An Op-ed piece masquerading as a book review
“Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic,” by Chalmers Johnson (Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Co., 356 pages, including 73 pages of notes and an index, $26)
I was going to write this as a straight book review, but about halfway through I realized that it simply wouldn’t work. This is too drastic an indictment of the USA to be able to be simply reviewed. Thus, this op-ed piece.
“Nemesis is the Greek goddess of retribution, who punishes human transgression of the natural, right order of things and the arrogance that caused it.” So starts this book. And it quickly becomes clear what is Nemesis’ next target: The United States of America. Why? That is what author Johnson sets out to prove, and he makes some very convincing, powerful arguments.
Of course, President Bush comes in for much criticism, but then so does the Congress, which as Johnson documents, has been woefully corrupt, lax in its duties and interested in little other than reelection and retirement as highly paid lobbyists. The transgressions are severe and the Founding Fathers, particularly Alexander Hamilton who wrote much of the Constitution, would undoubtedly weep at what has been done.
In the opening chapter on “Militarism and the Breakdown of Constitutional Government, Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of the assault on Baghdad, warns that in the event of another serious attack (it) would “begin to unravel the fabric of our Constitution” and in such a case “the Constitution could be scrapped in favor of a military form of government.”
Scrap the Constitution? Bush has already in his thinking done so. He said on April 13, 2004, that he was “the ultimate decision maker for this country,” abrogating both the Congress and the Courts in one sentence. He has continued to do so by his “signings,” with which he voids a new law by signing a statement that he doesn’t have to obey the law.
Chapter 2 looks back at earlier empires (Johnson assumes an American empire): Roman and British. He points out in detail how those empires rose, Rome on military might and corn, and Britain on military might and coal. Rome kept its empire but gave up on democracy; the Brits sacrificed empire but retained democracy. He then looks at the American empire, founded on first petroleum and then on military might. He makes sense of the many charges that the Iraqi war is all about oil and who will control it. Without it the American empire is doomed, he says.
Then comes the bogeyman of today: The CIA, of as Johnson terms it, “The President’s private army.” The CIA’s transgressions have been written about ceaselessly, and for good cause. For all of its technology, the CIA has been a stumblebum in executing its duties. (An aside: As an intelligence officer in Japan on the tail end of the Korean war, I helped write reports on that was going on in North Korea based on aerial photography. The CIA did the same back in Langley and the CIA guys never got it right; Korean graves were circular with a stone in the center. This looked to the CIA experts like antiaircraft gun emplacements, no matter how often we explained to them the reality.)
The CIA blunders about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the falsified reports for years about Soviet strengths, the laughable attempt to assassinate Fidel Castro with an explosive cigar, the phony information about the Bay of Pigs … it goes on and on. The CIA may be the president’s army, but who needs it?
Then there are the American bases scattered about the world ” more than 750 of them, including at least four hard, longtime major bases in Iraq ” and probably a more since they are often part of the “black” or secret budget and don’t have to be listed. (Another aside: I stumbled on one of those bases once in Turkey, a nuke operations outfit. No information about it was public.)
These bases, often disguised as sites to control the flow of drugs, are all over South America, Africa and the Far East. (Another side: I once had a toothache repaired by an America military dentist in Ethiopia, where no such unit was supposed to exist.) These outfits mirror the later days of the Roman empire, when Caesar was slain and Marc Antony and Cleopatra were dead and Augustus ruled “as a god.”
Then comes how “American Imperialism works: The SOFA in Japan.” This chapter also has an incident that not one in 100 Americans recall: The Girard case, where an American GI whimsically fired a shell at a Japanese woman who was scavenging spent munitions at a firing range and killed her.
The SOFA (“status of forces agreement”) is an agreement between the U.S. and a host foreign country that governs conduct and control of U.S. forces. Among other things, such as who pays for the U.S. installation, who has jurisdiction in case of an alleged crime. Girard was hustled into U.S. custody while the two governments conferred. I was working in Tokyo at the time and wrote about the massive “demos” against Girard and the SOFA that protected him.
SOFA costs the USA in money and local distrust. On Okinawa, where most U.S. forces in Japan are based, a small, useless military base sits in the middle of a city. The Okinawans have asked that it be moved as the helicopter flights over the city are noisy and dangerous. At onecrash of a chopper, no Okinawa officials were allowed to inspect the site; the chopper was hardly secret as it was a veteran of the Vietnam war. No way, the Marines have said, unless you let us have a much bigger base at one of the island’s most beautiful beaches. As of last report, the base still sits there.
And then there’s that CIA base on the northernmost island of Hokkaido. It was monitoring Soviet communications when I found in on a ski trip. Hermetically sealed, nobody other than CIA people are admitted. No Japanese officials. I was let in because I had a high security clearance.
Space grows short here. The American militarization of space is detailed as the ultimate symbol and strength of empire (as in Roman days). And the final chapter is “The Crisis of the American Republic.” Bush is quoted: “My administration has a job to do and we’re going to it. We will rid the world of evildoers.”
Certainly a noble if starry-eyed ambition, if a bit messaic. He certainly hasn’t done that yet. I doubt if anyone can achieve such a Promethean goal. But what Bush has done is mortgage the future of the nation. Out national debt is staggering; more than $9 trillion dollars and counting. Our balance of payments is financed by both Japan and China, while Russia basks in petroleum wealth undreamed of by the Soviet Union.
What is to be done? The Congress must act, live up to its Constitutional duties. The Supreme Court must do the same. And the American people must demand that they do so. Again, noble thoughts, Mr. Johnson. Can we, the people, force them to do so? It’s up to us.
To those who would challenge Johnson’s conclusions, he offers 73 pages of notes and an index.