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Blowback Explores the Messy History of US Interventionism


The term “blowback” — describing the unintended consequences of covert foreign activities — was coined in a 1954 CIA document that cataloged the agency’s work in toppling Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh and installing the pro-American Shah. The ever-reverberating aftershocks of US foreign interventionism are the subject of Blowback, a podcast hosted by Noah Kulwin and Brendan James which started in 2020. Each season of the show is devoted to significant events in overt and covert operations. The first covered the Iraq War, the second the Cuban Revolution, and the upcoming third season will tackle the Korean War. In tracing these calamitous interventions, the series gradually lays out its thesis: The seeming contradiction in the leftist critique of American foreign policy — that it is simultaneously the one true purpose of the state and an endless series of haplessly executed boondoggles — is in fact no contradiction at all. Rather, the latter ensures the perpetual motion of the former. Disastrous coups, assassinations, and full-scale conflicts lead to more of the same for the benefit of capital and power.

To support that argument, the podcast is structured around heavy research, with an emphasis on historical context that often goes well beyond even more outwardly journalistic projects on the same topics. Their account of the Cuban Revolution, for example, begins way back with the Spanish-American War, which ended with Cuba being ceded to the United States, and then takes an extended look at the 1954 CIA-backed coup in Guatemala. Ample detail is given about the various dictatorial powers of the Cuban puppet state, as well as breakdowns of the heavily documented connections between intelligence agencies and mafiosos who had financial stakes in the island’s pre-Revolution regimes.

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An illustrative contrast between Blowback’s approach and that of its less outwardly biased peers can be seen in how James and Kulwin cover the Iraq War in comparison to the fifth season of Slate’s podcast Slow Burn. Both use many of the same sources, sometimes even the same audio clips. But Blowback lays out the entire modern history of Iraq, from its post-WWI carving out by Great Britain through the series of coups and collaborations that put Saddam Hussein in power and even made him a key ally of the US in its aggression against Iran in the 1980s. Slow Burn, on the other hand, traces the roots of the war only as far back as 1995, framing even the Gulf War as incidental to understanding the event. While Slow Burn highlights the lies that got the US into the war, it subconsciously accepts an image of Hussein as a bogeyman that Blowback convincingly argues was a deliberate construct by a US military-industrial complex desperate for a post-Cold-War villain.

The voluminous background detail and interest in the far-reaching impacts of foreign policy could easily lend itself to conspiracy-minded extemporization, but James and Kulwin never make an assertion not backed up by considerable evidence. This also armors them against potential backlash to their openly leftist bias. When, for example, they wave away anger over Fidel Castro’s post-revolution public executions by noting that overthrown dictator Fulgencio Batista held significantly more executions in a similar timeframe, they point out that the CIA itself had previously reached the same conclusion.

Blowback treats its topics seriously, particularly in the hosts’ open disgust over the death tolls of the events they cover. But by the same token, they do not attempt to deny the gallows humor absurdity of the incompetent politicians, business leaders, and military figures who drive these atrocities. The first season might be considered a reintroduction to the procession of oblivious Bush administration officials predicting swift victory in Iraq, while the second offers up such grimly hilarious revelations as the fact that almost no one sent by the CIA to train exiled Cubans for the Bay of Pigs invasion could speak Spanish. Even with their stated belief that the United States purposefully mismanages its interventions, James and Kulwin cannot help but laugh at the sheer buffoonery on display.

With only two seasons out, Blowback is still in its infancy, and one can already see how it has grown over its short existence. Guests on the first season typically included prominent members of the leftist podcasting scene (James was previously producer for the popular Chapo Trap House). The second season prioritizes testimony from actual Cubans involved in the revolution, balancing the hosts’ point of view with the input of those directly affected by US interference. And while the Iraq War and the CIA’s Wile E. Coyote-esque failures to topple Castro are widely known, the soon-to-premiere third season’s turn toward the “forgotten war” in Korea and its gargantuan yet rarely covered devastation offers a chance for the series to serve not merely as catharsis, but also as revelation.

The third season of Blowback releases July 25.

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