "Ugly American" that the Cold War would fix in popular imaginations across Asia: the representative of the world's greatest superpower who, though superficially friendly and generous, pursues America's national interest at the expense of all other concerns; an often blundering figure who never ceases, while leaving destruction and chaos in his wake, to claim the highest virtue for his deeds.

American cultural cold warriors, then clustered at U.S. Information Services (USIS) offices, had approached Manto with a lucrative commission -- write a short story for publication in an Urdu journal they subsidized -- after he publicly ridiculed Pakistani camp followers of Stalin. Spurned by nonaligned India, the United States was trying to persuade Pakistan's generals, along with artists and writers, into joining its anti-Soviet crusade. The famously mercurial Manto insisted on taking less money than was offered by the Americans and then submitted, in place of the promised short story, a caustic "Letter to Uncle Sam," mocking America's claims to moral superiority over the Soviet Union.

His red-faced editors at Lahore's USIS office killed the letter and banned Manto from their pages. But Manto kept writing more letters to Uncle Sam, publishing nine altogether in local periodicals from 1951 to 1954. Today, they seem to have brilliantly foreshadowed not only the fraught triangular relationship between the United States, Pakistan, and India, but also its consequences: vicious wars, the rise of ruthless ideologies on the subcontinent, the proliferation of Indian and Pakistani versions of the Ugly American. The letters also appear to have anticipated the profound distrust of America to take hold in Pakistan in the decade since the 9/11 attacks, even as India moved in the opposite direction to an easy, even eager, accommodation with Pax Americana.

"Dear Uncle," Manto wrote in one of the letters, "My admiration and respect for you are going up at about the same rate as your progress towards a decision to grant military aid to Pakistan."

"You are," he speculated, "seriously concerned about the stability of the world's largest Islamic state since our mullah is the best antidote to Russian communism."

This was shrewd. The anti-Soviet jihad in neighboring Afghanistan was decades away, but the CIA's adventurers had already realized the anti-communist potential of radical Islamism, secretly supporting, among other outfits, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood exiled in Munich. Soon many other Pakistanis would come to share Manto's suspicion that the United States would ally itself with the most anti-democratic elements in Pakistan -- military generals and Islamists -- in order to advance its geopolitical interests. Even as Pakistan's strategic and military relationship with Washington flourished, popular sentiment turned wary of the United States.

No such ambiguities clouded early Indian visions of the self-interested and unreliable American. India and America, the world's two largest democracies, should have been, it is tirelessly argued now, natural partners from 1947 onward. But, having spent decades in the struggle for independence from British rule, India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, was unlikely to help the United States assume the burden of defunct European empires in Asia and Africa. The "concert of democracies" would not take place until after the Cold War, when economic globalization would create harmonious new alliances of elites in both countries. For much of the 1950s and 1960s, discordant noises marked political and cultural exchanges between India and the United States.

U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles denounced nonalignment as "immoral." Nehru, in turn, regarded the American as "constitutionally stupid" and worse: "dull, duller, Dulles." Nehru's aristocratic disdain for American cold warriors like Dulles blended well not only with a populist strain of anti-imperialism in India but also with an older Indian prejudice, derived from the British upper class, about America as a land of upstarts. Visiting India in 1962, V.S. Naipaul was astonished by the snobbish Indian response to American novelist John O'Hara: "You couldn't get," a Madras Brahmin (unnamed, but most likely the writer R.K. Narayan) told Naipaul, "a well-bred Englishman writing this sort of tosh." Narayan's own novel, The Vendor of Sweets, in which the self-contained life of a small-town shopkeeper is ruined by his overly ambitious son, who goes to America to learn creative writing ("It's the only country where they teach such things," marvels one character), underlines a conservative Indian perception of the United States as the source of much modern outlandishness.

The Vendor of Sweets appeared in 1967, just as a spike in Indian immigration to the United States began to make Narayan's snobbery look passé. This immigrant generation would eventually become America's wealthiest minority; it included well-placed Indian-Americans like pundit Fareed Zakaria, economist Jagdish Bhagwati, venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, and Rajat Gupta, former managing director of consulting giant McKinsey, all of whom came to offer an indispensable interface between India and America.

But already by the 1960s, India's small middle class, empowered by top-notch educational institutions while materially and intellectually thwarted by Nehru's import-substitution model of economic growth, had begun to look to America as a lodestar of modernity. The many American Centers in Indian cities could never match the Houses of Soviet Culture sponsored by their Soviet rivals, an entire network of pro-communist libraries and bookshops across small-town India. But upwardly mobile Indians tended to be more seduced by the images of American life brought cheaply into their homes by the Indian edition of Reader's Digest and Span, a USIS-produced "glossy" (when the word was unknown) carrying photographs and reprints from American magazines.

A tiny minority of urban Indians also enjoyed direct access to American music and cinema. The novels of Salman Rushdie, who grew up in an upper-middle-class family in Mumbai, chart an increasing Indian fascination with America, from the simple pop-culture enthusiasms of Midnight's Children to the garish fantasies of sex and power in The Ground Beneath Her Feet, Fury, and Shalimar the Clown.

In Rushdie's Fury, Indian academic Malik Solanka travels to America "as so many before him to receive the benison of being Ellis Islanded, of starting over."

"Give me a name, America," Solanka begs, "make of me a Buzz or Chip or Spike. Bathe me in amnesia and clothe me in your powerful unknowing."

In reality, most Indians in America eschewed such radical self-invention, settling into their new routines hesitantly and awkwardly, as the delicate fictions of Jhumpa Lahiri reveal. Nevertheless, by the 1980s just about every middle-class family in India seemed to have a steadily prospering relative in the United States. The Hindu nationalist firebrand exposed recently by WikiLeaks pleading his pro-U.S. credentials to American diplomats may not have exaggerated when he claimed to have several nieces and sisters residing in the United States and "five homes to visit between D.C. and New York."

For Indians who stayed behind, their relatives in America became the source of goodies (toys, gadgets, comic books, magazines). The endless daydreaming they provoked would seed the imaginative landscape of "rising India" in the 1990s, when Archie comics, set in a hormonally charged American high school, inspired some of Bollywood's most successful films.

The Indian middle class's pursuit of the American Dream managed to survive even the relentless anti-American propaganda of the Indian government, which regularly blamed the CIA for everything that was going wrong in the country -- and much did go wrong in the 1960s and 1970s. The loudest exponent of the "foreign hand" theory was Indira Gandhi, Nehru's daughter and prime minister for nearly two decades. Growing up in a small town, on a diet of Soviet-subsidized newsmagazines, I, like many of my compatriots, was quickly persuaded by her. Indian paranoia reached a hysterical pitch after Richard Nixon "tilted" toward Pakistani military generals during India's war in 1971 with Pakistan. In Rohinton Mistry's 1991 novel, Such a Long Journey, which takes the war as its backdrop, the character who asks angrily, "Did you read today about what America is doing?… CIA bastards are up to their usual anus-fingering tactics," spoke for many outraged Indians.

But even as we obsessed futilely about the "foreign hand" in India, it had begun to seriously blight neighboring Pakistan, where the dreaded local spy agency, the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence), first acquired its malign power as a conduit between the CIA and anti-communist jihadists. In 1954, Manto had satirically exhorted Uncle Sam, "Once military aid starts flowing the first people you should arm are these mullahs." And so it happened. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, Pakistan's American-funded military dictator, steadily silenced all democratic opposition and empowered Islamic extremists in the nine years between 1979, when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, and his death in a plane crash in 1988.

This U.S.-enabled ravaging of Pakistan's civil society, which forced some of the country's most distinguished writers into exile, shaped the geopolitical education of a whole Pakistani generation -- and it has come to be a major theme of Pakistani writing, especially in the decade since 9/11. The Wasted Vigil (2008), a novel by Nadeem Aslam, whose family migrated to England after an uncle was tortured by Zia's police, excavates U.S. recklessness in Afghanistan and Pakistan through two generations of CIA agents. Mohammed Hanif's A Case of Exploding Mangoes (2008) takes a scathing view of the U.S. officials complicit in turning Pakistan into a base of global jihadism. Kamila Shamsie's novel Burnt Shadows (2009) spans a history of America's violent remaking of the world, from the bombing of Nagasaki through the anti-Soviet jihad to the last decade's "war on terror." Mohsin Hamid's novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007) records the souring of the American Dream for an Ivy League-educated Pakistani who can't suppress a vindictive smile as he watches the Twin Towers collapse: "Yes, despicable as it may sound, my initial reaction was to be remarkably pleased."

Post-9/11, the American mollycoddling of another Pakistani dictator (Pervez Musharraf), the resulting delay in Pakistan's transition to civilian rule, and the great domestic toll of the "war on terror" -- with more than 30,000 Pakistanis dead since 9/11 -- definitively fixed the image of the Ugly American in the Pakistani imagination. Indeed, one disturbingly recurrent image in recent Pakistani fiction and film is of the remorselessly brutal American. The Wasted Vigil shows an American interrogator directing a blowtorch into the eye of a young Taliban fighter. In 2007's Khuda Kay Liye (In the Name of God), one of Pakistan's most popular films ever, a Sufi musician suspected wrongly of links to al Qaeda is brain-damaged after being tortured for more than a year in U.S. custody.

These Pakistani specters of a morally unhinged America have no counterparts in Indian fiction and literature, even in the Bollywood imitations spawned by Khuda Kay Liye's international success. There are some apparently strong claims to victimhood in My Name Is Khan (2010), which features India's most famous actor, Shah Rukh Khan, a Muslim by birth, as an autistic immigrant. In the film Khan plays out a classic Indian-American success story: a Muslim from a hardscrabble Mumbai background who finds emotional and professional fulfillment in San Francisco. But then his stepson is killed in a racist assault after 9/11, and Khan wanders across the United States, looking for George W. Bush, for whom he has a simple message: "My name is Khan, and I am not a terrorist."

Doggedly rejecting all identification of Islam with terrorism, the film became a massive hit across the Muslim world last year. The scenes in which the autistic Khan is being tortured by American counterterrorism officials may have stoked an ever-simmering Muslim outrage over U.S. conduct. But My Name Is Khan is also suffused with a recognizably Indian sense of wonder at America's material plenitude -- the film was made by one of the Bollywood admirers of Archie comics. And it ends by affirming the middle-class Indian infatuation with America through a liberal feel-good fantasy of Barack Obama, who in the film's last scene is shown eloquently amplifying Khan's message.

Certainly, Uncle Sam, disowned by Pakistanis, has found innumerable devoted nephews in India. Indian and Pakistani perceptions of America now wildly diverge: A 2005 Pew poll conducted in 16 countries found the United States in the highest regard among Indians (71 percent having a favorable opinion) and nearly the lowest among Pakistanis (23 percent). Indian politicians, bureaucrats, and businessmen have worked overtime to make up for what a Hindu nationalist foreign minister called "50 wasted years" of Indo-U.S relations -- a frantic courtship that reached its apex of passion in 2008 when, visiting the White House, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh blurted out to arguably the most disliked U.S. president in history: "The people of India love you deeply!" Having helped push through the Bush administration's exceptionally generous nuclear deal to India, the Indian-American lobby is bidding to be one of the most powerful special-interest groups in Washington. Cheerleaders for the new special relationship are already installed in think tanks and the media in both India and the United States.

And their first order of business is -- business. While reinforcing the Pakistani military, the United States has lobbied hard for the sale of U.S. nuclear expertise and weaponry to Pakistan's traditional enemy, India, now the world's biggest arms market. Manto saw through this cynical game, too: "As for your military pact with us," he long ago advised Uncle Sam, "it is remarkable and should be maintained. You should sign something similar with India … and your armament factories will no longer remain idle."

Peace in the region looks as remote as ever, with militant nationalists in both nuclear-armed countries still routinely rattling their sabers. A day after U.S. Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden, the Indian Army and Air Force chiefs thundered that India was capable of hunting down its own Geronimos in Pakistan. The ISI chief responded with the boast that the Pakistani military had already rehearsed retaliatory strikes on India. "Everyone can now become a smartass," Manto had lamented as Uncle Sam first stumbled into South Asian geopolitics, envenoming an already bitter rivalry. For the next half-century, aggressively self-interested elites in India and Pakistan would exalt preparedness for war over socioeconomic progress. And it now seems that Manto, prescient though he was about the Ugly American, didn't fully warn us about the Ugly Indian and the Ugly Pakistani.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

In Other Words

America the Brutiful

Yanks are starring on foreign screens -- and it ain't a pretty sight.

Night. Iraq. An American Humvee patrol, trailed by the ominous strains of horror-movie cello, nears an idyllic country wedding, all colored lights and thumping folk music. "Who's in charge of this, this gathering?" spits out the American commander, wrinkling his bulbous nose. We all know what's coming, and minutes later, there it is: the groom, spattered with blood; the bride, mid-howl, raising her eyes heavenward in slow motion. "We did a hell of a good job there, Lieutenant," drawls one Yank to another, puffing on a cigarette that must surely be a Marlboro.

If you want to see the face of the Ugly American over the decade since the 9/11 attacks launched the United States into an aggressive "global war on terror," look no further than the rest of the world's movie screens. After decades as bumbling but well-intentioned tourists, G-men, cold warriors, and capitalist fat cats, Americans in global cinema of the early 21st century are door-kicking soldiers and torturing medics, from the brutes of Turkey's Valley of the Wolves: Iraq to the devilish Army doctor in the South Korean horror film The Host. Given U.S. preoccupations over the last 10 years, this is hardly surprising or undeserved. But it's a stark shift nonetheless -- to turn from abstract hegemon to ground-level menace.

Not all the grunts in foreign films are bad guys, of course: The soldier character manages to embody the entire gamut of American archetypes, roughly depending on the source country's stance on the Iraq war. The one unabashedly adoring, sunshine-and-Coca-Cola American character I have seen in non-Anglophone cinema of the 2000s was in the delightful California Dreamin' from Romania (which sent a force of 730 to Iraq). In this 2007 comedy, a minor paperwork error detains a U.S. troop at a rural Romanian train station, which gives the station agent's daughter time to fall in love with one of the soldiers.

Aggrieved Turkey, on the other hand, gave the world Valley of the Wolves: Iraq, the one with the wedding-crasher Yank commandos. The 2006 action film was Turkey's most expensive and highest-grossing ever, costing $10 million to shoot and making $28 million. Its plot piles a wild revenge scenario atop a real snafu: the accidental 2003 NATO arrest of several Turkish officers, with the detainees seen on TV in Abu Ghraib-style hoods. Barely a news blip in the United States, the "hood event," as it's known in Turkey, became such a sore point that, three years later, the country packed cinemas to cheer as a group of fictional Turkish supermen infiltrated Iraq and murdered the commander responsible for the errant raid. The real-life American officer found himself portrayed by B-grade villain specialist Billy Zane, who first shows up in a fedora and an ascot; his opening line is "Make no mistake. We will kill you." A comprehensive compendium of Muslim anxieties about American power, the film also throws in a fake Lynndie England, that Iraqi wedding bombing, and, for good measure, an Army doctor -- played by Gary Busey as a conniving Jewish stereotype -- who steals prisoners' livers for wealthy clients in New York and Tel Aviv. I haven't seen the latest installment by the film's team, Valley of the Wolves: Palestine, which apparently gives the same evenhanded treatment to the 2010 Gaza flotilla storming.

What's fascinating about Valley of the Wolves: Iraq, and the new crop of such films in general, is the increasing participation of Americans in America-bashing. Twenty years ago, the evil Yanks of Valley would have been played, in bad English, by bottle-blond Turks and perhaps a German or two. Now, there's Zane and Busey. In fact, a whole group of low- to mid-level Hollywood players has proven more than willing to accept such gigs: Armand Assante (who also happens to play a crusty but lovable captain in California Dreamin'), Michael Madsen, Rutger Hauer, and others. I'd love to posit some theory about Hollywood self-hatred here, but it's much more likely that we're seeing a curious byproduct of the globalized film economy. With Turkish studios now more able to compete with Zane's salary for, say, the straight-to-DVD Stephen Baldwin vehicle Silent Warnings, everyone can get their foreign villains directly from the source.

And there are plenty of bad roles for them to play. When the American soldier isn't a love-struck pinup or a sadistic killer, he is an oblivious jerk loosing hell upon the world with his negligence: a compromise view, of sorts. Take the opening scene of the South Korean horror film The Host, also from 2006, in which the United States accidentally creates a many-tentacled amphibian monster by dumping formaldehyde into a Korean river. "Pour [the bottles] right down the drain, Mr. Kim," sneers the American character, another Army doctor, in English. "That's right.… The Han River is very broad, Mr. Kim. Let's try to be broad-minded about this. Anyway, that's an order. So start pouring."

But the decade's most viciously and pointedly anti-American film came out of Russia. Financed by the pro-Putin political party A Just Russia, Yuri Grymov's Strangers (2008) makes Valley of the Wolves: Iraq look like California Dreamin'. It is, for all intents and purposes, an allegorical essay about the superiority of Russian morals. The plot follows a group of American doctors -- again -- who come to the Middle East on an ostensibly charitable mission to vaccinate children. Needless to say, they're up to some Big Pharma evil instead. But more important than the plot is the cast of characters making up the five-person team: a married couple who are incapable of having children (it's barely a spoiler to say that halfway through the film, Arab sperm does the job), a gay couple whose kiss sends local children running in disgust, and a neurotic single woman who clearly just needs a good roll in the sand. An analysis by the U.S. intelligence community's Open Source Center dubbed Strangers "a laundry list of Russian anti-Americanism" and quoted a Russian marketing source calling the movie "the most anti-American film ever to come out of Russia," no mean feat considering the legacy of Soviet propaganda.

But there's a significant difference between Brezhnev-era anti-Americanism and the Grymov brand. In their depictions of American evildoing, Soviet films implicitly laid the blame on the heartless capitalist system, not the individual: Inside every U.S. Army colonel was a potential good communist who just hadn't had his awakening yet. The cult 1986 thriller Interception, for example, shows an American spy and the Soviet border guard on his tail as mutually respectful equals. For Grymov, on the other hand -- and in this, he echoes a newly widespread Russian attitude -- American villainy stems from the American national character. His own promotional materials provided a convenient list of "American qualities" the film meant to illustrate: infertility, adultery, homosexuality, repressed sexuality, imposition of own values, ignorance of other cultures, scapegoating, consumerism, fitness obsession, pragmatism, and teamwork. (Yes, teamwork.) Later, the director added another to the list: the "Batman complex." In this case he didn't mean the American characters in his film but its actors, who, he told the newspaper Izvestia, "behaved like Batmen on the set," unable to convincingly sink to the required depths of humiliation. But it was too much, even for Russia. The film tanked. Even a last-minute "viral" claim that it had been personally banned in the United States by Condoleezza Rice couldn't get it off the ground.

It remains to be seen whether the next, hopefully more peaceful, decade's crop of movie Yanks will still be duplicitous bastards cloaking their evil in PC-speak or the more traditional archetypes: comic fatsos and saintly naifs. As it stands, we're still dealing with a bit of a brand problem. When Hollywood's mega-budgeted adaptation of the Captain America comic opened this July, in Russia, Ukraine, and South Korea it was called simply The First Avenger. Right now, in the eyes of global pop culture, "Captain America" is a name fit for a villain.

Images from 'Valley of the Wolves: Iraq'