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.
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