Chalmers Johnson ‘s War on the ‘War on Terror’

The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2004) by Chalmers Johnson

Blowback: The Causes and Consequences of American Empire  (New York: Owl Books, 2nd ed. 2004) by Chalmers Johnson

reviewed by
Barry Tharaud


Like several of Noam Chomsky’s recent books, Chalmers Johnson’s Sorrows of Empire is part of the American Empire Project series that is published by Henry Holt and Company, and it is therefore not surprising that Johnson and Chomsky have some family resemblances: both authors are professional academics – Johnson, an Emeritus Professor at the University of California, San Diego, specializes in East Asian politics and economics, while Chomsky is a Professor of Linguistics and Philosophy at MIT; both men take as their thesis that something has gone terribly wrong with the American political system and that people the world over, as well as Americans, are suffering the consequences, the worst of which are yet to come; both are pessimistic about the consequences of U.S. imperialism and the lies and disinformation that routinely prevent citizens’ awareness of their government’s actions; and both authors write with an existential determination as they look into the abyss of arrogance, stupidity, and willful disregard of consequences in American foreign policy by government officials and the élites who control them.

Despite similarities in subject matter and thesis, however, the two authors use very different rhetorical strategies to present their research and conclusions: Chomsky is an old hand at political dissent, hardened by years of writing against the imperial stupidity of American domestic politics and foreign policy, so that his tone is full of wit, black humor, irony, and sarcasm that reveals a righteous indignation against behavior that is often criminal, inhuman, and vicious in the extreme when it isn’t merely stupid, destructive, and against common norms of human decency and international law; Johnson, on the other hand, is low-key, often presents his material with understatement, and at times is almost apologetic to be presenting such bad news – the “sorrows” of the past (and likely future) consequences of our foolish political behavior as a nation. How one reacts to these books (apart from which side of the military-industrial complex one is on or which side of the socio-economic divide one inhabits) is in part a function of one’s style of inquiry and dissent, and whether one is long on patience and optimism. I will briefly outline the argument, organization, and rhetorical strategy of Johnson’s book, and then I will make some brief, final observations.

A useful introduction to Chalmers Johnson can be found in the “Introduction” and “Prologue” of an updated, post-9/11 edition of his previous book, Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2000; 2004). In the “Prologue: A Spear-Carrier for Empire,” Johnson describes his career, beginning with his military service in Japan during the Korean War, and his subsequent graduate study, which introduced him to post-War China. His doctoral research in Japanese archives about the effects of Japanese military brutality in China provided irrefutable evidence in support of ideas about Chinese Communism that had been previously discredited in the United States because of American ideological blindness during the McCarthy era. Johnson’s subsequent research on the Japanese Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) revealed the successful socialist roots of Japan’s post-War economic “miracle,” whose source was a “vast bureaucratic state apparatus that supported and guided the economy in much the same way the Department of Defense supported and guided the military-industrial-university complex in the United States (xxxii)." Thus his career reveals a paradigm [my interpretation] in which a scholar who supports Cold War establishment-ideology progressively discovers 1) an ideological obtuseness and tunnel vision on the part of government analysts (e.g., as the result of McCarthy-era hysteria), 2) a pattern of historical behavior that produces disastrous consequences far beyond anything anticipated in intensity and longevity (the Chinese Communist revolution that was in large part fomented by Japanese military brutality), and 3) serious contradictions between professed ideological objectives and performance (Cold War military garrisons to contain the spread of communism in a U.S. client state that has a centrally-controlled economy, contrary to U.S. economic ideology).

All three points in this paradigm form a conceptual basis for both Blowback and The Sorrows of Empire, which are concerned with a general loss of common sense, a U.S. foreign policy that includes CIA “dirty tricks” as well as outright economic and military aggression, and ideological blindness. Although some of Johnson’s statements and conclusions may sound radical since such thought is routinely missing from the controlled or self-policing American mass media, the author’s personal history, professional credentials, careful demeanor, and circumspect rhetorical approach all urge the impartial reader to carefully consider the author’s ideas and to heed his warnings.

At the back of The Sorrows of Empire, tucked into the “Acknowledgments” page, Johnson states the rationale for his rhetorical approach to his subject:

This book was not easy to write. I do not like what it has to say about my country. But I am convinced by the course of events leading up to and the developments following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, that this analysis is fundamentally correct. It is because I do not like stating that the United States is probably lost to militarism that this book is so heavily documented.

Further along on the “Acknowledgments” page, he describes his task in part as “throw[ing] light on the suicide of the United States as a democracy (367)." Such directness is mildly shocking but entirely in keeping with much of the evidence in the rest of the book. Taken as a whole, the book does add up to the statements that the U.S. is “probably lost to militarism” and that the book “throws light on the suicide of the United States as a democracy,” but most of the time, especially in the early portions of the volume, the thesis of the book is stated in a more benign manner. Near the beginning of the book, for example, the thesis is expressed thus: “This book is a guide to the American empire as it begins openly to spread its imperial wings (4)." Considering the subject, this sounds relatively mild – at least until we recognize openly as the operative word here. Elsewhere, startling statements tend not to startle because of context and a lack of irony: in response to the (sometimes disingenuous) question after 9/11, “Why do they hate us?”,

...a growing number [of Americans] finally began to grasp what most non-Americans already knew and had experienced over the previous half century – namely, that the United States was something other than what it professed to be, that it was, in fact, a military juggernaut intent on world domination. (4)

It almost seems as if it’s not Chalmers Johnson who has discovered that the United States is “a military juggernaut intent on world domination,” but non-Americans and a few Americans whom Johnson is quoting.

The book is divided into an introductory prologue, and ten chapters that can be loosely divided into four sections: in chapters 1-3 Johnson describes historical parallels to current U.S. behavior and contexts, and along the way he defines and describes the “militarism” that has become a given in American political culture; in chapters 4-8, he analyzes U.S. military institutions; in Chapter 9, he gives us a brief analysis of globalization; and in Chapter 10, he offers a systematic conclusion. A good deal of the book is based upon historical analysis. For example, in Chapter 1 Johnson draws parallels between the United States and republican Rome, whose empire drew it into an imperial political structure. Here again, Johnson’s lack of irony and use of quotations makes his message seem less radical than it actually is. In the following example, Johnson quotes Canadian essayist Manuel Miles:

There is a trend toward autocratic takeovers of imperial republics.... Even now this process is underway in the USA – the President, like the first Roman emperors, decides when and where to wage war, and his Senate rubber stamps and extorts the funding for his imperial adventures.... (15)

Along the way, there are historical references closer to the present as well:

The Spanish, Dutch, and British Empires all enriched their homelands through colonial exploitation. Not so the [American] empire of [military] bases. Militarized and unilateral, it tends to subvert commerce and globalization because it weakens international law and the norms of reciprocity on which trade depends (24-25).

Another kind of historical analysis is based upon Johnson’s description of American military development and foreign policy attitudes from the Spanish-American War (1898), with brief mention of the much earlier Monroe Doctrine, which is later explored with greater precision and in greater detail (190-92). As if to avoid political partisanship, Johnson discovers the modern grounding of U.S. imperialism in Presidents Theodore Roosevelt (a Republican) and Woodrow Wilson (a Democrat) [although Roosevelt’s “trust-busting” is certainly a far cry from the military-industrial promotion of the present era]:

Roosevelt and his colleagues advocated an American imperialism, modeled on British precedents, that sought power and glory for their own sakes through military conquest and colonial exploitation. Wilson, on the other hand, provided an idealistic grounding for American imperialism, what in our own time would become a “global mission” to “democratize” the world. More than any other figure, he provided the intellectual foundations for an interventionist foreign policy, expressed in humanitarian and democratic rhetoric. Wilson remains the godfather of those contemporary ideologists who justify American imperial power in terms of exporting democracy (48).

George W. Bush would no doubt be surprised and gratified to find himself in the political company of one president who actually (personally) fought some battles and another president who sincerely sought world peace and had some intellectual horsepower, but such comparisons obscure more than they reveal, and they tend to overlook the lack of systematic philosophical tradition in American politics. A valid point, however, is that both major parties are responsible for the abuses of militarism – even the Carter administration, and especially the Clinton and Kennedy administrations – although the Reagan and both Bush administrations seem the most culpable, perhaps because they are the most openly imperialistic. Later in the chapter, the author describes three hallmarks of American militarism: lobbyists take over politicomilitary [sic] policy; a preponderance of military and arms industry representatives fill high government positions; and the highest priority of the state becomes military preparedness.

The definition of “militarism” in the first chapter, together with the “hallmarks” from the second, are the foundation for much of Johnson’s explorations in the early chapters of the book: "[Militarism is] the phenomenon by which a nation’s armed services come to put their institutional preservation ahead of achieving national security or even a commitment to the integrity of the governmental structure of which they are a part (23-24)."

Further on we find more recent and, it seems to me, more germane historical parallels between the present behavior of the United States and the British Empire: “Much as Britain at the end of the nineteenth century had to make colonies of Egypt and South Africa in order, so it said, to protect the sea approaches to its imperial enclave in India, and then had to conquer Sudan and the upper Nile to protect Egypt and much of sub-Saharan Africa to protect South Africa, the United States now argues that it must totally dominate space to protect its new, casualty-free war-fighting technologies” (81).

But this kind of logic – comparable to the “domino theory” in the Vietnam War – leads to an endless progression of places and commitments that must be protected, resulting inevitably in imperial overstretch, bankruptcy, and popular disaffection, precisely the maladies that plagued Edwardian Britain. Such strategic planning also tends to produce unintended consequences in the form of unjustifiably brutal wars of imperial conquest, such as Britain’s against the Boer settlers of South Africa. ... The root cause of all this mayhem was not the need to defend India but the urge to dominate globally – in short, imperialism and militarism. Alternative ways to achieve the same objectives – or a decision to abandon those objectives as not worth it – were never seriously considered (82).

By glossing over the role of the ‘slippery slope’ logical fallacy in the context of the Vietnam War, and instead emphasizing the role that the same flawed logic played in the British Empire during the Edwardian period and in the U.S. during today’s era of ‘Star Wars’ military technology to dominate space, Johnson does much to defuse and neutralize potential fruitless partisan political debate, so that we can focus on the kind of thinking that brought us here, and the probable consequences.

Johnson applies the same kind of historical perspective to the United States military, including its special forces and private mercenaries that are convenient ruses to avoid congressional oversight, its empire of bases around the globe that number in excess of 750, its control of the media and links to Hollywood that obscure its activities during wartime and peacetime through censorship and elaborate public relations ruses, the historical development of U.S. military bases, and the way all of these historical facts were orchestrated into the present débâcle, “Gulf War II.” Once again, Johnson provides us with some highly pertinent facts and leaves us to draw our own conclusions. For example, the historical development of bases suggests that [my interpretation] the United States was already firmly entrenched in traditions of militarism even at the beginning of the Cold War, which both obscured and justified our huge military budgets. To cite but one piece of evidence:

Former ambassador to Japan and Undersecretary of State U. Alexis Johnson admitted that giving Okinawa to the military in the late 1940s was simply the price of getting the Pentagon to go along with the [1952] peace treaty [that ended World War II between the United States and Japan], which restored Japanese sovereignty over the four main islands but kept Okinawa under American military rule (200-201).

The history of bases also includes the history of U.S. creation or support of fascist régimes (e.g., Greece, Spain, the Philippines) to secure military bases, a history that is extended to the Persian Gulf region in the present, post-9/11 world. Once again, by allowing his readers to draw their own (unpleasant) conclusions, Johnson tends to maintain his position as impartial observer and monitor of evidence.

In his examination of the current Iraq War, Johnson examines the motives, which he categorizes as “oil,” “Israel,” and “domestic politics.” He demonstrates that an “oil war” was already being planned by the Pentagon during the second Clinton administration in the late ’90s (226), an idea that reinforces previously-presented evidence that Afghanistan was attacked and the Taliban overthrown not because they were harboring al-Qaeda, but because they were not cooperating with an oil consortium, led by the U.S. company Unocal, to allow a pipeline across their country from Central Asian oilfields (174-85). Johnson also presents evidence that Iraq was attacked by the United States to support the regional hegemony and expansionist foreign policy of Israel’s Ariel Sharon and his Likud Party, who have close ties with key figures in the present Bush administration, including Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, David Wurmser, John Bolton, and Michael Ledeen – ties that Johnson examines in some detail (234-35).

It’s refreshing to see this important point raised since it’s a topic that is generally off-limits to the mass media in the United States. Finally, the war is considered as a strategy in U.S. domestic politics, to distract voters from dismal domestic problems: “to keep discussion away from issues such as the president’s and vice president’s close ties to the corrupt Enron Corporation, the huge and growing federal budget deficit, the looting of workers’ pension funds by highly paid CEOs, vast tax cuts that favored the rich, a severe loss of civil liberties under Bush’s attorney general, and, in the foreign sphere, the embarrassing fact that, despite the war in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden evidently remained at large and potent” (236). However, all of these ‘reasons’ can better be considered under Johnson’s umbrella of American militarism, demonstrated in a document that he cites, entitled Rebuilding America’s Defenses, produced by a group of right-wing Republicans who organized the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) and who include Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Richard Perle, and seven others, all of whom became prominent members of the current Bush administration. In the words of this document, the PNAC were waiting for a “catastrophic and catalyzing event – like a new Pearl Harbor” that would enable them to put their ideas into practice.

Some would conclude from this that 9/11 conspirators included American élites looking for an excuse to expedite their programs. Johnson generally doesn’t go there and instead preserves a more neutral position, perhaps lest he be consigned to the conspiracy-theory ‘fringe’; but elsewhere, describing leases for new long-term military bases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan that were leased less than a month after 9/11, Johnson gives a nod in that direction when he comments that the U.S. was “reacting incredibly fast for a government responding to an unexpected event” (183). For those who might scoff at such a notion, one might recall the close cooperation between our own CIA and FBI with Russian KGB successor groups (FSB, GRU, etc.), who apparently blew up apartment complexes in Moscow and elsewhere in Russia to stir up war fever against Chechnya as a distraction from domestic politics, in order to re-elect a non-Communist President, Boris Yeltsin, whose approval ratings were in the single digits. And for those who think that our élites are incapable of such heinous acts as attacking their own people, later in the volume Johnson provides evidence [my interpretation] that should serve as an antidote for all but the most die-hard Young Republicans:

During the 1960s, the Joint Chiefs of Staff actually delivered to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara a proposal, dubbed Operation Northwoods, that the military clandestinely shoot innocent people on American streets, sink boats carrying refugees from Cuba, and carry out terrorist attacks in Washington, Miami, and elsewhere and then pin the blame on Cuban agents. The intent, after the failed Bay of Pigs operation, was to provide an excuse for a new invasion of Cuba. Every member of the Joint Chiefs signed off on it. McNamara silently refused to act on it and a few months later forced the retirement of General Lyman Lemnitzer, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs (301).

In short, Johnson sometimes marshals evidence and then leaves radical interpretations to his readers... but not always:

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is particularly fond of neologisms such as “forward deterrence” and “unwarned attacks,” which he seems to think are strategic innovations. Perhaps he is merely trying to disguise their more familiar names: “aggression” – that is, what Nazi Germany did to Russia on June 22, 1941 – and “surprise attack” – what the Japanese did to us at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 (300).

The implied but usually unstated conclusions from Johnson’s examination of the United States military establishment and its industrial-academic-petroleum complex is that not only is the United States an imperialist power, but it has been so for a long time, and by the early twenty-first century its behavior is on a par with our World War II fascist enemies, Nazi Germany and imperial Japan.

One might comment here that Johnson could easily have extended his historical analysis of attitudes and institutions in the United States much further back for the same purposes – to the Mexican War when the Alamo débâcle became a pretext for increased imperialist aggression, for example, or even to the attitudes toward native Americans and territorial expansion during the colonial period. As one gradually becomes aware of the historical reality behind the window-dressing of the U.S. political system, there is a tendency to assume that things have gotten worse sometime during the recent past. But if we extend Johnson’s historical examples further back in time, I think we must conclude that with some possible exceptions in New England during the colonial and early republican periods, we have always been controlled by a clique of moneyed interests who wage constant class warfare and are happy to sacrifice the well being of the community or nation for their own selfish purposes. For example, surveying the dismal political and cultural prospects during the Van Buren presidency (1837-41), the supposed sunny and benign optimist Ralph Waldo Emerson in a manuscript couplet described the president thus: “The towers that generations did combine/ To build and grace, a rat may undermine.” And later, addressing a Kansas Relief Meeting in 1856, Emerson’s comments make it clear that the same sort of cynical political manipulation that goes on today has always been there: “Representative Government is really misrepresentative; Union is a conspiracy against the Northern States which the Northern States are to have the privilege of paying for; the adding of Cuba and Central America to the slave marts is enlarging the area of Freedom. […]our poor people, led by the nose by these fine words, dance and sing, ring bells and fire cannon, with every new link of the chain which is forged for their limbs by the plotters in the Capitol.” Things haven’t changed much, if at all: we are stilled plagued by ‘plotters in the capitol’ and the élites who control them.

Most of the overt interpretations and conclusions in this volume are contained in the final chapter, “The Sorrows of Empire.” After the careful marshalling of evidence in previous chapters, finally “the gloves come off,” as Johnson projects four main consequences that will ensue from “the path our elites chose after September 11, 2001”:1) “a state of perpetual war, leading to more terrorism”; 2) “a loss of democracy and constitutional rights as the presidency fully eclipses Congress and is itself transformed from an “executive branch” of government into something more like a Pentagonized presidency”: 3) “a system of propaganda, disinformation, and glorification of war, power, and the military legions”; and 4), “bankruptcy, as we pour our economic resources into ever more grandiose military projects and short-change the education, health, and safety of our fellow citizens” (285).

Although Johnson stresses that the future is “as yet unmade” (285), the overwhelming evidence of the entire book [my interpretation] is that we have already been experiencing all four consequences of empire for well over half a century. For example, in Chapter 9, “Whatever Happened to Globalization,” Johnson describes Nixon’s 1971 abandoning of the gold standard in international finance as the result of our ruining our economy “by lavish spending on the Vietnam War, on nuclear weapons and their delivery systems, and on payments to countries that it feared might join the Communist camp or ‘go neutralist’ if the United States stopped bankrolling them” (265). There are equally trenchant comments on the military spending during the Reagan presidency and during the present Bush administration, and in his earlier book, Blowback, Johnson discusses in detail the consequences of the 1971 transformation from a controlled world financial exchange system based on the 1944 Bretton Woods agreements, to one that allows currencies to “float,” resulting in “finance capitalism”:

The historian, business executive, and novelist John Ralston Saul described Nixon’s action as “perhaps the single most destructive act of the postwar world. The West was returned to the monetary barbarism and instability of the 19th century” (Blowback, 201).

 Indeed, there are no pretexts for optimism, and plenty of evidence where the future lies, given recent events – which include “impeachable offenses” by President Bush to get us into the Iraq War (306), a “vast cesspool of mismanagement, waste, and […] criminal conduct” (309), and our “refusal to dismantle our own empire of military bases when the menace of the USSR disappeared” (310).

The final paragraph of the entire text offers a brief but unlikely antidote:

There is one development that could conceivably stop this process of overreaching: the people could retake control of Congress, reform it along with the corrupted election laws that have made it into a forum for special interests, turn it into a genuine assembly of democratic representatives, and cut off the supply of money to the Pentagon and the secret intelligence agencies. We have a strong civil society that could, in theory, overcome the entrenched interests of the armed forces and the military-industrial complex. At this late date, however, it is difficult to imagine how Congress, much like the Roman senate in the last days of the republic, could be brought back to life and cleansed of its endemic corruption. Failing such a reform, Nemesis, the goddess of retribution and vengeance, the punisher of pride and hubris, waits impatiently for her meeting with us (312).

Clearly, the odds against this sort of sweeping reform are overwhelming. One need only look at the failure to effect even the most rudimentary campaign finance reform during the past few years to realize that the possibility of the U.S. political system ever reflecting the will of its citizens is remote indeed.

Johnson’s Sorrows of Empire is a well-researched and timely book that draws together a lot of material to give an overview of the depressing state of the United States in the early twenty-first century – a state that is historically understandable from both a national and a global perspective in light of its policies and actions during the past century and more. If we consider the likely effect of Johnson’s book, the answer, unfortunately, is “probably negligible”: the U.S. élites who control the show do so in the face of world opinion and against all odds, simply because of narrow self-interest.

By way of concluding this review essay, we need to look at an especially important observation when Johnson describes the imaginative failure of Americans: “elsewhere in the world, the devastations of war are all too common. To us they remain abstract. September memories, in fact, underscore how the horrors of modern warfare have never touched the cities of America. That is the only reason we can reorganize U.S. force projection around robot strikes, strategic bombing, and even usable nuclear weapons. All of this represents a failure of the American imagination to grasp the real effect on real people of such assaults. We wage war without knowing war” (78). A “failure of imagination” indeed. There is a failure to understand what it means to drop a bomb on someone, even among people who should know better. Michael Moore’s movie, Fahrenheit 911, is especially to be commended for showing heart-rending footage of victims of the second Iraq war on both sides – Iraqi citizens whose families were murdered in the U.S. bombings, and American citizens whose families lost loved ones who served as soldiers during the U.S. assault on Iraq.

An even greater problem, however, is that these sorts of events rarely touch the élites who plan or perpetrate such things. I know of a CIA family whose son worked in Afghanistan training the mujahideen and supplying them with Stinger missiles to use against the Russians, who were drawn into the Afghan war by secret CIA operations planned by Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski. The mother in this family lost a young child as a result of inadequate health-care facilities in a western-Colorado town, and she retained a hatred for that town for decades.

Now just imagine if that death had been due to deliberate aggression by a foreign power instead of inadvertent poor health-care facilities: wouldn’t that woman be justified to hold a deep and abiding hatred of the perpetrators of that death? The CIA-induced Afghan war resulted in the loss of somewhere between 1 1/2 and 3 million lives, and Brzezinski has been known to justify the success of that operation (‘chalk one up for Zbig’) on the basis of its successful promotion of U.S. ideology and its helping to destroy a country that among other things provided cradle-to-grave health-care for its citizens – something which our élites claim to be impossible for our wealthy society.

It’s hardly a surprise that some years later an Afghan ‘terrorist’ started randomly shooting people in their cars as they drove toward the entrance of the U.S. Pentagon. Within the reigning ideology, the U.S. state-sponsored terrorism that devastated Afghanistan becomes merely a footnote to the Cold War, while the individual who, understandably, tries to strike back at the perpetrators of his personal tragedy is branded a “terrorist.”

Meanwhile, the woman who hates a town for its real or imagined negligence in the death of her young child can’t imagine the long-range grief brought about in part by her adult son’s training of mujahideen. Nor can Brzezinski, who glories in his role as ‘cold warrior,’ understand what it means to kill millions of innocent people. This same Brzezinski, by the way, is a charter member, along with fellow ‘peacenik’ General Alexander Haig, of the American Committee Against the War in Chechnya, an organization designed to draw U.S. dissent and attention away from our complicity in and covert support for the genocidal Russian war against Chechnya. This kind of moral obtuseness is a failure of intelligence as well as imagination, and it is just plain evil. When coupled with an awareness of the arrogance of our élites, the contemplation of such moral issues is well-nigh unbearable.