When I noticed this book on the shelf at my local library, I didn’t want to read it. Because I knew immediately what it was about from the title, and I didn’t want to confront the ignorance, naivete, and frankly, stupidity, through which I’d lived my life until roughly 2009, when the edifice of lies upon which my being had depended fell down all around me (this book only concerned one—my beliefs about the innate goodness of America, that collapsed much earlier than 2009). I didn’t want to be reminded of those things. But I knew I must. So I got the book and read it. And for me, the sorrows of empire were not only collective sorrows, but individual.
I remember the moment when I distinctly realized that all I’d believed about the United States was a lie. I was peering over a sand berm about ten kilometers from the no-man’s land in the desert where the ill-defined borders of Iraq, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia meet. In the pre-dawn darkness I awaited the day’s first light along with the rest of my company of Army helicopter maintenance techs. Army engineers had bulldozed the berm around our little compound—maybe an acre or so—in the middle of the desert, one of many along a compacted-sand road they’d also constructed. We were required every morning to be up before dawn and in position along the berm, ready to fend off an attack—a bit of fighting the last war, as the Viet Cong had often attacked at first light. An attack was hardly likely. The surrounding desert offered nothing in the way of cover and concealment. And as we later realized, American soldiers were far more likely to die by accident than by enemy attack in the first Gulf War. But the dawn patrol was just a means of teaching us diligence, and frankly, of fucking with us because we were not infantry or armor soldiers who might have to engage the enemy directly (turns out, the infantry and armor guys didn’t have much enemy engagement either, but we didn’t know that would be the case at the time).
As I lay there under the cold, moonless, late-January sky, looking eastward for a hint of sunrise, I could just make out Iraqi Army positions on the Saudi/Kuwait border. And I could see how their positions periodically, almost methodically, seemed to light up with a silent flash. I was at first a bit flummoxed about what I was seeing, until I noticed a line of stars in the sky overhead of the flashes winking out in synchronicity with the flashes on the ground. Straining to help my mind make sense of what my eyes were taking in, I finally made out the four entrails of smoke billowing from behind the planes, which were probably flying at something like 30,000 feet. It was B-52’s, carpet bombing the Iraqi front lines. And that’s when I knew that America was one big, fat lie.
Some of what I realized that day on the berm: America is not great because America is good. America is great (and by ‘great’ I mean in wealth and power—it is not great in any moral sense) because America has no scruples in its relentless, voracious quest for power and riches. There is nothing it won’t do to achieve its ends. America does not shun empire but actively seeks it. America is not peace-loving, only fighting when it must to defend itself; America is war-mongering, seeking out new enemies as quickly as old ones are vanquished. In short, I realized then, laying on the berm, watching my comrades in arms slaughter thousands of human beings—the descendants of the very human beings who had planted the seeds of civilization whose ultimate harvest included such awful killing machines as B-52’s—that everything I had ever believed about my country was an utter and complete lie.
In my youth and young adulthood, I had swallowed all the patriotic garbage the warmongers had used to sell the Cold War to a reluctant public. I had internalized the idea that the only reason America did the harsh things it did in fighting the Cold War was because failure would have meant communistic slavery and oppression at best, the end of mankind at worst. So once the Cold War was won—during my time in service—I was elated. We could finally go back to being the humble, peace-loving peoples we’d always been. We could finally beat our swords into plowshares. I could hang up my uniform, hopefully for the balance of my life.
That fantasy lasted less than a year, until the American Empire’s war machine found a demand for what it supplied. Iraq invaded Kuwait, after asking whether we’d object. “No”, we said, “go ahead”, luring them into giving us a pretense for war, for by then the Empire’s war machine was getting antsy about from where its next boondoggle of profits might come. Iraq, bless their Mesopotamian hearts, rose to the bait.
There were many advantages to fighting Iraq in the Arabian desert over the tiny, oil-rich fief of Kuwait. A war with Iraq would be like a live-fire field training exercise. All the high-tech tanks and armored personnel carriers and helicopters and ships and airplanes purchased to defend against a Soviet threat that somehow never materialized would be put on display to shock and awe the world, a display that would only be possible in desert terrain. (Another lesson of Vietnam—big firepower and technological wizardry doesn’t count for so much in a jungle.) The generals would finally get to play with all the new toys the public’s tax dollars purchased for them. Fighting Iraq would give us a foothold in the oil-rich Middle East where we hadn’t one before, and of all commodities, there is none more than oil that is the lifeblood of our economy. Going to war against Iraq would go a long way towards dispelling the notion that just because the Cold War was over, the military industrial complex could stand down a bit. And allowing a cobbled-together coalition that included some Arab states to get involved made it look as if we were just one of a broad coalition—that we were only helping the world along to do what it wanted to do. The Iraq war was an American Empire public relations coup. (Or, at least it was to the American Empire’s war machine. I believe those poor saps on the receiving end of the B-52 carpet of bombs rolling over them considered the whole affair rather less appealing.)
The Iraq War did all those things and more. It washed away the vestiges of Vietnam regret. It proved the superiority of American firepower. It shocked and awed the American public watching on their couches back home, and presumably of those watching the world over. It made the world safe for American military interventionism again. The American Empire, after briefly being delayed by its own profound stupidity in Vietnam, could continue along its march to whatever would one day be its ultimate limits.
Those were the immediate benefits. The long-term benefits included stirring up a hatred in the Middle East so virulent that its citizens would prove routinely willing to sacrifice their lives just to strike back at the Empire, providing a ready-made enemy such that the Empire’s war machine could rest easy. The profits would continue flowing. We could declare war on a tactic, not an enemy, and keep the gun factories humming.
That fighting Iraq meant the American legions would never leave Iraq was not a bug, it was a feature (as Johnson repeatedly points out—wherever the military goes, even for a moment, it tends to stay). Going back to Iraq with an invasion force a bit over a decade later was practically foreordained by whatever mad god controls the march of empire. The same was true of invading Afghanistan on the pretext that it harbored the 9-11 terrorists. The US will never leave Afghanistan until it is forced to leave Afghanistan. We are now 27 years into the occupation of Iraq, only about 15 into Afghanistan. But ask Okinawa how long we might be there. We’ve occupied Okinawa since before Japan’s surrender in World War Two and haven’t any plans for departure. Ever.
The ‘militarism’ of Johnson’s title refers to the growing presence domestically and internationally of US troops. As of the publishing of the book, there were over 700 overseas military bases—some very large (in Germany and Japan, e.g.) and some very small (in the Balkans), and a bit more than that in the US. But almost nowhere do we go that we leave voluntarily. These bases represent over 250,000 deployed troops of an active-duty military of over two million.
In fact, about the only place from which we’ve been expelled is also a place where the American Empire got its legitimate start outside of the continent. The US military was kicked out of the Philippines in the eighties after Ferdinand Marcos, a US ally, was deposed for fecklessness in all aspects of governance except stealing money. It was the Spanish-American War of 1898, in which the Philippines was one prize of many (Cuba, Puerto Rico, etc.), that really got the empire-building ball rolling. Up to that war, we’d restricted our expansionism to the North American continent and seemed content for a time to leave it at that (the Civil War, concluded in 1865 probably being the anomaly that explains the pause). A generation later, the march of empire resumed, and except for a post-Vietnam lull, has continued apace ever since.
The ‘secrecy’ in the title reflects that the government, particularly that part of it that comes under the rubric of defense-related, classifies virtually everything it does as secret to keep its citizens from knowing what it does, not because the information might give some advantage to a foreign or domestic enemy (by ‘domestic enemy’ I mean from the government’s perspective, i.e., anyone who questions its motives or actions; ‘foreign enemy’ is basically everyone else). Maybe if the information were freely available, the outrage of the citizenry would provide an advantage to a foreign or domestic enemy, so that the secrecy actually is justified. At least from the perspective of the Empire’s war machine. The bottom line is that the government doesn’t want you to know what it’s up to, and conjuring enemies that can justify its secrecy is a tried and true means to that end. Johnson cites numerous instances—stuff I either knew of or suspected before. It really is the case that you can’t be too cynical regarding what the government keeps secret and why. No tin-foil hat required to correctly imagine that the government, particularly in its defense-related functions—is a vast criminal conspiracy. Because it is. Every last time a light is shined on the government’s actions (e.g., 1974 and revelations about the CIA spying on Americans), the cockroaches are found scurrying everywhere.
The ‘end of the Republic’ in the title is a historical analogue, referring to Julius Caesar’s crossing the Rubicon to march on Rome to take full control of Rome’s government as Emperor. Although Caesar was ultimately assassinated by the Roman Senate acting practically in concert for his having usurped their power, the Republic was nonetheless forever finished. Augustus came next and made nice with the Senate whilst rendering them a formality, something like the British Crown today. Johnson claims that the Office of the President, whoever occupies it, is becoming simply an Emperor. Obama’s drone war, killing American citizens at his whim, as their judge, jury and executioner, had yet to appear, but the long march to something of an imperial presidency of the sort Johnson imagines was certainly underway at the time of his writing.
People are frantic today that with Trump becoming President the horror of a truly imperial presidency will be realized. Contrary to Johnson, I would claim that the person of the President is immaterial. The Empire’s war machine—military contractors and suppliers and high-ranking officers–determines what the President will do, not the other way ‘round, as is provided by the Constitution. There is an Empire, but its power is not concentrated in any particular President, but in the Executive Branch, particularly in the Department of Defense. The Empire’s war machine is bigger, and more inevitable, than any particular president. Its power reaches into the Congressional and Judicial Branches. Congressmen are whores for defense spending in their districts, which comprise the vast majority of the discretionary spending budget, and the Judiciary is loath to be found soft regarding the Empire’s amorphous enemy and amorphous war. Allowing the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus is just one of many outrages the judiciary has seen fit to approve in the War on Terror. It must be remembered that judges are politicians too, and will wrap their rulings in the flag anytime they think doing so will serve their political purposes.
This was a depressing book to read. All it did was confirm what I had long ago concluded. And long ago, I had concluded that the primary purpose of the American government was to keep the American Empire reliably growing. As I don’t care for any country expanding its Empire, I want nothing to do with the American Empire’s impulse to continual expansion. Except for the necessity to pay taxes, I long ago resolved that I would have as little to do with it as possible. I got out of the Army as soon as I returned from the Gulf War, and never looked back. I could leave for another country, but there’s nowhere to go that the long arm of the Empire doesn’t reach (which is actually its point). So, I stay, and live like an ascetic Christian, in the Empire, but not of it.
Empire is not necessarily an evil thing. It can bring peace and aid in development. Johnson points out that neither of those is the point of the American Empire. The point of the American Empire is to make the world safe for investment bankers and international capitalists such that they might exploit people and land wherever they please, with a corollary point being that it needs to incite conflict such that its defense industry can continue to reap huge profits. There is really nothing good, except from the perspective of international capitalists, investment bankers and warmongers (sometimes all three-in-one, like the Trinity—General Electric comes to mind), about the American Empire. But those three are the real power behind the throne. There is no imperial presidency because there needn’t be—the triumvirate has power well in hand. In fact, it would take a truly imperial presidency doing what Caesar attempted—usurping the corrupt powers of the Republic—to bring the imperial triumvirate to heel. In the meantime, even President Obama couldn’t stall the march of the American Empire. Even Obama couldn’t substantially reduce America’s armaments or military. Even Obama couldn’t get us out of Iraq or Afghanistan or close Guantanamo, and he’s probably as close to an imperial President as we’re likely to see for a while. The Republicans and Democrats pretend to substantive differences in governance, putting on political theater that serves to divert the Empire’s citizenry, while the Empire relentlessly marches along.
My main problem with the American Empire is its deceit and hubris. The American Empire pretends to an ideology of advancing political and economic freedom, and thereby economic growth, wherever it expands. Its pretensions yield an idealized expectation among conquered, or ‘influenced’ peoples, that, like the Navy commercial says of itself, that the Empire is a force for good. Yes, good for international capitalists, investment bankers and warmongers. For everyone else, not necessarily. The triumvirate only does what is advantageous to the triumvirate (e.g., no Rwandan genocide intervention), which is very often at odds with the native populations it conquers or over which it asserts power. The CIA could not have cared less about the Iranian people when it installed its lackey, the Shah, to ensure America’s interest in Iran’s oil fields would not be disturbed. While that one didn’t work out so well for the Empire (but then, Persia was always a thorn in the side of Rome), it perfectly illustrates the deceit with which the American Empire’s expansionary impulses are justified.
But truthfully, the greatest deceit is in the Empire’s insistence that it is not an empire. Americans don’t fancy themselves as imperial conquerors, and so far, they have been bamboozled into believing the nonsense that I used to believe, that America fights reluctantly, and only to protect the Constitution from all enemies, foreign and domestic. That is the Empire’s Big Lie, one told to itself and to others, to justify and obfuscate its relentless expansion. I realize there is no way to stop the Empire’s relentless advance, neither from within nor, for now, from without. But I would like to see before I die a general acceptance of the reality that America is, and perhaps always has been, an imperial beast, gobbling up peoples and territories relentlessly and voraciously. Such a thing is doubtful. It’s part of the Empire’s cynical hubris that it can tell such lies to itself and others and expect everyone to fall credulously in line.
As Johnson says in closing:
At this late date, however, it is difficult to imagine how Congress, much like the Roman senate in the last days of the Republic, could be brought back to life and cleansed of its endemic corruption. Failing such a reform, Nemesis, the god of retribution and vengeance, the punisher of pride and hubris, waits impatiently for her meeting with us.
In sum, I utterly loath pretty much everything the American government stands for internationally. This book did nothing but confirm in copious detail why my loathing is justified. But like Candide, I have chosen to ignore that portion of American life so far as I am able. Instead, I choose to tend my garden. The hell with the American Empire. And please, don’t thank me for my service. I regret that I ever served the indefensibly corrupt Leviathan that is the American Empire’s war machine.