The Downward Slope of Empire

Talking With Chalmers Johnson


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.