by Chalmers Johnson
The Nation magazine, October 15, 2001
For Americans who can bear to think about it, those tragic
pictures from New York of women holding up photos of their husbands,
sons and daughters and asking if anyone knows anything about them
They are similar to scenes we have seen from Buenos Aires
and Santiago. There, too, starting in the 1970s, women held up
photos of their loved ones, asking for information. Since it was
far too dangerous then to say aloud what they thought had happened
to them - that they had been tortured and murdered by US-backed
military juntas-the women coined a new word for them, los desaparecidos-"the
disappeareds." Our government has never been honest about
its own role in the 1973 overthrow of the elected government of
Salvador Allende in Chile or its backing, through "Operation
Condor," of what the State Department has recently called
"extrajudicial killings" in Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil
and elsewhere in Latin America. But we now have several thousand
of our own disappeareds, and we are badly mistaken if we think
that we in the United States are entirely blameless for what happened
to them. The suicidal assassins of September 11, 2001, did not
"attack America," as our political leaders and the news
media like to maintain; they attacked American foreign policy.
Employing the strategy of the weak, they killed innocent bystanders
who then became enemies only because they had already become victims.
Terrorism by definition strikes-at the innocent in order to draw
attention to the sins of the invulnerable. The United States deploys
such overwhelming military force globally that for its militarized
opponents only an "asymmetric strategy," in the jargon
of the Pentagon, has any chance of success. When it does succeed
as it did spectacularly on September 11, it renders our massive
military machine worthless: The terrorists offer it no targets.
On the day of the disaster, President George W. Bush told the
American people that we were attacked because we are "a beacon
for freedom" and because the attackers were "evil."
In his address to Congress on September 20, he said, "This
is civilization's fight." This attempt to define difficult-to-grasp
events as only a conflict over abstract values- as a "clash
of civilizations," in current post-cold war American jargon-is
not only disingenuous but also a way of evading responsibility
for the "blowback" that ': America's imperial projects
"Blowback" is a CIA term first used in March 1954
in a recently declassified report on ~~ the 1953 operation to
overthrow the government of Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran. It is
a metaphor for the unintended consequences of the US government's
international activities that have been kept secret from the American
people. The CIA's fears that there might ultimately be some blowback
from its egregious interference in the affairs of Iran were well
founded. Installing the Shah in power brought twenty-five years
of tyranny and repression to the Iranian people and elicited the
Ayatollah Khomeini's revolution. The staff of the American embassy
in Teheran was held hostage for more than a year. This misguided
"covert operation" of the US government helped convince
many capable people throughout the Islamic world that the United
States was an implacable enemy.
The pattern has become all too familiar. Osama bin Laden,
the leading suspect as mastermind behind the carnage of September
11, is no more (or less) "evil" than his fellow creations
of our CIA: Manuel Noriega, former commander of the Panama Defense
Forces until George Bush pere in late 1989 invaded his country
and kidnapped him, or Iraq's Saddam Hussein, whom we armed and
backed so long as he was at war with Khomeini's Iran and whose
people we have bombed and starved for a decade in an incompetent
effort to get rid of him. These men were once listed as "assets"
of our clandestine services organization.
Osama bin Laden joined our call for resistance to the Soviet
Union's 1979 invasion of Afghanistan and accepted our military
training and equipment along with countless other mujahedeen "freedom
fighters." It was only after the Russians bombed Afghanistan
back into the stone age and suffered a Vietnam-like defeat, and
we turned our backs on the death and destruction we had helped
cause, that he turned against us. The last straw as far as bin
Laden was concerned was that, after the Gulf War, we based "infidel"
American troops in Saudi Arabia to prop up its decadent, fiercely
authoritarian regime. Ever since, bin Laden has been attempting
to bring the things the CIA taught him home to the teachers. On
September 11, he appears to have returned to his deadly project
with a vengeance.
There are today, ten years after the demise of the Soviet
Union, some 800 Defense Department installations located in other
countries. The people of the United States make up perhaps 4 percent
of the world's population but consume 40 percent of its resources.
They exercise hegemony over the world directly through overwhelming
military might and indirectly through secretive organizations
like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World
Trade Organization. Though largely dominated by the US government,
these are formally international organizations and therefore beyond
As the American-inspired process of "globalization"
inexorably enlarges the gap between the rich and the poor, a popular
movement against it has gained strength, advancing from its first
demonstrations in Seattle in 1999 through protests in I Washington,
DC; Melbourne; Prague; Seoul; Nice; Barcelona; Quebec City; Goteborg;
and on to its violent confrontations in Genoa earlier this year.
Ironically, though American leaders are deaf to the desires of
the protesters, the Defense Department has actually adopted the
movement's main premise-that current global economic arrangements
mean more wealth for the "West" and more misery for
the "rest"-as a reason why the United States should
place weapons in space. The US Space Command's pamphlet "Vision
for 2020" argues that "the globalization of the world
economy will also continue, with a widening between the 'haves'
and the 'have-nots,"' and that we have a mission to "dominate
the space dimension-of military operations to protect US interests
and investments" in an increasingly dangerous and implicitly
anti-American world. Unfortunately, while the eyes of military
planners were firmly focused on the "control and domination"
of space and "denying other countries access to space,"
a very different kind of space .was suddenly occupied.
On the day after the September 11 attack, Democratic Senator
Zell Miller of Georgia declared, "I say, bomb the hell out
of them. If there's collateral damage, so be it." "Collateral
damage" is another of those hateful euphemisms invented by
our military to prettify its killing of the defenseless. It is
the term Pentagon spokesmen use to refer to the Serb and Iraqi
civilians who were killed or maimed by bombs from high-flying
American warplanes in our campaigns against Slobodan Milosevic
and Saddam Hussein. It is the kind of word our new ambassador
to the United Nations, John Negroponte, might have used in the
1 980s to explain the slaughter of peasants, Indians and church
workers by American-backed right-wing death squads in El Salvador,
Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua while he was ambassador to Honduras.
These activities made the Reagan years the worst decade for Central
America since the Spanish conquest.
Massive military retaliation with its inevitable "collateral
damage" will, of course, create more desperate and embittered
childless parents and parentless children, and so recruit more
maddened people to the terrorists' cause. In fact, mindless bombing
is surely one of the responses their grisly strategy hopes to
elicit. Moreover, a major crisis in the Middle East will inescapably
cause a rise in global oil prices, with, from the assassins' point
of view, desirable destabilizing effects on all the economies
of the advanced industrial nations.
What should we do? The following is a start on what, in a
better world, we might modestly think about doing. But let me
concede at the outset that none of this is going to happen. The
people in Washington who run our government believe that they
can now get all the things they wanted before the trade towers
came down: more money for the military, ballistic missile defenses,
more freedom for the intelligence services and removal of the
last modest restrictions (no assassinations, less domestic snooping,
fewer lists given to "friendly" foreign police of people
we want executed) that the Vietnam era placed on our leaders.
An inevitable consequence of big "blowback" events like
this one is that, the causes having been largely kept from American
eyes.(if not Islamic or Latin-American ones), people cannot make
the necessary connections for an explanation. Popular support
for Washington is thus, at least for a while, staggeringly high.
Nonetheless, what we should do is to make a serious analytical
effort to determine what overseas military commitments make sense
and where we should pull in our horns. Although we intend to continue
supporting Israel, our new policy should be to urge the dismantling
of West Bank Israeli settlements as fast as possible. In Saudi
Arabia, we should withdraw our troops, since they do nothing for
our oil security, which we can maintain by other means. Beyond
the Middle East, in Okinawa, where we have thirty-eight US military
bases in the midst of 1.3 million civilians, we should start by
bringing home the Third Marine Division and demobilizing it. It
is understrength, has no armor and is not up to the standards
of the domestically based First and Second Marine Divisions. It
has no deterrent value but is, without question, an unwanted burden
we force the people of this unlucky island to bear.
A particular obscenity crying out for elimination is the US
Army's School of the Americas, founded in Panama in 1946 and moved
to Fort Benning, Georgia, in 1984 after Panamanian President Jorge
Illueca called it "the biggest base for destabilization in
Latin America" and evicted it. Its curriculum includes counterinsurgency,
military intelligence, interrogation techniques, sniper fire,
infantry and commando tactics, psychological warfare and jungle
operations. Although a few members of Congress have long tried
to shut it down, the Pentagon and the White House have always
found ways to keep it in the budget. In May 2000 the Clinton Administration
sought to provide new camouflage for the school by renaming it
the "Defense Institute for Hemispheric Security Cooperation"
and transferring authority over it from the Army Department to
the Defense Department.
The school has trained more than 60,000 military and police
officers from Latin American and Caribbean countries. Among SOA's
most illustrious graduates are the dictators Manuel Noriega (now
serving a forty-year sentence in an American jail for drug trafficking)
and Omar Torrijos of Panama; Guillermo Rodrigues of Ecuador; Juan
Velasco Alvarado of Peru; Leopoldo Galtieri former head of Argentina's
junta; and Hugo Banzer Suarez of Bolivia. More recently, Peru's
Vladimiro Montesinos, SOA class of 1965, surfaced as a CIA asset
and former President Alberto Fujimori's closest adviser.
More difficult than these fairly simple reforms would be to
bring our rampant militarism under control. From George Washington's
"farewell address" to Dwight Eisenhower's invention
of the phrase "military-industrial complex," American
leaders have warned about the dangers of a bloated, permanent,
expensive military establishment that has lost its relationship
to the country because service in it is no longer an obligation
of citizenship. Our military operates the biggest arms sales operation
on earth; it rapes girls, women and schoolchildren in Okinawa;
it cuts ski-lift cables in Italy, killing twenty vacationers,
and dismisses what its insubordinate pilots have done as a "training
accident"; it allows its nuclear attack submarines to be
used for joy rides for wealthy civilian supporters and then covers
up the negligence that caused the sinking of a Japanese high school
training ship; it propagandizes the nation with Hollywood films
glorifying military service (Pearl Harbor); and it manipulates
the political process to get more carrier task forces, antimissile
missiles, nuclear weapons, stealth bombers and other expensive
gadgets for which we have no conceivable use. Two of the most
influential federal institutions are not in Washington but on
the south side of the Potomac River-the Defense Department and
the Central Intelligence Agency. Given their influence today,
one must conclude that the government outlined in the Constitution
of 1787 no longer bears much relationship to the government that
actually rules from Washington. Until that is corrected, we should
probably stop talking about "democracy" and "human
Once we have done the analysis, brought home most of our "forward
deployed" troops, refurbished our diplomatic capabilities,
reassured the world that we are not unilateralists who walk away
from treaty commitments and reintroduced into government the kinds
of idealistic policies we once pioneered (e.g., Marshall Plan),
then we might assess what we can do against "terrorism."
We could reduce our transportation and information vulnerabilities
by building into our systems more of what engineers call redundancy:
different ways of doing the same things- airlines and railroads,
wireless and optical fiber communications, automatic computer
backup programs, land routes around bridges. It is absurd that
our railroads do not even begin to compare with those in Western
Europe or Japan, and their inadequacies have made us overly dependent
on aviation in travel between US cities. It may well be that some
public utilities should be nationalized, just as safety aboard
airliners should become a federal function. Flight decks need
to be made genuinely inaccessible from the passenger compartments,
as they are on EL Al. In what might seem a radical change, we
could even hire intelligence analysts at the CIA who can read
the languages of the countries they are assigned to and have actually
visited the places they write about (neither of these conditions
is even slightly usual at the present time).
If we do these things, the crisis will recede. If we play
into the hands of the terrorists, we will see more collateral
damage among our own citizens. Ten years ago, the other so-called
superpower, the former Soviet Union, disappeared almost overnight
because of internal contradictions, imperial overstretch and an
inability to reform. We have always been richer, so it might well
take longer for similar contradictions to afflict our society.
But it is nowhere written that the United States, in its guise
as an empire dominating the world, must go on forever.
Chalmers Johnson is the author of a dozen books concerning
East Asia and political violence, including Revolutionary Change
(Stanford). His latest is Blowback: The Costs and Consequences
of American Empire (Holt/Owl).
11th, 2001 - New York City