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On Our Military Empire

Part I: Cold Warrior in a Strange Land

| Tue Mar. 21, 2006 4:00 AM EST

[Note: This is the sixth in an ongoing series of interviews by Tom Engelhardt. The last three were with Juan Cole (parts 1 and 2), Ann Wright, and Mark Danner.]

As he and his wife Sheila drive me through downtown San Diego in the glare of mid-day, he suddenly exclaims, "Look at that structure!" I glance over and just across the blue expanse of the harbor is an enormous aircraft carrier. "It's the U.S.S. Ronald Reagan," he says, "the newest carrier in the fleet. It's a floating Chernobyl and it sits a proverbial six inches off the bottom with two huge atomic reactors. You make a wrong move and there goes the country's seventh largest city."

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Soon, we're heading toward their home just up the coast in one of those fabled highway traffic jams that every description of Southern California must include. "We feel we're far enough north," he adds in the kind of amused tone that makes his company both alarming and thoroughly entertaining, "so we could see the glow, get the cat, pack up, and head for Quartzsite, Arizona."

Chalmers Johnson, who served in the U.S. Navy and now is a historian of American militarism, lives cheek by jowl with his former service. San Diego is the headquarters of the 11th Naval District. "It's wall to wall military bases right up the coast," he comments. "By the way, this summer the Pentagon's planning the largest naval concentration in the Pacific in the post-World War II period! Four aircraft-carrier task forces -- two from the Atlantic and that's almost unprecedented -- doing military exercises off the coast of China."

That afternoon, we seat ourselves at his dining room table. He's seventy-four years old, crippled by rheumatoid arthritis and bad knees. He walks with a cane, but his is one of the spriest minds in town. Out the window I can see a plethora of strange, oversized succulents. ("That's an Agave attenuata," he says. "If you want one, feel free. We have them everywhere. When the blue-gray Tequila plant blooms, its flower climbs 75 feet straight up! Then you get every hummingbird in Southern California.") In the distance, the Pacific Ocean gleams.

Johnson is wearing a black t-shirt that, he tells me, a former military officer and friend brought back from Russia. ("He was amused to see hippies selling these in the Moscow airport.") The shirt sports an illustration of an AK-47 on its front with the inscription, "Mikhail Kalashnikov" in Cyrillic script, and underneath, "The freedom fighter's friend, a product of the Soviet Union." On the back in English, it says, "World Massacre Tour" with the following list: "The Gulf War, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Angola, Laos, Nicaragua, Salvador, Lebanon, Gaza Strip, Karabakh, Chechnya… To be continued."

Johnson, who served as a lieutenant (jg) in the Navy in the early 1950s and from 1967-1973 was a consultant for the CIA, ran the Center for Chinese Studies at the University of California, Berkeley for years. He defended the Vietnam War ("In that I was distinctly a man of my times…"), but is probably the only person of his generation to have written, in the years since, anything like this passage from the introduction to his book Blowback: "The problem was that I knew too much about the international Communist movement and not enough about the United States government and its Department of Defense… In retrospect, I wish I had stood with the antiwar protest movement. For all its naiveté and unruliness, it was right and American policy wrong."

Retired, after a long, provocative career as a Japan specialist, he is the author of the prophetic Blowback, The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, published in 2000 to little attention. After 9/11, it became a bestseller, putting the word "blowback," a CIA term for retaliation for U.S. covert actions, into common usage. He has since written The Sorrows of Empire, Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic. ("As an academic subject, the American Empire is largely taboo," he tells me. "I'm now comfortably retired, but I had a successful academic career. I realize that young academics today will take up the subject and start doing research on aspects of our empire only if they've got some cover. They need somebody to go first. I've had some of my former graduate students say, ‘Look, you're invulnerable. If you won't take the lead, why do you expect us to go do a research project on the impact of American military whorehouses on Turkey. I mean, let's face it, it's a good subject!")

He is just now completing the final volume of his Blowback Trilogy. It will be entitled Nemesis.

Sharp as a tack, energetic and high-spirited, by turns genuinely alarmed and thoroughly sardonic, he's a talker by nature. Our encounter is an interview in name only. No one has ever needed an interviewer less. I do begin with a question that had been on my mind, but it's hardly necessary.

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