Chalmers Johnson and his "Nemesis"

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Finally, a man and a book to challenge and change the “master narrative” of our times.

In early 2003, on the eve of the invasion of Iraq, I was putting the finishing touches on my portrait [The Sorrows of Empire] of the global reach of American military bases. In it, I suggested the sorrows already invading our lives, which were likely to be our fate for years to come: perpetual war, a collapse of constitutional government, endemic official lying and disinformation, and finally bankruptcy. At book’s end, I advocated reforms intended to head off these outcomes but warned that ‘failing such a reform, Nemesis, the goddess of retribution and vengeance, the punisher of pride and hubris, waits impatiently for her meeting with us.’ …

The United States today is like a cruise ship on the Niagara River upstream of the most specacular falls in North America. 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.

Chalmers Johnson, Nemesis

Chalmers Johnson’s Nemesis is the third volume in an “inadvertent trilogy” — a sort of retirement gig, part of The American Empire Project, from an eminent UC Berkeley and UC San Diego scholar in Asian (especially Japanese) affairs.


Chalmers Johnson [Photo: K.Amemiya, Courtesy of Henry Holt & Co]

The first volume, Blowback (2000), written just before 9.11, was an account of why something like the World Trade Center attack was bound to happen… an alternative answer to President Bush’s question, “Why do they hate us?” The term “blowback,” as he explained, is a CIA coinage that “does not mean revenge but rather retaliation for covert, illegal violence that our government has carried out abroad that it kept totally secret from the American public (even though such acts are seldom secret among the people on the receiving end).”

His second volume, The Sorrows of Empire, surveyed the vast US military establishment largely hidden from budgetary review or popular conversation: 700-plus US bases in roughly 130 countries abroad, “over two hundred military golf courses around the world, some seventy-one Learjets and other luxury aircraft to fly admirals and generals to such watering holes…” In sum, as he wrote, “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.”

And now, Nemesis announces that we are approaching a destination.

Chalmers Johnson and his book will be mis-classified by some as leftist, even anti-American. To my eyes and ears his Jeremiad has a classic, old-fashioned and middle-American accent. The “empire is the issue” crowd in fact spans right and left — from the late Susan Sontag and Gore Vidal through Norman Mailer to Senator Robert Byrd and Pat Buchanan. I observe that it’s only the mushy middle of the public conversation and the mainstream media that avoid the evidences of empire and the common-sense misgivings about a foreign policy of force and domination, and open contempt for “the opinions of mankind.”

The dire prophecy that Chalmers Johnson is forcing us to confront late in Bush II and the Iraq debacle comes, in fact, from a consensus of the Founding Fathers and from James Madison in particular, quoted by Johnson at some length.

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…”

James Madison, from Political Observations , April 20, 1795.

Chalmers Johnson’s full title is Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic. Oddly enough, he does not quite despair of changing course and rescuing our birthright.

Thomas P. M. Barnett, a very different analyst of American power and possibility in The Pentagon’s New Map and Blueprint for Action, will join the conversation.

Thomas Barnett

Blogger, Thomas P.M. Barnett:: Weblog

Senior Managing Director, Enterra Solutions

Former strategist for the Office of the Secretary of Defense

Former professor, Naval War College

Author, The Pentagon’s New Map and Blueprint for Action: A Future Worth Creating

Extra Credit Reading

Paul Starobin, Beyond Hegemony, National Journal, December 1, 2006: “It could be that the current anxiety over whether America has “peaked” is just another spasm in a regularly occurring cycle. In 1970, with the United States bogged down in Vietnam, President Nixon worried that America looked like “a pitiful, helpless giant.” Seventeen years later, in the wake of the Ronald Reagan revival of a big-stick America, Paul Kennedy came out with his ominous-sounding book. Now, like clockwork, amid concerns that George W. Bush has overstretched the imperial fabric, the baying is again heard that America’s “primacy” days are drawing to a close. Call it the 17-year angst.”(via OliverCranglesParrot)

Joseph Heller, Nately’s Old Man, Catch-22, Month DD, YYYY: “‘America is the strongest and most prosperous nation on earth,’ Nately informed him with lofty fervor and dignity. ‘And the American fighting man is second to none.’ ‘Exactly’, agreed the old man pleasantly, with a hint of taunting amusement. ‘Italy, on the other hand, is one of the least prosperous nations on earth. And the Italian fighting man is probably second to all. And that’s exactly why my country is doing so well in this war while yours is doing so poorly.'” (via OliverCranglesParrot)

Donald Douglas, Chalmers Johnson and America’s Imperial Decline, Burkean Reflections, January 31, 2007: “Much of what Johnson denounces is the Bush administration’s advocacy of executive branch supremacy in the realm of national security, manifest, for example, in the adminstration’s early policies on the detention and torture of enemy combatants. But Johnson goes too far in making his case, essentially equating the Bush administration’s excesses with the totalitarianism of Hitler’s Nazi regime.”

William Greider, The End of Empire, The Nation, September 23, 2002: “You can’t sustain an empire from a debtor’s weakening position–sooner or later the creditors pull the plug. That humiliating lesson was learned by Great Britain early in the last century, and the United States faces a similar reckoning ahead.”

Jane’s Information Corp, On imperial overstretch, Jane’s, August 6, 2003: “The USA remains the biggest military power in the world, but it is beginning to experience the classic symptoms of imperial fatigue.”

Suzy Hansen, The decline and fall of the American empire, Salon, December 2, 2002: “According to Kupchan, a professor of international relations at Georgetown University and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, it isn’t radical Islam that we should be most concerned about. It’s our friends across the Atlantic, the European Union, that pose the greatest threat to American primacy.”

Wang Jisi, The End of Empire, The Study Times, December 10, 2003: “.The domestic roots of America’s hegemonism are deep and solid. Before the U.S. falls from its hegemonic height, in order to shake its hegemonic thinking, we must eradicate America’s unitary ideology of freedom, change America’s nationalism and conceptual framework, make them believe that there are social systems and life styles in the world that are more admirable than America’s.”


It reminds you of the Roman Republic as it is portrayed in the series “Rome” on Home Box Office these days. It’s the way democracies die. It’s when people forget what they are about to lose. It never comes back once you lose it. We’re talking bascially about a one-way street, and one of the one-way streets is the way we are dependent upon our military aparatus.

Chalmers Johnson


We’re roughly at one-third the number of troops abroad today that we were at the height of the Cold War in 1968. And nobody called it an empire then. I’m at a loss, in terms of magnitude, for explaining how Dr. Johnson can describe us as being that much more dependent, when by historial averages . . . our military burden is lighter than it’s ever been.

Thomas Barnett


So it’s not a problem of the United States not being able to find friends, or be invited into these kinds of situations. The real problem we face is that we’re invited into some many of them.

Thomas Barnett


Every day I imagine an Iraqi man my age — 75 years old — saying to his son, “Son, your mother and I have talked it over. For the sake of our dignity, for the sake of our self-respect, go out and kill an American tonight.”

Chalmers Johnson


References to Ecuador and Paraguay and how they’d be happy if our bases were pulled are kind of fanciful, because we don’t have any bases there. So you have to be clear about where we actually are versus what kind of myths Dr. Johnson is weaving for you.

Thomas Barnett

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