Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Chalmers Johnson's Four Books on US Empire

by Paul Leonard,  October 7, 2011
There are so many revealing details in these four books but since our time is limited I’ve written my comments to make sure I covered his main points. Nine minutes, tops, I promise.
Chalmers Johnson co-founded the Japan Policy Research Institute and was professor emeritus at the University of California, San Diego. He was a contributor to the Los Angeles Times, the London Review of Books, and The Nation magazine prior to his death in 2010. 
Chalmers’ early books covered his area of expertise, East Asia, while his later books added subjects such as the CIA, foreign military bases, globalization and free trade, militarism of space, the imperial presidency, and most importantly, trends toward militarism and imperialism.  His books contain numerous examples of sometimes embarrassing, sometimes appalling actions by both the CIA and the military.  Throughout his writing, Chalmers central belief was this:  The preservation and expansion of the U.S. global empire of military bases would either result in a form of imperial presidency or civilian dictatorship or more likely, a severe economic decline for the U.S.  He also thought both outcomes could be avoided and Constitutional Law restored by scaling our military back to a truly defensive posture.
Chalmers was not an anti-military advocate.  More accurately, he had seen firsthand the disadvantages of military bases in foreign countries and believed this global footprint should be reduced.  He makes a convincing case that large foreign bases in Germany, Japan, and South Korea are the result of Cold War mentalities that are costly, counter-productive, and at odds with their stated purpose of mutual security.  He clearly details other hazards associated with the nearly one thousand foreign military bases (those we know of) including noise and environmental pollution, accidents resulting in foreign citizen deaths, crime especially sexual assaults, interference with foreign domestic policies, support for dictatorial or un-elected governments, and propensity for blowback.  Blowback is a CIA term used to describe unintentional consequences of usually secret policies.  Chalmers quotes Osama himself referring to the American military presence in Saudi Arabia after the World Trade Center blowback.
Chalmers book Blowback, written in 1999, opens with the story of the military jet in Italy in 1998 that cut a ski-lift cable sending twenty people to their deaths.  The jet was flying both too fast and too low.  Not only was no one held liable, no restitution was paid to the families due to opposition in the House of Representatives and at the Pentagon.  Blowback is full of examples of military mistakes and negligence that could result in blowback to U.S. citizens.  The book did not guess the date and location of the World Trade Center blowback (supposedly the CIA’s job) but he warned us of the possibility multiple times in this book.  To quote page 13:  Quote “Even an empire cannot control the long-term effects of its policies.  That is the essence of blowback.  Take the civil war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, …the United States also helped bring to power the Taliban… It is likely that U.S. covert policies have helped create similar conditions… and that we are simply waiting for the blowback to occur.” End quote
In Blowback, Chalmers writes at length about the military bases and status of forces agreements (SOFA) in Japan and South Korea.  Status of Forces Agreements detail the terms of the U.S. military presence in the host countries.  The SOFAs purpose is always mutual security but they usually exempt U.S. military forces from the local legal system and allow base closures with out reclamation.
  The Japanese situation is especially troublesome because most of the U.S. military presence is found in Okinawa, not Japan.  The Okinawans are culturally distinct from the Japanese and had their own separate kingdom until Japan annexed the island by force in the late 1800s.  In spite of a long history of Okinawan protests, the Japanese government finds Okinawa the best location for the U.S. military.  The Japanese are generally not in favor of the military presence but are conflicted and don’t want the U.S. to leave due to their concerns about China. In the 1930s when Japan invaded China, estimates of civilian casualties were higher than when Germany invaded Russia.  There is also popular lingering resentment among the Chinese over the fact that the Communist Party rose to power during this conflict. 
In Chalmers’ next book, The Sorrows of Empire, he gives many details about foreign military bases including locations, historical and present, and actual vs. stated purposes.  This book continues the exposure of the counter-productivity of foreign military bases, for example, (pause) Quote “…the Yongsan Army Base occupying 630 prime acres in the center of Seoul, South Korea, is … a monument to American cultural and historical insensitivity.  It is located on the site of Japan’s old military headquarters created in 1894 and a symbol of Japan’s hated occupation of Korea.”  End quote.  Many similar Iraqi examples are also included.
Continuing in Sorrows of Empire, Chalmers focused on militarism as the driving force behind U.S. foreign policy.  He believed there were three broad indicators or hallmarks of militarism.  To quote “…The first is the emergence of a professional military class and the subsequent glorification of its ideals… There is a large group of professional militarists who classify everything they do as secret and who have been appointed to senior positions throughout the executive branch... The second political hallmark of militarism is the preponderance of military officers or representatives of the arms industry in high government positions…. The third hallmark of militarism is a devotion to policies in which military preparedness becomes the highest priority of the state.” End quote.  Research, development, and production of military weapons and technology exist in every state and almost every university in the country.  With a little help from Congress, those budgets are renewed or increased year after year.
Chalmers’ next to last book, Nemesis, is named after the Greek goddess of divine justice, retribution, and vengeance, the punisher of pride and hubris.  His warnings about the imperial presidency, the entrenched armaments industries, and the standing armies reached their peak in this book.  He wrote in detail about the transformation of the CIA from its original purpose of gathering intelligence and advising the president to its current purposes of supporting executive policies and covert operations.  Most of all Chalmers wanted us to be aware of, and wary of, the envelope of secrecy surrounding events in the never-ending war on terror. 
Many Congressional laws that the Bush Administration subverted, defied, or modified with signing statements have not all been resolved with the current administration.  One of these is the Presidential Records Act, Quote “… making the papers of a former president federal property upon his leaving office.  It required that such records be transferred to the Archivist of the United States, who was ordered to open them to the public after no more than twelve years. …On November 1, 2001, just as a small portion of the Reagan administration’s presidential papers was about to be opened to the public, President Bush issued Executive Order 13233 countermanding the Presidential Records Act.  It gave him (as well as former presidents) the right to veto requests to see his presidential records… the order states that access will be granted only at the discretion of the sitting president in consultation with the former president, if still living.  It has been widely speculated that Bush’s intent was to protect his father…from being implicated in the crimes committed during the Iran-Contra affair…’ End quote. The Obama administration’s first executive order addressed Bush’s executive order not to rescind it but to clarify procedures to claim executive privilege.
One of the chapters in Nemesis is titled “Comparative Imperial Pathologies: Rome, Britain, and America”.   What a great chapter title, “Comparative Imperial Pathologies”.  You don’t need to read the chapter to guess something probably looks and smells bad.  This is the kernel of Chalmers’ decades of research and analysis, the parallels to empires past.
In his last book, Dismantling The Empire, Chalmers updates, summarizes, and provides new commentary on his previous work.  He began to believe strongly that bankruptcy was in the U.S. future, “flirting with insolvency” as he called it.  He believed the U.S. military had ignored the lessons learned by Britain and the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and was prolonging the inevitable.  The last chapter of the book contains a list of ten key steps to dismantling the empire, avoiding bankruptcy, and restoring the U.S. democracy.  For someone looking for an introduction to his writing, his first book Blowback or his last book Dismantling The Empire are suggested. And all of these books are available at our public library.  Thank you.

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