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From Draft NOtices, April-June 2007

On Global Garrisons

Military Keynesianism and the Demise of the Republic

A Review of Chalmers Johnson’s book Nemesis: the Last Days of the American Republic

—Glen Motil

The bloody iron curtain of American Military Power
Is a mirror image of Russia’s red Babel-Tower.
— Allen Ginsberg, from the song/poem “Capitol Air,” Plutonian Ode

Nemesis . . . deals with the way arrogant and misguided American policies have headed us for a series of catastrophes comparable to our disgrace and defeat in Vietnam or even the sort of extinction that befell our former fellow “superpower.”
— Chalmers Johnson

Chalmers Johnson, a UCSD professor emeritus, was formerly a self-described “cold warrior” in academia and viewed the Soviet Union as a “menace.” In light of his past, he often quotes economist John Maynard Keynes when asked how he has become such a stalwart critic of the U.S. military-industrial complex and a prominent voice for the CIA abolitionist movement: “When my information changes, I change my opinion. What do you do?”

Unfortunately, far too few people employ such a thought process, including the majority of America’s elected representatives. Johnson’s new book, Nemesis: the Last Days of the American Republic, is the completion of a trilogy. It follows Blowback, which was written before the events of 9/11 and provides evidence and speculation on how U.S. “covert policies abroad might be coming back to haunt us,” and Sorrows of Empire, which served to “analyze the nature of this militarism and to expose the harm it was doing, not to others but to our own society and governmental system.”

Nemesis is by far the best of the three. Each chapter causes us to stare deeper into the abyss of our own making. Each chapter is worth the price of the book and more. The endnotes provide a treasure trove of useful information, and the bibliography is invaluable for the intellectual arsenal counter-militarists must possess. If you’ve been closely following the existential journey of geopolitical events over the past decade, the endnotes compile in one place the treacherous landmines we have endured, the ideological projectiles we have managed to dodge, and rocky, embattled legal terrain we have tread.

The book instantly challenges readers to question our perspective. In the prologue, Johnson argues persuasively that “Americans cannot truly appreciate the impact of our bases elsewhere because there are no foreign military bases within the United States.” U.S. bases bring with them brothels, brawls, sex crimes, racial and religious insults, and environmental pollution; these “global garrisons provide that threat and are a cause of blowback.”

The first chapter is entitled “Militarism and the Breakdown of Constitutional Government.” It includes an extraordinary analysis based on the idea set forth by Hannah Arendt about the “banality of evil.” Arendt wrote about Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, who Johnson compares to the U.S. government’s own “desk murderers” — Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld. “What made Eichmann both evil and banal, Arendt concluded . . . was his inability to think for himself.” Johnson goes on to highlight in exasperating, heavily annotated detail three very recent examples of the lack of thinking behind what has passed for U.S. foreign policy: (1) the systematic killing (genocide) of unarmed, noncombatant Iraqis from the Persian Gulf war, economic sanctions, U.S./U.K. occupation of Iraqi airspace from 1991 to 2003, and the current invasion, occupation and civil war, (2) known and secret torture prisons around the world, and (3) the total disregard for the destruction and desecration of Iraqi (and the world’s) cultural heritage by doing nothing to prevent or stop the looting and arson of Baghdad’s priceless artifacts and museums that immediately followed the fall of Baghdad. Johnson sums up the price of this evil banality: “We will never again know peace, nor in all probability survive very long as a nation. . . . Certainly, under the best of circumstances, it will take a generation or more to overcome the image of ‘America as torturer.’”

In the chapter on comparative imperial pathologies, Johnson points out similarities between the U.S. and the rise and fall of both the Roman republic and the British Empire. I think the more recent history of the British Empire is much more comparable, although there are problems with both. What took place nearly 2,000 years ago (Roman Empire) and what has taken place after the industrial revolution — such as new means of rapid transit and the advent of advanced weaponry (British Empire) — leaves a sizable space for accusations of anachronistic thinking. The U.S. empire, of course, arose in the nuclear, genetic, and digital age (the creation of the atomic bomb, the discovery and mapping of DNA and human genome, and incredible possibilities for communication that have arisen since the advent of the microchip). Also, since 1945-48 the world has known and lived under the law of the United Nations charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and has entered, however violently, a primarily post-colonial context. Any attempted imperial project works counter to all this progress and is on its face not only imprudent and immoral, but also outright criminal (this distinguishes the U.S. American from all previous empires). All these things are important and make any comparisons between British, Roman, and U.S. imperialism interesting, but ultimately cursory.

This does not mean, however, that there is nothing to learn from such grand narratives and generalized themes. The primary lesson that Johnson intends remains true — that empires are impermanent in nature and by their definition cannot co-exist with a constitutional, republican form of government (or any truly democratic system). This was true with Rome (which rid itself of republicanism in favor of imperial dictatorship) and Britain (which decided to let its empire go in favor of domestic parliamentarianism). It remains the choice for the United States, although it appears to be going the way of the Roman model. This chapter was excellent for fairly presenting a challenge to the very notion essential to the choice that Johnson presents. Johnson describes the last gasps of British imperialism with a very insightful look at both the Malay Emergency of Southeast Asia and the Mau Mau Rebellion of Kenya (both taking place in the 1950s to early 1960s) — two events that most U.S. Americans probably know little if anything about. It is revealing and troublesome to learn that as recently as 50 years ago, the U.S. government’s closest ally in the so-called “war on terror” was involved with a bloody racist massacre that included the use of concentration camps and a genocidal campaign (ethnic cleansing) in Africa.

The chapter on the Central Intelligence Agency makes an excellent claim for the abolition of this well-funded, secretive “president’s private army.” This summer is the 60th anniversary of the National Security Act of 1947. During the past seven years under the Cheney/Bush regime, we have witnessed the rapid, theoretical dissolution of the constitutional republic: stolen executive election (judicial coup of 2000), secret energy policy meetings (big oil corporate coup in the spring of 2001), the events of 9/11, the exit from the ICBM treaty, the establishment of the Bush doctrine of preventive war (the military coup of 2001-02), the Patriot Act, the self-abrogation of the constitutionally mandated duty of Congress to declare wars, the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security (the legislative liquidation coup of 2001-02), the ongoing privatization of militarism and interrogation, the building of concentration camps for “emergency” purposes (world police state measures), and the establishment of the absolute surveillance society (thought police measures). All of this culminated with the passage of the Military Commissions Act of 2006, which virtually grants the unitary executive and his or her secretary of war the unlimited power to detain any person secretly and indefinitely, denying even the writ of habeus corpus, and further granting the president of the United States power over the life or death of such publicly unnamed detainees (preparation for American death camps?). The truth, however, as Johnson demonstrates so effectively, is that the constitutional republic has been weakened and rendered rather ineffectual since the passage of the NSA in 1947, with brief periods of respite and attempts at correction and oversight, such as occurred in the mid-1970s with the Church commission. What is called for is nothing less than the complete and total abolition of the CIA as an essential step to regaining the republic.

In the chapter on U.S. military bases in other countries, I found some reason for hope. Perhaps those of us who wish to see an end to the U.S. empire of bases should use the technology available to us (Internet, blogs, wikis, vlogs) to reach out to like-minded allies in Germany and Japan. A serious, prolonged and ultimately successful campaign aimed at closing the dozens of bases in these two nations would serve as an effective body blow to the “Colossus athwart the world,” as Johnson likes to call it. If only a fraction of the multimillions of Europeans who demonstrated against the Iraq war before it began in the spring of 2003 were to set out with laser-like focus on a counter-militarism campaign to close the U.S. bases in Germany, it may set U.S. imperial policy back years and buy the rest of the world time to organize for a peaceful future. Johnson points out that although bases are being established in the former Soviet bloc nations, it would take years and trillions of dollars to mirror what has been established for decades in Germany (both in terms of opportunities for restful recreation and the embodiment of stable, permanent garrisons). Regarding the permanent bases in Iraq, the people of the United States must continue to work towards retaking Congress, re-establishing a republic, and ultimately enacting a total withdrawal policy — which would include the nationalization of Iraqi oil and the complete removal of the U.S. network of bases. Until the occupation ceases, the bases are gone, and the transnational corporate money out, the insurgents will remain justified in their cause — and thousands, if not millions, more will continue to suffer and perish, including on average 40 U.S. casualties per day.

Johnson has two indispensable and impeccable chapters on how U.S. imperialism works. One is an analysis of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) as applied to Japan, and another is how the United States intends to dominate space militarily, as called for in the Bush doctrine of preventive war. Once again, the space for resistance to these past, current, and future projects may be beyond our borders. In regards to SOFA agreements with other nations, the people of those countries must rise up and demand that their government renegotiate, and we must be there to support them. In regards to the future wars of space, the world community must step up as a single voice opposed to this rogue state notion being perpetuated by the United States government; their resistance will be good for the world, but also good for the United States. It may even prevent it from squandering trillions more on worthless boondoggles, when it could be using the money for the funding of material human rights (food, shelter, health care, education) for all the world’s people sevenfold.

The final chapter highlights the “crisis” of our time: the establishment of the unitary executive and the rampant escalation of the economics of military Keynesianism (a sick mutation of the economic theories of governmentally induced capitalist correction set forth in the writings of John Maynard Keynes). It is blatantly unconstitutional for a sitting U.S. president to declare war at will, attempt to completely dismantle the Freedom of Information Act, issue signing statements with every law he takes exception to and views himself as being above and beyond, and permit torture and illegal wiretapping. These are all being justified under the unitary executive theory of governance, and even though they are promoted by at least four current members of the Supreme Court, all are blatantly unconstitutional. Military Keynesianism as an economic model has not only caused the majority of corruption to our way of life and our very way of thinking (it is illiberal and state capitalist in nature), but it is also unsustainable in the long run and will collapse under the weight of its own contradictions, much as the Soviet economic model did.

Johnson’s book is a sobering read. The prognosis is in and the patient is in intensive care on life support, to paraphrase another favorite author, Helen Caldicott. If you are a reader like me and have come to similar pessimistic (realistic) conclusions about the fate of the United States and the world (and my own are perhaps even more pessimistic than Johnson’s), then the next steps we should plan for are what kind of a world we wish to live in after the inevitable collapse of Anglo-American hegemony, just in case the collapse is as rapid as that of the Soviet Union. When we arise from the bunker and assess the damage, what glimmer in our eyes will bring our dreams to fruition for the peaceful world we wish to build for our prosperity? Let us remind ourselves of a lyric in the musical Rent: “The opposite of war is not peace, it is creation.” Let us create!

This article is from Draft NOtices, the newsletter of the Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft (


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