U.S. Army tanks face off against Soviet tanks at Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin, October 1961, during the Cold War.
U.S. Army tanks face off against Soviet tanks at Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin, October 1961. Credit: USAMHI / U.S. Army photo / Wikimedia Commons Credit: USAMHI / U.S. Army photo / Wikimedia Commons

I spent hours one day last week watching the last five episodes of Echo 3, an AppleTV series. I’m not sure I liked it but it got under my skin. (It’s like Citizen Kane that way and yes, there will be spoilers.)

It’s about U.S. imperialism in one of its Latin American bastions (till recently), Colombia. The CIA Übermensch heroes go in and wreak havoc, according to their own code and to hell with the people whose country it is. But there’s a moment nearer the end than the start.

A woman CIA analyst (or something) delivers a lecture to one of the überguys. She wants him to know what he’s perpetuating. She bluntly and brutally describes U.S. self-serving and violence without end. She even quotes NSC68, from 1950, a secret document, which set the course for ruthless anti-Communism and made global nuclear annihilation something we narrowly escaped.

The main person I’ve heard regularly quote NSC68 is Noam Chomsky, after it was made public in 1975. Chomsky, a leading left-wing critic of U.S. foreign policy, goes on and on about its ugly role.

But this is a CIA character damning it. There’s even black-and-white newsreel footage of the era. It’s like normal series carnage is interrupted by a PBS Frontline doc.

This is not an orphan case. Somewhere in the immensely successful Homeland, is a scene between CIA patriarch Saul, and a Taliban leader where the other guy schools Saul about imperial atrocities, to which Saul has no reply. Then it’s back to the implausibilities that ruled the show and mercifully ended it.

Or The Old Man, which started with promise and some heart-stopping reveals. By the end I’m waiting for the two old spooks to rescue their daughter/protégé but instead she winds up in Afghanistan determined to uncover her truth.

This kind of self-doubt or self-reproach, I’d say, represents a late stage in imperialism, a malaise that wasn’t there at the start, which you suddenly find not just in scholarship or protest movements but pop culture. As if the propaganda machine itself had an unexpected attack of mauvaise foi and blurts out, tourette’s-like, self-critiques and self-censure.

This happened in the late Cold War too with, say, Le Carré’s novels, though he was less likely to undercut political fairy tales than reveal “enemies” (like Soviet superspy Karla) as more human, humane, even moral, than our spies.

But there’s another provenance of the current streaming round: Israeli TV. Echo 3 and Homeland are based on Israeli shows. Israel today plays an imperial, or simply colonial role, and engages in self-serving dichotomies like their terror vs. our survival. But it also allows more cultural space for debate on subjects like the occupation and the siege of Gaza than here or the U.S. It’s had major figures like Hebrew Encyclopedia editor Yeshayahu Leibovitz or human rights titan Israel Shahak, who’ve fiercely decried Israeli actions (“Judeo-Nazi”) and this openness to questions may have leaked into the U.S. remakes.

Now along comes — and here I go officially off the track of a summer culture column — the war in Ukraine. I don’t mean the actual, ghastly war but its cultural representations in journalism and more broadly. We are suddenly back in the realm of good/evil, full stop, with little room for historical nuance or any sharing of blame. Yet it’s quite possible, I’d argue, to condemn Russia’s invasion unreservedly while also insisting that U.S. policy was complicit in leading to it.

In fact, I’ve been shocked at how easily and swiftly a rigid moral carapace has been draped over this conflict. I’d forgotten how pervasive the Cold War schema was under which people were dismissed (from jobs, say) or ostracized. For many who lived through it and others who didn’t, the Cold War remains a simple morality play. For others, it was a hideous moral slog, from which the only benefit ought to have been a few lessons for the future.

This column originally appeared in the Toronto Star.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.