Sunday, May 10, 2020

Homeland: An Appreciation

Clare Danes
Carrie Mathison

I must confess at the outset to having a bit of a crush on Clare Danes.  The 8th and final season of Homeland has just concluded (  Homeland has earned its place as an effective dramatic series that manages to deal with foreign policy and intelligence issues in a serious thoughtful manner.

My historian's perspective dictates that I must consider Homeland from the vantage of multiple threats to the USA over the course of our history.  Hitler's Nazi regime was an existential threat to our homeland in WW2.  Imperial Japan was a threat to our Pacific coast and possessions.  Communist Russia was a nuclear-armed threat during Cold War.   But the very first nation to declare war on the USA was, surprisingly, in the Islamic world.

To really appreciate Homeland it is necessary to jump into the way-back machine and examine the origin of historic foreign threats to our homeland and the responses that these threats created.

Following American victory in the Revolution, we gained our independence.  But we Americans also lost the sheltering protection of the British empire.  American merchants trading around the globe lost the protection of the Royal navy. Barbary pirates based in North Africa preyed on defenseless American merchant vessels.  John Adams was a staunch advocate of a strong navy while Thomas Jefferson was more skeptical about US Naval and military power.   Adams and Jefferson debated over whether the  fledgling republic should build strong navy to deal with the threat of Islamic pirates.   But even Adams had his moments of doubt expressing that "We ought not to fight them at all.  Unless we determine to fight them forever. This thought, I fear, too rugged for our People to bear."   (Source: Six Frigates, Ian Toll, p 28, 2006, The US Marines, in particular, would clash with the Islamic world in Libya where they were led to victory "on the shores of Tripoli" by  William Eaton, a former sergeant in the Continental army.

In the Libya chapter of America Invades we noted...

"In 1801, Tripoli (now capital of Libya; then, with its surrounding territory, a sort of state on its own) became the first nation to declare war on the United States...Yussef Karamanli, pasha, of Tripoli, had his minions chop down the flagpole at the US consulate in Tripoli. Not the most subtle method of expressing your displeasure with another country, but one bound to get noticed...We had a bit of a pirate problem at the time—or actually quite a lot of a pirate problem. And we weren’t alone. Barbary pirates operating from the North African coast had taken over one million European slaves from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century. And between 1785 and 1815, more than six hundred American citizens were captured and enslaved.

We had tried to solve the problem by paying the Barbary States not to seize our ships and our sailors, but finally, Thomas Jefferson had grown weary of paying tribute. Hence the chopped down flagpole. In reply, Jefferson dispatched elements of the tiny USN (six ships in total in 1803) to North Africa to  fight the First Barbary War...
William Eaton
1764 - 1811
Now Jefferson sent William Eaton, a former sergeant in the Continental Army, to go on a secret mission to the Barbary Coast. Eaton had also had diplomatic experience serving as the US consul in Tunis. The dispatch of Eaton represented the first occasion in which the US government attempted to overthrow a foreign government by covert means. It would not, of course, be the last time.

One of the most famous incidents in the history of the USMC took place in Libya in 1805. William Eaton led a group of eight marines and a party of mercenaries on a 520-mile march through the desert from Alexandria in Egypt to Derna in Libya. It was at the battle of Derna on April 27, 1805, that Eaton led his men against the pasha’s forces in a siege that finally culminated with an assault. Eaton personally led a bayonet charge against a larger foe with Lieutenant Presley O’Bannon by his side. This was the first time the fifteen stars and stripes of the US  flag were raised on a foreign shore. It was here that the US Marines famously earned a victory against the pasha on 'the shores of Tripoli'". (Source:

Nearly 200 years after the Battle of Derna was fought, Islamic terrorists picked out targets within the American homeland -- they seized control of commercial jetliners and crashed them into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.  The 9/11 attacks transformed America and, indeed, the world.  The US military, including the Marines, invaded Afghanistan in 2001 where Al Quaeda's Osama Bin Laden had found sanctuary with the Taliban.  This would mark the beginning of America's longest lasting war which persists to the day.  The US-led war in Afghanistan has cost over 3,000 American lives, many more wounded and trillions of dollars.  In 2003 President Bush led a fateful invasion of Iraq which resulted in the ouster of Saddam Hussein.

Damian Lewis
Nicholas Brody

Homeland premiered in 2011 -- ten years after 9/11 and the same year that Osama Bin Laden was killed in a raid inside of Pakistan.  It featured English actor Damian Lewis who played a US Marine named Nicholas Brody.  Initial episodes of the series focussed on the global war on terrorism and America's confrontation with Al Qaeda and the Islamic world.

Mandy Patinkin
Saul Berenson

The strange case of Nick Brody lay at the center of Homeland for its first several seasons.  Brody was an upright US Marine.  He is a warrior of courage faithful to the Corps and his country in the tradition of the shores of Tripoli.  But Brody's encounter with Islam went off the rails.  Disgusted by what he witnesses in Iraq and the Middles East, he experiences a crisis of faith and  becomes a convert to Islam and, ultimately a traitor to his country.  Carrie Mathison, played by Clare Danes, is the CIA officer who investigates and eventually falls in love with Brody.  Brody fathers a child with Carrie.  Brody must pay for his treachery and is hanged at the conclusion of season three.  This same season also saw the introduction of the brilliant actor Mandy Patinkin as Carrie's boss at the CIA Saul Berenson.

Even after the death of Brody, Homeland continued to weave spellbinding drama about US foreign policy and the role of the intelligence services.  The threats to the American homeland expand beyond simply Islamic terrorism.  Putin's Russia comes to play a significant role in the series (

Over the course of eight seasons Homeland strove to be relevant, timely and authentic in its handling of current events.  The producers, writers and cast would routinely debrief with actual intelligence personnel to create their "ripped from the headlines" show.

This is not to say that the series did not make mistakes.  It stumbled in season 6 (premiered in 2017) when a female Hillary Clinton clone was elected President of the United States.  In season 8 John Zabel (played by Hugh Dancy), a hawkish foreign policy adviser who bears a disturbing similarity to John Bolton, is really more of a caricature than a fully rounded character.  Berenson requires a foil.  At times the writing is weak or lazy.  Mandy Patinkin, for example, delivers some rather simplistic bromides on the folly of Bush's Iraq war that echo the established faith of those inside the Beltway and media.

But these are just quibbles.  Overall, Homeland is one of the most intelligent, thoughtful and exciting things to be produced in television today.  It was unafraid to take on real issues.  John Adams fretted over the possibility of endless war with Islam and today the war in Afghanistan is the longest running war in American history.

Homeland gets three important things right.

First Homeland is a salute to that tiny minority of American men and women who have volunteered to serve their country in the US military.  They risk their lives so that our homeland can remain safe and free.  Nick Brody is hanged.  Max Piotrowski, a DOD security analyst and Carrie's friend, pays the ultimate price in season 8.  Many more have suffered grievous wounds to body and mind in places like Afghanistan, Iraq and Yemen.  These heirs to the legacy of William Eaton are deployed to bases around the world from the frozen wastes of Northern Greenland to hell holes in the Middle East and Africa.  Their long deployments separate them from their families who also pay a steep price for their vital service.  They deserve our undying gratitude.

Second, Homeland is a tribute to the men, and especially women, of the intelligence services.  At the core of the show is the character of Carrie Mathison.  She is a indomitable though flawed woman.  She is a problem solver who suffers from bipolar disorder.  Her long absences mean that she barely knows her own daughter who is raised by her sister.   It was not martini-swilling James Bond types at the CIA but rather women much like Carrie who, over many years, managed to track down the whereabouts of Osama Bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan.  Down the the final frame of the series, Homeland affirms the necessary of the role of our intelligence services in working with our military and foreign service professionals to preserve the security of our nation in a dangerous world.

Third, Homeland depicts the machinations of a political class that directs the activities of the US military and intelligence services that is a far cry from the days of Adams and Jefferson.  John Adams fretted over the possibility of an endless war with Islam but today the longest war in Americans history persists like a costly ulcer in Afghanistan.  The politicians who lead us may be wise but are more often venal agents determined to extend and preserve their own power at all costs.  At times it seems that the greatest threat to our homeland comes, not from sinister forces abroad, but rather from our own elected officials.  Beware the swamp!

Sergeant Gillis
This blog is dedicated to Sergeant Petrova Gillis of the US Army who is currently deployed in Afghanistan and a fan of Homeland.

You can find signed copies of our books at these web sites...


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