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America’s latest TV fixation: Nuclear war in Pakistan

Published Oct 12, 2012 01:28pm


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Autumn has arrived here in Washington. The air has grown crisp, and the leaves are starting to change color. The city is abuzz about the sudden success of the local baseball team, the latest machinations on Capitol Hill, and the fast-approaching presidential election.

Also causing much excitement is the arrival of the season’s new crop of television shows — and especially a political thriller called “Last Resort.” A key plotline of this series, which debuted last month, revolves around an American nuclear strike … on Pakistan.

How curious that this new series envisions a strike on Pakistan, when it is Iran that so dominates American public debate about nuclear matters. Iran, Americans are often told, is menacingly building nuclear weapons — and could, not far down the road, be on the receiving end of a US military assault (albeit of the non-nuclear variety).

But no, “Last Resort” is all about Pakistan. Deep beneath the ocean and off Pakistan’s coastline, Marcus Chaplin, commander of the ballistic missile submarine USS Colorado, is asked to nuke that nation. He defiantly refuses, arguing that the order was not issued through Washington’s proper chain of command. A crew on another US military submarine, furious at Chaplin’s refusal, attacks the USS Colorado. Back in America, news reports announce that Pakistan (not the turncoat sub) has assaulted Chaplin’s vessel. Soon thereafter, two nuclear missiles detonate inside Pakistan.

Even by Hollywood’s standards, this plot is preposterous. I can think of absolutely no scenario that would prompt Washington to order a nuclear attack on Pakistan. A 9/11-style assault on America, traced to Pakistani militants with clear ties to their country’s security establishment? No, the US would restrict any military response to non-nuclear punitive strikes. What if Pakistan nukes India and the US retaliates on the latter’s behalf? I can’t possibly fathom Pakistan ever taking such action against India, much less America responding with nukes. Or what if Pakistani extremists seize power in Pakistan — along with the nation’s nuclear assets — and then unleash nuclear firepower across the US east coast? Perhaps, if it retained retaliatory capacities, Washington might sadly resort to nuclear tactics — but I (unlike others in this town) can’t imagine Pakistani extremists ever nuking America.

The relationship between Pakistan and Hollywood is a fascinating one. Decades ago, when Cold War exigencies produced relatively cordial US-Pakistan ties, Hollywood engaged Pakistan effusively. As my blogger colleague Nadeem F. Paracha has illustrated with his photo histories, American film stars often visited Pakistan in the 1950s to meet dignitaries and shoot movies. In the subsequent decades, likeable Pakistani characters became entrenched in American television culture. Think of the hapless yet respected restaurant owner Babu Bhatt in “Seinfeld,” or the cheerful Pakistani exchange student Raja Musharraf, whose year at a Wisconsin high school was chronicled in the short-lived “Aliens in America” sitcom.

Only more recently, with the souring of US-Pakistan relations, has Hollywood painted Pakistan with a relentlessly hostile brush. Several years ago, a writer for a popular crime series peppered me with questions about what a hypothetical Pakistan-patented attack on America would look like. Who would be the most likely perpetrator? How would the US respond? In the end, the show featured an episode in which the LeT carries out terror attacks in America.

There’s a simple reason why American movies and television shows so often portray Pakistan negatively: Audience preferences. It’s no secret that anti-Pakistan sentiment is strong in America. Hollywood producers aim to attract and maintain audiences. By airing Pakistan-hostile content, they are providing material that will resonate with (or at least not alienate) viewers. A similar dynamic played out — and to some extent continues to play out — with the anti-Arab images that contaminated Hollywood in the 1980s and 1990s.

Back to “Last Resort,” which does contain at least one thread of reality. Chaplin, the commander who defied orders to nuke Pakistan, is a likeable character who manifests sympathy toward the Pakistani people — unlike his civilian bosses back in Washington. This juxtaposition captures the tendency of the US military to be more supportive of Pakistan — and of close ties with Pakistan — than their civilian counterparts (the US-Pakistan relationship, after all, has historically been dominated by military, not civilian, links).

Chaplin and his crew, fearing arrest or worse if they return to American shores, decide to seek refuge on a picturesque island. At that point, Pakistan is forgotten and the plot falls back on the trite themes of isolation, survival and romance.

Still, that jarring nuke-Pakistan plotline lingers. And so does the thought that Pakistan simply can’t catch a break. From the rancorous deliberations in Congress about future aid packages to sensationalist television shows, it’s often hard to find anyone saying anything nice about beleaguered Pakistan.

Those days of American film icon James Stewart hobnobbing with the Pakistani leadership in Lahore have, sadly, long since passed.


The author is the program associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. You can reach him at



The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.


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Michael Kugelman is deputy director of the Asia Program and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. He can be reached at or on Twitter @michaelkugelman

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (50) Closed

ks Oct 12, 2012 05:25pm
doomsday scenario for the planet earth.
Hassan Oct 13, 2012 05:25pm
They chose Pakistan over Iran, because showing Iran would be more sensitive, considering that conflict is more real and a possibility than the Pakistani scenario. It is fiction, and the tv show is in no way encouraging mass murder, or sympathizing with the perpetrators.
Saj Oct 12, 2012 10:59pm
It is if you know the impact.
Khan Oct 13, 2012 01:58pm
Don't forget that Hollywood movies can build up a case. It has happened in the past if people remember.
Okay... Oct 13, 2012 01:04pm
Very well said. But you will not be understood by people here.
steve Oct 12, 2012 03:56pm
The demand has already been created in public by propagating negative image of pakistan and now slowly the products are comming out of the industry.A product can only be sold once the demand is created.
Saeed Oct 12, 2012 03:57pm
The Author is right, there is just too much negative publicity about Pakistan in the US at present. Unfortunately this government and its nepotistic diplomatic appointments are blind to it. Wait for further deterioration in relationships with the west.
saad Oct 12, 2012 04:09pm
Michael, I am in the US and have watched this series. Its unbelievable how childish and racist this series is and that there has been no complaints to shut it. I am boycotting ABC.
jun Oct 14, 2012 02:58am
Those who make movies or even think in their mind about these nukes don't know what nukes are.Just a few can destroy all life on planet and do lot harm than we are told by socalled experts,cos no one has yet really tested them.US or Israel are not countries on some other planet.Those people who even imagine like kids are too ignorant.In my country Japan,just visit Hiroshima and you will have nightmares for months
Kasim Oct 13, 2012 07:21am
Its fiction not reality. so is starwars and avatar. Hope you dont start debating about their plots as well.
Ahmed Sultan (India) Oct 13, 2012 02:31pm
When Mr. Khan?
Pakman Oct 14, 2012 06:49am
I can pretend that that this is fiction and it doesn't matter what country they picked. In reality, I am incensed that they chose my country. They could have made up a fictitious country, for e.g. 'Sumibiya'
Khalid Oct 13, 2012 12:14pm
But there are a lot of anti-Islam/Muslim sentiments.
exxo Oct 13, 2012 06:05am
nicely written Micheal.. Though i dont know if Hollywood sells what American ppl want to see or it sells what it want the ppl to see.. but, this season does make a point.. In my childhood, we used to watch USSR, RGB painted as evil etc.. then came the Arabs. Now we are there.. We all know what happened to USSR and the Arabs.. But, its JUST A SERIAL.. Ohh., but why dont we put U.K, France, Germany or Canada in it to nuke..?
hitesh Oct 13, 2012 06:02am
What you perceive, its most likely you intends to materialize !
Hamza Khan Oct 13, 2012 06:00am
They are just trying to fool american people. They are creating panic in american public through media.
Sultan Oct 13, 2012 08:04pm
Hollywood is not always about fantasy--Slumdog Millionaire is a stark portrayal of reality behind the facade of marketing campaign called Shining India!
karim Oct 12, 2012 02:15pm
Its just a TV show. No big deal.
abubakr Oct 13, 2012 09:03pm
Quite likely part of CIA psy-ops.Nothing more
xeroxus Oct 13, 2012 09:27pm
iran doesn't have one taliban or al qaeda.pakistan was the base,the al qaeda to which osama returned.
Mister Toad Oct 13, 2012 11:59pm
Winning hearts and minds the American way.
Truthsayer Oct 12, 2012 07:09pm
Although, just a TV show, it could be dangerous in the long run as it prepares a climate for future hostile US action. I really wish the Americans do not go down that path as nobody will benefit in the end. And Michael, I appreciate you bringing attention to such topics. I wish there were more Americans like that case, this world would be a great place to live in!
M Khan Oct 14, 2012 09:54am
America will never nuke Pakistan as Pakistan is an American ally. Ups and downs may come but the relationship of cooperation and development will continue. Long live PAK-USA friendship.
Suraiya Oct 12, 2012 09:23pm
Maybe they are giving us a hint?
Cyrus Howell Oct 12, 2012 10:45pm
I was spared because I don't waste my time watching TV. Did not even know about it until I read this. It must make Pakistanis in America a little uneasy.
Cautious Oct 13, 2012 12:28am
Anti American platitudes doesn't make for good writing nor does it necessarily gain a following in Pakistan. It's just a movie and America doesn't view Pakistan any different than most of the rest of the World -- as demonstrated by Pakistan being less popular than N Korea by the latest international polling.
Asif Oct 13, 2012 03:37am
Well read the article properly. The American public is snti-Pakistan thats why these shows are made and will become a hit probably. And in future, God forbid US can take an action like this if they have their public support. If Michael Kugelman thinks that this is a an important development, as he works for a respected organization and should be taken seriously than God help Pakistan.
khanm Oct 13, 2012 07:53am
If you give me the media I can brain wash the entire nation and after decay if you ask 2+2 they would say its all about media wars it can paralyze the nation......
Pradeep Oct 13, 2012 07:39am
You are speaking as if you don
Concerned Oct 12, 2012 05:48pm
They've destoyed New York city at least a hundred times in movies. What does that signify? US is anti-NYC?
Cyrus Howell Oct 13, 2012 12:57pm
America doesn't panic. They certainly don't take this TV episode seriously.
Muneeb Oct 13, 2012 08:11am
Whatever sells, at the moment sadly, we're among the villains of Hollywood. Unfortunately. many average Americans rely upon Hollywood not only for entertainment, but also for foreign policy advisory. Remember all the movies made during the cold war, even we in Pakistan were scared that the Martians... oops sorry the Russians are coming !!
Tauseef Rehman Khan Oct 14, 2012 03:56am
Pakistan has capability to strike back. Our target will be India and Europe !
siraj Oct 12, 2012 11:35pm
Karim, this is how they check the 'temperature' of the public. they float these ideas and see how people react. all the wars they are fighting today were tv shows or movies 15 years ago :) ..kinda big deal if you understand how they operate and manipulate public opinion
rajesh Oct 14, 2012 11:34am
and what is pakistani mindset about america, who ia giving so much aid to pakistan ??
Pakistani Oct 12, 2012 08:10pm
A nice, sensible article, highlighting the media/Hollywood hunger for an enemy/villain for their productions.
Syed Oct 14, 2012 07:27am
I would add one more word in your sentence "Hollywood is all about PROPAGANDA, imagination, fantasy and technology"
Indusonian Oct 12, 2012 05:40pm
It is not just a TV show, it is a mindset, having said that, it is also freedom of speech. But, I don't doubt for a minute that the televised scenario can be executed in real time. Case in point is target of Mehran Base attack.
Farooq Malik Oct 12, 2012 03:18pm
why dont they make one of America turning on its all weather friend ISRAEL and then see the reaction!
Javed Oct 12, 2012 06:02pm
I'm living in US for last 25 yrs and I don't think majority US public have anti-Pakistan sentiment. On the other hand, I have noticed that there is more anti-US sentiment in Pakistan. This author is infusing wrong sentiment to Pakistanis. Beware of his articles.
Asif Oct 12, 2012 06:03pm
use at least simple English so a common person can understand ur voice...and not only english experts
Aamir Oct 12, 2012 03:47pm
These are the sort of things that shape up future policies. Watch Rambo II lol. Rambo fighting alongside the afghan mujaheddin (poor peasants who took up arms to fight aggressive Soviets). Media is just way too important to be ignored. It manufatures consent
SAL Oct 12, 2012 03:53pm
Put ON your thinking caps folks.
Assad Oct 12, 2012 04:27pm
Good synopsis of the show as well as Pakistan-American relations!
G.A. Oct 12, 2012 01:50pm
I think the question should not be what America would do if Pakistan attacks it with nuclear weapons. Rather it should be what Pakistan would do if attacked with nuclear weapons by the Americans first. In the T.V. show it just rolls over and plays dead
Javed Qamer Oct 12, 2012 01:43pm
I agree with you MIke. American public is fed sensational news in the newspapers against Pakistan. These negative news then forms their basis for anger against Pakistan. American military on the other hand know the ground realities and realize that Pakistan is in a tight spot between the militants and the mullahs.
ahsan Oct 12, 2012 03:32pm
its not jsut a tv show my dear frnd... its depicting the mind-set of the american society regarding Pakistan. I have encountered so many American bloggers on the internet who support the very idea of nukeing Pakistan, i would even say that every 5 americans i encountered 3 of them supported the idea of nukeing Pakistan! so yes, its not just a tv show, it is a big deal!
ANEES Oct 12, 2012 02:04pm
So much time-wasting about a rubbish idea/presumption.
raika45 Oct 12, 2012 01:49pm
It is an irony that for a nation that depends so much on American aid is at odds with it.Regarding the nuclear thing.No nation on earth with the nuclear power will allow any country to unleash it's nuclear arsenal for first strike.They will flatten your country contrary to what your article says.One should face facts , not fantasy.
xoxo Oct 14, 2012 07:04am
its completely a preposterous tv show...... propaganda against pak..... don't they have better content to show if not then they should carry on with the kardashians.....