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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Thursday, August 30, 2007

the same old dream

I've been sitting here for some minutes now, trying to decide what to write.

One of my strongest interests at the moment is the subject-matter of The Sorrows of Empire by Chalmers Johnson, the book that currently attracts me most in my reading-stack, and holds me longest. It is that unusual thing for me: a book that I find hard to put down.

The book's subtitle sketches out its agenda: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic. When I first got the book I flipped it open and found, at the head of chapter 2, "The Roots of American Militarism", the following epigraph:

Overgrown military establishments are under any form of government inauspicious to liberty, and are to be regarded as particularly hostile to Republican liberty.

Do you know who said this? It was George Washington, in his presidential farewell address delivered on 17 September 1796. That epigraph is followed by one from another famous presidential farewell address, given by Dwight D. Eisenhower on 17 January 1961:

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience.... In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted.

I remember seeing a film-clip of Eisenhower's speech, and being shocked that a sitting president of the United States could have such a dark and critical viewpoint of the system in which he functioned--the system which he was supposed, in fact, to be running.

With great authority, and bringing to bear a wealth of telling detail, Chalmers Johnson develops the case that since World War 2 the U.S. has been in transition from a republic to an empire. It's important to understand that he uses the word empire not metaphorically but literally. He means it.

In the U.S. itself the idea has become somewhat mainstream and acceptable since the end of the Cold War in 1991 and especially since the 9/11 attacks in 2001, especially among conservatives and so-called neoconservatives. And on the face of it, if America is a virtuous democracy, what's the harm in letting them run the world? Why not let them take on the Johnny Appleseed role of sowing justice and decency everywhere?

Alas, as Johnson documents, as nations go, the U.S. is not especially virtuous, and, increasingly, is not even really a democracy. In his own words:

In my opinion, the growth of militarism, official secrecy, and a belief that the U.S. is no longer bound, as the Declaration of Independence so famously puts it, by "a decent respect for the opinions of mankind" is probably irreversible.

After a brief flirtation with international law in the 20th century, following the bloodbaths of World Wars 1 and 2, we're back to Thomas Hobbes's "state of nature": survival of the fittest, and may the devil take the hindmost. Or, as the elephant says in the chicken coop: "Every man for himself!"

The elephant in the chicken coop might seem to have the run of the place, but even chickens, when their backs are pressed to the wall, might prove to be a serious nuisance. And what's the elephant going to live on? Large standing armies are hugely expensive (the average U.S. "defense" budget has been just under $400 billion a year since 1950, measured in 2002 dollars), and eventually bankrupt even the richest nations. This is what happened to Spain in the late-16th century, the world's mightiest nation at the time. The urbanologist and economist Jane Jacobs pointed to standing armies as one of the three major "transactions of decline" that lead a society from prosperity to poverty. A large army is too expensive to finance through peacetime operations; they must earn their keep through plunder, or, as in China, being large industrial operations in their own right, with productive assets like factories and farmland.

Where is Spain today? When I visited the country in 1982, few Spaniards traveled because their employment was too low and their currency too depressed. The rest of the world--even next-door France--was too expensive for them. They're doing much better now, but they are still just one country among many, still, as far as I know, net recipients of transfers from the common kitty of the European Union.

The search for power and prestige, the mirage of security through violence--where do these things come from? Another brilliant epigraph from Johnson's book sums it up, this one to chapter 3, from Ian Fleming's 1958 James Bond novel, Doctor No:

It's the same old dream--world domination.

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