The Violence of Empire: Amazon's Jack Ryan
Jack Ryan is meant to be a rousing tale of daring spies set against a devious terrorist mastermind. It's not. Jack Ryan is a dismal slog through the guts of the American Empire. Its protagonist (Jack Ryan) is meant to be a square-jawed American hero: the ex-marine with a Ph.D. in economics, a stockbroker turned CIA analyst, tall and white and handsome. But over the course of the series, we watch as Jack saunters his way from disaster to disaster, the bodies of other people piling up around him. I won't recap the whole series; instead I want to focus on a few revealing moments. In episode 1, Jack hoodwinks a colleague into going off book. When it looks like it's about to blow up in his face, he throws her under the bus — until it turns out that he's stumbled onto a big win, at which point he never mentions her name again. In episode 3, Jack insists on tailing a fleeing suspect by drone, rather than apprehending him immediately. The French police worry that they'll lose him in the storm — but Jack insists. They promptly lose him in the storm. In the mad scramble to find him again, a gunfight breaks out, killing two French police and the suspect. No intelligence is gained. Obviously nobody points out that Jack's risk-taking just led to a monumental cockup. But this is normal. Jack Ryan's meteoric rise through the Agency is powered by a simple fact: for a man like him, risk has no downsides. If a gamble pays off, he is rewarded for his brilliant insight. If it all goes tits-up, it's always someone else who pays the price. For men like Jack, it's always heads he wins, tails someone else loses. So when Jack yells an idea out in a crowded meeting (episode 5), it's not because he knows he's right. It's because he knows he can get away with that shit. (he is interrupting the literal secretary of defense, btw.) Jack is obviously working this system! Consider the scene in episode 7, where his colleague Tarek wants in on an important meeting that Tarek has provided critical intel for. Jack simply physically outmaneuvers him, leaving the door literally (and metaphorically) shutting in his face. Which is all to say: in Jack Ryan we can see a metaphor for my country's endless wars. Leftists occasionally frame America's wars as resource grabs — "No Blood For Oil!" In truth, the American government never extracted so much as a barrel from Iraq. Why would we? Compared to the 2.4 trillion we spent there, any "spoils" from oil are chump change. A river of money flowed through Iraq, transferred from the American taxpayer to the American corporation. We can illustrate this with some background events in Jack Ryan. Remember that black site in Yemen from episode 1? The one Jack passes through, where they're literally buying corpses from the locals? The purpose of that base is not to pump oil out of the ground. The purpose of that base is to pump money out of your city and into the bloated coffers of Blackwater, Halliburton, Radeon, even fucking Aramark. And the fuel that drives this pump is death. The blood and bodies of brown-skinned men and women are what these places use to justify their existence — quite literally. Those corpses they're buying? They're proof of missions accomplished. Of course, the base gets attacked and blown up. For the dead, this is a bad outcome. For a military contractor, it's all upside. If we're winning, that's a sign their products are working! If we're losing, well, Uncle Sam had better start buying more missiles ($115k a pop for a Hellfire — $1.4 million for a Tomahawk). Either way: profit. This is the violence of empire: a vast and creaky machine, grinding up foreign bodies, lives, entire nations, creating the problems it's meant to solve, draping men like Jack Ryan in honor and men like Erik Prince in bloody lucre.