No, I’m not referring to the new movie starring Tina Fey. But sometimes, it does feel like I’m living in a movie. I’m from a small town in the Midwest. For most of my life as young girl, the world inside the Beltway was more of a movie than real. And now it is my life.
At the Pentagon, the code words Whiskey Tango to stand for W and T and mean “what the”. This phrase is usually completed with Foxtrot or Hotel if you prefer a cleaner version. Even if you haven’t worked in the Department of Defense (DoD), you’ve probably heard a few of the code words assigned to the letters of the alphabet. In the NATO phonetic alphabet, A = Alpha, B= Bravo, C = Charlie…T = Tango…W = Whiskey. The U.S. armed forces use these code words because they can be easily pronounced and understood over endless radio communications necessary for military operations where receiving the correct message can mean life or death.
I had to learn this alphabet by memory when I took the Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) training (online version) to learn how to evade capture, survival skills, and the military code of conduct. Believe it or not, this training was a requirement for any travel overseas by DoD civilians into the United States States Central Command (CENTCOM) area of responsibility (AOR), which includes the Middle East and the “Stans” (Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, etc.). Somehow, I made the mistake of taking the extended online course. As a result, I had the pleasure of learning how to prepare worms for food just in case I got separated from my unit and lost in the wilderness somewhere.
Now if you know anything about how most civilians travel for the DoD, then you know that training on how to eat worms for sustenance is somewhat overkill in terms of travel preparation. Typically, we stay in five star hotels, remain in large cities far from any danger zone and have our cellphones for communication. That said, I did get separated from my unit once while traveling in Vietnam in 2010. The whole team was out on the town in Hanoi dining at a traditional Vietnamese restaurant. On the way out, I informed my team (as instructed in SERE training) that I was going to use the ladies room. They acknowledged the information. When I came out of the bathroom, my team was no where to be found. I checked the table where we had been sitting. I checked outside the restaurant. I checked all around the area near the bathrooms. I even walked out to the street curb to see if they had walked down the street somewhere. I shrugged my shoulders briefly and then just hailed a cab. When I returned to the Hanoi Hilton (no, not where Senator McCain was a POW), there was still no sign of my team. So I went to the hotel bar and had a beer before retiring to my room to go to bed. I didn’t see them come back to the hotel. No one called me. No one emailed me. It was strange, even rather eerie. I was the one separated from my unit, but I was worried about THEM.
The next morning, I asked my teammates why they just left me in the middle of Hanoi and why no one was worried about me. Apparently, they had walked around the corner to a stand that was selling souvenirs. The stand was just out of sight from the curb, which explains why I didn’t see them when I looked down the street. When I went “missing” from the group, they said that they didn’t worry about me because they had witnessed me repeatedly jumping out of taxis in the middle of Hanoi to check something out (definitely not recommended by SERE). They all figured that I had gone back to the hotel and was drinking a beer at the bar. Ha!
Many people were surprised when I announced a few days ago that I am writing my first fiction novel–mostly in a good way. But there were a few folks, concerned perhaps about my career as a respected scholar on national security and weapons of mass destruction (WMD), who responded with “what the hell?” Won’t my fiction writing interfere with my career as a scholar? Why don’t I just devote the time after work hours to my scholarly works? Why would I separate from my unit and go my own way?
But I’m not too worried. Like any scholar writing and thinking about national security and WMD, I am hoping to have impact on U.S. policy, public discourse and perhaps even the broader American population. And pop culture–movies, books, TV–is a valid and persuasive medium for seeking to impact national security policy. Why? Because it unlocks the power of the imagination.
For decades, WMD themes in film, popular fiction, and documentary television have informed the American public‘s consciousness of WMD issues and encouraged specific remedies. Today, WMD topics are a staple feature of entertainment films, television and electronic games. In fact, most of the information the American public consumes about the threat from WMD comes, not from government or subject matter experts, but from American popular entertainment. The ideas depicted in entertainment media, be they fact or farce, have shaped not only the general public’s collective awareness of the WMD challenge, but also have on occasion influenced U.S. policy.
There are numerous instances where Presidents, yes, they watch movies too, have been so profoundly influenced by a fiction book or movie that they have responded by adopting a major policy shift. In 1998, The Cobra Event, a fictional thriller by Richard Preston, became a bestseller in the United States. The novel describes a biological attack on the United States in which a man known only as “Archimedes” creates a new virus—called “Cobra”—by combining the contagiousness of the common cold with one of the world’s most deadly diseases, smallpox. Upon reading the novel, President Bill Clinton found the scenario so compelling that he asked Dr. John Hamre, then Deputy Secretary of Defense, to evaluate the plausibility of the novel’s scenario: “Could a terrorist unleash an unstoppable plague with designer pathogens?” Soon thereafter, the issue of biological terrorism climbed to the top of the policy agenda of the U.S. government and led to significant increases in effort and funding to counter the threat of biological terrorism. Decades earlier, In 1983, President Reagan shifted his stance on negotiating arms control with the Soviet Union after a private screen of the movie The Day After. He wrote in his diary about how the movie had opened his eyes to the dangers of nuclear war. Four years later, he signed the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with the Soviet Union, which he had once referred to as the evil empire. Now that’s the kind of impact scholars dream of!
At National Defense University (NDU), I teach an elective course on WMD and film. As part of the course, I ask the students to play the role of the bad guys and imagine a terrorist attack scenario using WMD. This exercise opens the eyes of the students to a key difference between the good guys–the policymakers working to prevent a WMD attack–and the bad guys–those actors seeking to use WMD to cause terror, panic and casualties. It’s a matter of mindset. As policymakers, we tend to focus on the constraints on our options, the friction across the interagency and the technical realities of what we can and can’t do to prevent WMD terrorism. The gaps to fill are far too many. We can’t possibly close them all. In contrast, the bad guys focus on the many possibilities, the countless vulnerabilities of an open society like the United States and are able to imagine the limitless number of potential scenarios available to them. The bad guys only need to find and exploit one gap to achieve success.
The WMD scenarios depicted in books and movies have profound effects because they unlock our imaginations to things we have not previously considered. I look forward to unlocking your imagination in The Nuclear Conspiracy. Stay tuned for more sneak peeks.
The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.