A Review of Chalmers Johnson’s Nemesis

Chalmers Johnson is professor emeritus of the University of California, San Diego where he taught for 30 years as well as at UC, Berkeley (where he was educated).  At Berkeley, he was chairman of the Center for Chinese Studies and its Department of Political Studies.  He’s currently president of the Japan Policy Research Institute (JPRI), a not-for-profit research and public affairs organization involved in public education relating to Japan and international relations in the Pacific region.  Johnson is also a prolific writer and author of 17 books, numerous articles and various other publications.


From 1967 through 1973, he served as well as a consultant to the Office of National Estimates (ONE) within the CIA, and during the Cold War years was, by his own characterization, a former “spear-carrier for the empire.”  At least since the age of George Bush, however, Johnson radically transformed himself into one of the nation’s sharpest and most important intellectual critics of the current administration having now completed the third and last volume of his “inadvertent trilogy” in his newest book Nemesis that’s the subject of this review. 


The previous two he refers to are Blowback based on 1953 CIA terminology in the aftermath of the spy agency’s first ever engineered overthrow of a foreign leader – democratically elected Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq ushering in the 26 year tryannical rule of Shah Reza Pahlavi who was himself forcibly ousted in the 1979 Iranian Revolution.  Volume two was The Sorrows of Empire – Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic.  Volume three is Nemesis – The Last Days of the American Republic and subject of this review that hopefully will encourage readers to get the book and read the others in Johnson’s trilogy to get the full picture of his powerfully vital message.


Combined, the three volumes show how imperial hubris and overreach have undermined the republic.  Johnson characterizes it as dealing “with the way arrogant and misguided American policies have headed us for a series of catastrophes comparable to our disgrace and defeat in Vietnam or even to the sort of extinction that befell….the Soviet Union (that he believes is) now unavoidable.”  In his view, the present state of the nation is dire, and it’s “too late for mere scattered reforms of our government or bloated military to make much difference.” 


Our democracy and way of life are now threatened because of our single-minded pursuit of empire with a well-entrenched militarism driving it that’s become so powerful and pervasive it’s now an uncontrollable state within the state.  History is clear on this teaching we can choose as could all empires before us.  We can keep ours and lose our democracy, but we can’t have both.  Rome made the wrong choice and perished.   Britain chose more wisely and survived.  We must now choose, and so far the signs are ominous.  Our current behavior under all administrations post-WW II requires resources and commitments abroad that in the end, Johnson believes, “will inevitably undercut our domestic democracy and….produce a military dictatorship or its civilian equivalent.”  We’re perilously close already because a hyper-reactionary statist administration hijacked the government and is driving the nation to tyranny and ruin.


The evidence post-9/11 shows it:


– A nation facing no outside threats permanently at war.


– Secret torture-prisons around the world with no accountability to which anyone, anywhere for any reason can be sent never to return or receive justice.


– The most secretive, intrusive and repressive government in our history and a president who’s a congenital, serial liar.


– Social decay at home.


– An unprecedented wealth disparity and extent of corporate power.  Former US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis warned years ago: “We can either have democracy in this country or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”


– A de facto one party state with two wings and a president claiming “unitary executive” powers ignoring the rule of law and doing as he pleases in the name of national security on his say alone.


– The absence of checks and balances and separation of powers with no restraint on a reckless “boy-emperor” Executive on a “messianic mission.”


– A secret intelligence establishment with near-limitless funding operating without oversight.


– A dominant corporate-controlled media serving as a national thought-control police and collective quasi-state ministry of information and propaganda glorifying imperial wars to “spread democracy” without letting on they’re for conquest, domination and repression.


– An omnipotent military-industrial complex Dwight Eisenhower couldn’t have imagined when he warned us nor could George Washington, to no avail.  In his Farewell Address in September, 1796, Washington said: “Overgrown military establishments are under any form of government inauspicious to liberty, and are to be regarded as particularly hostile to republican liberty.”  He  meant large standing armies leading to an imperial presidency.  They destroy our system of checks and balances and separation of powers and in the end our freedom.


– A weak, servile Congress acceding to a dominant president under a system of authoritarian rule keeping a restive population in line it fears one day no longer will tolerate being denied essential services so the nation’s wealth can go for imperial wars and handouts to the rich.


– A cesspool of corruption stemming from incestuous ties between government and business mocking any notions of government of, for or by the people.


Johnson points out America is plagued with the same dynamic that doomed other past empires unwilling to change – “isolation, overstretch, the uniting of local and global forces opposed to imperialism, and in the end bankruptcy” combined with authoritarian rule and loss of personal freedom.  Hence, the title of the book – Nemesis, the goddess of vengeance and punisher of hubris and arrogance in Greek mythology.  She’s already here among us, unseen and patiently stalking our way of life as a free nation awaiting the moment she chooses to make her presence known that won’t be pleasant when she does.  Johnson compares her to Wagner’s Brunnhilde in his opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen.  Unlike Nemesis, she collects heros, not fools and hypocrites.  But she and Nemesis both announce themselves the same way – “Only the doomed see me,” even though we’ll all feel her presence and suffer her sting.


Our present crisis isn’t just from our military adventurism in Iraq and Afghanistan.  It’s from growing international anger and revulsion that America is no longer trusted with a president showing contempt for the law including our treaty obligations Article 6 of the Constitution says are the “supreme Law of the Land.”  They include the Third Geneva Convention (GCIII) of 1949 covering the treatment of prisoners in time of war and Fourth Geneva Convention (GCIV) the same year on protection of civilians in wartime in enemy hands or under occupation by a foreign power. 


No authority gives presidents, governments or militaries the right to ignore them, but this president and  government flaunt them openly, almost gleefully  They practically boast about it, enraging people everywhere including allies and the entire Muslim world this country collectively demonizes as terrorists, militants and Islamofascists in its concocted “war on terror” the Pentagon now calls the “Long War” that won’t end in our lifetime.


In early 2003, Johnson warned us about “the sorrows already invading our lives….to be our fate for years to come: perpetual war, a collapse of constitutional government, endemic official lying and disinformation, and finally bankruptcy.”  Then and now, he still hopes Americans will see the threat and act before it’s too late, but time, he believes, is short, and overall, he’s not hopeful.  His newest book explains how we got here, and what we must do to avoid our appointment with Nemesis who’s very patient, but even hers has limits and we’re approaching it.


This review covers the essence and flavor of Johnson’s case he makes in seven powerful chapters.  They’re not recommended at bedtime.


Militarism and Breakdown of Constitutional Government


Johnson begins by noting other 20th century empires that rose and fell with parallels to our situation today.  He cites among others the Brits, Soviets, Nazis, Japanese, and Ottomans to press his case that we like them, and ancient Rome earlier, “are approaching the edge of a huge waterfall and are about to plunge over it.”  He quotes historian Kevin Baker’s fear we’re perilously close to the day when our Congress, like the Roman Senate in 27 BC, will use its power for the last time before turning it over to a military dictator.  Based on the past six years, it’s arguable it’s already with a civilian one.


The Bush-Cheney administration brought us to this point, but the crisis didn’t start with them.  It began at the beginning when Benjamin Franklin warned us we have a Republic if we can keep it.  It advanced gradually but accelerated post-WW II when we emerged as the only dominant nation left standing and planned to keep it that way causing the “sorrows” we now face – an imperial presidency, erosion of checks and balances and separation of powers, and a culture of militarism that’s a power unto itself that today who would dare challenge.


The Founders tried preventing the kind of tyranny colonists endured under King George III.  They invented  a system of constitutionally mandated republican government with a federal authority sharing power with the states and three separate branches in Washington able to check and balance each other with the single most important power put in the hands of Congress so presidents would never have it – the ability to declare war.  James Madison, Father of the Constitution, said it’s because: “Of all the enemies to liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other….  (Delegating) such powers (to the president) would have struck, not only at the fabric of the Constitution, but at the foundation of all well organized and well checked governments.” 


The last times Congress used its sole power were on December 8, 1941 after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and on December 11 after Germany and Italy declared war on America because their Axis Power obligations required them to do it and Hitler’s and “Il Duce’s” imperial eyes were bigger than their realpolitik stomachs.


Today more than two centuries later, Benjamin Franklin’s warning hits home harder than ever as the Founders’ constitutional framework has nearly disintegrated.  The president is more powerful than a monarch.  Along with the military, he has his own private army in the form of a clandestine CIA plus control of all 15 extraconstitutional intelligence organizations.  They and the military answer to no one including the Congress because they operate secretly with undisclosed budgets (even the Pentagon has in part), and the law of the land is just an artifact, powerless to constrain them.


In Nemesis, Johnson concentrates on the power of the military and a single intelligence agency, the CIA.  He says upfront he believes “we will never again know peace, nor in all probability survive very long as a nation, unless we abolish the CIA, restore intelligence collecting to the State Department, and remove all but purely military functions from the Pentagon.” Even if we do it, he now believes it’s too late as the nation once called a model democracy “may have been damaged beyond repair (and) it will take a generation or more (at best) to overcome the image of ‘America as torturer’”and rogue state showing contempt for international law, human rights, and ordinary people everywhere.  It’s not what the Founders conceived nor how things should have been in a democratic state Lincoln said at Gettysburg was “of the people, by the people, for the people….”  Today it’s only for the privileged.


It turned out badly because power corrupts those getting too much of it, and since 1941 that power grew as the nation prepared for wars it never stopped mobilizing for since.  It comes with a price – the end of democracy and loss of freedoms that can’t coexist with imperialism on the march for conquest and dominance that turned America the beautiful into a nation to be feared and hated.  We emerged from WW II haughty and confident as the world’s unchallengeable economic, political and military superpower almost like we planned it that way which we did.  We weren’t about to give it up and intended taking full advantage to rule the world, tolerate no outliers, and demand fealty and deference from all nations with hell to pay to ones that balk.


The mislabeled “good war” launched our global imperium now on the march for “full-spectrum dominance” meaning absolute unchallengeable control of all land, surface and sub-surface sea, air, space, electromagnetic spectrum and information systems – no small aim indeed for rulers with larger than possible ambitions and no intention backing off, so help us all.


It makes the cost painfully high with more military spending than the rest of the world combined, but never enough for a voracious military-industrial establishment and complicit government going along meaning finding justification for it.  September 11, 2001, dubbed the “New Pearl Harbor,” served it up like room service ushering in an intense and contrived climate of fear allowing the country to go on a rampage to solidify control through aggressive wars against enemies always easy to invent to assure we won’t run out of them.  Heading the list are resource-rich countries or ones like Afghanistan because they’re strategically located near energy-rich areas like the Caspian Basin.  But any leader forgetting “who’s boss” gets in the target queue for regime change, even model democrats like Hugo Chavez needing reminders our sovereignty comes ahead of theirs.


And who’ll dare challenge the notion that might makes right so international laws, norms and “supreme Law of the Land” treaties can be dismissed to get on with the business at hand. It doesn’t matter to a rogue empire on the march and a president believing the law is what he says it is, the national security is just rhetoric for I’ll do as I please, and the Constitution is “just a goddamned piece of paper.”  What he and those around him lack in subtleness, they make up for big time in brazenness, but that kind of attitude paves the road to hell we’re on for our appointment with Nemesis.


Johnson reviews our campaign against Iraq since the Gulf war in 1991.  That conflict, killer-sanctions for the next dozen years, and the Iraq war since 2003 all violate international laws and are clear instances of war crimes and crimes against humanity, but what power will hold the world’s only superpower to account.  The toll on Iraq and its people for the past 16 years has been devastating.  The US campaign destroyed a once prosperous nation and its priceless heritage leaving in its wake a surreal lawless armed camp wasteland with few or no essential services including electricity, clean water and sanitation facilities, medical care, fuel and most everything else needed for sustenance, public safety and survival. 


Johnson quotes experts saying the looting of the National Museum of Baghdad and burning of the National Library and Archives and Library of Korans at the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Endowments amounted to “the greatest cultural disaster of the last 500 years (and some say since the) Mongol invasion of Baghdad in 1258 to find looting on this scale.”  Donald Rumsfeld and the Pentagon went to great pains protecting the Oil Ministry, but were indifferent, almost gleeful seeing priceless treasures looted and burned.  It detroyed a “whole universe of antiquity” Iraqis and civilized people everywhere won’t ever forgive us for. 


In all, the Gulf war and US-imposed sanctions caused  1.5 million or more Iraqi deaths up to March, 2003 plus another 3.5 million or more refugees to the present  outside Iraq or internally displaced.  In addition, the shocking 2006 Lancet published study estimated the joint US-British invasion caused another 655,000 violent deaths since then through mid-2006, although they readily admitted the true figure might be as high as 900,000 because they were unable to survey the most violent parts of the country or interview thousands of families all of whose members were killed. 


Already the US-inflicted devastation on Iraq and its people since 1991 amounts to one of the great war/sanctions/and occupation related crimes in human history.  Their effects keep mounting exponentially with no way to know how great the toll will be when it’s over.  One day it will be because Iraqis won’t stop fighting for their freedom till it is, but none of this gets reported in US media and precious little anywhere in the West.  So far, war continues because America’s on the march, and Johnson notes US soldiers in Iraq are only accountable to their superiors in the field or the Pentagon, and an estimated 100,000 civilian contractors are only accountable to themselves. 


The darkest side of our adventurism is our global network of military prisons (authorized by the Secretary of Defense and Pentagon) where physical and mental torture are practiced even though it’s known no useful information comes from it.  Instead it’s used for social control, vengeance and a policy of degrading people regarded as sub-human because they happen to be less-than-white Arab or Afghan Muslims.  It’s also a symbolic act of superpower defiance daring the world community to challenge us.  International Geneva Convention laws and the 1984 UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment no longer matter for the lord and master of the universe.  The US is accountable under them, but clever lawyers and a lawless Attorney General rewrite the rules of engagement claiming justification even when they don’t have a leg to stand on.

Leave a comment