Empire Falls

The ride is almost over. Our empire is running out of gas. What better way to mark the occasion than a talk with Chalmers Johnson, president of the Japan Policy Research Institute in Cardiff, California, and professor emeritus at the University of California?

Before Sept. 11, Johnson's book Blowback mainstreamed the terminology our Men in Black use for the unintended consequences of U.S. covert operations. Blowback, in essence, is Newton's Third Law of Motion for Politics: "For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction." When the Twin Towers dropped, Johnson's stature in the world of foreign-policy debate rose. "Blowback" became a "word of the day" and was implicit in any rejoinder to the question "Why do they hate us?"

This year, Johnson published a new book, The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic. What follows are excerpts of an interview Mike Kaspar and I recorded with Johnson for our radio show, Weekly Signal, which is broadcast from UC Irvine. We started out by asking him about one sentence from The Sorrows of Empire: "A revolution would be required to bring the Pentagon under democratic control."

OC Weekly: That's quite a statement. What do you mean?

Chalmers Johnson: What I'm saying 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 agencies' 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 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.

But can't people just vote Bush out of office and replace him with someone who will reform Pentagon spending?

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, the secret intelligence agencies and 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. 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 in this country today?

To ask the question is to answer it. 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 per year. 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 crisis of fearful proportions.

Doesn't this debt make the saddest members of the Roman Empire our men and women in uniform?

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. They don't do K.P. They don't clean latrines. They don't do any of the old barracks 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 sprang up after the Cold War. Under the influence of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, there has been a major effort to try to privatize war. Well-connected capitalists are making massive amounts of money, not just by supplying arms, but also off a service industry to the troops.

Why would anyone want to privatize war?

Above all, privatization evades responsibility. What these private companies do are their own proprietary secrets. 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. Most people in this military do not expect to be shot at. That is proving to be a major limitation of our Roman pretensions and ambitions. We will be finding out within a very short period of time—a matter of months—whether 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 Guardsmen. They didn't expect that duty when they joined the National Guard.

So how do we find people who expect to be shot at? Do we reinstate the draft?

That would be politically explosive. The question is whether 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 the Euro looks like a better investment than the dollar, it's over for the United States' 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.

Hear Nathan Callahan on Weekly Signals on KUCI-FM 89.9. Tues., 8-9 a.m. Or visit nathancallahan.com.


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