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The Blowback World of Chalmers Johnson

Remembering the man and his work.

| Mon Apr. 11, 2011 4:29 PM EDT

The Blowback Era

In 1991, the Soviet Union simply disappeared and the Cold War was officially over, but as Chal quickly noted, no "peace dividend" followed. The American Raj simply sailed blissfully on as if nothing whatsoever had happened. This caught Chal's attention, along with what he later came to call "the American empire of bases" and the full-scale garrisoning of the planet that went with it. For the rest of his life he would focus his energies on the subject of American militarism, an ever more bloated military-industrial complex, and of course the growing power of the Pentagon, which in a weird sense functioned as an American MITI.

On September 4, 1995, three American servicemen abducted and raped a 12-year-old Okinawan girl, provoking widespread anger and demonstrations on the island. In response, Chal began to write extensively about those American bases on Okinawa, which had been established as World War II ended and never stopped growing. In late September of the following year, he was invited by the island's governor to address members of the prefectural government and tour the island. Never one to mince words, Chal also spoke at Tokyo's Foreign Correspondents' Club after his trip and summed up the Okinawan situation this way: "The American government is the rapist; the Japanese government is the pimp."

In March, 1998, US News and World Report carried a small piece of his called "Enter the Dragon: Ten Reasons to Worry About Asia's Economic Crisis." Literary agent Sandra Dijkstra read it and contacted Chal to see whether he was thinking about writing a book on the subject. As a matter of fact he was, having decided to distill his 40 years of studying and teaching about China, Japan, and Korea into essays that would reflect on US policy in Asia since World War II.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union had acquired an empire but, Chal argued, so had we. After the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, Eastern Europe and many parts of the Soviet Union itself—Ukraine, Georgia, Belarus, Kyrgystan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan—declared their independence, while the US only expanded its overseas military bases. Chal decided to call his book "Blowback" (a term of tradecraft he'd first heard at the CIA for operations so secret that when they "blew back" on the US, ordinary Americans had no clue as to the connection). Even in those relatively quiet years of the 1990s when American pundits and others spoke of this country as the "sole superpower" on planet Earth, or even its towering "hyperpower," he became convinced that there would be a time of reckoning for the US, as there had been for the Soviet Union, and that it would not be as far off as almost everyone imagined.

Chal explained what happened next:

I wrote Blowback between 1997 and 1999, and it was published in March 2000 [by Metropolitan Books]. In the summer of 2000, I signed another contract with [Metropolitan] to write a new book, but at that time I conceived it as a book about Asia—particularly China, Japan, and Korea—and their relationships with the US Blowback sold reasonably well throughout 2000 and the first part of 2001, but after 9/11 it suddenly began to jump off bookstore shelves. So I stopped and wrote a new, post-9/11 preface to Blowback and did a lot of journalism and radio interviews; and I found that I had quite a lot more to say on the whole subject of blowback and, more particularly, on how the American government was reacting to the threat of terrorism and al-Qaeda. I scrapped my earlier book outline and wrote a new one, and for the next 15 months I worked like someone possessed on this new book.

The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic was published in January 2004. At its heart lay a region by region anatomy of America's global "baseworld" and how it worked, a subject that remained remarkably undiscussed and unanalyzed in this country. Subsequently, Chal gave many speeches and interviews in an effort to help deny George W. Bush—"likely the single worst president in the history of the American republic"—a second term. When Bush was reelected and the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan continued to take their human and economic toll, he became determined to write a third book in what would become The Blowback Trilogy.

This time his tone was more alarmist, while his focus was on the way an American version of military Keynesianism was failing the country. He feared that the US would be simultaneously overwhelmed by related tides of militarism and bankruptcy. Reflecting his own grim mood, he chose for his title the name of the Greek goddess of myth whose task was to punish human arrogance and hubris: Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic. In it, he pulled together many of his thoughts about the fate of empires—particularly the Roman and British ones—and predicted that, in the reasonably near future, the US would have to choose between remaining a democratic society or becoming a military dictatorship.

Nemesis was published in January 2007, and given Chal's increasing arthritic debility (by then, he was often using a wheelchair), I didn't expect him to write another book. He was, by then, reading so many books by others (including Andrew Bacevich, Steve Coll, Tim Weiner, and Tim Shorrock) on events of the moment that he continued to produce a steady stream of op-eds, articles, and reviews. By the spring of 2009, Tom Engelhardt, the editor of The Blowback Trilogy and director of the website TomDispatch.com, suggested that there were enough of his recent essays to collect in a small volume. The three of us read through them and Tom, with his usual talent for discovering a path through the underbrush, found the common thread.

By the time Dismantling the Empire was published in April 2010, the sustained work Chal had kept up for more than 50 years was simply beyond him. He could barely move or sign his name. In September, even that became impossible. We had decided that more hospital stays were not what we wanted, and so on September 15, 2010, he entered hospice care. A hospital bed was delivered to our family room, overlooking our garden and the Pacific Ocean that had played such an important role in his life. Friends could visit, we watched the TV news every evening, and our cat Seiji (successor to felines Miti and Mof) slept at his feet.

As his life slowly ebbed, Chal would sometimes exclaim in great agitation, "I don't know what to do." I always replied, "You don't have to do anything, you've done enough." Toward the end, he changed this line to "I can't do it anymore." By then, I wasn't sure whether he was talking about the intellectual tasks he'd always set himself or about life itself.

Chal was a formidable and—I'm tempted to say—driven man. After his death, I received a letter from a high school friend who said much the same thing. "I always admired Chal's ability to really focus in on an interest. I hate to use the word, but it bordered on zealotry. An example was his ‘passion' for collecting streetcar and bus transfer slips. As I recall, they were colorful and contained a lot of information about the routes."

I had to laugh when I read this, and I offer it as a piece of advice to parents who may have similarly focused kids: don't worry if they're memorizing baseball statistics. It may lead to something far more important.

Sheila K. Johnson is an anthropologist, freelance writer, and editor. Her husband's final book, Dismantling the Empire: America's Last Best Hope (Metropolitan Books), has just appeared in paperback.

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