Falls: Chalmers Johnson on Why Things That Can't Go On Forever, Don't
ride is over. Our Empire is running out of gas. And what better way
to mark the occasion, than a talk with Chalmers Johnson.
pre-911 book, Blowback, mainstreamed
the term our Men in Black use for the unintended consequences of
US covert operations. When the twin towers dropped, Johnson’s
popularity rose. “Blowback” became part of the language
of talking head TV and was a rejoinder for the question, “Why
do they hate us?”
year, Johnson, who is president of the Japan
Policy Research Institute in Cardiff, California and professor
emeritus at the University of California, San Diego is adding to
the empirical data with a new book The
Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic.
As they say on cable news, “it’s a searing indictment
of America’s flirtation with an imperial foreign policy.”
work sounds so trenchantly Romanesque, that Mike Kaspar and I decide
to give him a ring in Cardiff, just down the rode from the University
of California at Irvine where our radio show Weekly
is polite and professorial with a quick straightforward delivery.
Information pours out of him relentlessly, but as I listen, one sentence
from The Sorrows of Empire, preoccupies my thoughts: “A
revolution would be required to bring the Pentagon under democratic
revolution? Sign me up. If Ronald Reagan can have one, than certainly
Johnson and Callahan can. So I ask the professor about the nature
of our revolt.
I’m saying,” Johnson says in reply, “is that even
today, if you had an honest Congress — which you don’t,
but even if you did — they can’t do oversight on the
military. Forty percent of the defense budget is secret and has been
since the Manhattan Project in the Second World War. This is in violation
One of the Constitution.
of the intelligence agency’s budgets are secret. When they
appropriate money today for ballistic missile defense, they don’t
even specify how to spend it. They just write in $10 billion dollars
to be given to the arms industry and attach a group of uniformed
officers in the pentagon to decide how that money is to be spent.”
unconstitutional to me…but what about the revolution? How do
we organize? Do we rally around the lack of oversight, the bad economics
and the deceit?
“To say that there is waste and fraud is perfectly obvious,” Johnson
says. “There’s no doubt about it. Regardless of what happens to the
Bush administration — they seem to be in the process of self-destructing
anyway — the problem is that this president, or any president who replaces
him, can’t stand up to the vested interests in the Pentagon, in the secret
intelligence agencies, and in the military industrial complex.
say this in part because of what happened in the Soviet Union between
1989 and 1991 when Mikhail Gorbachev truly tried to reform the Soviet
system,” Johnson continues. “The goal was to abandon
the old satellites in East Europe in favor of relations with France
and Germany and to improve the efficiency of the Soviet economy.
He was stopped cold by vested interests that had built up over the
years in the cold war system in the Soviet Union.
those vested interests exist today in this country, today? To ask
the question is to answer it,” Johnson says. “The livelihood
of a great many people today depends on serving the armed forces
in one way or another. Remember, there’s a $400 billion annual
defense budget, not including the costs of Iraq and Afghanistan,
nuclear weapons and the Department of Energy. It all adds up to one
half trillion dollars a year that this country is not paying for.
And we’re not raising that money in taxes. We’re going
deeper and deeper and deeper in debt. Whether you’re interested
in saving the Constitution or not, this bankruptcy will cause a crises
of fearful proportions.”
speaking, I'm anti-bankruptcy and pro-saving the constitution. What
inspires the men and women in the uniform of our Roman empire?
the new professional army, members of the armed forces are there
not because they have an obligation to defend the country, but as
a career choice,” Johnson says. “They don’t do
KP. They don’t clean latrines. They don’t do any of the
old barrack’s chores, because that’s all supplied for
them by private contractors with extremely lucrative contracts to
do the laundry, cook the meals, well, do everything but pull the
Brown and Root is one of the best-known examples of this, but there
are quite a few other companies that sprung up after the cold war.
Under the influence of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, there has
been a major effort to try and privatize war. Well-connected capitalists
are making massive amounts of money, not just supplying arms, but
also off of a service industry to the troops.”
Iraqi Burger King! I knew the invisible hand of the marketplace
was competitive. I didn’t think of it as militaristic. “Why
privatize war?” I ask.
are many reasons for doing this,” Johnson says. “But
above all, privatization evades responsibility. What these private
companies do now are the proprietary secrets of the companies. There
is no Congressional oversight. This switch to privatization is extremely
controversial within the military. The question is whether or not
this privatization of military activity is destructive of discipline,
morale, and a military approach to the problems of war.
I’m game. “Is this privatization of military activity
destructive of discipline, morale, and a military approach to the
problems of war?”
1973, it had not been an obligation of citizenship to serve in the
armed forces, Johnson says. “It’s a career choice. It’s
often a career choice taken to evade one or another of the dead ends
of our society. We had a good example when PFC Jessica Lynch was
wounded at Nassaria and the press asked her why did she join the
army. She said ‘I couldn’t get a job at Wal-Mart in Palestine,
West Virginia. I joined the army to get out of Palestine, West Virginia.’ It’s
also clear that she didn’t expect to be shot at. And most of
the people in this military do not expect to be shot at. That is
proving to be a major limitation on our Roman pretensions and ambitions.
We will be finding out within a very short period of time — a
matter of months — whether or not we can raise the armed forces
that we have in the past through incentives and getting people to
volunteer. In a very short period of time, 40 percent of the troops
in Iraq will be Reserves and National Guardsman. They didn’t
expect that duty when they joined the National Guard.
how do we find people that expect to be shot at?” I ask. “Do
we reinstate the draft?”
would be politically explosive,” Johnson says. “The question
is do we, as classical empires of the past have done, start looking
around for surrogates. The danger is whether they’re loyal
to us. Our troops are proving to be unimaginably expensive and we
are toying with bankruptcy in our attempts to dominate the world
the meantime, we are dependent on the favors of East Asia and their
governments to transfer capital to us on a daily basis in order to
finance our huge federal deficit and trade deficit. If they ever
decide that the Euro looks like a better investment than the dollar,
it’s over for the United State’s short happy life as
Stein, chairman of President Nixon’s Council of Economic Advisors,
once made the crack that ‘things that can’t go on forever,
don’t.’ These are things that can’t go on forever.”
had better tell Caesar that when the empire falls, it's not taking
me with it.
for a revolution?
— Nathan Callahan,
February 29, 2004