Homeland Insecurity

The new Red Dawn movie is really just a throwback to the ‘80s ... the 1880s.

This week, audiences will line up to see the new remake of Red Dawn, a cult classic of chest-thumping Reagan-era bombast in which a group of all-American teenagers -- including the bulk of the future cast of Dirty Dancing -- transform themselves into Colorado mujahedeen to fight off the invading Soviet and Cuban forces.

The remake -- which features Thor star Chris Hemsworth in the Patrick Swayze role -- has been mocked by critics and journalists for months before its opening, thanks in large part to the filmmakers' decision to re-edit the movie to turn the invading Chinese army into far less plausible North Koreans. Yes, the idea of a country incapable of successfully launching a single rocket invading the United States is pretty far-fetched. But many of those laughing dismissively at the premise of Red Dawn were probably more than happy to plop down their $12 to watch a plutocrat in a bat suit fight crime from his private hovercraft or a suave British spy grapple a bad guy on top of a speeding train without wrinkling his immaculate Saville Row tailoring.

The reason why we find Red Dawn so much more ridiculous than Batman or Bond (well, apart from inferior writing, directing, and acting) may have less to do with the plausibility of the premise than the fact that images of invading armies fanning out across the American homeland are rare in contemporary pop culture -- compared to terrorist cells, shadowy crime syndicates, or even aliens. But this wasn't always the case. From the last decades of the 19th century until World War I, invasion scenarios and tales of future wars were a staple of popular fiction in both the United States and Europe. In many ways, the new Red Dawn is less a throwback to the 1980s than the 1880s.

In 1871, shortly after the end of the Franco-Prussian war and the unification of Germany, a British Army engineer and India veteran named George Tomkyns Chesney published a short story in Blackwood's magazine titled The Battle of Dorking. Told from the perspective of a former gentleman volunteer speaking years later in occupied Britain, it tells a tale of how disciplined and technologically superior forces (Germany is never mentioned by name, but it's pretty clear who he has in mind) overwhelmed British defense at the decisive Battle of Dorking -- putting an end to British freedom forever.

Alarmed by growing German militarism, Chesney's scenario was a not-so-subtle call for the reorganization of the British military to defend an increasingly vulnerable empire:

I need hardly tell you how the crash came about. First, the rising in India drew away a part of our small army; then came the difficulty with America, which had been threatening for years, and we sent off ten thousand men to defend Canada -- a handful which did not go far to strengthen the real defences of that country, but formed an irresistible temptation to the Americans to try to take them prisoners, especially as the contingent included three battalions of the Guards. Thus the regular army at home was even smaller than usual, and nearly half of it was in Ireland to check the talked-of Fenian invasion fitting out in the West. Worse still -- though I do not know it would really have mattered as things turned out -- the fleet was scattered abroad; some ships to guard the West Indies, others to check privateering in the China seas, and a large part to try to protect our colonies on the Northern Pacific shore of America, where, with incredible folly, we continued to retain possessions which we could not possibly defend.

As British intelligence officer turned literature professor I.F. Clarke recounts in his entertaining history of the genre, Voices Prophesying War, The Battle of Dorking wasn't the first tale of future war, but the inventiveness of Chesney's scenario and the timing of its publication -- amid growing fears of German militarism and the quality of Otto Von Bismarck's army -- combined to make the story a sensation. (In its depictions of how the technological advances of the invaders would change the global balance of power, The Battle of Dorking is also considered to be a precursor to modern science fiction.) Blackwood's quickly sold out its initial print run and proceeded to sell 800,000 copies of the story as a stand-alone pamphlet. Editions of the story were reprinted in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States and translated into French and German. Rebuttals to Chesney in the form of unauthorized sequels to his story like After the Battle of Dorking and The Other Side at the Battle of Dorking packed the popular press. The story was even adapted into a popular dancehall tune. Decades later, it would take on a second life as a Nazi propaganda pamphlet.

Prime Minister William Gladstone even felt compelled to address the Battle of Dorking sensation in a speech decrying the dangers of alarmism. "I should not mind this Battle of Dorking, if we could keep it to ourselves," he said in a speech to the Working Men's Liberal Association on Sept. 2, 1871. "But unfortunately these things go abroad and they make us ridiculous in the eyes of the world."

Indeed, the phenomenon had already crossed the Channel. As Clarke writes, "From 1871 onwards, Chesney's story showed Europe how to manipulate the new literature of anxiety and belligerent nationalism. Between 1871 and 1914 it was unusual to find a single year without some tale of future warfare appearing in some European country. Italy had La Guerra del 190 -- a story of future naval defeat. In the story Vulnerable by Sea in 1900, a German author told of a future war against the combined forces of Russia, France, and Italy. The pseudonymous French author Capitaine Danrit churned out a series of jingoistic stories of 20th century warfare between 1889 and 1893 in a series titled The War of Tomorrow.

And back in England, writers continued to pump out anti-German, anti-French, and even anti-American diatribes in the form of invasion stories. (French and English authors often traded volleys across the Channel by writing similarly themed stories with different outcomes.) The master of the form was the famed yellow journalist and propagandist William Le Queux -- Queen Alexandra's favorite writer -- who enthralled readers of the Daily Mail in the 1890s and 1890s with serialized titles like The Great War in England in 1897, The Invasion of 1910, and England's Peril, the last of which infuriated the French government with the suggestion that its embassy in London was a nest of spies. Well-known authors like Arthur Conan Doyle, A.A. Milne, and H.G. Wells also penned future war stories. (The War of the Worlds was in many ways just an update of The Battle of Dorking with Martians substituted for Germans.) And P.G. Wodehouse of Jeeves fame parodied the genre in his novel The Swoop!

Naturally, it was only a matter of time before the genre crossed the Atlantic. Invasion stories were a staple of the American popular press from the 1880s on. As Clarke notes, the fact that -- as opposed to European countries -- the United States didn't face any major external threats at the time meant that "American writers were free to declare war upon any nations they considered to be a threat to the future of the United States -- British, Canadians, Chinese, Mexicans, Spanish, or Japanese." The Chinese threat was a particularly popular topic during the "Yellow Peril" craze of the late 19th century. And the British -- often with their evil Canadian compadres -- were popular villains, at least until Germany emerged as a clear adversary in the years leading up to World War I.

One notable example was H. Irving Hancock's 1916 popular young adult novel Uncle Sam's Boys at the Battle of Boston. Like Chesney, Hancock's tale, set in the year 1920, was making the case that the United States was insufficiently prepared for the possible future defense of the homeland:

"Mr. Prescott, if the Americans are headed toward complete disaster at last, be sure that they fully deserve it. For years the Americans have been told, daily, that they were not prepared for just such an invasion as is now coming upon us. The military experts of this country have begged Congress to authorize a larger and more efficient fleet, and to provide an army large enough for handling capably anything that an enemy might try to do to us. But Congress and the people have gone on laughing -- and now, over night, we find ourselves at war, and an enemy at our gates in numbers that assure the capture of every really valuable part of this country of ours!"

In Hancock's story, one can see the ancestors of Swayze and the Wolverines in Bert Howard and the volunteer cadets of Gridley High School, who heroically defend New England from German invaders:

"My, those boys are tireless, and there's some fine soldier stuff in them," murmured Lieutenant Greg Holmes, an hour later, as he watched the drill. "There ought to be good stuff in them," returned Prescott. "Back in 1916 there was a wave of preparedness excitement swept this country, and a lot of high school boys everywhere were drilled enthusiastically. Then, bit by bit, the interest began to die out, and to-day we have comparatively few high schools were real soldiering is taught. But in Gridley the enthusiasm never died out."

Uncle Sam's Boys at the Battle of Boston was just the first part of Hancock's series depicting a war with German invaders rampaging across the United States; later stories included In the Battle for New York and At the Defense of Pittsburgh. On the eve of World War I, this didn't seem like a particularly far-fetched scenario. After all, it was a telegram suggesting a German-Mexican plan to invade the United States from the south that helped push American into the war.

The very real carnage of World War I, however, largely put an end to the fanciful genre, according to Clarke. Invasion stories never really recovered in popularity in the post-World War I period. In the interwar period, future-war fiction took a darker turn, with totalitarian dystopias and tales of poisonous gas clouds seeming to anticipate the rise of fascism and the carnage of Hiroshima, though there were still occasional invasion tales being produced, such as the dark 1929 novel Red Napoleon, which depicts a communist takeover of the United States. During the Cold War, books and films depicting a Soviet military invasion of the West were far less common than books and films like On the Beach and Dr. Strangelove depicting the threat of nuclear war, or The Manchurian Candidate, telling of undercover Communist subversion. When fighting did take place in America, the culprits were more likely to be extraterrestrials than real-world adversaries.

It's fair to say that the development of the atom bomb sounded the death knell for invasion literature. Fulda Gap aside, it has been clear that World War III would likely end in nuclear disaster rather than armies streaming across the borders of industrialized nations. And since the end of the Cold War, movies like The Siege and television series like 24 and Homeland have reflected anxieties over the potential of a terrorist attack on U.S. soil -- but there's little fear, in either military planning or popular fiction, of battle lines being drawn on U.S. soil.

Which brings us back to Red Dawn. Even at the time the original film was released, the scenario was pretty far-fetched. "Those who consider the events set forth in 'Red Dawn' to be probable are no more apt to find the movie credible than those who regard them as ludicrous," Janet Maslin wrote in her review for the New York Times. Books and movies from the same era, such as John Hackett's The Third World War: The Untold Story and Tom Clancy's The Hunt for Red October warned of catastrophic nuclear military confrontation with the Soviet Union, but they stopped well short of depicting fighting on U.S. soil. Red Dawn feels like such a bizarre outlier because, for the past 70 years or so, Americans have felt fairly confident that whatever threats they face, an enemy occupation is pretty low on the list. (Notable exceptions to the rule are video games like the Call of Duty series, which have allowed players to battle Russian baddies on the American homeland.)

Of course, as Clarke points out, the alarmist authors of the late 19th and early 20th century were strikingly bad at imagining what "future war" would look like. Rather than decisive Battle of Dorking-style routs, the modern military technology that was just over the horizon resulted in the grueling, brutal stalemate of trench warfare. He ends his history by noting that "This fiction has an almost unbroken record of failing to forecast the true course of future wars. The Germans never invaded the British Isles; and the French did not conquer Germany. When the long-expected war came in 1914, it turned out to be very different from the swift campaigns and decisive naval actions described in the tales of the ‘The Next Great War.'"

In other words, it's easy to laugh at Red Dawn. But just because Hollywood has, for the most part, decided that terrorists, hackers, spies, and nukes are the real threats we should be worried about doesn't mean we have any real idea of what the next war will bring.



The Cult of Massoud

How Afghanistan’s Che Guevara still haunts Hamid Karzai.

KABUL — The first sign of officialdom you see when you drive from the Kabul airport parking lot is a government billboard looming above a traffic jam. It's the size of a highway billboard in the United States, but closer to the ground, so that you can make out every nuance of the faces on it. Those faces belong to, on the right of the coat of arms of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai, and on the left, slain Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud, dead some 11 years. With Karzai, you note those tired eyes and that child's chin, unaided by a trimmed gray beard. Massoud comes off vastly more dashing. He appears to be in conference with the heavens: The eyes smolder from within, the strong chin and bushy goatee angle out like a divining rod. A pakol, the traditional hat of the Hindu Kush, sits like a column capital on his head.

The billboard calls to mind a prizefight boxing poster, and the champ is obvious. It also happens to capture the attitude of many Afghans and foreigners working here. In the years since Massoud was assassinated by al Qaeda, just two days before 9/11, and Karzai installed as Afghanistan's interim president the following summer, their reputations have moved in inverse proportion. Karzai's popularity has steadily contracted, while Massoud's legend in Afghanistan has grown. As though he had just been killed last week, Afghans still talk about what a great president the guerrilla leader would have made. The implicit slight on Karzai, once dismissed as merely ineffectual and now as ineffectual, corrupt, and deluded, is obvious. Abroad, after years of worshipful portrayals of him by foreign reporters and historians, Massoud has become the Che Guevara of Central Asia. A young Norwegian woman staying in the same guesthouse as me here went weak in the knees when she learned the house's driver fought under Massoud. "I want to meet him," she breathed, referring to the driver, but really meaning the Lion of Panjshir.

Oddly, the billboard captures at least some portion of Afghan officialdom's attitude, too. Lately, no one has promoted the cult of Massoud as much as Karzai's government. This October, a month after the 11th anniversary of his death, the barrier walls of ministry buildings and the homes of officials are covered with Massoud's stoic visage, as are awnings, shop windows, street-food carts, car windshields, and so on. Wherever possible, as at the airport, Karzai is placed alongside Massoud, as though they were running mates in the 2014 election -- an election for which Karzai is ineligible to run, though there is talk that he may be so oblivious to his unpopularity he'll attempt to amend the constitution to allow himself a third term. ("Sure, if he wants to be killed," one Kabuli friend responded when I asked if he thought Karzai might try it.)

In fact, Massoud has been a kind of unwelcome spectral running mate to Karzai all along, a Kalashnikov-slung Banquo, against whom, by comparison, the president is always falling short. Karzai's inability or unwillingness to reign in graft, his failure to halt the Taliban, his perceived timidity and indecision -- Massoud's ubiquitous image is a rebuke to all of it. His years spent fighting the Soviets and then the Taliban from within Afghanistan contrast with the years Karzai spent safely in exile in Pakistan. The exception is in the department of political survival, where Karzai is at least Massoud's match, maybe his better. The president may venerate Massoud's memory or he may not, but he knows he must appear to do so to keep ex-mujahideen and ethnic hostilities in check. In an Afghanistan largely managed by foreign governments and defined by internal division -- most importantly the rivalry between the powerful Tajik minority, among whom Massoud is the favorite son, and the Pashtun majority, among whom Karzai is among the least favorite sons -- Massoud is, regrettably, the closest thing Afghans have to a national hero.

I say regrettably, because, while many Afghans venerate him, many others see Massoud as a false idol -- as just one in a rogue's gallery of militia commanders, living and dead, with their own personal fan clubs. His legacy is a matter of bitter divisiveness. His most ardent admirers are confined largely to Tajik strongholds in the north and west and in the capital. Recently, I visited Herat, Afghanistan's second-largest city, and saw only a few Massoud photos around. That the Taliban had just staged a firing-squad execution of accused kidnappers outside the city was not, I was assured, the reason for this. In many Pashtun-dominated areas in the south and east, and not just those where the Taliban is gaining control, Massoud is more of a national anti-hero. As one friend put it to me, "You can't say in the north that he's not a hero. People will kill you. And you can't say in the south that he's a hero. People will kill you."

But even in Tajik-heavy Kabul, you need only to start speaking to residents to find that Massoud is a touchy matter. Part of this is opposition to his political party, Jamiat-e Islami, and part suspicion of foreign intelligence services with a history of designs on Afghanistan -- Massoud took money from all of them, from the CIA, MI6, and Pakistan's Inter-Intelligence Service (ISI), from the French, probably the KGB, and even the Chinese. Part is class resentment -- Marxism has never entirely left Afghanistan. Massoud, whose father was a general in King Zahir Shah's army, was raised in upper middle-class wealth and attended a lycée. There is a feeling, even among other Tajiks, that Tajiks from the Panshjir Valley, where Massoud is from, are an arrogant bunch. When I asked him what he thought of Massoud, a Tajik taxi driver and former army officer when Massoud was defense minister, said "Panjshiris, they..." and instead of finding an adjective, he hunched up his shoulders, puckered his face and snorted haughtily. "They like British." (That's an insult in Afghanistan.)

The real skepticism about Massoud, though, arises from the facts of his life and what he eventually did to the city and people of Kabul. Afghans of a certain age and education know, for instance, that far from starting out the conciliator he would later become, Massoud began his political career as an Islamist radical agitator at Kabul's Polytechnic College. He fled to Pakistan in 1975 with the Muslim Youth Organization, years before the communist coup and Soviet invasion made this exodus a tragic necessity for millions of other Afghans. There he didn't teach himself to be a soldier, as the story goes, but rather was taught to be one by the ISI. It was under the direction of Ali Bhutto, who created Pakistan's covert war in Afghanistan, and was, many would argue, the progenitor of the Taliban. If there's anyone Afghan Pashtuns and Tajiks distrust more than one another, it's a Pakistani, and particularly a Bhutto.

Afghans up on their history know, too, that Massoud began his fighting career as a failed agent provocateur -- he was drafted by the ISI and its despised Afghan satrap, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, to start an uprising against the Afghan government in the Panjshir. It didn't work. According to some KGB memoirists, Massoud may have gone on to receive training from that agency in Lebanon. If that's true, it comes as little surprise that from the moment he became a mujahid and began to do battle with Soviets, after they invaded Afghanistan in 1979, making his legend, Massoud was also bargaining with the Soviets. He made a series of truces with them in the early 1980s. This duplicity is now explained away as a typically shrewd move by Massoud -- whose courage and battlefield brilliance cannot be questioned -- to win respite for his weary troops and recruit more support. No doubt it was. Nonetheless, the deals also helped bring the Soviet hammer down on less equipped mujahideen, and provided Massoud the opportunity to pursue a private war with Hekmatyar in the 1990s. (By that point, Hekmatyar was using many of his American-taxpayer-bought weapons to try to kill his old protégé).

Talking to Kabulis who don't buy into the hype, you learn that this is what what galls them the most about Massoud: the personal feud that played out in the streets of this city and caused incalculable destruction and loss of life. Hekmatyar and his Uzbek sometime helpmeet, Abdul Rashid Dostum, were the more wanton combatants, certainly, but Massoud brought his fair share of ruin, leveling whole districts of Kabul. "Massoud is responsible for half the atrocities of this country," said a prominent Afghan intellectual who did not want to named. Nor did the ruin end when he was elevated to defense minister in 1992. Many members of Afghanistan's second-largest ethnic minority, the Hazaras, will never forgive him for massacring Hazaras in south Kabul the next year. Massoud's men abused residents and looted shops. In part for that reason, many Kabulis welcomed the Taliban takeover three years later.

"It's a very difficult legacy," the prominent Afghan said, because of "his stubbornness, his lack of will to dispense with remote political masters, and his lack of willingness to resolve the issue of division of power peacefully."

Over a cigarette and a cup of coffee at Kabul University, a friend whose family stayed in Kabul through the Soviet occupation, civil wars, and Taliban years, explained to me there are three Massouds. There is the Massoud who fought the Russians. Everybody loves him. There is the Massoud who fought the Taliban and held together the Northern Alliance. Many love him. "Then there is the Massoud who came to Kabul and lost control. No one loves that Massoud," he said. But when they compare him with the other brigands who built militias and made Afghanistan's cities and villages their battlegrounds, he comes out the best of a bad lot. "That's why a lot of people can use his name to be in power."

Massoud learned insurgent tradecraft not just from the enemies of Afghanistan, but from Mao and Che, whose books he toted from camp to camp and often quoted. The comparison to the Argentine revolutionary is apt: as with Che, the whitewashed legacy and the bloody reality overlap only in convenient corners. Afghans have their own reasons for perpetuating the myth. Retirees from intelligence services and diplomat corps, now watching the United States and NATO flounder about in the provinces, regret not having backed him against the Taliban; for them, Massoud is a kind of tragic noble savage. For the rest, cult membership comes with a predictable Byronic sentimentality. Not just Norwegian co-eds are susceptible. An American woman I know who has lived in Kabul since Massoud was a boy insisted to me, with a sigh, that he was "the only real patriot" among the civil war commanders. When I pointed out that we happened to be near a neighborhood Massoud destroyed, she said "War is a nasty business. They were all killers."

Indeed, they were. No one knows this better than Karzai, whose government is stocked with those killers -- the "warlords," as they're now collectively known. Some took control of ministries after the Taliban's fall, others he installed. Opinions differ as to who is the keenest to use Massoud for propaganda purposes. Some say it's certain ministers, some Karzai. His picture hangs outside the ministries and the presidential palace. Some suggest officials put up portraits of Massoud precisely in order to humiliate Karzai. Then there are Massoud's five surviving brothers, a not-terribly accomplished crew but a rising political force. They nearly got the family name inserted into the national constitution.

Whoever it is, their reasoning is sound: Every regime needs a hero, and if it doesn't have one among its own ranks, it must pluck one from history. Massoud's image is an encouragement to the untold numbers of ex-mujahideen and their families still living in poverty. It also serves as a sop to Tajiks, who feel more and more threatened as the Pashtun-dominated Taliban reasserts control around the country. This imperative is forcing Karzai into awkward positions. Ahead of the 2009 elections, he named the Tajik commander Mohammed Fahim vice president -- after Washington had convinced Karzai to remove Fahim, who is accused of human rights abuses and whom Karzai is known to distrust, from his cabinet. Fahim replaced Ahmad Zia Massoud --Massoud's younger brother.

Whatever his own feelings about Massoud, Karzai at times seems to try to govern like the Lion at his worst: that is, as an embattled, self-regarding, and capricious general. He is ever more prey to paranoia and delusion, we are told, and increasingly given to outbursts against his foreign protectors, as in the recent flap over the Bagram prison. One can't help but wonder how much the burden of Massoud's memory has driven him to this point. A shame, because Karzai has managed to do the one thing Massoud never could: He has stitched together Afghanistan's ethnic threads into some semblance of a fabric.

Of course, he's done this in part by bringing a cast of unsavory characters into the fold, creating a shaky coalition that has come at the cost of Augean corruption. Ironically, that's one area where he really could use Massoud's help. For all his opportunism, the Lion never cared about personal enrichment, unlike the other warlords. He was happiest on the frontlines with his troops, on a cot in a cave reading a book. Massoud didn't make much of a politician, and probably wouldn't have done much better than Karzai as a president. In fact, every Afghan I've spoken with about Massoud, including his most ardent admirers, agree that he probably couldn't have been elected had he lived, even if he does look fantastic on a billboard. But he might have proved an exemplary Treasury secretary.