'Homeland' and 'No Easy Day' Make the Murky War on Terror Visible

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Whether on a fictional TV program or in a real literary account of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, audiences seem to be gravitating towards media that makes America's enemies knowable.

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Dutton Penguin, Showtime

The 20th century had the world wars and the long-term Soviet-American rivalry of the nuclear age to provide the material for all sorts of books, television, and films dramatizing the era. This new century, though, is largely dominated by new themes of global upheaval stemming from September 11, 2001 and the ensuing events. Turmoil is endemic throughout recorded time, but in the past decade or so, the Internet has led to an almost unfathomable increase in the speed with which information ricochets around the world. Countless incidents of bloodshed, repression, and hateful imagery are instantly replayed, adding to the sense of widespread mayhem. No Easy Day and Homeland, two much-discussed recent cultural works, show how Americans audiences gravitate towards seeing this turmoil depicted—and overcome—in both nonfiction and fiction.

The best-selling nonfiction book this very busy season is No Easy Day, a vivid and apparently scrupulous account of the Navy SEAL operation that killed Osama bin Laden last spring. The author, writing under the pseudonym Mark Owen (but immediately identified as Matt Bissonnette, a member of the team), has been harshly criticized and threatened with legal action by the Pentagon for bypassing prior review of his version of this undisputed triumph in the effort to destroy al Qaeda. Such criticism may be warranted, but as USA Today said in a thoughtful editorial, Bissonnette's account apparently "corrects the historical record and so far it appears to have come at no direct cost to anyone." At the same time, the book has received excellent reviews for offering the most verisimilitude out of the many action-packed war stories and Washington-based insider tales to be published in recent years about the anti-terrorism battlefronts. Tony Perry, the Los Angeles Times reviewer, called it an "important historical document." Janet Maslin of the New York Times said the book's emphasis is on "explaining a SEAL's rigorous mind-set and showing how that toughness is created." It is worth going to the 60 Minutes website to read the transcript of the only interview with Bissonnette in which (under cover of his pseudonym Mark Owen) he insists that he had no political or revelatory objective in writing his book. "I'm not talking secrets," he told CBS's Scott Pelley, "I'm not talking tactics. I don't even get into any of that stuff. But I really try and give the reader a sense of what it's like to be there."

By contrast, the outstanding dramatic television series of the moment is Showtime's Homeland, winner of multiple Emmy awards for its depiction—with dramatic verve but exaggerated and even fanciful details—of CIA activities in the pursuit of a former American POW turned into an agent for one of America's Middle Eastern adversaries. Even Barack Obama has said he is a fan. Whatever operational "secrets" may be disclosed in this fictional saga, everyone knowledgeable seems content to let them be revealed. Homeland and Fox's eight-year run of 24, plus a slew of feature films, have drawn huge audiences. But as fiction, these programs and films are held to a different standard than No Easy Day. Recapping the second season opener of Homeland, Barbara Chai in The Wall Street Journal said admiringly, "by the looks of tonight's premiere, it's about to get even more unhinged this season."

The enemies of today are elusive and sometimes not clearly defined, yet these stories—one real, one imagined—satisfy Americans' demand for an effective response. While it seems pointless to criticize (or heaven forbid, suggest curtailing) the exploitation of today's turmoil, it is striking how much commercial upside there is in the portrayals of rampant conflict. Americans are clearly fascinated and somehow reassured by what they read and watch as their troops and operatives wage an open-ended struggle against the agents of terror and tyranny.

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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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