Chalmers Johnson Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Militarism and the American Empire: Conversation with Chalmers Johnson, President of the Japan Policy Institute, January 29, 2004 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Blowback

In one of your books, I think it's in the introduction to The Sorrows of Empire, you say that as a consultant or an advisor to the CIA, you were not impressed with the reports and analysis that you were viewing. So we were not in a position to understand what was going on, just as a matter of the information we were getting.

This is what blowback means. book cover"Blowback" is a CIA term that means retaliation, or payback. It was first used in the after-action report on our first clandestine overthrow of a foreign government, the overthrow of Mossadegh in Iran in 1953, when, for the sake of the British Petroleum Company, we claimed he was a communist. The Pope would be more likely a communist than Mossadegh.

Because he wants to feed the poor, I guess.

Exactly. He just didn't want the British to keep stealing from him, stealing Iranian resources. In the report, which was finally declassified in 2000, the CIA says, "We should expect some blowback from what we have done here." This was the first model clandestine operation.

By blowback we do not mean just the unintended consequences of events. We mean unintended consequences of events that were kept secret from the American public, so that when the retaliation comes, they have no way to put it into context. Just as after 9/11, you have the president saying, "Why do they hate us?" The people on the receiving end know full well that they hate us because of what was done to them. It's the American public that are in the dark on that subject.

As you're coming to these realizations and moving in this new direction, you move from being a traditional social scientist to a public intellectual. Talk a little about that transition. Was it because of the nature of the problems you were seeing and new responsibilities you felt you had? As a public intellectual, you can't use as much jargon as one might as a social scientist, although I don't think you use a lot of jargon. Talk a little about that.

I try to avoid it. One of the things I dislike about academic social science is this tendency to mesh it all in framework by people who don't really know what they're talking about. Cassandra was the only social scientist who was any good, and she was right: there was something in that horse, and beware of Greeks bearing gifts.

I retired from the University of California in 1992, after thirty years, and created my own research institute with Steve Clemons in Washington, D.C. We've been very successful at it -- startlingly so. But Blowback was not written because I needed tenure. I was not doing one more book for an academic dean/bean counter. It certainly grew out of my main specialty in East Asian politics, and in Japan, the growing realization that Japan was a satellite to the United States -- that its foreign policy was entirely in an orbit around Washington, D.C., and that this required explanation.

I conceived of Blowback -- written in 1999, published in 2000 -- as a warning to the American public. It was: you should expect retaliation from the people on the receiving end of now innumerable clandestine activities, including the biggest one of all, the recruiting, arming, and putting into combat of Mujahideen freedom fighters in Afghanistan in the 1980s who are the main recruiting group for al Qaeda today.

The warning was not heeded. The book, when it was first published, was more or less ignored in this country. It was very nicely received in Germany, and in Japan, and in Italy, in places like that. But then after 9/11, when all of a sudden, inattentive Americans were mobilized to seek, at least on an emergency basis, some understanding of what they were into. It became a best seller. My publisher said to me -- she's a very lovely woman -- "It's a hell of a way to sell books, but it's better to sell than to not sell them." Her offices are down on West 18th Street, not too far from ground zero. She called me on the morning of September 11, 2001, to say, "Blowback big time just hit, and I'm getting out of here, but I thought you ought to get up out there on the coast, and turn on the TV," which I did.

You're raising a very important point, which is that our policies often lack an understanding of our own actions. But also ...

Not just lack of understanding. They've been kept secret.

Right, right.

That's why the subtitle of The Sorrows of Empire is "Militarism, Secrecy --" I want to stress secrecy and say a word or two about that in a moment, "-- and the End of the Republic."

Two days after 9/11, when the president said to Congress, asked the question rhetorically: "Why do they hate us?" my response was: "The people immediately around you are the ones who could tell you in precision why. That is, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Colin Powell, Richard Armitage" -- these are the people who ran the largest clandestine operation we every carried out, in Afghanistan in the 1980s. "They could explain to you, in detail, why." Once the Soviet Union had been expelled in 1989 from Afghanistan and we simply walked away from it, the people we had recruited, trained, and equipped with things like ...

Stinger missiles.

Stinger missiles -- the first time the Stinger was ever used against a Soviet gunship was in Afghanistan. Once we had achieved our purposes, we just walked away, and these highly armed young men felt, "We've been used. We were cannon fodder in a little exercise in the Cold War, in a bipolar competition between the Soviet Union and the United States." Then we compounded that with further mistakes like placing infidel troops (our troops) in Saudi Arabia after 1991, which was insulting to any number of Saudi Arabians, who believe that they are responsible for the most sacred sites in Islam: Mecca and Medina. Osama bin Laden is so typical of the kinds of figures in our history, like Manuel Noreiga or Saddam Hussein, people who were close allies of ours at one time. We know Saddam at one time had weapons of mass destruction because we have the receipts!

It strikes me that there are two things going on here. One is that these small powers or medium-sized powers -- well, really, small powers -- aren't doing what we're telling them, but they also bite the hand that fed them at one point.

They certainly do. These people remember with a vengeance. Osama bin Laden comes from a wealthy family of a construction empire in Saudi Arabia. He's the sort of person that you would more likely expected to see on the ski slopes of Gstaad with a Swiss girl on his arm, or as a houseguest in Kennebunkport with the first President Bush and the notorious "petroleum complex" of America. But he was insulted. He had been in Afghanistan. The bases where he trained Mujahideen, at Khost, the CIA built for him. It was one of the few times we knew where to hit. Because we built them, we did know where they were. He then was disgusted with us and certainly gave us fair warning in the attack in 1993 on the World Trade Center.

You bring to your books the erudition that was apparent in all of your early works. In talking about the events of 9/11, you make reference to the Sepoy incident. Tell us about that, because it's quite striking.

It's a little off the subject we're talking about, but it relates. One of the problems of the American empire right now is we're running out of cannon fodder. That is, here we are in January of 2004; within a few months, forty percent of our troops in Iraq will be National Guard or reservist. They're just aren't that many Americans [available to fight], unless you want to go to the draft, and that would probably be politically very difficult. Imperial powers have always faced this in the past; they go around looking for foreigners who can do their dirty work for them. We did it in Vietnam with the Montagnards, with any number of people that we tried to sign up. It goes back ... I refer to it as one way to solve this problem, the Sepoy strategy.

The Sepoy strategy refers to the British armies in India that were 95 percent made up of Indian soldiers, who in 1857 revolted against them. This ended the activities of the British East India Company in India. India then became directly ruled by the Crown, and became a much more imperialist enclave than it had been prior to that.

You make the comparison with Osama bin Laden and his role in Afghanistan.

In a certain sense, one might argue that 9/11 was a new example of the Sepoy mutiny of 1857, in which the Indian troops believed that they were being misused by their British officers. The Enfield rifle, particularly an early version of it, had just been introduced. It had a bullet that came soaked in grease, and you had to bite off a piece of paper around it in order to use the cartridge. The Hindu troops believed that this was cow fat, the Muslim troops believed that it was pig fat, and [both believed] that the British were trying to force them to blaspheme against their religions. Also, the British were using Christian missionaries to try and convert them. It led to a massive revolt. The Indians do not call it the Sepoy Mutiny; they call it the first revolutionary activity leading ultimately to Indian independence. I think that something like that may be happening to us today, too.

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