As winter temperatures have (belatedly) arrived here on the East Coast, the temptation to binge-watch multiple episodes of past or present shows has increased. The recent uptick in quality scripted programming, along with easy access to older shows, means that there are many excellent programs to choose from. But for those of us in the foreign policy and national security spaces, do we really want to spend our downtime watching programs relating to our professional lives? As I pointed out elsewhere, this can invoke George Costanza’s “worlds collide” theory.
For those that don’t mind mixing worlds, however, there can be some value in using film, television, and written fiction to “break a mental sweat” in thinking through matters relating to strategy and statecraft. As Joe Byerly so eloquently pointed out recently, fiction should have a place on professional development reading lists and it is often not included because there is an “organizational barrier that views fiction as entertainment.” Similarly, there is a temptation to dismiss television shows as entertainment not worthy for national security professional development. But this would be a mistake.
Fiction — whether on the page or on the screen — can push us to think about contemporary issues in a new light and broaden our strategic horizons. Fiction can also allow us to understand or become aware of different perspectives and to think about different strategic environments or problem sets ignored in other media. Furthermore, the entertainment aspect can be useful in holding one’s attention or allow one to break things up mentally. (Lastly, as War on the Rocks’ own Ryan Evans pointed out, treating such programs as Hell on Wheels as professional development can assuage guilt about devoting time to them.)
An excellent example of a television show serving as a vehicle for thinking about matters of national security can be found in the first season of Netflix’s original show Narcos. This program explores the rise of the cocaine trade in Colombia and the Medellín Cartel (with a special emphasis on Pablo Escobar). It shows the role of the Colombian government and its American partners in trying to deal with corruption, criminality, and escalating drug violence while also coping with Marxist guerrilla groups. It also highlights the escalating violence that the cocaine trade caused in the United States.
All of the major events in the show happened in real life, but because Narcos is…