“Half-Cocked” Plans Leave Us Still on the Brink

Zeke Tilson, naval pilot in The Brink

In its second Sunday night installment, HBO’s The Brink continues to force viewers to confront the world’s worst security nightmares in a way that leaves us both laughing and praying that calmer heads prevail.

Episode two is titled “Half-Cocked”—and for good reason, as the mission to destroy Pakistan’s unguarded nuclear sites becomes a slapdash operation that just might put the world at even greater risk.


Misfires and Near Misses

The pilot episode closes just as two Naval pilots made an unimaginable discovery: they mixed up their Xanax pills and are leading a drugged-up bombing campaign over Islamabad.

At the first scene of the second episode, we’re back in the stoner plane only to find Zeke and Glen coating the cockpit with vomit and struggling to follow instructions. Glen is so dazed and confused, in fact, that he launches a missile at the first flying object to cross his sights, and strikes it down. Fortunately, it was only an Indian surveillance drone flying over Pakistani soil, and Glen’s trigger slip turns out to be a “minor whoops” at best. Once landed, Glen and Zeke outrageously receive a mere slap on the wrist (and a urine test, of course) for this outbreak.

But far more frightening, real-life near-misses have happened. Since 1962, we know of 13 instances where nuclear weapons were almost launched, including twice on American soil in North Carolina and Arkansas. Russia and the U.S. still have 1,800 warheads on high alert, ready to launch at a minute’s notice.

Glen and Zeke’s near miss was comically non-catastrophic—but it could have been. This hilariously neutral first scene serves to remind us that the U.S.’s billion-dollar weapon systems are only as good as the fallible human beings who sit behind the controls.


A Third Way

As the pilots try to steer clear of more danger, we head back to the situation room, where we find Secretary of State Tim Larson similarly trying to quell certain trigger-happy members of the president’s cabinet.

Last episode, the Defense Secretary came out on top after lobbying President Navarro to launch a strike. In the second episode, however, Secretary Larson pulls out a new secret weapon in an effort to solve matters without force.

Larson claims he has found a third way—one more hawkish than a diplomatic summit but with less initial damage than an all-out bombing campaign. His solution is to find a moderate figure within Pakistan and covertly install him as leader, ousting the crazed Zaman from power. In other words, regime change.

While one can appreciate Larson’s quest to remove from the world a maniac with access to 100-plus nuclear weapons, we must also recall the many backfired attempts by the U.S. to inflict regime change abroad in order to further its own interests. Take, for instance, the 1953 CIA-led coup to oust Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh and restore the Shah, a move that became a rallying point for anti-U.S. revolutionaries in 1979. And don’t forget Tibet, Cuba, the Congo, South Vietnam, Afghanistan (a couple times), Turkey, Poland, Indonesia, large swaths of Latin America, and of course, the Mother of All regime change failures: President Bush’s Operation Iraqi Freedom.

In order to sway the president toward this alternative, Larson makes an appeal to President John F. Kennedy, history’s perhaps most famous evader of nuclear war. “Imagine where we’d be if JFK had launched during the missile crisis,” he says to the Defense Secretary, who retorts, “We’d be the world’s largest superpower.” Larson gets the last word: “Of a charred, scorched earth!”

In this scene, it’s hard not to admire Larson’s determination to avoid a full-scale military operation that has the potential to devolve into nuclear war. His alternative, if history is any guide (which of course it must be), is simply lacking in any evidence of a long-term improvement to U.S. security, and some would argue (with great credibility) could add fuel to insurgencies down the road.

In fact, Council for a Livable World board member Matthew Hoh famously resigned from his post at the State Department in protest over the Afghan war and U.S. policies there. He writes in his resignation letter, “We continue to secure and bolster a failing state, while encouraging an ideology and system of government unknown and unwanted by its people.” Hoh knows well the sheer lack of foresight employed by Larson and real-life American policymakers as they dream up quick fixes to correctly “align” the undesirable governments of the world. It’s these quick fixes that so often and so quickly devolve into long, bloody, costly conflicts.


The Extra Step

In this week’s episode of The Brink, as often done in history, we watch decision-making approach the brink of catastrophe only to have cooler heads call for pause.

The show certainly takes on serious geopolitical issues and creates terrifyingly plausible scenarios, but after two episodes, we can say plainly that The Brink could pack some more punch. By the credits, we’re left wishing that the show took that extra step, that it teetered over the edge and fulfilled some of these nightmares on screen so that we may laugh at some of the backfires of our nation’s past and remember all those times when we have tragically failed to stop at the brink. Maybe next episode? Stay tuned for more.