Red October: the hunt for a way to win the cold war without negotiating with terrorists

by zunguzungu

I enjoyed The Hunt for Red October, but it’s also a really interestingly stupid ideological fiction, structured by the need to believe a contradiction about geopolitics: peace can only be achieved by a balance of powers (mutually assured destruction), it acknowledges, but also peace can only be achieved by American supremacy and domination. The movie, quite characteristically, I think, needs to have it both ways, needs both to imagine the cold war as a thing America wins and yet understands, somewhat more rationally, that winning the cold war would actually mean the end of the world (and therefore has to forget it).

It does this by displacing the threat posed by “victory” onto the Russians: their technological superiority would be, as such, an existential threat to humanity, yet the Americans can safely crush them without fear; we, it is understood, would never start a nuclear war, so we can be trusted with a first strike technology. Why, after all, do Sean Connery and his entire officer corps decide to defect? The movie wants very much to establish that it isn’t selfish; their defection comes not when the cold war is lost for Russia, but when it was about to be won, when the Russian’s invent a super sub capable of launching a first strike attack on the US without being detected. It is (Connery’s character) Vilnius’ Ramius’ fear, then, that Russia will use it to win the cold war and end the world that makes him decide to defect. He and his officers choose to defect to the US, in other words, because they are citizens of the world, because they fear for humanity if the USSR has the means to win the cold war.

But why would giving this device to the US solve the problem? The fact that both sides would have the means to start a nuclear war actually accomplishes nothing, because both sides already had the means to start a nuclear war at any time. But this frame of reference diverts our attention from the fact that, in practice, the US goal was always as much to acquire nuclear superiority for itself as it was to establish a peaceful balance of powers. The movie’s reference to the Cuban missile crisis, for example (“some mad man decided to put nuclear missiles off the coast of Florida and nearly ended the world“) is consistent with a historical narrative that has decided to forget the US had also precipitated the whole thing by placing missiles that could destroy Russia in Turkey (while Russia could only hit Europe) and that the negotiated peace was less an American demonstration of will than a pragmatic willingness to de-escalate in response to Russia’s (riskier because prior) dismantling of their missiles in Cuba. And when we removed our Jupiter missiles from Turkey, for example, six months later and (only on the condition that we could do so secretly, so as not to look weak), a generation of American politicians learned the lesson that we could win by standing tall against the Russian. And Khrushchev lost power two years later, in large part for doing what Kennedy (apparently fearing the loss of conservative votes more than the end of the world) wouldn’t do: look weak by averting the crisis through negotiated de-escalation.

It must always be them, in short, who take the first risk, because we aren’t weak. In this sense, the moment when Alec Baldwin and company first board the Russian sub and discuss whether to bring a side-arm is quite telling: Baldwin has been, throughout, the voice of reason, the CIA operative who believes Vilnius Ramius to be trustworthy and that its worth taking a chance on peace. But when push comes to shove, the American sub captain asks him whether he would “bet his life” on Vilnius’ good will, and Baldwin accedes; better to bring the gun so you can shoot your way out of a jam, or something. But this is ridiculous: if Vilnius Ramius is not trustworthy, they’re all dead anyway. Bringing a pistol onto a Russian sub is not safety; it’s dangerous cowboyism, much more likely to precipitate a crisis than avert it. Which is, of course, the thing with missiles in Turkey: it was the desire not to have to “bet one’s life” on Russian trustworthiness (necessitating American nuclear supremacy) that made it almost inevitable that the Russians would put missiles in Cuba in response.  

The Hunt for Red October can’t think its way out of this problem. Which, for one thing, leads it to quite stupidly overlook the glaring hole in its entire premise: while the drama of the movie hinges on the idea that the Red October represents a new technology that can upset the balance of powers, the plucky American sub technicians figure out how to detect the undetectable sub literally the moment it is first used. And while the narrative of the movie from that point forward is the hunting of an un-huntable sub, the Americans track the thing just fine, as do the Russians. But without that kind of stupidity, we wouldn’t be able to stage the final climactic battle between submarines, would have no way to satisfy our bloodlust by blowing up a Russian sub and safely returning home to pat ourselves on the head for winning a war for peace.   

This all makes the business about American cowboyism (“buckaroos”) the movie’s nicest ironic touch, albeit one that Clancy himself is, I‘m sure, totally unaware. Because while Vilnius Ramius is quite right to fear that the Americans might turn out to be hot-headed and stupid (without exception, they pretty much are), the movie both shows that this fear is valid and then, magically, resolves itself without their stupid hot-headedness having any consequences. The best example of this is when Sean Connery suggests to Alec Baldwin that, just maybe, a cowboy gunfight inside the missile chamber of a nuclear sub might, perhaps, be a dangerous thing. This seems to me to be an eminently reasonable notion. But Alec Baldwin both makes fun of this caution and then (as before) chooses self-preservation through pre-emption rather than take any actual risk for peace: when we see the cold war standoff crystallized in the figure of the Russian cook holding the wires of the nuclear missile and Alec Baldwin holding a gun on him, this standoff is not resolved by both sides lowering their weapons and agreeing not to blow each other up. Instead, the mad Russian is pictured by the movie as a suicide bomber, whose only desire is to destroy both sides, and the only way to stop him is to shoot him first. Which Alec Baldwin does, again, without consequence (and the dozens of shots fired in the gunfight in the missile chamber of a nuclear sub ends without mishap).

I suspect, then, that this is the purpose of The Hunt for Red October. Since the actual cold war ended not with American victory but with cooler heads prevailing in the USSR, Clancy’s neo-con wet dream has to re-tell the story of the end of the cold war as a victory for technological superiority. Note, for example, how the movie goes out of its way to humiliate the Russian ambassador in the final scene: a negotiated victory is unthinkable, so the movie can only end with the representative of Moscow crawling to Washing literally with hat in hand. Instead of a troubling narrative in which Gorbachev’s willingness to take a risk and de-escalate first might be seen as having saved the lives of American cowboys (who were heedlessly blundering towards nuclear confrontation because the only outcome they could accept was unconditional surrender), the movie needs to re-imagine the cold war as a history in which we not only could have blown them all up and survived, but in which we won because we did. They are the maniacs who might end the world by trying to win the war by shooting first, it tells us, and then without a trace of self-awareness or cognitive dissonance, happily goes on to tell a story of disaster averted by cowboys who win the war by shooting first.