SPECIAL TO SHOWCASE
Looking for a lift, I paid a visit last week to our own Jeremiah, Cardiff’s prophet of doom. Against all odds, I was counting on Chalmers Johnson to cheer me up.
I know. The reasoning is perverse.
It’s kind of like calling up Cassandra for crisis counseling.
No one in San Diego’s orbit has a less hopeful view of the economy’s prospects than Johnson. The worse things get, the better he looks as a scholarly soothsayer.
Starting in the Clinton years, the retired University of California San Diego professor, China and Japan expert, former Cold War hawk and prolific writer has been warning against the financial collapse of what he calls – without a hint of irony – the American empire.
In the chaotic aftermath of 9/11, Johnson’s 2000 book “Blowback” – the first of a trilogy followed by “The Sorrows of Empire” and “Nemesis” – acquired international liftoff for its dead-on prediction of retaliation against what he calls American imperialism.
The analysis hit home, cutting to the quick.
In Johnson’s Olympian view, it’s a matter of time – and not much of it – until this country is beggared by a largely obsolete and obscenely expensive war machine, the military-industrial complex about which President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned.
With the global economy in cardiac arrest, I figured the 77-year-old historian would be feeling pretty chipper. Johnson’s radical world view, it seems, is most relevant when very bad things are happening.
In search of a happy, honest man, I drove to Cardiff and up an unusually long driveway. In the Johnson garage, both vehicles sport the same bumper sticker: “Ike Was Right.” Another proclaims: “It’s a Planet, Not an Empire.”
As Sheila, Johnson’s warmly welcoming wife, showed me views of the Pacific and the San Elijo Lagoon, Johnson, who struggles with rheumatoid arthritis, made his way from his study to the living room.
In two hours, the smooth new president, about whom Johnson pronounced himself “satisfied,” was going to address Congress. I asked Johnson what he would say if Barack Obama sought his advice.
“I’m now going to lecture you about things you refuse to know,” Johnson said, channeling the imaginary conversation.
“I’m going to lecture you about history. History tells us there’s no such thing as a successful democracy and also a successful empire. You can be one or the other – but you can’t be both. If you are a successful empire, it will destroy your democracy. That’s essentially why Britain gave up at the end of World War II. They concluded that just after defeating the Nazis, they couldn’t continue to use Nazi methods. It wasn’t well done, but they preserved their democracy.”
Though dismantling the military may be political suicide, a third-rail far more electrifying than Social Security, Obama will have to face that task someday, Johnson said.
“It is the essence of leadership to recognize we’ve gone the wrong direction,” Johnson said. “We’re using the wrong weapons. We don’t know what we’re doing.”
After the fall of the Soviet Union, “I realized we would do anything to protect the military-industrial complex. Nothing scared our government more in the last century than the realization that we got out of the Great Depression because of World War II.”
In other words, we don’t believe we can afford to stop waging conventional warfare.
Whether the subject is wasteful arms programs (the F-22 and the F-35 jet fighters come in for special scorn), far-flung garrisons (more than 700 official bases around the world; the Romans and the English made do with maybe 30 in their imperial heydays), or invasions (Iraq and Afghanistan), Johnson returns to his overarching theme – the economic sorrows of incessant war-making on a democracy.
In a recent essay, Johnson thundered against military spending – he figures, all told, a trillion dollars a year – that over the long haul makes the recent bailouts look like loose change:
“If we cannot cut back our long-standing, ever increasing military spending in a major way, then the bankruptcy of the United States is inevitable. As the current Wall Street meltdown has demonstrated, that is no longer an abstract possibility but a growing likelihood. We do not have much time left.” The Johnsons, it’s fair to note, are unencumbered by children or stocks, two common articles of faith in the country’s prosperity. Johnson’s UC pension is secure. He can afford to cast a cold eye on the future.
“It’s possible that it’s over – and there’s nothing to be done,” he told me with a ghost of a smile.
We’re the national equivalent of a zombie bank. A dead country walking. And we might not even know it.
With the sun setting over the Pacific, Johnson paused and added what I took to be a consoling coda to his symphony of probable doom.
“California is very comfortable,” he said.
And that it is.
With a half-hour to kill before Obama’s speech, the drive home along Highway 101 was a familiar, but oddly touching, joy.
*The above article first appeared at the San Diego Union-Tribune, March 2, 2009.
Logan Jenkins is a columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune. Chalmers Johnson’s books include, Blowback, The Sorrows of Empire and Nemesis.