The Man in the High Castle: Alternate Reality Lessons for Modern Warfighters
By Tom Ordeman, Jr.
One uncomfortable lesson from the recent conclusion of the First World War’s centenary was the reminder that, prior to its outbreak, flag and general officers were committed to utilizing Napoleonic era tactics that were long obsolete. Similarly, more than three quarters of a century after the Second World War’s conclusion, American officers continue to treat the fight against fascism as the gold standard of warfare, even as its practical lessons for modern warfare wane to near obsolescence. One rare exception to this trend has been the alternate history presented by The Man in the High Castle, Amazon Prime’s dystopian drama, which ran from 2015 to 2019.
Adapted from a 1962 novel by noted science fiction author Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle depicts an alternate history in which the Axis Powers prevailed. The eastern half of America is occupied by the Third Reich, while the West Coast is occupied by the Japanese Empire. A lawless neutral zone, stretching from Idaho to New Mexico, separates the two occupied territories. Owing to America’s role in defeating fascism, memories of the Second World War continue to saturate the American psyche. As a result, the series’ portrayals of the Greater Nazi Reich and the Japanese Pacific States prove comprehensively disturbing. In a 2016 io9 article, series creator Frank Spotnitz conjectures that this is likely why it took eight years and a long string of rejections to get series produced.
Spotnitz and his team created a world that is designed to feel uncomfortable, in which the most pernicious aspects of the Third Reich and Imperial Japan are ubiquitous within familiar American settings. Prominent swastikas evoke a visceral reaction. Ethnic cleansing and racial segregation are matters of public policy. The Gestapo and Kempeitai crack down on treasonous activities, and routinely torture detainees. Censorship is the norm. In what may be the pilot episode's most subtly nauseating scene, an American Second World War veteran cum Greater Nazi Reich highway patrol officer nonchalantly explains to one of the lead characters that ash falling from the sky comes from the local hospital's crematorium: "Tuesdays they burn cripples, the terminally ill... Drag on the state." All of the reasons Americans have rightfully accepted as justifications for winning the Second World War at all costs are, in this alternate reality, facts of life with which Americans have become complacent.
The Man in the High Castle may provide viewers with the best possible corollary for how foreign occupations are perceived by the occupied populace. Americans will bristle to see the aforementioned highway patrolman's request to check a lead character's travel authorization. Likewise, Afghan villagers reportedly bristled at ISAF troops' efforts to connect rival villages with roads and bridges that, in a thousand years, the Afghans had never been inclined to build themselves. Americans will recoil to see the Nazi slogan "Work Will Set You Free" shining in bright lights above Times Square. Conversely, many Afghan fathers likely recoiled at the suggestion that they send their daughters away from the physical and cultural protection of their homes to attend schools sponsored by a foreign occupier. In the pilot episode, viewers witness the spectacle of an enormous, gaudy Nazi embassy in Japanese-occupied San Francisco, perhaps deliberately reminiscent of the world's largest embassy, the American diplomatic mission in Baghdad. The Man in the High Castle showcases a transformed America, remade in the image of these foreign occupiers. They serve as discomforting reminders that some of the Western-led coalitions’ more transformative goals for Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere have arguably been too ambitious.
As the series plays out, viewers are exposed to a variety of striking counterfactuals. Obergruppenführer John Smith (Rufus Sewell), a U.S. Army veteran and the Greater Nazi Reich’s highest ranking American official, climbed the ranks of America’s puppet fascist government after witnessing the Reich’s late 1945 atomic bombing of Washington, D.C. After the Kempeitai gas his sister and her children to death in an effort to extract intelligence from him, Frank Frink (Rupert Evans) joins San Francisco’s anti-Japanese resistance and carries out an apparent suicide bombing against Kempeitai headquarters. A senior resistance member, George Dixon (Tate Donovan), attempts to initiate an armed uprising against government positions in New York City. Beyond simply witnessing Americans simply tolerating the imposition of cultural and political systems that are anathema to the American experience, viewers see Americans filling roles that no American has ever filled during the course of living memory: collaborators, insurgents, and terrorists.
As an aside, The Man in the High Castle‘s second season also offers one of the most accessible depictions of nuclear deterrence in recent cinematic or television history. This includes a strategic deception storyline that rivals the Soviet Union’s successful deception efforts, which convinced America’s intelligence apparatus of an alleged “missile gap”.
To be clear, these comparisons should not imply any intended moral equivalency between twenty-first century American military operations on the one hand, and the conduct of the Axis powers on the other. Instead, these comparisons offer a rare opportunity for Americans to understand how Western-imposed solutions to local situations may be perceived by the local populations who are left to deal with the fallout.
Amazon's portrayal of a fascist-occupied America offers object lessons in the challenges involved with such efforts. The Man in the High Castle's stirring depiction of an alternate America can help viewers to understand how members of a foreign populace might feel while under occupation by Western military forces.
Every American who deploys overseas - particularly to locales like those associated with ongoing campaigns to counter Islamist terrorism - should watch portions of The Man in the High Castle prior to deployment. Witnessing these unsettling depictions of an occupied America, re-forged into an incarnation that most Americans will recognize as objectively wrong, may be the best possible method of kindling the spark of empathy among troops whose duties may put them in direct or indirect contact with those whose hearts and minds are critical to success in overseas operations. Owing to The Man in the High Castle‘s appeal to the Second World War’s inimitable role in the American consciousness, a sober appraisal of its implications can only help future efforts to achieve American strategic goals.