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The Guns of August: Lowering the Flag on the American Century

Chalmers Johnson

 by TomDispatch

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 still-imperial America.

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 U.S. 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.)

Sagging Empire

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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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.

Rising Power

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-à-vis
much of the rest of the world (particularly the U.S., 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-WWII 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 as
well.

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 U.S.
 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-U.S.S.R. Russia, briefly in thrall to U.S.
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 U.S. -- 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 their favor.

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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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'être by allowing its intelligence
gathering to become politically tainted, but its clandestine operations
have created a climate of impunity in which the U.S. 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 U.S. 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 way. 

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 U.S.  Instead, there isn't a day that our own guns of
August don't continue to haunt me.


© 2021 TomDispatch.com
Chalmers Johnson

Chalmers Johnson

Chalmers Johnson was the author of "Blowback "(2000), "The Sorrows of Empire" (2004), and "Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic" (2006), and "Revolutionary Change" (1982).  His final book was "Dismantling the Empire: America's Last Best Hope" (2010). He died on November 20, 2010 at age 79.

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