Review

In his latest work, “The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic,” Chalmers Johnson has returned to expand upon themes that emerged in his previous bestseller, “Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire.” The new effort is a well-researched and documented tour de force of American military, foreign, and economic policy during the past century.

The United States “has undergone a transformation from republic to empire that may well prove irreversible,” Johnson pessimistically observes, and he asserts that the 9/11 attacks produced “a dangerous change in the thinking of some of our leaders who began to see our republic as a genuine empire, a new Rome, the greatest colossus in history, no longer bound by international law, the concerns of allies, or any constraints on its use of military force.”

All of this is unfolding in a country whose people “do not recognize – or want to recognize – that the United States dominates the world through its military power.” Johnson explains that the American Empire is held together by over a half-million soldiers, spies, technicians, dependents, and civilian contractors; at least 725 known U.S. military bases and countless secret ones; a dozen carrier fleets; and “a network of economic and political interests, tied in a thousand different ways to American corporations, universities, and communities” back in the homeland.

According to Johnson, today’s imperialists have based much of their thinking on a dangerous misleading conclusion: that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the result of a great American victory. Following the Soviet debacle, Johnson writes, Washington had to move with speed “to ensure that the collapse would not affect the Pentagon’s budget or our ‘strategic position’ on the globe we had garrisoned in the name of ‘anti-Communism.’”

Along with old “demons” like China, Fidel Castro, drug lords and Saddam Hussein, the U.S. conjured new ones – Osama Bin Laden, weapons of mass destruction, the “axis of evil,” and terrorism – in order to justify the military’s expanding role. The so-called peace dividend has never been more than an illusion as the U.S. openly changed from a “defensive” to an “offensive” power. The country began to wage wars at an accelerating rate, “whose publicly stated purposes were increasingly deceptive or unpersuasive.”

Although considerable attention is focused on military policy, Johnson also examines economic factors, including the role of oil. The oil interests have closely influenced diplomatic and military policies and it is no accident that “while American oil companies are competing for access to oil in Central Asia, the U.S. is building up military bases across the region.” Johnson charges that the U.S. wants strategic control over oil resources in the Middle East and Central Asia “in order to oversee the shipments to regions increasingly dependent on imported petroleum which might someday challenge American imperialism.”

Johnson predicts the consequences America’s transition to empire: (1) a state of perpetual warfare leading to more terror against Americans; (2) loss of democracy and constitutional rights at home; (3) truth being replaced by propaganda, disinformation, and glorification of war; (4) economic bankruptcy – imperial overstretch will eventually bankrupt the American economy.

Although Johnson’s work is an excellent overview of the development of U.S. militarism and imperialism during the past century, the book focuses mainly on the symptoms and not root cause of the problem. Still, because it is so well researched, Johnson’s book provides a useful tool to both the student and activist.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org.

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