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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American Empire

So with this background, you've now just published your newest book, which is called The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic. You're trying to help us understand, to show us what the nature of the American Empire is.


Central to that is understanding what the military is, book coverwhat militarism is, and what imperialism is. Talk a little about that.

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. They don't include any of the main bases in England, disguised as Royal Air Force bases even there are no Britons on them. It doesn't include any of the bases in Uzbekistan, 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 70 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 everything in their power to make them look like Little America. I mean, Burger King has just opened at Baghdad International Airport.

There are large numbers of women in the armed forces today, [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 that you were 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. These places are enclosed, self-sealed.

Militarism is not defense of the country. By militarism, 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 today. 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 college, 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's 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. They're here. They're real. And we haven't been paying attention to them. If you were a politically well-connected capitalist in recent times, the best way to make money was in the petroleum industry, Enron and things like that, or in telecoms. Now the best way to make money is in the military-industrial complex.

So as we try to understand how your thinking evolved over time, you're saying that suddenly you confronted what is essentially a system of Okinawas.

Yes. Well said; that's good. A base world.

A base world in which we put bases for purposes that, then, change.

And we never close them.

And we never close them. We create kind of ...

We may close some now in Germany, because we're mad at Schröder ....

And we've got more. We've got more now.

We certainly are probably going to close some in South Korea, because it's very possibly the most anti-American democracy on earth today. But with 101 bases, they're fed up and they don't think they need them any longer.

And in these bases, the American citizens who are serving as soldiers lead a good life. We're talking country clubs.

It's a volunteer army, so you've got to make life halfway decent. It's state socialism -- that is, you're not paid a huge salary, but you have free housing, free healthcare, free education for your children -- you're taken care of in many different ways. There's no question the troops of the Third Marine Division, located on Okinawa, today are living better than they would live in a stateside town like Oceanside, California, right next door to Camp Pendleton. They remind me very much of the Soviet troops that were based in East Germany when the Wall came down, and they didn't go home for four years. They knew that life was better where they were in Germany than it was going to be back in the old Soviet Union.

You write: "Empire is a physical reality with a distinct way of life, but also a network of economic and political interests tied in a thousand different ways to American corporations, universities, and communities, but kept separate from everyday life, that is, in the United States." And then you go on to say, "What is most fascinating and curious about the developing American form of empire, however, is that in its modern phase, it is solely an empire of bases, not of territories. And these bases now encircle the earth."

The bases are the equivalent of what used to be colonies. They exist from Greenland to Australia, from Japan to Latin America. For your viewers who are veterans (I'm a veteran of the Korean War), for veterans of World War II or Korea, or Vietnam, [military] life is not the same. You don't do KP anymore. You don't clean latrines. That's farmed out to private companies like Kellogg, Brown & Root, a subsidiary of Dick Cheney's Halliburton Company. At Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo, they do everything for you. They do the laundry. The troops at Bondsteel say, "There ought to be a little patch that says, 'Service by Kellogg, Brown & Root' on your uniform."

Let's explain to our audience. This is a base in the Balkans which ...

It's not in the Base Structure Report either, for reasons I don't know.

But apparently set up to facilitate the humanitarian intervention and ...

It's peacekeeping operations in Kosovo.

Right. But you point out to us that when you move to the systemic level, then it looks like a base that helps secure [access to] oil.

Petroleum, that's right, you've got it. The army likes to say facetiously that there are only two man-made sites you can observe from outer space: one is the Great Wall of China, and the other is Camp Bondsteel. It was built in 1999 by Kellogg, Brown & Root, subsidiary of Halliburton. It's the most expensive base we've built since the Vietnam War.

Bill Clinton said we would be out of Kosovo in six months. The current president ran on a campaign that we shouldn't be there at all, and should get out. This is considerably more than you need to do peacekeeping in Kosovo. Our European allies say their bases are rather crummy compared with this San Simeon of military bases. What's it about? Well, it's about our efforts now to extract oil from the Caspian Basin, bring it across the Black Sea -- not having to take it through the Dardanelles -- transfer it across the Balkans to the Adriatic Sea and through Albania, and then on to the rest of the world. This base lies directly astride the Trans-Balkan pipeline that we are in the process of building. It is also an ancient Roman Empire military route.

What interests me here is that we're talking about a history 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 in a military populist -- of course, the most obvious example is Julius Caesar, but after his assassination in 44 BC, the young Octavian who becomes the "god" Augustus Caesar was not unlike our boy emperor.

When a former "spear-carrier for the empire" turns that spear on the empire, the results are impressive. You may be one of the few people not affiliated with the government, who has read these reports that tell us about the bases and the number of soldiers we have. You point out that when you add up all of what's there, you're talking about $118 billion of capital investment, which may be a low number.

This is the so-called plant replacement value, a typical piece of DOD jargon. They calculate plant replacement values for all these things, and it's not that the numbers are any good, but they give you an idea of how the DOD evaluates them. You discover that Kadena Air Base, which was built for thermonuclear war in the middle of Okinawa, is the most valuable base we have in East Asia. Certainly, Ramstein Air Base in Germany is enormously valuable. Again, bear in mind here, we're talking about bases that have been there for sixty years. World War II is over, actually -- that's when we got the bases in Korea.

In the same way, the new series of Persian Gulf Wars, Iraq I and Iraq II, are producing a plethora of bases around the Persian Gulf in deeply unstable, anti-democratic, Islamic autocracies. In Central Asia, where we're beginning to implement Dick Cheney's oil strategy, we are heavily invested in places like Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. In Kyrgyzstan, we've named our air base "Captain Peter J. Ganci Air Base." Peter J. Ganci was the highest-ranking member of the New York Fire Department to be killed on September 11, 2001. But these countries are leftover autocracies from the former Soviet Union. They're among the least democratic places on earth. They compare in quality with North Korea.

You write in the new book: "After the attacks of 9/11, we waged two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and acquired fourteen new bases in Eastern Europe, Iraq, the Persian Gulf, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan."

The only place left out in the old southern Eurasian countries, of course, is Iran. We've got it squeezed now between Afghanistan on one side and Iraq on the other.

So, two points I want to emphasize here. One, you already touched on: when you put one of these bases down, you get a reaction like the reaction in Saudi Arabia when we put a new base in or refurbish the base that was there as a result of the first Iraq War.

It's a foreign antibody stuck into a functioning culture that we don't understand, and that our troops are actually almost cultivated to be systematically contemptuous of. There's no way to avoid the racism and arrogance that goes with the way our people are educated and what they do when they come to countries like this.

I'm not trying to be sensational or anything else. 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, imperial overstretch -- that's what we're talking about here -- the belief that we have to be everywhere at all times. We have always been a richer place than Russia was, so it would 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 conservative 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 they spread the building of a B-2 bomber, say, around the country; it is not all located at Northrop in El Segundo, California.

Even if President Bush were defeated, or defeats himself, no matter who replaces him, I have grave difficulty believing that they 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.

Next page: The End of the Republic

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