Talking With Chalmers Johnson

Chalmers Johnson, president of the Japan Policy Research Institute, is the author of the bestselling Blowback and The Sorrows of Empire. He appeared in the 2005 prizewinning documentary film Why We Fight. He lives near San Diego.

Kreisler: Once upon a time you  called yourself a “spear-carrier for the empire.”

Johnson: “—for the empire,” yes, yes.

That’s the prologue to Blowback; I was a consultant to the Office of National Estimates of the CIA during the time of the Vietnam War. But what caused me to change my mind and to rethink these issues? Two things: one analytical, one concrete. The first was the demise of the Soviet Union. I expected much more from the United States in the way of a peace dividend. I believe that Russia today is not the former Soviet Union by any means. It’s a much smaller place. I would have expected that as a tradition in the United States, we would have demobilized much more radically. We would have rethought more seriously our role in the world, brought home troops in places like Okinawa. Instead, we did every thing in our power to shore up the Cold War structures in East Asia, in Latin America. The search for new enemies began. That’s the neoconservatives. I was shocked, actually, by this. Did this mean that the Cold War was a cover for something deeper, for an American imperial project that had been in the works since World War II? I began to believe that this is the case.

The second thing that led me to write Blowback in the late 1990s was something concrete. Okinawa prefecture, which is Japan’s southernmost prefecture, is the poorest place in Japan, the equivalent of Puerto Rico; it’s always been discriminated against by the Japanese since they seized it at the end of the nineteenth century. The governor at that time, Masahide Ota, is a former professor. He invited me to Okinawa in February of 1996 to give a speech to his associates in light of what had happened on September 4, 1995, when two marines and a sailor from Camp Hansen in cen-tral Okinawa abducted, beat, and raped a twelve-year-old girl. It led to the biggest single demonstration against the United States since the Security Treaty was signed. I had not been in Okinawa before. Back during the Korean War, when I was in the navy, I took the ship in to what was then called Buckner Bay, now Nakagusuku Bay, and dropped anchor. Other officers on board went ashore. I took a look at the place through the glasses, and I thought, “This is not for me.” But we were anchored in the most beautiful lagoon, so I went swimming around the ship. So I had been in Okinawan waters, but I’d never touched ground before.

I have to say I was shocked to see the impact of thirty-eight American bases located on an island smaller than Kauai in the Hawaiian Islands, with 1.3 million people living cheek-by-jowl with warplanes . . . the Third Marine Division is based there; the only marine division we have outside the country. And I began to investigate the issues.

The reaction to the rape of 1995 from, for example, General Richard Meyers, who became chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—he was then head of U.S. forces in Japan—and all he said was that these were just three bad apples, a tragic incident, unbelievably exceptional. After research, you discover that the rate of sexually violent crimes committed by our troops in Okinawa leading to court-martial is two per month! This was not an exceptional incident, expect for the fact that the child was so young and, differing from many Okinawan women who would not come forward after being raped, she was not fully socialized and she wanted to get even. This led to the creation of a quite powerful organization that I greatly admire called Okinawan Women Act Against Military Violence.

I began to research Okinawa, and my first impulse—again, as a defensive American imperialist—was that Okinawa was exceptional: it’s off the beaten track, the press never goes there, the military is comfortable. I discovered over time, looking at these kinds of bases and other places around the world, that there’s nothing exceptional about it. It’s typical. Maybe the concentration is a little greater than it is elsewhere, but the record of environmental damage, sexual crimes, bar brawls, drunken driving, one thing after another, these all occur in the 725 bases (the Department of Defense–acknowledged number; the real number is actually considerably larger than that) that we have in other people’s countries. That led me to write Blowback, first as a warning.

But it also led you to publish this book Okinawa: Cold War Island, edited by you, which looks at the various aspects of this. And what you’re saying is, it’s not only the social cost; it has impinged on the people of Okinawa’s right to have some kind of democratic existence.

Essentially, Okinawa is used as a dumping ground by the Japanese. They want the security treaty, but they don’t want American troops anywhere near mainland Japanese. So they put them down, as I say, in the equivalent of Puerto Rico, and the conditions fester. The governor of Okinawa today, a very considerably con servative man, Mr. Inamine, is still, nonetheless, always saying, “We’re living on the side of a volcano. You can hear the magma down there. It may blow. And when it does, it’ll have the same effect on your empire that the breaching of the Berlin Wall had on the Soviet empire.”

In one of your books you say that as a consultant or an adviser to the CIA, you were not impressed with the reports and analysis that you were viewing. So we were not in a position to understand what was going on, just as a matter of the information we were getting.

This is what blowback means. “Blowback” is a CIA term that means retaliation, or payback. It was first used in the after-action report on our first clandestine overthrow of a foreign government, the overthrow of Mossadegh in Iran in 1953, when, for the sake of the British Petroleum Company, we claimed he was a Communist when he just didn’t want the British to keep stealing Iranian resources. In the report, which was finally declassifi ed in 2000, the CIA says, “We should expect some blowback from what we have done here.” This was the first model clandestine operation.

By blowback we do not mean just the unintended conse-quences of events. We mean unintended consequences of events that were kept secret from the American public, so that when the retaliation comes, the public has no way to put it into context. Just as after 9/11, you have the president saying, “Why do they hate us?” The people on the receiving end know full well that they hate us because of what was done to them. It’s the American public that is in the dark on that subject.

I conceived of Blowback—written in 1999, published in 2000—as a warning to the American public. It was: you should expect retaliation from the people on the receiving end of now innumerable clandestine activities, including the biggest one of all, the recruiting, arming, and putting into combat of mujahideen fighters in Afghanistan in the 1980s who are the main recruiting group for Al Qaeda today.

The warning was not heeded. The book, when it was first published, was more or less ignored in this country. It was very nicely received in Germany, and in Japan, and in Italy, in places like that. But then after 9/11, when all of a sudden, inattentive Americans were mobilized to seek, at least on an emergency basis, some understanding of what they were into, it became a best-seller.

You’re raising a very important point, which is that our policies often lack an understanding of our own actions. But also—

Not just lack of understanding. They’ve been kept secret. That’s why the subtitle of The Sorrows of Empire is “Militarism, Secrecy”—I want to stress secrecy and say a word or two about that in a moment—“and the End of the Republic.”

Two days after 9/11, when the president addressed Congress and asked rhetorically, “Why do they hate us?” my response was: “The people immediately around you are the ones who could tell you with precision why. That is, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Colin Powell, Richard Armitage”—these are the  people who ran the largest clandestine operation we ever carried out, in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

“They could explain to you, in detail, why.” Once the Soviet Union had been expelled in 1989 from Afghanistan and we simply walked away from it, the people we had recruited, trained, and equipped with things like Stinger missiles—the first time the Stinger was ever used against a Soviet gunship was in Afghanistan. Once we had achieved our purposes, we just walked away, and these highly armed young men felt, “We’ve been used. We were cannon fodder in a little exercise in the Cold War, in a bipolar competition between the Soviet Union and the United States.” Then we compounded that with further mistakes like placing infidel troops (our troops) in Saudi Arabia after 1991, which was insulting to any number of Saudi Arabians, who believe that they are responsible for the most sacred sites in Islam: Mecca and Medina. Osama bin Laden is so typical of the kinds of figures in our history, like Manuel Noriega or Saddam Hussein, who were close allies of ours at one time. We know Saddam at one time had weapons of mass destruction because we have the receipts!

Osama bin Laden comes from a wealthy family of a construction empire in Saudi Arabia. He’s the sort of person that you would more likely expect to see on the ski slopes of Gstaad with a Swiss girl on his arm, or as a houseguest in Kennebunkport with the first President Bush and the notorious “petroleum complex” of America. But he was insulted. He had been in Afghanistan. The base where he trained mujahideen, at Khost, the CIA built for him. It was one of the few times we knew where to hit. Because we built it, we did know where they were. He then was disgusted with us and certainly gave us fair warning in the attack in 1993 on the World Trade Center.

Talk a little about what militarism is, and what imperialism is.

What I want to introduce here is what I call the “base world.” According to the “Base Structure Report”, an annual report of the Department of Defense, in the year 2002 we had 725 bases in other people’s countries. Actually, that number understates in that it does not include any of the espionage bases of the National Security Agency, such as RAF Menwith Hill in Yorkshire.

So these are bases where we have listening devices?

These are huge bases. Menwith Hill downloads  every single e-mail, telephone call, and fax between Europe and the United States every day and puts them into massive computers where dictionaries then read them out. There are hundreds of these. The official Base Structure Report also  doesn’t include any of the main bases in England disguised as Royal Air Force bases even though there are no Britons on them. It  doesn’t include any of the bases in Uzbekistan or Kyrgyzstan, any of the bases in Afghanistan, the four bases that are, as we talk, being built in Iraq. They put down one major marine base for Okinawa—there are ten—and things like that. So there is a lot of misleading information in it, but it’s enough to say 700 looks like a pretty good number, whereas it’s probably around 1,000.

The base world is secret. Americans don’t know anything about it. The Congress  doesn’t do oversight on it. You must remember, 40 percent of the defense budget is black. No congressman can see it. All of the intelligence budgets are black.

No public discussion.

In violation of the first article of the Constitution that says, “The American public shall be given, annually, a report on how their tax money was spent.” That has not been true in the United States since the Manhattan Project of World War II, even though it is the clause that gives Congress the power of the purse, the power to supervise.

The base world is complex. It has its own airline. It has 234 golf courses around the world. It has something like seventy Lear Jet luxury airplanes to fly generals and admirals to the golf courses, to the armed forces ski resort at Garmisch in the Bavarian Alps. Inside the bases, the military does every thing in its power to make them look like Little America.

There are large numbers of women in the armed forces to-day, [yet] you can’t get an abortion at a military hospital abroad. Sexual assaults are not at all uncommon in the armed forces. If you were a young woman in the armed forces today and you were based in Iraq, and you woke up one morning and found yourself pregnant, you have no choice but to go on the open market in Baghdad looking for an abortion, which is not a very happy thought.

Militarism is not defense of the country. By milita rism, I mean corporate interest in a military way of life. It derives above all from the fact that service in the armed forces is, today, not an obligation of citizenship. It is a career choice. It has been since 1973. I thought it was wonderful when PFC Jessica Lynch, who was wounded at Nasiriyah, was asked by the press, “Why did you join the Army?” She said, “I come from Palestine, West Virginia; I couldn’t get a job at Wal-Mart.” She said, “I joined the Army to get out of Palestine, West Virginia”—a perfectly logical answer on her part. And it’s true of a great many people in the ranks to-day. They do not expect to be shot at. That’s one of the points you should understand; it’s a career choice, like a kid deciding to work his way up to Berkeley by going through a community col-lege, and a state college, and then transferring in at the last minute or something like that.

Standing behind it is the military-industrial complex. We must, once again, bear in mind the powerful warnings of probably the two most prominent generals in our history. George Washington, in his farewell address, warns about the threat of standing armies to liberty, and particularly republican liberty. He was not an isolationist; he was talking about what moves power toward the imperial presidency,  toward the state. It requires more taxes. Everything else which he said has come true. The other, perhaps more famous one was Dwight Eisenhower in his farewell address, where he invented the phrase “military-industrial complex.” We now know that he intended to say “military-industrial-congressional complex,” but he was advised not to go that far.

What interests me here is that we’re talking about something that looks very much like the end of the Roman Republic—which was, in many ways, a model for our own republic—and its conversion into a military dictatorship called the Roman Empire as the troops began to take over. The kind of figure that the Roman Republic began to look for was a military populist; of course, the most obvious example was Julius Caesar. But after Caesar’s assassination in 44B.C., the young Octavian becomes the “god” Augustus Caesar.

I’m not trying to be a sensationalist, but I actually do worry about the future of the United States; whether, in fact, we are tending in the same path as the former Soviet Union, with domestic, ideological rigidity in our economic institutions, im perial overstretch—that’s what we’re talking about here—the belief that we have to be every where at all times. We have always been a richer place than Russia was, so it will take longer. But we’re overextended. We can’t afford it.

One of my four “sorrows of empire” at the end of the book is bankruptcy. The military is not productive. They do provide certain kinds of jobs, as you discover in the United States whenever you try and close a military base—no matter how con servative or liberal your congressional representatives are, they will go mad to try and keep it open, keep it functioning. And the military-industrial complex is very clever in making sure that the building of a B-2 bomber is spread around the country; it is not all located at Northrop in El Segundo, California.

I have grave difficulty believing that that any president can bring under control the Pentagon, the secret intelligence agencies, the military-industrial complex. The Department of Defense is not, today, a department of defense. It’s an alternative seat of government on the south bank of the Potomac River. And, typical of militarism, it’s expanding into many, many other areas in our life that we have, in our traditional political philosophy, reserved for civilians. [For example,] domestic policing:  they’re slowly expanding into that.

Probably the most severe competition in our government today is between the Special Forces in the DOD and the CIA over who runs clandestine operations.

What you’re really saying is that, lo and behold, we’ve created an empire of bases, a different kind of empire, and that it’s basically changing who we are and the way our government operates.

The right phrase is exactly what you said: “lo and behold.” It reminds you of the Roman Republic, which existed in its final form with very considerable rights for Roman citizens, much like ours, for about two centuries. James Madison and others, in writing the defense of the Constitution in the Federalist Papers, signed their name “Publius.” Well, who is Publius? He was the first Roman consul. That is where the whole world of term limits, of separation of powers, things like that, [began].

Yet by the end of the first century B.C., Rome had seemingly “inadvertently” acquired an empire that surrounded the entire Mediterranean Sea. They then discovered that the inescapable accompaniment, the Siamese twin of imperialism, is militarism. You start needing standing armies. You start having men who are demobilized after having spent their entire lives in the military. It’s expensive to pay them. You have to provide them, in the Roman Empire, with farms or things of this sort. They become irritated with the state. And then along comes a military populist, a figure who says, “I understand your problems. I will represent your interests against the Roman Senate. The only requirement is that I become dictator for life.” Certainly, Julius Caesar is the model for this . . . Napoleon Bonaparte, Juan Perón, this is the type of figure.

Indeed, one wonders whether we have already crossed our Rubicon, whether we can go back. I don’t know.

In your indictment of what we are becoming, or maybe have become, you go through a list. We can’t do all of it; we don’t have enough time. But, essentially, civilians who think in military ways now making decisions, the Pentagon expropriating the functions of the State Department, a policy being perceived as military policy as opposed to all of the dimensions of—

People around the world who meet Americans meet soldiers. That’s how we represent ourselves abroad, just as the Roman Empire represented itself abroad as the Legionaires. People have to conclude, even if they don’t come into military or armed conflict with us, that this is the way the Americans think. This is the way they represent themselves today. It’s not foreign aid any longer. It’s not our diplomats. It’s not the Fulbright program. It’s the military. It’s uniformed eighteen- to twenty-four-year-old young men and some young women.

As a student of Asian political economy, you wrote the classic on MITI. In the final analysis, your judgment is that we will not only suffer political but also economic bankruptcy.

So, what do I suggest probably will happen? I think we will stagger along under a façade of constitutional government, as we are now, until we’re overcome by bankruptcy. We are not paying our way. We’re financing it off of huge loans coming daily from our two leading creditors, Japan and China.

It’s a rigged system that reminds you of Herb Stein, [who], when he was chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers in a Republican administration, rather famously said, “Things that can’t go on forever don’t.” That’s what we’re talking about today. We’re massively indebted, we’re not manufacturing as much as we used to, we maintain our lifestyle off  huge capital imports from countries that don’t mind taking a short, small beating on the exchange rates so long as they can continue to develop their own economies and supply Americans: above all, China within twenty to twenty-five years will be both the world’s largest social system and the world’s most productive social system, barring truly unforeseen developments.

Bankruptcy would not mean the literal end of the United States, any more than it did for Germany in 1923, or China in 1948, or Argentina just a few years ago, in 2001 and 2002. But it would certainly mean a catastrophic recession, the collapse of our stock exchange, the end of our level of living, and a vast series of new attitudes that would now be appropriate to a much poorer country. Marshall Auerbach is a financial analyst whom I admire who refers to the United States as a “Blanche Dubois economy.” Blanche Dubois, of course, was the leading character in Tennessee Williams’s play A Streetcar Named Desire, and she said, “I’ve always depended upon the kindness of strangers.” We’re also increasingly dependent on the kindness of strangers, and there are not many of them left who care, any more than there were for Blanche. I suspect if the United States did start to go down, it would not elicit any more tears than the collapse of the Soviet Union did.

Do you see a configuration of external power, Japan, China, the EU, that will be a balancer that might not just confront us but might help guide us to changes that would be good for us and them?

Once you go down the path of empire, you inevitably start a process of overstretch, of tendencies toward bankruptcy, and, in the rest of the world, a tendency toward the uniting of people who are opposed to your im perialism simply on grounds that it’s yours, but maybe also on the grounds that you’re incompetent at it. There was a time when the rest of the world did trust the United States a good deal as a result of the Marshall Plan, foreign aid, things of this sort. They probably trusted it more than they should have. Today that is almost entirely dissipated At some point, we must either reduce our empire of bases from 737 to maybe 37—although I’d just as soon get rid of all of them. If we don’t start doing that, then we will go the way of the former Soviet Union.

HARRY KREISLER’s interview with Chalmers Johnson is taken from his new book Political Awakenings, just published by the New Press, printed here by permission of the publisher.

Copyright 2010 HARRY KREISLER.