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War Movies After War
Shows like “Occupied” and “Blackout Country” give a taste of life in the new world of grayzone conflict.
The power goes out. At first, people think it’s a momentary blip. They light candles and enjoy their suddenly more atmospheric dinners. But the power doesn’t return that evening or the next day. Or for weeks after that. A devastating Iranian cyberattack on the New York City power grid? No—a Swedish reality TV show called Nedslackt land (“Blackout Country”).
The first season, which has just concluded, begins with a group of 10 people arriving for a mystery experiment at two remote houses. Five of the participants are sent to a simple cottage, the other five to a state-of-the-art vacation home. They expect a typical reality TV group exercise, something along the lines of a classy Big Brother. But the very first evening, the power goes out. They react like most of us would, their lives interrupted by the inconvenience but also made a little more exciting. But the cheer subsides as the Blackout Country participants realize that the lights are off for good.
The two houses’ occupants are of different ages, have different educational and work backgrounds, belong to a range of ethnicities, and speak with varied regional accents. One of the men is outdoorsy, another has carpentry skills, but none has the foggiest idea of what to do during a sustained power cut. The next morning, with the water pipes no longer working, a small group decides to go and collect water from a nearby brook for the toilet, cooking, and cleaning dishes. Forget calling for help: The occupants soon learn that the power outage is not limited to them. Sweden has been hit by a solar flare—although it could just as well have been a massive cyberattack on the country’s power grid for all they know—and the whole country is without power. They’re on their own.
The same feeling of isolation pervades another series, Occupied, a phenomenally successful Norwegian television drama now in its third season. In it, Norway is taken over by a sinister alliance comprising Russia and the European Union. There’s no invasion, just a gradual encroachment of Norwegian sovereignty by the country’s enemies, whose goals are unclear to the population: The aggression starts with a series of energy-related demands on the Norwegian government (in the midst of a raging energy crisis, the visionary prime minister—Jesper Berg—had wanted to go green and end Norway’s oil production, thereby angering both Russia and the EU) but escalates quickly to maneuverers seemingly designed only to wear down the country’s will to stand up for itself.
When Berg is kidnapped by Russian special forces and taken to a hideout, for example, he receives a call from a senior EU official who demands that he reverse his decision. Viewers are left with the nagging fear that this could happen in real life. Henrik Mestad, who portrays the prime minister, is so convincing that you don’t just want to cast your vote for him but to free him from his captivity as well.
But how? Most Norwegians—in fact, most people around the world—would be at a loss for how to respond to the kinds of grayzone attacks seen in Occupied. During World War II, brave Norwegian underground fighters bedeviled the country’s Nazi occupiers, slowing their progress. But how do you bedevil attackers below the threshold of war? In Occupied, some panic, some are paralyzed, and virtually all are clueless—the same scenario as Blackout Country. And as different as the shows are, that fact joins them as pioneers of a new kind of portrayal of war. This genre doesn’t relish in distant battles of the kinds that most people who are not in the armed forces will never see. Instead, it offers a civilian-centric view on conflict.
Not relegated to crowd scenes or brief moments of pathos before they perish, in both shows average citizens are at the center of the plot. In Occupied, soldiers make only occasional appearances. As the battle between the Russians and Free Norway, a guerrilla group determined to win back Norway’s sovereignty, intensifies, journalists, bureaucrats, academics, and even children are forced to discern what each side stands for—and which one is the lesser evil.
Likewise, in Blackout Country, it is up to the show’s participants to save themselves. They aren’t caught up in any messy geopolitics. Rather, their daily lives are chronicled as hygiene deteriorates, arguments break out, and survival of the fittest starts to prevail. In one episode, the group tries to decide how to divide their last remaining food: Should everyone get equal amounts? Should it be distributed according to the person’s size? The women in the group argue that such a system would be unfair to them. At another point, with the participants growing desperate, one group decides to forage for edible items. But where do you look? What’s edible? Which plants can be eaten raw?
In their focus on disrupted normal lives, both shows stand in sharp contrast to traditional movies about war like War Machine, American Sniper, Inglourious Basterds, and Zero Dark Thirty. Each year, moviegoers and TV watchers around the world can look forward to a menu of such entertainment covering every conceivable aspect of combat—real and imagined. This year, another movie in that vein, 1917, is entering the Oscars as the favorite, with 10 nominations.
There’s a reason such films are increasingly set in the past, though. New forms of warfare are taking center stage in real life. One country can bring another to its knees without deploying a single soldier. It can, for example, target an electrical grid or the transportation network of a major city. Or a bank. Or an election. A new study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York reports that a cyberattack against one of the United States’ largest banks could cripple the entire U.S. financial system.
China, Russia, and North Korea already hack Western companies on a daily basis. The U.S. electricity transmission company PJM Interconnection is subjected to 3,000-4,000 cyberattacks each month, its former CEO Terry Boston revealed. Larger and more prominent companies are subjected to many millions of attacks every day. Not all originate with hostile states or their proxies, but many do. Last year, for example, Chinese government-linked hackers were found to have attacked at least 20 U.S. utilities. And Iranian hackers have further upped the game: A group known as Refined Kitten can now interfere with the control systems of power plants, factories, and refineries.
Increasingly, in other words, war may look like Blackout Country or Occupied—weeks without electricity or pressure on your government so subtle that it isn’t clear whether a coup or a war is even taking place. And in these situations, the outcome of the battle increasingly comes down to the public response. As Paul N. Stockton, a former U.S. assistant secretary of defense for homeland security affairs, notes in a report for Johns Hopkins University, adversaries may also “use social media and other means to spread further disinformation and incite public panic as part of their attacks.” And public panic is part of the point; sowing it leads to anarchy. And a weakened competitor is, of course, exactly what a grayzone attacker might want: victory without any of the expense or mess of conquering territory and then administering it.
Of course, the United States and other countries know all this and are improving their defense against so-called grayzone warfare: U.S. Cyber Command regularly responds to cyberattacks, even if only to, in a tactic reminiscent of the horse head scene in The Godfather, indicate to potential attackers that they will be punished if they proceed. In 2018, Sweden’s Civil Contingencies Agency sent a brochure titled “If Crisis or War Comes” to all households in the country, instructing them what to do in situations such as that portrayed in Blackout Country. Nevertheless, at some point an attack will succeed. All the better, then, that shows like Blackout Country and Occupied can give civilians a taste of what to expect. The shows are phenomenal entertainment, of course, but they also demonstrate what it means when a city goes dark and nobody knows what’s happening, how long it will last, or who is behind it while a mysterious adversary uploads disinformation to social media feeds on people’s quickly fading smartphones or when any given decision by a prime minister may be the result of coercion by another country.
That’s why, beyond entertaining, studios’ modern-warfare oeuvres can also inform the public about how war looks today. Most of us will never fly an attack helicopter or participate in infantry combat, but we are likely to encounter nonmilitary aggression. Some of us already have, perhaps unknowingly. Russia is believed to have influenced the results of both the 2016 U.S. presidential election and the Brexit referendum that year. And recent reports indicated that Iranian government-linked hackers successfully attacked the U.S. government contractor Westat in January. North Korean hackers have likewise targeted Western government officials, think tankers, and academics involved with nuclear nonproliferation.
There’s nothing positive about other countries threatening the public at large. But now that the aggression is here, it can be used for the benefit of the entertainment industry, national security, and the wider public all at once. And keeping your cool in a crisis is a useful skill even if the world’s nations suddenly agreed to universal peace: Like the participants in Blackout Country, we may find that Mother Nature could be the most fearsome grayzone adversary of all.