Why Not Have Empire?

A book review of Chalmers Johnson’s “Sorrows of Empire” by Douglas Lummis.



In the great cities of Europe and America, where a few years ago these things would only have been whispered, now people are openly talking about the good side of imperialism and the need for a strong empire to police an unruly world. . . . Occasionally some of us are invited to “debate” the issue on “neutral” platforms provided by the corporate media. Debating imperialism is a bit like debating the pros and cons of rape. What can we say? That we really miss it?
                                               -Arundhati Roy


In the Prologue to Blowback, Chalmers Johnson introduces himself as a former “spear carrier for empire”, both in his role as a Naval officer during the Korean War and in his later role as a Cold War Academic. “The problem was,” he says, “that I knew too much about the international Communist movement and not enough about the United States Government and its Department of Defense.” He was, apparently with some reluctance, a supporter of the War in Vietnam and, from 1967 to 1973, acting out the fantasy entertained by only the most paranoid students in those days, by simultaneously teaching university and working for the CIA.

Johnson recalls that he was “irritated by campus antiwar protesters, who seemed to me self–indulgent as well as sanctimonious and who had so clearly not done their homework.” When I first read these lines I had the feeling that I certainly must have been the person he had in mind when he wrote them – not to say that I accept the characterization. But of course I am sure there are others who had the same feeling. In any case, as one who was a graduate student and an antiwar activist in those years in the department were Johnson taught, I can testify that “irritated” is hardly the word for his attitude. “Enraged” is probably closer to the mark. And like his mentor Robert Scalapino, he was not above using his powers as a tenured faculty member to do what he could to prevent these alleged dunces from getting fellowships or jobs teaching in universities. Unsurprisingly Johnson doesn’t mention that part, but he does make a courageous confession. He still insists that the antiwar students “knew nothing about communism and had no interest in remedying that lack.” But he goes on,

As it turned out, however, they understood far better than I did the impulses of a Robert McNamara, a McGeorge Bundy, or a Walt Rostow. They grasped something essential about the nature of America’s imperial role in the world that I had failed to perceive. In retrospect, I wish I had stood with the antiwar protest movement. For all its naivete and unruliness, it was right and American policy wrong.

Here Johnson has carried out an act that most people in the teaching business find utterly beyond their powers: admitting that those irritating and unruly students got it right and the professor got it wrong. I have to admire him for this. While it is not exactly an apology, I suppose it is the closest thing to an apology he will ever write. And while I can’t speak for any of the other people who may have borne the brunt of his “irritation” in those days, the present review is probably the closest I am likely to come to saying, “accepted”.


Ironically, the fact that Johnson didn’t stand with the antiwar movement from those days may have its positive side. Had he done so, it’s unlikely that either Blowback or The Sorrows of Empire would have the freshness that they do. But there is a mystery here. For years people have been writing eloquent, well–reasoned, well–documented books criticizing US imperialism; what is so new about these? Of course there is the fact that he is a startling new voice; in 1969 I would have considered him about the last person likely to begin this kind of work. Then there is his great prestige as a scholar – though one could hardly say that he has prestige as a China/Japan scholar greater than Noam Chomsky has as a linguist.

But the comparison with Chomsky (who is conspicuously absent from Johnson’s indices) is interesting. Chomsky, who has been attacking the US empire heroically and doggedly for decades, often allows his writings to take on a monotone of bitter irony.(1) Johnson, the latecomer, is genuinely surprised and newly outraged by the things he discovers, and this adds vigor to his writing. Chomsky’s writings have somewhat fallen victim to the Boy Who Cried Wolf! effect, which is unfair because every time he has cried Wolf! the wolf was real. Johnson’s voice, crying Wolf! for the first time, rings more like an emergency alarm, and is more likely perhaps to get people to jump up and take notice.

Noam Chomsky

But this does not mean that Johnson’s work is merely a reorganizing of materials covered by other earlier anti – imperialist researchers. His materials are new, his analysis is original. In The Sorrows of Empire he writes that it was a visit to Okinawa in 1996, his first, that forced the fact of the American empire onto his attention. In addition to being shocked by the arrogance and ugliness of what he saw, Johnson came back persuaded that “no serious American strategy could explain the deployment of thirty–eight separate bases on the choicest 20 percent of the island.” He began a study of US military base structure around the world, and gradually came to the conclusion that “Okinawa was typical, not unique.” And he proposed an interesting new hypothesis. The 725+ US bases around the world are not the means to empire, they are the empire. The bases are not built to serve a strategy for protecting US interests; rather, US strategy is (in large part) designed to protect the bases. The bases are themselves a form of rule, and generate their own interests. They are organized into regional commands, and the regional commanders (CINCs, meaning commanders in chief) are like proconsuls in the Roman Empire, outranking ambassadors, making foreign policy statements, and reporting directly to the President rather than through the normal chain of command. In most of the countries where the US has bases US military personnel enjoy the colonial privilege of extraterritoriality thanks to Status of Forces Agreements (SOFAs), which protect them wholly or partially from prosecution under the laws of the country where they are based. The US admits having such agreements with 93 countries, “though some SOFAs are so embarrassing to the host nation that they are kept secret, particularly in the Islamic world.”

Map from Dr. David Vine’s book, “Base Nation”. Source: http://www.basenation.us/maps.html

This empire of bases, as Johnson calls it, forms a world of its own, “an aspect of contemporary American life that most Americans never see.” Here on Okinawa where I live, if you drive up Highway 58 from Naha past Kadena Airbase, and then look across the fence into the base you will see parking lot filled with scores of big school buses. So there are that many children in there, tragically and unconsciously living the lives of colonials! Inside the bases there are schools from daycare through college, churches, shopping malls, bars, restaurants, tennis courts, private beaches, many individual and team sports, a counseling group for controlling stress and anger, a hotline for battered women, a rape survivors’ group, a childhood sexual abuse survivors’ group, police, courts, jails, and countless lawn mowers, not only for the golf courses but also for the lawns on the big empty spaces between the scattered buildings. Outside the bases, although Okinawa’s relative prosperity compared to the 1950s and 60s has shut down a lot of the businesses aimed at GI trade, there are still bars, restaurants, tattoo parlors, souvenir shops selling things no Japanese or Okinawan would ever buy, whorehouses, and a large number of evangelical churches (these generally with American ministers) catering to the US military. Houses are not scattered but crowded together; there is no space for lawns. To be stationed on such a base is to be given an education in colonial arrogance. Disrespect for the local population is not an individual “attitude” one may or may not have; it is in the air; it is built into the structure of things; it is unconscious.


Johnson’s conclusion that “Okinawa was typical, not unique”, is one with which few Okinawans would agree. It is correct in that the Okinawa bases are not an isolated case but rather part of a world system of bases operating under a unified imperial policy. But it ignores the old Marxist principle, Quantity Becomes Quality. The sheer scale of the US military presence on Okinawa means they dominate daily life there in a way they do not in, say, Italy or Britain or Greenland or even “mainland” Japan. In Okinawa there is no place free from the scream of fighter planes and the roar of giant transports overhead, there is no day in which some news about the bases is not in the newspapers, there is no politician who can carry out a campaign without taking a position on them, and there is no one under sixty who can remember when they were not there.


On Friday the Thirteenth, August 2004, a Marine Corps CH53D transport helicopter from Futenma USMC Air Station crashed into a building of Okinawa International University and then fell to the ground inside the campus. There were three big explosions and black smoke poured into the sky. Before the fire department or the police could arrive at the scene, several hundred Marines broke through the wire fence that separates the Campus from the base (the two are back to back) and occupied the crash site. For this they did not ask the permission of the College President, the Ginowan City Mayor, the Prefectural Governor, or anyone else. They cordoned off the area with yellow tape, posted armed MPs to guard it, and allowed no one in, including Okinawan police or fire fighters. The police wanted to investigate the site for evidence of criminal negligence, but they were refused. While local officials protested helplessly, the Marines carried away all the evidence, including the dirt under the crash site. Politicians and journalists said, Well, the US has the authority under the SOFA agreement, so what can you do? In fact, however, the SOFA agreement makes perfectly clear that US military police has no jurisdiction at all over civilians outside the base. Those MPs guarding the yellow tape had no authority whatever other than their guns. The Marines made it clear that in a crisis, Japanese or Okinawan Governmental sovereignty over Okinawa is not something they are prepared to honor. And they made it clear how Okinawa will be treated should the Marine bases there ever get directly involved in a war (by “directly” I mean, a war nearby in east Asia. They are already involved in the war in Iraq)..

2004 USMC Helicopter Crash in Okinawa.

Perhaps this is an example of what Johnson means by “militarism”. Johnson is not arguing against the military per se, but rather against its corrupt form: militarism. “A military,” he tells us, “should be concerned with ensuring national independence . . . .” Militarism he defines as “the phenomenon by which a nation’s armed services come to put their institutional preservation ahead of achieving national security or even a commitment to the integrity of the governmental structure of which they are a part.” The US military, especially now that it keeps such a big part of itself outside the country, where ordinary US citizens can’t see what it’s doing, has, Johnson argues, become a militarist organization. It is not “planning” an empire, or “like” an empire, or taking on the “attitude” of empire, or even “serving” an empire. It is an empire: the empire of bases.

But if the bases are indeed an empire in themselves they are a peculiar one: an empire in which there is no productive labor. Inside the bases nothing is manufactured nor is the labor of people off the base organized or managed. The bases are not designed to extract surplus value from the countries they occupy and remit it to the homeland; this is left to private industry, operating in the business-safe environment that the bases help to create. Thus while the bases may be an empire in themselves, they are by no means all of the US empire. But even having said that, Johnson’s notion of the Empire of Bases is an important contribution to the understanding of the US empire today.

U.S. Military installations/bases on Okinawa Island.

But there is another way in which Johnson’s work differs from earlier critiques of empire. For the last half century or more, say roughly from the time the U.N. Charter was ratified, world opinion has considered empire to be prima facie wrong. “Empire” and “imperialism” became negative value terms which, within the imperial powers, they had not always been. If you called a policy “imperialist” everyone understood you were criticizing it. The argument turned on that question. If you could show that a policy was in fact imperialist, that would be enough to show that it was wrong. A defender of the policy would counter by arguing that it was not imperialist.

In the past few years all this has changed, at least in the US and Great Britain. Little by little, and especially after the beginning of the “war on terrorism”, defenders of US policy have moved empire back from the category of “taboo” to the category of “option”.   When you say, “But that’s empire!” the response has changed from, “No!” to “So?” Books and articles discussing the advantages of the US becoming a straightforward empire, or arguing that the US has already become such and we should accept it, have been appearing with increasing frequency, beginning mainly with journals read only by elites, and gradually filtering down into magazines and newspapers read by the general public.

So the once – taboo question has been publicly raised: Why not have Empire? The arguments for it are simple enough. Maybe imperial rule would make the world a little more peaceful than it is now. Maybe it would bring its subjects fairer and more stable governance than what they have. Maybe it would make them better off economically as well. And (the clincher), maybe it would serve US national interest, and be good for business.

Once raised, the question presumably has to be answered, but where does one look for an answer? Marx’ writings on colonialism, for example his “British Rule in India” (where he argues that imperialism, ugly as it is, is the only way to introduce the capitalist mode of production into the colonial world, which has to be done for socialism to become possible) offer little help. Liberalism offers even less, especially now that the great liberal Woodrow Wilson is being rediscovered as the founder of make – the – world – safe – for – democracy imperialism, a tradition of which George W. Bush is the latest exponent. Can we look to religion? But religion – just about any religion you can name – has served (and been served by) empire from ancient times. Then there is humanitarianism – but humanitarianism has not only been transformed into the ideology justifying “humanitarian intervention”, but has also produced a new breed of bleeding heart imperialists typified and led by Michael Ignatieff.

Why not have empire? Chalmers Johnson has proposed an answer to this question. It is not the only answer, nor is it necessarily the best, but it is pretty good. The answer is summarized in the term, blowback. Blowback, which originally meant gasses discharged from the rear of a gun when it is fired, became a CIA word meaning the unintended consequences harmful to the US of the government’s overseas clandestine operations. In Johnson’s writings (though he himself does not use this image) it becomes a force reminiscent of the Furies, in Greek mythology the three terrible goddesses who wreak vengeance for crimes that have gone unpunished by human authority. In its contemporary form, this means such things as terrorist attacks coming from people an imperialist policy has offended. Thus the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington DC was archetypical blowback. (These attacks came after Blowback was published. Interestingly, Johnson has said that when he first heard of these attacks, he thought they might have come from, among other places, Okinawa.) Here Johnson is true to his background as a mainstream American political scientist: interest, not values, is what matters. If you build an empire in the long run it will turn out to work against the national interest. Imperialism is not so much bad as dumb.

But the weakness of the blowback argument is that it depends on a prediction, to which one can respond, Well, maybe, then again maybe not.   At one point Johnson writes, “In a sense, blowback is simply another way of saying that a nation reaps what it sows.” But the Bible’s “As thou sowest, even shall thou reap” (Galatians 6:7) doesn’t refer to blowback destined to take place in this life; rather it is about punishment in the afterlife – a notion, agnostics would say, invented to comfort us for the fact that in this life, it is not at all certain that criminals will be duly punished. There have been plenty of people who sowed havoc and died peacefully in bed, and plenty of cases where US policies have sowed havoc in other countries without the US suffering appreciable blowback. If, for example, annexing land as the spoils of war is always followed by blowback that outweighs the gains, where was the blowback that outweighed the gains the US received when it acquired California, Arizona, and New Mexico in the Mexican war? Johnson is to some extent aware of this problem, and revises the notion.


Although the term originally applied only to the unintended consequences for Americans, of American policies, there is every reason to widen its meaning. Whether, for example, any unintended consequences of the American policies that fostered and then heightened the economic collapse of Indonesia in 1997 ever blow back to the United States, the unintended consequences for Indonesians have been staggering levels of suffering, poverty, and loss of hope.

Certainly, the argument that an empire will bring suffering upon itself is made more palatable by adding that it will bring suffering to its victims, but this is no longer properly called blowback. The misery visited upon the Indonesians mentioned in Johnson’s example is part of the blow forward, not the blow back. And the reasons one should be concerned about the former are very different from the reasons one should be concerned about the latter.


In his latest book Johnson expands blowback, as the title indicates, to “the sorrows of empire”. These sorrows, he writes, are of four types. First, empire will bring about “a state of perpetual war, leading to more terrorism against Americans . . . .” Second, Americans will see their democratic form of government and their rights as citizens eaten away, as the executive transforms itself from a “branch” of government to something like a military government in its own right. Third, the “already well – shredded principle of truthfulness” will be further damaged by never ending war propaganda. And fourth, more and more resources will be transferred from education and social services into military adventures, and eventually the country will go bankrupt.

None of these arguments is new, but all are terribly important, and Johnson writes about them with the eloquence and passion of a person who is genuinely fearful for the future of his country. But notice that these “sorrows”, like the original blowback, have again been defined within the context of national interest. This does not mean that Johnson is wrong or that the argument should not be made. On the contrary he is right: all of these things are likely to happen – are in fact happening right now – and all Americans should be made aware of that. There is nothing wrong with making the argument from interest. It is powerful and persuasive, and has the potential to make the most inveterate patriots back off from empire when they see that it will destroy their country. Certainly it is the first (though not the last) argument to be made to those people who say, “Empire? So What?” But it is an argument that will be persuasive only to Americans and a few of their loyal friends abroad. To the victims, blowback may be the only aspect of the empire that they like.


But perhaps this is to interpret Johnson too narrowly. As I pointed out above, while he sets out his theoretical position in terms of national interest, in the narrative part of both books, to his credit, he doesn’t stick to that, but rather expresses a natural outrage and sorrow at the horrors brought by the empire to peoples around the world. Moreover, there is another aspect to the blowback argument, inherent in it but not adequately expressed in its CIA definition. Johnson makes frequent references to the Roman Empire, but reading his books took my mind back rather to the tale of the demise of the Athenian Empire as told by Thucydides, and in particular, to his account of the Melian Dialogue. Recalling that story may help us to see a deeper aspect of the phenomenon of blowback.

During the war between Athens and Lacedaemon, the Athenians sent an expedition to seize the small island of Melos in the Aegean Sea. After making their landing, the Athenians invited the representatives of Melos to join them in a dialogue, and explain if they could why Athens, with its vastly superior power, ought not to destroy them and take the island. And in this dialogue, the Athenians specified, sentimental arguments about loyalty and right were to be disallowed, and the discussion limited to interest only, since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only a question between equals in power, while the strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must.


Here the victims are forced to explain to their assailants why they should not be victimized, arguing solely on the basis of the assailants’ self – interest. Their response, as set down by Thucydides, is powerful and brave. They urge the Athenians to recognize that from the standpoint of their own interest, they should not destroy what is our common protection, the privilege of being allowed in danger to invoke what is fair and right . . .

Why should they not? The Athenians have asserted that “fair and right” do not apply to the powerful. Against this, the Melians remind the Athenians of the factor of fortune: today you are so strong that it seems there is no one in the world who can oppose you, but this will not last forever. Given the uncertainty of fortune, the day will surely come when you are in the weaker position, and will wish that you could invoke the principles of fair and right to protect yourself, and will sorely regret that you yourself have taken actions to destroy them. To this the Athenians reply with amused contempt, “This . . . is a risk that we are prepared to take.”


The dialogue soon breaks off, and the battle begins. As they knew they would, the Athenians soon win, after which they “put to death all the grown men they took, and sold the women and children for slaves, and subsequently sent out five hundred colonists and inhabited the place themselves.” Read by itself, it seems as though the Melians, in their position of weakness, were desperately grasping at straws. In the context of the entire history, however, they are cast as seers. For it was immediately after this that the Athenians began planning their invasion of Syracuse, the adventure that brought their empire to its miserable and humiliating end, of which Thucycides writes,

         They were beaten at all points and altogether; all that they suffered was great; they were destroyed, as the saying is, with a total destruction, their fleet, their army – everything was destroyed, and few out of many returned home.

     This is a tale about hubris; it is also a tale about blowback. It is not simply that the Athenians vainly overestimated their strength; it was actually their great strength that created the force that defeated them. The huge Syracusan army was raised because of the Athenian invasion. And it was their willingness to “destroy what is our common protection”; to destroy, that is, the fragile idea that one’s treatment even of foreigners should be “fair and right”, that gave their enemies special license to slaughter them without mercy in the final battle.

Blowback is not simply revenge or retaliation. The blowback attacks are made in the nihilistic space created by the nihilism of empire. America says, because of our overwhelming power there is no need for us to follow the rules, for example international law. The result is not simply that America is exempted from the rules; rather it has destroyed the rules. In this sense Johnson’s argument is similar to that of the Melians: Though in the intoxication of your present strength you may find it impossible to believe this, yet someday you will be very sorry that by your actions the rules have been destroyed, and are no longer there to protect you.

Everybody knows that Osama bin Laden began Al Qaida under the tutelage of the CIA, and that Saddam Hussein (like countless other brutal dictators) was long supported by military and diplomatic aid from the US. But have we grasped what it means? It doesn’t only mean that the US government bears moral responsibility for their crimes. It also means that the US has been and is creating its own blowback. Blowback is America’s shadow, and in the “war against terrorism” America is fighting its own shadow. And of course, the harder you fight against it, the greater the shadow grows. As Johnson argues, America’s empire and the “war against terrorism” are two sides of the same coin. So here we have a very persuasive argument, based on national interest, against empire. A war against your own shadow can never be won.

Douglas Lummis is a writer, former professor, former U.S. Marine, and is currently and organizer for VFP-ROCK (Veterans For Peace Chapter in Okinawa)

1) I once tried to use one of Chomsky’s political essays in a first year college English class in Japan. I found myself in the position of having to explain over and over, while the students regarded me with puzzled faces, Yes, that’s what he wrote, but what he means is the opposite. Where he says “the splendid US policy” he means “the terrible US policy.” Where he says “this is American justice” he means “this is American injustice.” And so on. 

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