Sunday, April 10, 2011

A Touch of Wisdom from Chalmers Johnson

“To approach the subject of guerrilla warfare as a purely military doctrine is to court disaster… General political and economic considerations must be taken into account, such as the abilities of local elites, the nature of a country’s economy, its class structure, and a host of other variables that can only be altered by long-term reforms. By the time guerrilla warfare has actually broken out, the conflict may already be lost to the defenders and require a negotiated or stalemate solution.”
In 1973, he published a little book, Autopsy on People’s War, in which he argued that Maoist theories of “people’s war” would not lead to a general Asian conflagration. “It is useful to be reminded,” he wrote, “that revolutions in the modern sense are also, in fact, civil wars. If other nations want to make a successful adjustment to them, they cannot ignore the fact that a domestic fight is going on between people who are agitated by issues other than the general course of human history. For this reason direct intervention in one is generally the worst thing that a prudent nation can do -- not because the revolution is unimportant either ideologically or to the world balance of power but because foreign intervention, if it fails, is bound to antagonize in the most direct manner the victorious revolutionary state.”
“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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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, 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.

Copyright 2011 Sheila K. Johnson

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