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Are we the Fire Nation?: a critique of America

By Aishi Debroy, Co-Web Content Editor

“Avatar: The Last Airbender,” a children’s show, was aired in 2005, but has recently become popular again. Many of us watched the show when we were younger, coming away with the light-hearted themes of friendship and redemption. But when I was rewatching this show after having gone through multiple history classes, the more complex themes of genocide, war and imperialism stood out. The four nations of the Avatar universe, the Water Tribes, Earth Kingdom, Fire Nation and Air Nomads, each have an unique superpower or bending technique. The nations lived in harmony until the Fire Nation declared war, and years of destruction and fear ensued. 

Although the writers based the universe off of Inuit, Chinese, Japanese and Tibetan cultures, I couldn’t help but notice similarities between the Fire Nation and the United States. As a country, we’ve always seen ourselves as the protagonists of the world, but could we actually be the antagonists? Here’s why I think the U.S. exhibits many traits of the Fire Nation: 

First, a sense of “inherent superiority” and heightened sense of nationalism and patriotism. 

According to a 2017 Pew Research Center survey, 85% of Americans think that the United States “stand above all other countries in the world” or is among “one of the greatest countries” despite any factual evidence backing that claim. Similarly, Fire Nationals, or inhabitants of the Fire Nation, have a heightened superiority over the other kingdoms. The Hundred Year War, a major global conflict, is initiated by the Fire Nation in an attempt to spread its ideals and become a global hegemon. A unique similarity between this fictional nation and the United States is the opinions other nations have of them. According to a Pew Research Center survey of 22 countries, a median of 45% of the surveyed nations see U.S. “power and influence” as a major threat. In the Avatar Universe, almost everyone that is not a Fire National is fearful of the Fire Nation’s power and hegemony. A blanket of the “ignorance is bliss” mindset seems to pervade both nations, which leads me to believe that American propaganda isn’t something of the past. Whether you believe in the net good or net harm of America’s blind patriotism, many countries agree with the latter. 

Second, a strong military presence.

The Fire Nation is defined by its military supremacy. Known for having the largest navy and the first air force of its world, the nation’s military hegemony is uncontested. It even has innovative military equipment and specialized forces such as the southern raiders and a group of skilled archers. The accumulation of all of its resources allows the Fire Nation to exert power over the other kingdoms and maintain a fearful presence. Although supremacy and dominance cannot be accurately measured in today’s interconnected world, the U.S. undeniably ranks high in military prowess. According to a 2020 Business Insider article, the United States ranks No. 1 in the “World’s Most Powerful Militaries,” with a power index rating of 0.0615 (0.000 is considered ‘perfect’). Like the Fire Nation, the U.S. is infamous for its international military presence, holding 800 military bases globally, according to Politico Magazine.  To put this number into context, Britain, Russia and France have about 30 foreign bases in total. Despite its military being portrayed as the epitome of self-defense, I think that the U.S. is the most warlike nation in the world. This might come as a major shock, but the U.S. has been at war 225 out of 243 years since its establishment in 1776. America’s rampant bombing of other countries, history of war crimes and exorbitant military budget makes it seem quite similar to the Fire Nation’s tactical dominance. 

Cartoon by Charity Xu

Third, a lack of representation and negative treatment towards territory inhabitants.

Did you know that the U.S. has 16 territories that lack federal representation? Puerto Rico, one of the territories, has a population greater than 21 states, yet is unable to vote in the federal election. Also, the District of Columbia does not have voting representation in Congress, yet is ruled by it. The number of representatives each U.S. state gets in the House of Representatives depends on its population, but its territories only get one House delegate that is not even allowed to vote on the House floor. These territories are not represented in the Senate at all. Our government derives its power from the consent of the governed, right? Likewise, the colonies of the Fire Nation, territories that they have conquered, don’t have the same rights as mainland Fire Nationals. In fact, discrimination towards colony and island nation members is shown when Aang, the main character, attends Fire Nation school and gets profiled as a “colony member.” With disgust in her voice, Aang’s teacher says, “you’re clearly from the colonies.” 

Fourth, trade, blockades and a dependency on imports. 

Due to the Fire Nation’s geography as an interconnected group of volcanic islands, a natural trade network formed. However, it couldn’t supply its citizens with all the resources needed, so it decided to conquer other territories for their resources. For example, the Earth Kingdom’s farms provide a lot of sustenance to the Fire Nationals. The Fire Nation depends on imports, especially nourishment, from other kingdoms. According to the Legend of Genji, the Fire Nation derives 80% of its energy (coal, gas, oil, etc.) from other nations. Similarly, the U.S. imports more than it exports, with a trade deficit of $616 billion, according to the U.S. Census. In fact, the U.S. heavily relies on oil and agricultural imports from other countries. Both the U.S. and the Fire Nation went through an intensive period of industrialization preceding their rises to global hegemony. Both nations have one of the strongest economies in their respective universes, which is fueled by their capitalistic economic models. Both nations are driven by their demand for more resources. 

Although there are many similarities between the U.S. and the fictional Fire Nation, it is important to note their differences. To delegate the United States as the antagonist of the world is to simplify and misrepresent global history. America’s ideals of democracy, freedom of speech and individualism set it apart from the fictional nation. But it is important to challenge the country you live in, and that freedom is enshrined in the Constitution. Challenging American exceptionalism and blind patriotism will help us grow as a country. Acknowledging the flaws within a governmental system and exercising your rights is critical to seeing the future you want. Maybe a Zuko character redemption arc is in our near future!

Aishi Debroy can be reached at [email protected]

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