In the second half of May we celebrate America’s current military personnel with Armed Forces Day and commemorate our fallen heroes on Memorial Day.  This is an appropriate time to render sincere gratitude for the sacrificial service of American citizens who have served in harm’s way in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, and Coast Guard.  Bizarrely, this same week the number one movie on Netflix’s adaptation of Rumaan Alam’s novel Leave the World Behind, a chilling “apocalyptic thriller” about the destabilization and disintegration of America and its armed forces. 

There have been a number of apocalyptic and dystopian novels in recent years about the meltdown of American society, whether the result of a plague or the loss of technology via an EMP (electro-magnetic pulse) or a cyber-attack.  In most cases, such as in P.W. Singer’s Ghost Fleet or William R. Fortschen’s One Second After, retired and current members of the U.S. military are self-less heroes who bring years of training, prudence, and a love for the common good to bear on the problems of scarcity, lawlessness, and fear. 

Netflix’s Leave the World Behind is quite different.  It begins with the family of Clay and Amanda Sandford (Ethan Hawke and Julia Roberts) leaving the bustle of New York behind them for a spontaneous weekend outing to at a Long Island beach house.  While there, bizarre things begin to occur such as a huge ship washing up on the beach, cellular service going out, strange animal behavior, and a fleet of Tesla cars – minus drivers – crashing themselves into a heap on the highway. 

Late in the movie, one character (played by Mahershala Ali) reflects that what has happened is a “three-stage maneuver to topple a country’s government from within.”  Clearly the work of China, Russia, Iran, or a combination of these forces, those phases seem to be unfolding before their eyes: 

The first stage is isolation: disable their communications, transportation, make the target as deaf, dumb, and paralyzed as possible, setting them up for the second stage: synchronized chaos.  Terrorize them with covert attacks and disinformation 

overwhelming their defense capabilities, leaving their weapons systems vulnerable to extremists within their own military.  Without a clear enemy or motive, people will start turning on each other.  If done successfully, the third stage will happen on its own…coup d’état, civil war, collapse. 

This program was considered the most cost-effective way to destabilize a country because if the target nation was dysfunctional enough, it would do the work for you. [note: this is a direct quote from the movie] 

The movie concludes with what appears to be a U.S. military jet dropping bombs on New York City.  

This type of warfare is not just for novels and the cinema.  We have seen Russia use a variety of cyber, propaganda, economic, and hard power tools to isolate, instigate chaos, and cause insecurity in Georgia, Ukrainian Crimea, Ukraine, and elsewhere in recent years, not to mention other assaults such as the ‘Havana Syndrome’ attack on the U.S. embassy in Cuba or Chinese cyber-espionage. 

Frighteningly, however, the assumption at the core of Leave the World Behind is that there may be such extremists with the American military who are ready to destroy our country.  Although Gallup surveys show the U.S. military still has an impressively high level of trust from average citizens when compared to other institutions, nonetheless trust in the military has declined by 10% in the past two years. 

This lower level of trust for the military, and far lower trust for law enforcement, seems to be a growing problem on the Left and center-Left.  The Biden administration has exacerbated this.  It came into office suggesting that the U.S. military was full of right-wing quasi-fascists and pledged to root them out of the military by an unprecedented investigation of the online profiles and social media posts of the 2.87 million people affiliated with the U.S. Department of Defense.  At the same time, the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security reframed their efforts and training toward alleged right-wing extremists. 

The Administration hyped its massive investigation of our military personnel and defense department civilians, but a major Inspector General report only found nine such potential “extremists.”  Yet these political attacks on the loyalty of America’s military and national security service personnel now seem to have been picked up by Hollywood, where fiction can dramatically shape the thinking of the uninformed and America’s youth.    

The good news is that this is all just scary fiction. The loyalty and the sanity of the U.S. military is not in doubt and the American people still trust the military more than almost any other institution.  Unfortunately, calling into question the value structure and loyalty of our guardians, defenders, and veterans is not just ugly, but contributes to the overall decline in trust for public servants in all of our institutions.   

The military has a lot of work to do on the defensive aspects of hardening our infrastructure, our communications, our defensive capacities, and our cybersecurity. But at the same time, we should not fall into the trap of denigrating our public servants, calling into question the fundamental institutions of democratic life, and mocking our warriors and protectors.  That is what our fallen heroes fought for in the first place, and this Memorial Day we should reaffirm that commitment to public service and our shared commitments to the fundamental values of our Declaration of Independence and Constitution.