Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Sorrows of Empire: How Militarism Destroyed America

Most Americans won't fail to notice the decadence and disrepair the nation has plummeted to in a short eight years. But, for those who look further into our history, they will find that the same dysfunction has existed atop our political hierarchy for decades. Abuse of power is obviously nothing new, but Chalmers Johnson's revealing autopsy of the U.S. government-military complex in The Sorrows of Empire resoundly answers the great questions of our time.

An accurately factual survey of American imperial history, Johnson takes readers through the 1898 Spanish-American War, the occupation of Korea, Japan and Europe after World War II up to today's invasions of countries like Grenada and Iraq. Johnson's aptly placed commentary parallels our nation's militaristic rise with the deep forewarnings of other Empires as well as our own past. Because of secret military organizations and now departments of government that have no accountability to Congress, nor respect for the principles on which the nation was founded, Americans now face a greater chasm from democracy and a closer highroad to authoritarian rule.

Johnson introduces the concept of Empire by stressing that "there is a trend toward autocratic takeovers of imperial republics," especially when they grow large. His narrative is quick to point out that perhaps an emperor is what America already has. For the very people in the power elite who had witnessed the collapse of a once great empire, the Soviet Union, should have surely striven to discover why empires never work and most likely limit freedom and provincial autonomy. But instead of investigating the biggest failure of the Soviet Empire, America instead claimed moral victory and embarked on a quixotic Wilsonian-inspired quest to "bring democracy" around the world.

Johnson explains that,

"The United States began like a traditional empire. We occupied and colonized the North American continent and established military outposts, called forts - Fort Apache, Fort Leavenworth, Sutter's Fort, Fort Sam Houston, Fort Laramie, Fort Osage - from coast to coast. But in more modern times, unlike many other empires, we did not annex territories at all. Instead we took (or sometimes merely leased) exclusive military zones within territories, creating not an empire of colonies but an empire of bases. These bases, linked through a chain of command and supervised by the Pentagon without any significant civilian oversight, were tied into our developing military-industrial complex and deeply affected the surrounding indigenous cultures, almost invariably for the worse. They have helped turn us into a new kind of military empire - a consumerist Sparta, a warrior culture that flaunts the air-conditioned housing, movie theaters, supermarkets, golf courses, and swimming pools of its legionnaires. Another crucial characteristic that distinguishes the American empire from empires of the past is that the bases are not needed to fight wars but are instead pure manifestations of militarism and imperialism" (23).

Little is lost on his prose. Marking the difference between military and "militarism", Johnson goes on to decry the unaccountable war making agencies of the covert CIA and the Pentagon. Washington once remarked, "Overgrown military establishments, which, under any form of government, are inauspicious to liberty, and which are to be regarded as particularly hostile to Republican Liberty.” While some know well Eisenhower's Farewell Address warning of the military-industrial complex, few know of the 725 military bases in over 145 nations. The list is long and includes such prominent places as Great Britain, Germany, Japan, Korea, the Netherlands, Argentina, Italy and Spain. Of course, others include more notably Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Turkey as well as several other nations throughout the globe. Johnson in his novel unvoers this nearly undetectable truth, kept hidden out of the news from teh American public. He comments that, "Following the attacks of September 11 [...] our newspapers began to read like official gazettes, television news simply gave up and followed the orders of its corporate owners, and the two political parties competed with each other in being obsequious to the White House" (13). Surely, some major idea has been missed here by the American people and their unapologetic political elite.

But, upon revealing the size of operations and the absolute pompous audacity of their presence anyone would see their previous view of the world sent into clear uncertainty. Pointing out statistics that the military releases over 1,000,000 troops are now serving abroad, with nearly half a million working in or in support for the efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Of the 474,312 other service personnel around the world there are 70,000 at sea, 185,000 in Germany alone, 89,000 in Japan, nearly 50,000 in South Korea, 30,000 each in Britain and Italy, 5,000 in each Saudi Arabia and Turkey, 4,000 in tiny Iceland, 5,000 in Belgium, 3,000 in each Portugal and the Netherlands, and of course 1,000 overseeing torture operations at the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. In additon, "the United States has withdrawn or been expelled in places like the Phillipines, Taiwan, Greece, and Spain" (152).The sheer numbers of the bases and troops are astonishing.

Not only in Johnson's description of the bases astounding by its complexity in detail, but also by billions of dollars spent on resorts to create "American" luxury amenities for service personnel. Often in complete disregard to community opinion, the United States sets up bases in historically sensitive places in Mesopotamia and in centers of city heritage in Europe. One instance of a shopping mall limited for American soldiers only gave great offense to South Koreans when it was set up in the center of Seoul. In additon, Johnson explains that violence toward residents have marred the military's reputation in Korea and Japan. Moreover, the book explores the private military contractor companies like DynCorp and KBR, whose giant military contracts employ an entire industry, and whose influences urges Washington to go to war without the consent of the People.

Johnson elaborates that, "numerous bases are 'secret' or else disguised in ways designed to keep them off the official books, but we certainly know with certainty that they exists, where many of them are, and more or less what they do. They are either DoD-operated listening posts of the National Security Agency (NSA) and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), both among the most secretive of our intelligence organizations, or covert outposts of the military-petroleum complex. Officials never discuss either of these subjects with any degree of candor, but that does not alter the point that spying and oil are obsessive interests of theirs" (155).

Chalmers Johnson continues on as he gives the example of Unocal's push in Afghanistan in the 1990s to control a major pipeline from Asia to markets in Europe and later the Americas. This ploy for "energy independence" from the OPEC and Russian cartels included "its purpose [...] to establish an American presence in Central Asia" (180). Despite well known greviances about human rights abuses in the region under the Taliban, interests held "a crucial meeting in Geneva in May 2001 between U.S. State Department, Iranian, German, and Italian officials, where the main topic was a strategy to topple the Taliban and replace the theocracy with a 'broad-based government'" (181). It is Chalmers who argues that regardless of September 11th, America most likely would have found a reason to intervene in Afghanistan and Iraq. During this diabolical scheme's execution, "Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld became something of a stand-up comic in his daily press conferences" (181) as women and children were targeted and murdered merely as "collateral damage". Thus, out of the chaotic occupation of Afghanistan the West may fiund a foothold for a new pipeline. But, perhaps bankruptcy will make it a non-issue.

Furthermore, Johnson explores the implementation of major changes in America's judicial system and most pertinently discusses the repeal of the 1876 Posse Comitatus Act. The Act forbids the use of federal troops in quelling civil unrest, a safeguard against the looting and vandalism by federal soldiers in the occupied South during Reconstruction. However, with the creation of the Northern Command, directives were given in 2008 that will by 2011 deploy over 20,000 federal troops into U.S. cities for just this purpose. Head of Northern Command, General Ralph E. Eberhart noted upon his appointment that, "'We should always be reviewing things like Posse Comitatus and other laws if we thinjk it ties our hands in protecting the American people'" (122). Such statements from a military general held unaccountable now by Posse Comitatus and given the power to quell unrest is a frightening thought for us all.

But do not be fooled by Johnson's pessimism. It lies in simply the truth of facts which have emerged since September 11. His historical analysis is fair and takes in many ideas and reasons for justifying his arguments.

He predicts that,

"First, there will be a state of perpetual war, leading to more terrorism against Americans wherever they may be and a growing reliance on weapons of mass destruction among smaller nations as they try to ward off the imperial juggernaut. Second, there will be a loss of democracy and constitutional rights as the presidency fully eclipses Congress and is itself transformed into an 'executive branch' of government into something more like a Pentagonized presidency. Third, an already well-shredded principle of truthfulness will increasingly be replaced by a system of propaganda, disinformation, and glorification of war, power, and the military legions. Lastly, there will be bankruptcy, as we pour our economic resources into ever more grandiose military projects and shortchange the education, health, and safety of our fellow citizens" (285).

While Johnson admits that there is time yet to end such destructive ways, he sees the domination of the Presidency and secret military operations as the CIA as a death knoll for the American republic.

After all, our current commander-in-chief argued in front of federal judges that "'the military has the authority to capture and detain individuals whom it has determined are enemy combatants...including enemy combatants claiming American citizenship'" (293). So, perhaps it is about high time that we start discussing the real problems with our fledgling democracy and end the military government that long ago superceded the one provided for us in the Constitution. Instead of debating trivialities and "strategic" options for troop placement, America needs a new foreign policy. Maybe we should consider taking Jefferson's advice of "Peace, commerce and honest friendship with all nations; entangling alliances with none." It would certainly be a big first step in restoring America.

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