We, as Americans, are doomed, and Chalmers Johnson knows why. In his previous sky-is-falling volumes The Sorrows of Empire and Blowback, Johnson laid out the case for why American military overreach and the unintended consequences of CIA black ops were undermining the country’s very stability. Now, with Nemesis, the final installment of this unintended trilogy warning, Johnson strings together a collection of his favorite rants to explain why the very days of America as a republic are probably numbered. It’s a frightening collection of worrisome data, but as a policy argument, it’s far from persuasive.
The book takes a tone that swings back and forth from nervous handwringing to strident denunciation. In his fire-breathing introduction, Johnson—a former Navy officer and CIA consultant who now heads up the nonprofit Japan Policy Research Institute, when he’s not writing anti-imperialist screeds—lays out the case for why America is in serious trouble. While the talking heads and Republican establishment hemmed and hawed after 9/11 about how such a thing could possibly have happened to harmless lil ol’ us, Johnson argues that the answer was actually quite: it’s our policies, stupid. The combination of incessant meddling, high-handed foreign policy, an arrogant military imperially garrisoned in numerous countries around the world have created a toxic dislike of America abroad and quite directly (especially if you read what Osama bin Laden said about America prior to 9/11) led to that attack. Johnson twins his portrait of a world growing more and more agitated with America, the sole superpower, with one of a domestic crisis, where a bloated and corrupt military-industrial complex is leading us toward financial ruin and the loss of democracy. If the terrorists don’t get us, a borderline fascist executive branch and its lapdog Congress will.
No scholar he, Johnson leapfrogs from one topic to the next, calling for the abolishment of the CIA (which he labels the president’s “private army”) in one chapter and then launching into a lengthy and overly blunt comparison of the demise of the Roman Republic with the current domestic political situation. Point after point is made, most of them entirely valid. There is the convenient fiction put out by some overly trigger-happy neo-cons that claims the US may be an empire but it’s a benevolent one in the manner of the British (bad example, that, as Johnson finds much bloody evidence to the contrary). There is also the Pentagon’s habit (especially under Rumsfeld) of closing down domestic military bases while continually opening up new ones around the world, as though the idea that the American military’s primary responsibility is the nation’s defense was just a quaint fiction from yesteryear. According to the Defense Department’s own figures, in 2005 the US had some 737 military installations on foreign soil, a piece of hard data that does more to make Johnson’s point than almost any other: if America is not an empire, then why are we garrisoning the globe?
Ultimately, Johnson lays out a troubling barrage of facts to buttress his case, but it’s an avalanche as opposed to a finely articulated trickle. Time after time, he jumps just a bit too far in his argument, adds on just a couple more details until the book begins to seem more like invective than argument. Nemesis has an unfortunately Chomsky-esque structure where data is obsessively piled upon data as though the argument could be won by sheer weight of numbers. Inconvenient truths are brushed aside and some rather alarming statements are blithely made without any attempt to back them up, such as when he writes that “the covert purpose of our 2003 invasion [of Iraq] was empire building.” This is a fascinating possibility but it’s just left dangling there with lazy confidence, as though Johnson thought anybody reading Nemesis will already believe that and won’t need to be converted. Which, in the end, is likely true. Anybody who truly needs to read this passionate, if flawed and somewhat lazy, book likely will not be doing so.