What Would Chal Think?

Cross-posted with TomDispatch.com

Here's the question that comes to mind at least once a week, when some particularly outrageous or absurd piece of news arrives from somewhere in the American imperium: What would Chal think?

"Chal" was Chalmers Johnson, who died in November 2010. I was the editor of his book Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, which, with its prophetic hit on American policy abroad, leaped onto bestseller lists after the attacks of 9/11. It embedded in our political language both the CIA tradecraft term "blowback" and the phrase "unintended consequences." In fact, that phrase has gone so deep that the other day, in one of our sadder moments, it made an appearance in Army Private First Class Bradley Manning's apology to a military judge. Facing a possible 90 years in jail, he told her, "I am sorry for the unintended consequences of my actions. When I made these decisions I believed I was going to help people, not hurt people." And then in the saddest line of all and one that could be read as a kind of grim epitaph for the possibilities of changing our American imperial world, he added that he now wonders, "How on Earth could I, a junior analyst, possibly believe I could change the world for the better."

Chal would have appreciated the deep ironies buried in that line. I've regularly wished that I could just pick up the phone and get his mordant take on the vast global surveillance state Washington is building, another instance of what he called "military Keynesianism" run amok. He undoubtedly would have been grimly amused by "Alexander the Geek" and the other (potentially indictable) "leaders" of our secret world and would have found their remarkably absurd preparations to spy on everyone and everything yet another step in the bankrupting of this country. And how tickled he would have been by our president's brave decision, in response to the recent massacre in Egypt, to cancel an upcoming joint exercise with that country's military which no one had ever heard of, but not cut the $1.3 billion in "aid," most of which never even leaves this country. It is instead regularly sent from the U.S. Treasury directly to American arms manufacturers to subsidize their deliveries of advanced weaponry to the Egyptian military.

Chal's acerbic wit and, as a former consultant to the CIA, his deep sense of how the national security state worked provided me with a late education. My association with him was one of the special experiences of my life. We desperately need him now and if I could bring him back, I would. The second best option is, as I try to do at least once a year at TomDispatch.com, to bring back an example of his good sense about where the former American republic should go and what it should do to get there. Of course, I also know full well that those in power will never listen, and that, if permitted by the American people, they will continue on their path of delusion and folly until hell freezes over.

So today, as a summer "best of TomDispatch" pick, I've offered one of Johnson's last piece's for the site, "Three Good Reasons to Liquidate Our Empire," his call for the U.S. to begin dismantling what, back in 2004, he first termed our "empire of bases," those perhaps 1,000 or more garrisons, mega to micro, still scattered around the planet a decade later. It couldn't be better advice, which is surely why no one is listening.