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Empire Falls: Chalmers Johnson on Why Things That Can't Go On Forever, Don't
The ride is over. Our Empire is running out of gas. And what better way to mark the occasion, than a talk with Chalmers Johnson.

Johnson’s 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?”

This 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.”

Johnson’s 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 Signals originates.

Johnson 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 control.”

A 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.

“What 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 of Article One of the Constitution.

All 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.”

Sounds 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.

“I 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.

“Do 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.”

Revolutionarily speaking, I'm anti-bankruptcy and pro-saving the constitution. What inspires the men and women in the uniform of our Roman empire?

“In 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 trigger.

“Kellogg 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.”

Holy, 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.

“There 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.

OK. I’m game. “Is this privatization of military activity destructive of discipline, morale, and a military approach to the problems of war?”

“Since 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.

“So how do we find people that expect to be shot at?” I ask. “Do we reinstate the draft?”

“That 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 militarily.

“In 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 an empire.”

Herb 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.”

Someone had better tell Caesar that when the empire falls, it's not taking me with it.

Anyone for a revolution?

— Nathan Callahan, February 29, 2004


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