Review of Brendan James and Noah Kulwin, Blowback, Seasons One and Two.
The left critique of empire is fundamentally Janus-faced: on the one hand, empire is destructive, villainous, first and foremost about domination and enrichment. On the other hand, empire is stupid and incompetent, engaged in hubristic adventures that create unintended future consequences—also known as “blowback.” Appropriate as these different critiques often are in individual circumstances, they sit awkwardly next to one another as a coherent orientation toward the American empire. Are we dealing with the handiwork of villains, the bumbling hobbies of powerful dunces, or some mindless in-between mechanism of insatiable expansion?
An ambitious new series created by producer Brendan James and journalist Noah Kulwin, the first two seasons of the Blowback podcast offer a kind of reckoning with this question, played out in examination of two cases of United States aggression: Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the first season, and Fidel Castro’s Cuba in the second. Emerging from an ecosystem of Brooklyn-based podcasters and writers loosely affiliated with the Bernie Sanders Left, Blowback skillfully brings to life these two major episodes in America’s foreign policy expansion for a new generation. In the process, James and Kulwin seem keen on rooting out the complicity of liberals and some segments of the Left in every major postwar intervention from the mid-20th century division of Europe and the overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala, to the early 21st century invasion of Iraq and the near-destruction of the Venezuelan economy.
Blowback goes further in this task than anything else of its cultural footprint. The podcast is tailored to a broader audience than Moderate Rebels, by the editors of the more stridently anti-imperialist Grayzone online magazine, and it eschews the quasi-academic think tank tone of the Foreign Exchanges newsletter. Deeply informed without being stuffy or earnest, Blowback is more fun than the moving Serial podcast by the creators of This American Life. And most refreshingly, Blowback is an antidote to the dichotomized hysterics of contemporary U.S. politics. Among other important insights, its historical approach suggests that America’s imperial stench did not begin with the 2016 inauguration of Donald J. Trump.
Each of Blowback’s first two seasons reveals a side of the left critique of empire as both bumbling and nefarious. Leaning toward the former is Season One about the origins and trajectory of the U.S. war in Iraq, which is depicted as a disastrous strategic failure. Season Two advances the latter critique, by describing sixty years of U.S. regime change operations toward revolutionary Cuba as rank neocolonialism and petty gangsterism. The juxtaposition is most striking in each season’s treatment of the colonized other. Few Ba’athists are given a chance to defend Iraq’s pre-American system in Season One, while members and sympathizers of the Cuban Communist Party have ample time to trumpet their country’s revolutionary achievements. This itself is a reflection of the importance of holding state power. The Iraqi Ba’athists were crushed and are now voiceless; the Cuban Communists continue to emerge victorious and can now appear on edgy hipster podcasts. The creators of Blowback raised money to support Cuba’s vaccination campaign; no similar effort was launched to help the Iraqi resistance expel U.S. military forces.
Put another way, the podcast’s approach to Cuba is simply to ideologically denounce U.S. imperialism as being on the wrong side of history from the Cuban revolution. Its treatment of Iraq was more to criticize the war from a realist perspective as having been a series of strategic blunders. It is common in Season One, for instance, to hear about how the U.S. commanders “didn’t know shit about shit,” or how they put on a “clinic in how not to do these things.” Clips of Homer Simpson and Brad Pitt’s character in Burn After Reading appear. Poking fun at Bush’s less-than-penetrating intellect is naturally quite common. This all leads to some awkward parts where the hosts end up unwittingly imagining “smarter” solutions for the empire, as in Episode 3 when Brendan James mulls greater applicability of American war games but then quickly pops his own thought bubble.
But this orientation is also balanced by glimmers of what’s to come: in Episode 7 of Season One, “#Resistance,” James articulates a perspective on the use of chemical weapons in Fallujah that is present if inconsistent in the first season but dominant in the second:
I quarrel with the idea that the American military was in denial about the damage they were doing. I think you pull a lot of articles at the time and a lot of quotes at the time from colonels and generals… they did know what was going on here. We have this sort of automatic reaction to think of the US as this big, bumbling empire, but they knew what they were doing in Fallujah, they knew they were destroying this place. And just like in Vietnam with Operation Phoenix, the goal was to terrorize, the goal was to annihilate. And that’s exactly what they achieved.
By Season Two, this perspective becomes axiomatic: the United States is depicted not as a bunch of bumbling bros but as having succeeded in teaching a lesson to other countries in the Western Hemisphere by strangling the Cuban economy for sixty years. The hosts do not dwell on the strategic and tactical blunders that prevented the achievement of U.S. interests abroad in Season Two. Castro’s Cuba perhaps teaches something Saddam’s Iraq does not: that we often critique the stupidity of American foreign interventions at the cost of fully appreciating their relentless brutality.
This is not, again, to say that Season One abides wholly by one perspective: Blowback demonstrates the deep corruption, Machiavellian decision-making, and outright lies of the Iraq war. Their review of the complicity of the grovelling press in Episode 5 with Chapo Trap House’s Will Menaker is superb. But Season Two moves definitively past any “it was all a silly mistake” theorizing and toward a stark portrayal of American aggression. (If anything, the fault of Season Two, in demonstrating the nefariousness of the Americans, is to go overboard in presenting the gains of the Cuban revolution. To oppose imperialism, you really only have to debunk the lies depicting the target as evil. Also: lots of Brendan James lectures in Season Two!)
In the 1941 short story “The Logic of Empire,” Robert Heinlein highlighted the so-called devil fallacy, in which anti-imperialists “attribute to villainy [phenomena] that simply result from stupidity.” This reference to the stupidity of empire, delivered by a wealthy fatalist to an aspiring anti-imperialist writer, refers not to empire’s silliness or incompetence but to its unthinking brutishness: “the invariable result of imperial expansion, [which itself is] the automatic result of an antiquated [read: capitalist] financial structure.” Blowback explores both sides of this dichotomized critique of U.S. foreign policy, revealing in Season One the limits of the chauvinistic critique of empire as sometimes silly (so what if it were smarter?), and in Season Two the promises of an analysis of empire as unforgivingly brutal. More intriguingly, the podcast’s evolution over the last year suggests that its increasingly robust critique of imperialism may eventually lead to a consideration of the role played by liberal (and social democratic) chauvinism in providing a bourgeois modernist veneer to launder empire’s conservative and exploitative essence.
This is all to say that the Blowback hosts may have outgrown the title of their podcast. The blowback thesis is attractive in many ways: history sometimes provides readymade evidence for it, such as when the United States’s covert support for the Afghan mujahideen helped form political organizations that would eventually metastasize into al-Qaeda. At other times, however, blowback dynamics merely fuel more intervention, as arrogant sanctions and regime change operations sustain the self-justifying dynamics of empire—a concept replaced of late under the sanitized, ahistorical term “forever war.” To be sure, the left case against empire is not an easy one to make, especially with the liberal commentariat wielding the double-edged sword of bourgeois progressive internationalism and chauvinistic McCarthyism. But for those interested in the dialectic of imperial and anti-imperial discourse and practice, Blowback occupies an important and evolving place in contemporary culture.
Thomas Field is a historian who lives and works in Arizona.