The Sorrows of Empire

Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic

by Chalmers Johnson


The Sorrows of Empire

Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic

by Chalmers Johnson

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Our nation is the greatest force for good in history.
President George W. Bush,
Crawford, Texas, August 31,2002

As distinct from other peoples on this earth, most Americans do not recognize—or do not want to recognize—that the United States dominates the world through its military power. Due to government secrecy, they are often ignorant of the fact that their government garrisons the globe. They do not realize that a vast network of American military bases on every continent except Antarctica actually constitutes a new form of empire.

Our country deploys well over half a million soldiers, spies, technicians, teachers, dependents, and civilian contractors in other nations and just under a dozen carrier task forces in all the oceans and seas of the world. We operate numerous secret bases outside our territory to monitor what the people of the world, including our own citizens, are saying, faxing, or e-mailing to one another. Our globe-girding military and intelligence installations bring profits to civilian industries, which design and manufacture weapons for the armed forces or undertake contract services to build and maintain our far-flung outposts. One task of such contractors is to keep uniformed members of the imperium housed in comfortable quarters, well fed, amused, and supplied with enjoyable, affordable vacation facilities. Whole sectors of the American economy have come to rely on the military for sales. On the eve of our second war on Iraq, for example, the Defense Department ordered 273,000 bottles of Native Tan sunblock (SPF 15), almost triple its 1999 order and undoubtedly a boon to the supplier, Control Supply Company of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and its subcontractor, Sun Fun Products of Daytona Beach, Florida.1

The new American empire has been a long time in the making. Its roots go back to the early nineteenth century, when the United States declared all of Latin America its sphere of influence and busily enlarged its own territory at the expense of the indigenous people of North America, as well as British, French, and Spanish colonialists, and neighboring Mexico. Much like their contemporaries in Australia, Algeria, and tsarist Russia, Americans devoted much energy to displacing the original inhabitants of the North American continent and turning over their lands to new settlers. Then, at the edge of the twentieth century, a group of self-conscious imperialists in the government—much like a similar group of conservatives who a century later would seek to implement their own expansive agendas under cover of the “war on terrorism”—used the Spanish-American War to seed military bases in Central America, various islands in the Caribbean, Hawaii, Guam, and the Philippines.

With the Second World War, our nation emerged as the richest and most powerful on earth and a self-designated successor to the British Empire. But as enthusiastic as some of our wartime leaders, particularly President Franklin D. Roosevelt, were for the task, the American people were not. They demanded that the country demobilize its armies and turn the nation s attention to full employment and domestic development. Peace did not last long, however. The Cold War and a growing conviction that vital interests, even national survival, demanded the “containment” of the Soviet Union helped turn an informal empire begun during World War II into hundreds of installations around the world for the largest military we ever maintained in peacetime.

During the almost fifty years of superpower standoff, the United States denied that its activities constituted a form of imperialism. Ours were just reactions to the menace of the “evil empire” of the USSR and its satellites. Only slowly did we Americans become aware that the role of the military was growing in our country and that the executive branch— the “imperial presidency”—was eroding the democratic underpinnings of our constitutional republic. But even at the time of the Vietnam War and the abuses of power known as Watergate, this awareness never gained sufficient traction to reverse a Cold War-driven transfer of power from the representatives of the people to the Pentagon and the various intelligence agencies, especially the Central Intelligence Agency.

By the time the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and with it the rationale for American containment policies, our leaders had become so accustomed to dominance over half the globe that the thought of giving it up was inconceivable. Many Americans simply concluded that they had “won” the Cold War and so deserved the imperial fruits of victory. A number of ideologists began to argue that the United States was, in fact, a “good empire” and should act accordingly in a world with only one dominant power. To demobilize and turn our resources to peaceful ends would, they argued, constitute the old-fashioned sin of “isolationism.”

In the first post-Cold War decade, we mounted many actions to perpetuate and extend our global power, including wars and “humanitarian” interventions in Panama, the Persian Gulf, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Colombia, and Serbia, while maintaining unchanged our Cold War deployments in East Asia and the Pacific. In the eyes of its own people, the United States remained at worst an informal empire. After all, it had no colonies and its massive military forces were deployed around the world only to maintain “stability,” or guarantee “mutual security,” or promote a liberal world order based on free elections and American-style “open markets.”

Americans like to say that the world changed as a result of the September 11,2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. It would be more accurate to say that the attacks produced a dangerous change in the thinking of some of our leaders, who began to see our republic as a genuine empire, a new Rome, the greatest colossus in history, no longer bound by international law, the concerns of allies, or any constraints on its use of military force. The American people were still largely in the dark about why they had been attacked or why their State Department began warning them against tourism in an evergrowing list of foreign countries. (“Why do they hate us?” was a common plaint heard on talk shows, and the most common answer was “jealousy”) But a growing number finally began to grasp what most non-Americans already knew and had experienced over the previous half century—namely, that the United States was something other than what it professed to be, that it was, in fact, a military juggernaut intent on world domination.

Americans may still prefer to use euphemisms like “lone superpower,” but since 9/11, our country has undergone a transformation from republic to empire that may well prove irreversible. It suddenly became “un-American” to question the Bush administrations “war on terrorism,” let alone a war on Iraq, or on the whole “axis of evil,” or even on the sixty or so countries that the president and his secretary of defense announced contained al-Qaeda cells and so were open targets for unilateral American intervention. The media allowed themselves to be manipulated into using sanitized expressions like “collateral damage,” “regime change,” “illegal combatants,” and “preventive war” as if these somehow explained and justified what the Pentagon was doing. At the same time, the government was making strenuous efforts to prevent the new International Criminal Court from ever having the option of considering war crimes charges against American officials.

This book is a guide to the American empire as it begins openly to spread its imperial wings. Its reach is global: as of September 2001, the Department of Defense acknowledged at least 725 American military bases existed outside the United States. Actually, there are many more, since some bases exist under leaseholds, informal agreements, or disguises of various kinds. And more have been created since the announcement was made. The landscape of this military empire is as unfamiliar and fantastic to most Americans today as Tibet or Timbuktu were to nineteenth-century Europeans. Among its recent additions are the al-Udeid air base in the desert of Qatar, where several thousand American military men and women live in air-conditioned tents, and the al-Masirah Island naval air station in the Gulf of Oman, where the only diversion is “wadi ball,” a cross between volleyball and football. It includes expensive, permanent garrisons built between 1999 and 2001 in such unlikely places as Kosovo, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. America s modern empire of bases also has its entertainment and getaway spots, much like those north Indian hill towns the administrators of the British Raj used for rest and recreation in the summer heat. The modern equivalents of Darjeeling, Kalimpong, and Srinagar are the armed forces’ ski and vacation center at Garmisch in the Bavarian Alps, its resort hotel in downtown Tokyo, and the 234 military golf courses it operates worldwide, not to mention the seventy-one Learjets, thirteen Gulfstream IIIs, and seventeen Cessna Citation luxury jets used to fly admirals and generals to such spots. At a cost of $50 million apiece, each Gulfstream accommodates twelve passengers plus two pilots, one flight engineer, a communications systems operator, and a flight attendant.

Like empires of old, ours has its proconsuls, in this case high-ranking military officers who enforce extraterritorial “status of forces agreements” on host governments to ensure that American troops are not held responsible for crimes they commit against local residents. Our militarized empire is a physical reality with a distinct way of life but it is also a network of economic and political interests tied in a thousand different ways to American corporations, universities, and communities but kept separate from what passes for everyday life back in what has only recently come to be known as “the homeland.” And yet even that sense of separation is disappearing—for the changing nature of the empire is changing our society as well.

For example, slowly but surely the Department of Defense is obscuring and displacing the Department of State as the primary agency for making and administering foreign policy. We now station innumerably more uniformed military officers than civilian diplomats, aid workers, or environmental specialists in foreign countries—a point not lost on the lands to which they are assigned. Our garrisons send a daily message that the United States prefers to deal with other nations through the use or threat of force rather than negotiations, commerce, or cultural interaction and through military-to-military, not civilian-to-civilian, relations. This point was made clear in a speech at the military academy at West Point on June 1, 2002, when President George W. Bush argued that the United States must be prepared to wage a “war on terror” against as many as sixty countries. “We must take that battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans and confront the worst threats before they emerge.” Americans must be “ready for preemptive action when necessary to defend our liberty and to defend our lives…. In the world we have entered, the only path to safety is the path of action. And this nation will act.”

As historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., adviser to President John F. Kennedy, observed on the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, “One of the astonishing events of recent months is the presentation of preventive war as a legitimate and moral instrument of U.S. foreign policy…. During the Cold War, advocates of preventive war were dismissed as a crowd of loonies…. The policy of containment plus deterrence won the Cold War. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, everyone thanked heaven that the preventive-war loonies had never got into power in any major country. Today, alas, they appear to be in power in the United States.”2 He was referring specifically to the first Bush administrations secretary of defense, Dick Cheney—now, of course, vice president—the second Bush administrations secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, and their cronies in the Pentagon. The last time civilian and uniformed militarists even approximated the domination of American political life we see today was when Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara was dictating policy toward Vietnam.

Like most other Americans who are not actively involved with the armed forces, I paid very little attention to our empire of military bases until February 1996, when I made my first visit to our de facto American military colony of Okinawa, a small Japanese island that we have continuously occupied since 1945. My last encounter with the military had ended forty years earlier—when, in the summer of 1955,1 left active duty as a naval officer in the western Pacific. In 1996, in the wake of the rape of a twelve-year-old Okinawan girl by two American marines and a sailor, I was invited by the island’s governor, Masahide Ota, to speak about the problem of our bases. I visited Kin village—almost totally swallowed by the marines’ massive Camp Hansen, where the abduction and rape had occurred—and interviewed local officials. I came away deeply disturbed both by Okinawan hostility and by the fact that no serious American strategy could explain the deployment of thirty-eight separate bases on the choicest 20 percent of the island.

It was apparent from the numerous beaches, golf courses, and other recreational facilities reserved for the use of our military and the duplication involved in separate air force, navy, and Marine Corps airfields that the bases had simply sprouted willy-nilly with the advent of the Cold War. No consideration had been given to equitable land use or the lives of the 1.3 million Okinawans. The military’s situation in Okinawa struck me as similar to that of Soviet troops in East Germany after the Berlin Wall came down. In both cases the troops preferred to stay on because the pleasures of life as a legionnaire in an imperial garrison far outstripped those of life back in the “homeland.”

The troops and their families were happy with their clubs, apartments, gyms, swimming pools, and shopping malls (known in military argot as “base exchanges”) and undoubtedly preferred Okinawa to being stuck in small stateside towns like Oceanside, California, adjacent to the Marine Corps base at Camp Pendleton. If nothing else, the penalty for a rape conviction in California is considerably more onerous than for servicemen convicted of the same felony in Okinawa by the Japanese. Under terms of the Status of Forces Agreement the United States imposed on Japan in 1953, the Japanese are even required to provide special meals for those few American servicemen turned over to Japanese authorities and actually imprisoned. On average there were 2,800 calories in the meals served to Japanese prisoners but 4,000 in those served to the twelve Americans jailed at the end of 2001.3

After visiting Okinawa, I began to research, and write about, the history of our military there—from the final bloody battle of World War II against the Japanese army to the attempts of senior U.S. officers and Department of Defense officials to trivialize the rape of September 4, 1995.4 My perspective was that of an academic. I had spent my life as a university professor studying the politics and economics of Japan and China, not as an analyst of America’s global military hegemony. As was true of many Japanese not resident in Okinawa, I tended to see the island’s situation as unique and at worst a sad case of Pentagon complacency and neglect. The solution seemed self-evident: close some of the unneeded bases, return substantial ground forces to American territory, lessen the burdens imposed on the Okinawan people, and so begin to reverse some of the hatred of the United States evident everywhere on the island. I thought that if the Pentagon imposed real priorities, it might even be able to preserve some of its facilities there, like Kadena Air Force Base, that might prove useful in a post-Cold War world. Otherwise, it seemed to me that sooner or later the Okinawans would revolt and throw us out, as the Filipinos had done in 1992 and the South Koreans threatened to do in 2003—just as the East Berliners had done to the Soviet Union in 1989.

Only slowly did I come to understand that Okinawa was typical, not unique. The conditions there—expropriation of the island’s most valuable land for bases, extraterritorial status for American troops who committed crimes against local civilians, bars and brothels crowding around the main gates of bases, endless accidents, noise, sexual violence, drunk-driving crashes, drug use, and environmental pollution—are replicated anywhere there are American garrisons. Compared with the numerous bases on the Japanese mainland, the more than one hundred installations in South Korea, and the huge deployments in Germany, Britain, Italy, the Balkans, the Persian Gulf, Latin America, and elsewhere, Okinawa is not unusual except in the number of bases given the size of the island. America’s military proconsuls being publicity-averse, the American press seldom visits, or reports on, its empire of bases. I had been given a glimpse into an aspect of contemporary American life that most Americans never see.

In light of these experiences, in the late 1990s I devoted myself to writing a book about American foreign policy, which I entitled Blowback, using the CIA’s term for the unanticipated consequences of unacknowledged actions in other people’s countries. My intention was to warn my fellow Americans about the conduct of our foreign policy over the previous half century, focusing particularly on the decade after the demise of the Soviet Union and on the evolving political situation in East Asia. The book appeared in the early spring of 2000. In it I argued that many aspects of what the American government had done abroad virtually invited retaliatory attacks from nations and peoples who had been vietimized.

The blowback from the second half of the twentieth century has only just begun. In a sense, blowback is simply another way of saying that a nation reaps what it sows. Although individual Americans usually know what they have sown, they rarely have the same knowledge at a national level, since so much of what the managers of our empire have done has been kept secret.

Although I became interested in our overseas bases when I visited Okinawa, I had already gained some insight into the organization of American imperialism and its secret operations. From 1967 to 1973, I served as a consultant to the Office of National Estimates of the Central Intelligence Agency.5 I had been asked to join a panel of about twenty international relations specialists from outside the agency to read drafts of national intelligence estimates and offer nonbureaucratic critiques of them. Intelligence estimates are formal analyses and conclusions compiled from raw intelligence data that the CIA director is charged with coordinating with the other intelligence agencies and then delivering to the president and his advisers. These estimates, which do not indicate the sources of the intelligence under consideration, are written in an inoffensive bureaucratic prose intended to smooth over differences of interpretation between, say, the State Department’s intelligence bureau and the Defense Intelligence Agency. I was invited to become a consultant by Richard Helms, the director, who only a few years later would be convicted of lying under oath to Congress for testifying that the agency had nothing to do with the overthrow of President Salvador Allende of Chile. Thus began my introduction to the secret world.

In 1967,1 was best known as an academic specialist on China. The agency was interested in my opinions on several major issues of the time—the war in Vietnam, the Sino-Soviet split, and the internal Maoist purge of the Communist Party known as the Cultural Revolution, as well as insurgency and counterinsurgency, what the Chinese called People’s War, a subject that then preoccupied Washington. The meetings with us outside consultants were held twice a year in former director Allen Dulles’s home on the property of Camp Peary, then a “secret” CIA training base in Virginia.

Although I had been given a very high security clearance, I soon found that I did not have to worry about inadvertently disclosing national secrets. The best reason to keep the national intelligence estimates secret, I once told my wife, was their utter banality. Perhaps they were so highly classified because it would have been embarrassing to have it known that such conventional journalism passed for strategic thought in the Oval Office. The meetings were convivial and stimulating, but only rarely did national estimates wander from the standard militarist wisdom of the Vietnam War era. (On the other hand, CIA analysts who knew Vietnam well privately applauded Daniel Ellsberg’s release of “The Pentagon Papers,” because they were convinced that the war could not be won.)

There was one perk associated with being a consultant to the Office of National Estimates that I greatly treasured: the library in Dulles’s home, filled with the latest CIA reports on subjects not on the agenda, back copies of old intelligence estimates, and classified journals devoted to the tradecraft of spying, was open all night. Those who did not spend the evening playing poker or telling one another tales of Cold War derringdo were welcome to sit in the library and browse through the collected documents for as long as they could stay awake. I recall spending most of one night reading in fascinating detail how the Russians had sprung their spy George Blake from Wormwood Scrubs Prison in London.

In the course of this enlightening nocturnal activity, I slowly realized that, at the CIA, the tail wagged the dog, that America’s real business was covert activities, not intelligence collecting and analysis. During World War II, William J. Donovan founded the Office of Strategic Services, the CIA’s predecessor. Only later did I learn that “an internal CIA history of Donovan’s imprint on the Agency says he saw intelligence analysis as a convenient cover for subversive operations abroad. This subterfuge proved useful down the years.”6 So much for the valuable contributions of my consultancy, an experience that cured me of any tendency to think that the government keeps secrets as a matter of national security. Agencies classify things in order to protect themselves from congressional scrutiny or from political or bureaucratic rivals elsewhere within the government. True secrets need not be classified. They are simply closely held by prudent leaders. Interestingly enough, in September 2002, as the Bush administration was daily terrifying the world with statements about Saddam Hussein’s clandestine weapons and the need for a preventive invasion of Iraq, the CIA revealed that there was no national intelligence estimate on Iraq and that it had not thought to prepare one for over two years.7

Part and parcel of the growth of militarism in the United States, the CIA has evolved into the president’s private army to be used for secret projects he personally wants carried out (as, for example, in Nicaragua and Afghanistan during the 1980s). One begins to understand why John F. Kennedy was such an avid fan of Ian Fleming’s James Bond tales. In 1961, Kennedy listed From Russia with Love as one of his favorite books. No doubt he envied Dr. No and the head of SMERSH, both of whom had private, semimilitary forces at their disposal to do whatever they wanted. Kennedy found his first in the CIA, until it humiliated him in the failed Bay of Pigs operation in Cuba, and then in the army’s Green Berets.

Today the CIA is just one of several secret commando units maintained by our government. In the Afghan war of 2001, the CIA’s semimilitary operatives worked so closely with army Special Operations troops (Green Berets, Delta Force commandos, etc.) that it became impossible to distinguish them. The United States has proudly admitted that its first casualty in the Afghan invasion was a CIA operative. During August 2002, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld revealed plans to expand Special Operations forces within the military and merge them with the CIA’s Special Activities Division (its covert operatives). Although it seems unlikely that the numerous private armies of our government can ever fully overcome interservice and bureaucratic rivalries, their story is an integral part of the growth of American militarism and the secrecy that accompanies it.8

The present book, The Sorrows of Empire, follows from my earlier book Blowback. In that book I assumed that the American government still functioned more or less as it had during the Cold War, and I stressed the potential for conflict in East Asia. But I did not focus on the extent of militarism in America or on the vast empire of military bases that had sprung up more or less undetected and that is today a geopolitical fact of life. In the wake of September 11, 2001, it no longer seems necessary to issue warnings; instead a diagnosis, even an autopsy, maybe more appropriate.

In my opinion, the growth of militarism, official secrecy, and a belief that the United States is no longer bound, as the Declaration of Independence so famously puts it, by “a decent respect for the opinions of mankind” is probably irreversible. A revolution would be required to bring the Pentagon back under democratic control, or to abolish the Central Intelligence Agency, or even to contemplate enforcing article 1, section 9, clause 7 of the Constitution: “No money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law; and a regular Statement and Account of the Receipts and Expenditures of all public Money shall be published from time to time.”

This article is the one that empowers Congress and makes the United States a democracy. It guarantees that the people’s representatives will know what the state apparatus is actually doing and it authorizes full disclosure of these activities. It has not been applied to the Department of Defense or the Central Intelligence Agency since their creation. Instead there has been a permanent policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” The White House has always kept the intelligence agencies’ budgets secret, and deceptions in the defense budget date back to the Manhattan Project of World War II and the secret decisions to build atomic bombs and use them against the Japanese. In 1997, then Senator Robert Torricelli (D-New Jersey) proposed an amendment to the 1998 Defense Authorization bill requiring that Congress disclose aggregate intelligence expenditures. He lost, but he was able to point out that the intelligence agencies spend more than the combined gross national products of North Korea, Libya, Iran, and Iraq—and they do so in the name of the American people but without any advice or supervision from them.

The subject matter of this book is American militarism, its physical presence in the world, the growth of the “special forces” as a private army of the president, and the secrecy that allows ever more militarized and secret institutions to live and thrive. This is not an optimistic report. As the great sociologist of the modern state, Max Weber, concluded, “Every bureaucracy seeks to increase the superiority of the professionally informed by keeping their knowledge and intentions secret. Bureaucratic administration always tends to be an administration of ‘secret sessions’: in so far as it can, it hides its knowledge and action from criticism….

The concept of the official secret’ is the specific invention of the bureaucracy, and nothing is so fanatically defended by the bureaucracy as this attitude…. In facing a parliament the bureaucracy, out of a sure power instinct, fights every attempt of the parliament to gain knowledge by means of its own experts or interest groups…. Bureaucracy naturally welcomes a poorly informed and hence a powerless parliament—at least in so far as ignorance somehow agrees with the bureaucracy’s interests.”9

Weber could have been describing America’s government today. In the war against Afghanistan the only information available to the public and its representatives came from the Department of Defense. The military has become expert at managing the news. Following the attacks of September 11, government at every level began to restrict information available to the public, including charges it was bringing against people it had picked up in Afghanistan and elsewhere and was holding incommunicado in a Pentagon prison in Cuba. 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.

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. If I overstate the threat, I am sure to be forgiven because future generations will be so glad I was wrong. The danger I foresee is that the United States is embarked on a path not unlike that of the former Soviet Union during the 1980s. The USSR collapsed for three basic reasons—internal economic contradictions driven by ideological rigidity, imperial overstretch, and an inability to reform. Because the United States is far wealthier, it may take longer for similar afflictions to do their work. But the similarities are obvious and it is nowhere written that the United States, in its guise as an empire dominating the world, must go on forever.

Copyright © 2005 by Chalmers Johnson