In 1962, the historian Barbara Tuchman published a book about the start of
World War I and called it The Guns of August. It went on to win a
Pulitzer Prize. She was, of course, looking back at events that had occurred
almost 50 years earlier and had at her disposal documents and information not
available to participants. They were acting, as Vietnam-era Secretary of
Defense Robert McNamara put it, in the fog of war.
So where are we this August of 2010, with guns blazing in one war in
Afghanistan even as we try to extricate ourselves from another in Iraq? Where
are we, as we impose sanctions on Iran and North Korea (and threaten worse),
while sending our latest wonder weapons, pilotless drones armed with bombs and
missiles, into Pakistan's tribal borderlands, Yemen, and who knows where else,
tasked with endless "targeted killings" which, in blunter times, used to be
called assassinations? Where
exactly are we, as we continue to garrison much of the globe even as our
country finds itself incapable of paying for basic services?
I wish I had a crystal ball to peer into and see what historians will make of
our own guns of August in 2060. The fog of war, after all, is just a stand-in
for what might be called "the fog of the future," the inability of humans to
peer with any accuracy far into the world to come. Let me nonetheless try to
offer a few glimpses of what that foggy landscape some years ahead might
reveal, and even hazard a few predictions about what possibilities await
Let me begin by asking: What harm would befall the United States if we actually
decided, against all odds, to close those hundreds and hundreds of bases, large
and small, that we garrison around the world? What if we actually dismantled
our empire, and came home? Would Genghis Khan-like hordes descend on us? Not
likely. Neither a land nor a sea invasion of the US is even conceivable.
Would 9/11-type attacks accelerate? It seems far likelier to me that, as our
overseas profile shrank, the possibility of such attacks would shrink with it.
Would various countries we've invaded, sometimes occupied, and tried to set on
the path of righteousness and democracy decline into "failed states?" Probably
some would, and preventing or controlling this should be the function of the
United Nations or of neighboring states. (It is well to remember that the
murderous Cambodian regime of Pol Pot was finally brought to an end not by us,
but by neighboring Vietnam.)
In other words, the main fears you might hear in Washington - if anyone even
bothered to wonder what would happen, should we begin to dismantle our empire -
would prove but chimeras. They would, in fact, be remarkably similar to
Washington's dire predictions in the 1970s about states all over Asia, then
Africa, and beyond falling, like so many dominoes, to communist domination if
we did not win the war in Vietnam.
What, then, would the world be like if the US lost control globally -
Washington's greatest fear and deepest reflection of its own overblown sense of
self-worth - as is in fact happening now despite our best efforts? What would
that world be like if the US just gave it all up? What would happen to us if we
were no longer the "sole superpower" or the world's self-appointed policeman?
In fact, we would still be a large and powerful nation-state with a host of
internal and external problems. An immigration and drug crisis on our southern
border, soaring health-care costs, a weakening education system, an aging
population, an aging infrastructure, an unending recession - none of these are
likely to go away soon, nor are any of them likely to be tackled in a serious
or successful way as long as we continue to spend our wealth on armies,
weapons, wars, global garrisons, and bribes for petty dictators.
Even without our interference, the Middle East would continue to export oil,
and if China has been buying up an ever larger share of what remains
underground in those lands, perhaps that should spur us into conserving more
and moving more rapidly into the field of alternative energies.
Meanwhile, whether we dismantle our empire or not, China will become (if it
isn't already) the world's next superpower. It, too, faces a host of internal
problems, including many of the same ones we have. However, it has a booming
economy, a favorable balance of payments vis-a-vis much of the rest of the
world (particularly the US, which is currently running an annual trade deficit
with China of $227 billion), and a government and population determined to
develop the country into a powerful, economically dominant nation-state.
Fifty years ago, when I began my academic career as a scholar of China and
Japan, I was fascinated by the modern history of both countries. My first book
dealt with the way the Japanese invasion of China in the 1930s spurred Mao
Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party he headed on a trajectory to power,
thanks to its nationalist resistance to that foreign invader. Incidentally, it
is not difficult to find many examples of this process in which a domestic
political group gains power because it champions resistance to foreign troops.
In the immediate post-World War II period, it occurred in Vietnam, Indonesia,
and Malaysia; with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, all over Eastern
Europe; and today, it is surely occurring in Afghanistan and probably in Iraq
Once the Cultural Revolution began in China in 1966, I temporarily lost
interest in studying the country. I thought I knew where that disastrous
internal upheaval was taking China and so turned back to Japan, which by then
was well launched on its amazing recovery from World War II, thanks to
state-guided, but not state-owned, economic growth.
This pattern of economic development, sometimes called the "developmental
state," differed fundamentally from both Soviet-type control of the economy and
the laissez-faire approach of the US. Despite Japan's success, by the 1990s its
increasingly sclerotic bureaucracy had led the country into a prolonged period
of deflation and stagnation. Meanwhile, post-Soviet Russia, briefly in thrall
to US economic advice, fell captive to rapacious oligarchs who dismantled the
command economy only to enrich themselves.
In China, Communist Party leader Deng Xiaoping and his successors were able to
watch developments in Japan and Russia, learning from them both. They have
clearly adopted effective aspects of both systems for their economy and
society. With a modicum of luck, economic and otherwise, and a continuation of
its present well-informed, rational leadership, China should continue to
prosper without either threatening its neighbors or the United States.
To imagine that China might want to start a war with the US - even over an
issue as deeply emotional as the ultimate political status of Taiwan - would
mean projecting a very different path for that country than the one it is
currently embarked on.
Lowering the flag on the American century
Thirty-five years from now, America's official century of being top dog
(1945-2045) will have come to an end; its time may, in fact, be running out
right now. We are likely to begin to look ever more like a giant version of
England at the end of its imperial run, as we come face-to-face with, if not
necessarily to terms with, our aging infrastructure, declining international
clout, and sagging economy. It may, for all we know, still be Hollywood's
century decades from now, and so we may still make waves on the cultural scene,
just as Britain did in the 1960s with the Beatles and Twiggy. Tourists will
undoubtedly still visit some of our natural wonders and perhaps a few of our
less scruffy cities, partly because the dollar-exchange rate is likely to be in
If, however, we were to dismantle our empire of military bases and redirect our
economy toward productive, instead of destructive, industries; if we maintained
our volunteer armed forces primarily to defend our own shores (and perhaps to
be used at the behest of the United Nations); if we began to invest in our
infrastructure, education, health care, and savings, then we might have a
chance to reinvent ourselves as a productive, normal nation. Unfortunately, I
don't see that happening. Peering into that foggy future, I simply can't
imagine the US dismantling its empire voluntarily, which doesn't mean that,
like all sets of imperial garrisons, our bases won't go someday.
Instead, I foresee the US drifting along, much as the Obama administration
seems to be drifting along in the war in Afghanistan. The common talk among
economists today is that high unemployment may linger for another decade. Add
in low investment and depressed spending (except perhaps by the government) and
I fear T.S. Eliot had it right when he wrote: "This is the way the world ends,
not with a bang but a whimper."
I have always been a political analyst rather than an activist. That is one
reason why I briefly became a consultant to the CIA's top analytical branch,
and why I now favor disbanding the Agency. Not only has the CIA lost its raison
d'etre by allowing its intelligence gathering to become politically tainted,
but its clandestine operations have created a climate of impunity in which the
US can assassinate, torture, and imprison people at will worldwide.
Just as I lost interest in China when that country's leadership headed so
blindly down the wrong path during the Cultural Revolution, so I'm afraid I'm
losing interest in continuing to analyze and dissect the prospects for the US
over the next few years. I applaud the efforts of young journalists to tell it
like it is, and of scholars to assemble the data that will one day enable
historians to describe where and when we went astray. I especially admire
insights from the inside, such as those of ex-military men like Andrew Bacevich
and Chuck Spinney. And I am filled with awe by men and women who are willing to
risk their careers, incomes, freedom, and even lives to protest - such as the
priests and nuns of SOA Watch, who regularly picket the School of the Americas
and call attention to the presence of American military bases and misbehavior
in South America.
I'm impressed as well with Pfc. Bradley Manning, if he is indeed the person
responsible for potentially making public 92,000 secret documents about the war
in Afghanistan. Daniel Ellsberg has long been calling for someone to do what he
himself did when he released the Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam War. He
must be surprised that his call has now been answered - and in such an unlikely
My own role these past 20 years has been that of Cassandra, whom the gods gave
the gift of foreseeing the future, but also cursed because no one believed her.
I wish I could be more optimistic about what's in store for the US Instead,
there isn't a day that our own guns of August don't continue to haunt me.
Chalmers Johnson is the author of Blowback (2000), The
Sorrows of Empire (2004), and Nemesis: The Last Days of the American
Republic (2006), among other works. His newest book,
Dismantling the Empire: America’s Last Best Hope(Metropolitan Books),
has just been published. To listen to Timothy MacBain's latest TomCast audio
interview in which Johnson discusses America's empire of bases and his new
book, click here or, to download it to your iPod,