With one word, "blowback," Chalmers Johnson explained the folly of empire in the modern age.
In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, true American patriots—as opposed to the jingoists and profiteers whose madness and greed would steer a republic to ruin—needed a new language for a new age.
They got it from Johnson. His 2000 book, Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire (Macmillan), gave currency to the old espionage term—which referred to the violent, unintended consequences of covert (and sometimes not so covert) operations that are suffered even by superpowers such as the United States—and became an essential text for those who sought to explain the attacks and to forge sounder and more responsible foreign policies for the furture.
Johnson, who has died at age 79, was no liberal idealist. He was the an old Asian hand who had chaired the Center for Chinese Studies at the University of California-Berkeley from 1967 to 1972 and then served as president and co-founder of the Japan Policy Research Institute. In other words, he was a man of the world who knew how the world worked. And what he tried to explain, to political leaders and citizens, was that the old ways of empire building (and maintaining) no longer worked in an age of instant communications, jet travel and doomsday weaponry.
"In Blowback, I set out to explain why we are hated around the world," Johnson explained in Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic, another of his series of three books on imperialism and empire, which became best sellers in the period after the 9/11 attacks. "The concept ‘blowback’ does not just mean retaliation for things our government has done to and in foreign countries. It refers to retaliation for the numerous illegal operations we have carried out abroad that were kept totally secret from the American public. This means that when the retaliation comes—as it did so spectacularly on September 11, 2001—the American public is unable to put the events in context. So they tend to support acts intended to lash out against the perpetrators, thereby most commonly preparing the ground for yet another cycle of blowback. In the first book in this trilogy, I tried to provide some of the historical background for understanding the dilemmas we as a nation confront today, although I focused more on Asia—the area of my academic training—than on the Middle East."
Johnson, a frequent contributor to The Nation in his later years, argued in his most impressive book, The Sorrows of Empire, that Americans needed to recognize something that their leaders denied: that the United States, a nation founded in opposition to empire, had become an empire.
"The Sorrows of Empire was written during the American preparations for and launching of the invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq," he explained. "I began to study our continuous military buildup since World War II and the 737 military bases we currently maintain in other people’s countries. This empire of bases is the concrete manifestation of our global hegemony, and many of the blowback-inducing wars we have conducted had as their true purpose the sustaining and expanding of this network. We do not think of these overseas deployments as a form of empire; in fact, most Americans do not give them any thought at all until something truly shocking, such as the treatment of prisoners a Guantánamo Bay, brings them to our attention. But the people living next door to these bases and dealing with the swaggering soldiers who brawl and sometimes rape their women certainly think of them as imperial enclaves, just as the people of ancient Iberia or nineteenth-century India knew that they were victims of foreign colonization."
Johnson, in his last years, became a hero to old-right conservatives and new-left radicals, who recognized the truth of his observations about "the sorrows (of empire that are) already invading our lives, which [are] likely to be our fate for years to come: perpetual war, a collapse of constitutional government, endemic official lying and disinformation, and finally bankruptcy."
"The United States today is like a cruise ship on the Niagara River upstream of the most specacular falls in North America," Johnson warned. "A few people on board have begun to pick up a slight hiss in the background, to observe a faint haze of mist in the air on their glasses, to note that the river current seems to be running slightly faster. But no one yet seems to have realized that it is almost too late to head for shore. Like the Chinese, Ottoman, Hapsburg, imperial German, Nazi, imperial Japanese, British, French, Dutch, Portuguese, and Soviet empires in the last century, we are approaching the edge of a huge waterfall and are about to plunge over it."
Johnson knew his history—not just the history of empires that had fallen, but of the American experiment.
Many of his truest and most cherished reference points came from the republic’s founding. We shared a passion for James Madison’s writings on the perils of imperialism in general. In particular, that passion took us to Madison’s great 1795 line from Political Observations: "Of all the enemies of true liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the executive is extended.… War is in fact the true nurse of executive aggrandizement. In war, a physical force is to be created; and it is the executive will, which is to direct it. In war, the public treasuries are to be unlocked; and it is the executive hand which is to dispense them…"
Chalmers Johnson, a true son of the wisest and best of the founding generation, spoke the language of James Madison, when he argued that a republic could not maintain more than 700 military bases on foreign soil and retain its own freedom.
It was a Madisonian impulse that caused Johnson to warn us that "as militarism, the arrogance of power, and the euphemisms required to justify imperialism inevitably conflict with America’s democratic structure of government and distort its culture and basic values, I fear that we will lose our country."
It is a similarly Madisonian impulse, or what remains of it, that will cause genuine patriots to read Johnson as they do the founders for generations to come.