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Blowback for the Twenty-First Century
Remembering Chalmers Johnson
Once upon a time, long, long ago — actually, it was early in the year 2000 — I was involved in publishing Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire. It had been written by the eminent scholar of Asia, former CIA consultant, and cold warrior Chalmers Johnson. I was his editor at Metropolitan Books. In its introduction, using a word Americans were then (as now) all too uncomfortable with, he bluntly summed up his professional life by labeling himself “a spear-carrier for empire.” And he described the origins of his book’s title this way:
“Officials of the Central Intelligence Agency first invented [the term blowback] for their own internal use… [It] refers to the unintended consequences of policies that were kept secret from the American people. What the daily press reports as the malign acts of ‘terrorists’ or ‘drug lords’ or ‘rogue states’ or ‘illegal arms merchants’ often turn out to be blowback from earlier American operations.”
Ominously enough, he added, “All around the world today, it is possible to see the groundwork being laid for future forms of blowback.” On page 10, he brought up — and remember he was writing this as the previous century ended — the name of “a former protege of the United States,” one Osama bin Laden. In the 1980s, that rich young Saudi had been part of Washington’s secret war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, forming a group to battle the Russians that he called al-Qaeda (“the Base”) to battle the Red Army. By the time Chalmers wrote his book, the Russian war there was long over, the Soviet Union had collapsed, and bin Laden had turned against Washington. He was then believed responsible for the bombing of the American embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. On page 11, Chalmers added that such “retaliation” for American acts was “undoubtedly not yet at an end in the case of bin Laden.”
He summed things up this way: “Because we live in an increasingly interconnected international system, we are all, in a sense, living in a blowback world.”
Sadly, that remains even truer today and, if Chalmers could return from the dead, I have no doubt that he would have much to say about how we now find ourselves on the ultimate blowback planet.
Blowback in a Sole-Superpower World
To use an all-too-appropriate word, given what he was writing about, his book bombed. Boy, did it! The reviewer at the New York Times dismissed it as “marred by an overriding, sweeping, and cranky one-sidedness.” And it sold next to no copies. It was dead in the water, until, 18 months later… yes, I’m sure you’ve already guessed what I’m about to write next… on September 11, 2001, those towers in New York City came down and the Pentagon was clobbered.
Suddenly, Blowback was on every bookstore bestseller table in America. As Chalmers would mention in his new introduction to the 2003 paperback, Metropolitan Books had to reprint it eight times in less than two months to keep up with demand.
In that volume, he had done something deeply unpopular at the time of publication (except among fringe groups on the left). He had called our country an empire — an imperial power intent on maintaining a staggering military presence globally in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union and before the rise of China. A common term used in Washington at the time was the “sole superpower” on planet Earth. And he pointed out, ominously enough, that even without official enemies of any significance, thanks in part to its global imperial presence, Washington had “hollowed out our domestic manufacturing and bred a military establishment that is today close to being beyond civilian control.” He added tellingly that it “always demands more” and was “becoming an autonomous system.” In addition, the post-Vietnam, post-draft, “all volunteer” military was, he pointed out, increasingly “an entirely mercenary force.” Worse yet, he saw the growth of American militarism at home as another form of blowback from this country’s overextension abroad. (Sound familiar in 2022?)
He warned that the collapse of the Soviet Union in the wake of the war in Afghanistan should have been a warning to Washington. Even more ominously, at a moment when this country’s foreign-policy establishment considered us the “indispensable nation” (Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s phrase), he suggested that we were already experiencing “imperial overextension” and on the long downward slope that all empires experience sooner or later.
And keep in mind that all of this was written before 9/11; before President George W. Bush and crew launched devastatingly ill-fated invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq; before this country’s civilian population became — as the nightmare at Uvalde reminded us recently — armed to the teeth with military-style weaponry. It was long before Donald Trump and before the Republican Party was transformed into something unrecognizable. It was well before Congress became essentially incapable of passing anything of significance for most Americans, even as it was instantly capable of providing $54 billion in aid and arms for the Ukrainians and endless funds for the Pentagon.
Just last month, 22 years later, I reread Blowback. Chalmers is, of course, long gone. (He died in November 2010.) But with the news of these last years and what may be on the horizon in mind, I couldn’t help thinking about how he would have updated the book, were he still here.
As a start, I doubt he would have been particularly surprised by Donald Trump. In June 2005, reintroducing a piece he had done for TomDispatch in 2003 on the scourge of militarism, he was already writing: “The American governmental system is no longer working the way it is supposed to. Many distinguished observers think it is badly damaged in terms of Constitutional checks and balances and the structures put in place by the founders to prevent tyranny.”
And as I added in that same 2005 introduction, reflecting Chalmers:
“In September 2003, only four months after [President George W. Bush’s] ‘Mission Accomplished’ moment on the USS Abraham Lincoln, it was already evident to some of us that neocon dreams of establishing a robust Pax Americana on the planet were likely to be doomed in the sands of Iraq — but that, in the process, the American constitutional system as we’ve known it might well be destroyed.”
Yes, the possibility of our system spinning downward toward some version of tyranny wouldn’t, I suspect, have surprised him. Of course, he didn’t predict Donald Trump. (Who did?) But if anyone could have imagined this country “governed” — and I put that in quotes for obvious reasons — by a billionaire grifter and TV impresario who thought not just unbearably well of, but only of himself, it was Chalmers. Had he been here in 2016, when that bizarre figure ran for president, as he’d been dreaming about doing since at least 2011, and won, I’d put my money on his not being even slightly taken aback. Nor, I suspect, would he have been surprised when the economic inequality that helped Trump to victory only grew ever more rampant in his years in office, while billionaires began to multiply like fleas on a rabid dog.
Honestly, if you think about it for a moment, it’s hard not to imagine The Donald’s success as another version of blowback. In fact, he’s almost inconceivable without the sort of imperial mess Chalmers had in mind and that this country did such a splendiferous job of encouraging with its disastrous invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and its never-ending war on terror. If it weren’t for the mess that our military machine made of the world in this century (and the money it gobbled up in the process), his rise would be hard to imagine. He now seems like the cause of so much, but honestly, as I wrote during the election campaign of 2016 referring to the disease then in the news: “Perhaps it would be better to see Donald Trump as a symptom, not the problem itself, to think of him not as the Zika Virus but as the first infectious mosquito to hit the shores of this country.”
He certainly marked another key moment in what Chalmers would have thought of as the domestic version of imperial decline. In fact, looking back or, given his insistence that the 2020 election was “fake” or “rigged,” looking toward a country in ever-greater crisis, it seems to me that we could redub him Blowback Donald. (Of course, that “B” could also stand for Blowhard.) And given the present Republican Party, as well as the growing evidence that this country’s political system could be coming apart at the seams, it’s hard not to think that Chalmers was onto something big as the last century ended.
Of one thing I’m sure. He wouldn’t have been slightly shocked to discover that, these days, just about the only thing Congress can agree upon across party lines is the annual raising of the Pentagon budget to levels that now match the military budgets of the next 11 countries combined.
In the back of my mind, while rereading his book, I kept wondering how else Chalmers might have updated it in 2022. And what came to mind repeatedly was that potentially ultimate subject, climate change.
Now, Chalmers certainly had a sense of the environmental damage the American empire was already causing, but climate change was not yet on his mind. Recently, to my surprise, I came across a passing reference to it in something I wrote but never published in the 1990s and was surprised I even knew about it then. Still, in this century, as I became ever more aware of it and wrote and published ever more about it at TomDispatch, I came to believe that it would indeed be potentially devastating for humanity. For years, though, I didn’t quite grasp that it would be so in my own lifetime.
Back then, I imagined it as largely a phenomenon of the future, not something for which you could find evidence in the news daily (whether identified as such or not). Yes, at some point I realized, for instance, that South Asia might be more susceptible to climate extremes than many other areas. Still, I hadn’t expected that I would live to see springtime weather with temperatures in the range of 115 to 120 degrees Fahrenheit, or that such horrific and, without air conditioning, increasingly deathly warmth would be followed by devastating flooding. Or that such extremes would grow more common so quickly.
Nor, honestly, had I expected a wave of record July temperatures (and humidity) here in the northeast U.S. and across much of my own country this very May (it hit 95 degrees on a recent day in Philadelphia!). Nor did I imagine that the Southwest and West would be embroiled in a megadrought the likes of which hasn’t been seen on this continent in at least 1,200 years, with devastating, often record-setting fires, blazing in New Mexico and elsewhere ever earlier in the year. Or the unprecedented severe drought and record flooding in parts of Brazil and Argentina. Or the staggering burning and flooding in Australia. Or the unparalleled floods in recent years in China, Germany, and other countries.
I hadn’t imagined that every spring I’d see more or less the same spring article predicting another terrible, if not record, Atlantic hurricane season. Or that I’d hear about a May hurricane of record strength hitting the Pacific coast of Mexico.
And of course, that’s just to start down what seems like an increasingly endless list. I mean, I haven’t even mentioned those three rare tornadoes in Germany or the record May heat wave in Spain, or… but why go on? You get the idea. In fact, you or people you know are undoubtedly living that very reality, too, in some daunting fashion — and at this moment, thanks to the war in Ukraine and endless other distractions, the world is only burning yet more fossil-fuels promising so much worse to come.
To return to Chalmers Johnson, if you think about it for even 30 seconds, climate change has obviously become the greatest blowback event in human history — with almost unimaginably greater climate chaos likely to come. As he would undoubtedly have noted, if you’re living in the most significant blowback nation in human history, since no other country has put more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere than the United States, you’re truly facing — to cite the subtitle of his book — “the costs and consequences of American empire” and, of course, of the imperial oil companies that continue to have such a hand in (mis)shaping our world.
Worse yet, in this century, that newest of imperial powers, China, has already outstripped this country in terms of the fossil-fuelization of this planet’s atmosphere. (Yet another classic case of imperial over-stretch in the offing.)
Talk about decline! These days it almost seems to precede imperial rise. Yikes!
And so many years later, just to out-Chalmers the master himself, let me offer another prediction: if the Republicans sweep into Congress in 2022 and Blowback Donald or one of his act-alikes sweeps (or even creeps) into the White House in 2024, consider that the potential end of the American story, since it would ensure that, for years to come, nothing would be done to stop the ultimate version of blowback.
Copyright 2022 Tom Engelhardt
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