Thursday, July 24, 2008

Book review: Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic, by Chalmers Johnson

This is the third and final book of Chalmers Johnson's Blowback trilogy. I previously reviewed the first book, Blowback, which focused on the harmful consequences of American military intervention and covert operations around the world. The title is a word used by the Central Intelligence Agency to refer to such consequences of operations, and Johnson argued that because such operations are kept secret from the American public--and even their elected representatives--when blowback occurs, citizens are often unable to comprehend the reasons why. Published in mid-2000, Blowback became a bestseller after 9/11, though sadly not enough people seemed to have learned its principle argument.

I reviewed the sequel, Sorrows of Empire, which dealt with the extent of American military colonialization around the world, and how this anticipated the United States becoming a militaristic empire, a new Rome, where generals and admirals are no longer accountable to their civilian leaders.

Now, in Nemesis, Johnson gives a final call, warning that the dissolution of the American Republic is imminent. Summarizing the main arguments from the first two books, he compares the United States to the two other imperialist powers contemporary pundits frequently juxtapose with it: Ancient Rome and Colonialist Britain. Both were democratic states that became empires, at great cost to their economies and their democracy. Prevailing wisdom holds that the Romans sacrificed their democracy for their empire, while the British (eventually) sacrificed their empire for their democracy. This is not entirely accurate; the bloody British attempts to retain Kenya after World War II hardly indicates a magnanimous sacrifice on their part.

The book isn't seamless; one factual error I noted (being the space geek that I am) was identifying Sally Ride as the first woman in space. Dr. Ride was the first American woman in space but she was preceded by the Soviet cosmonauts Valentina Tereshkova in 1963 and Svetlana Savitskaya in 1982. I also feel that Johnson doesn't really introduce any new arguments in this book, rather he adds to the arguments from Blowback in Chapters 3 and 5, and Sorrows of Empire in Chapters 1 and 4. Chapter 2 is the comparison with Rome and Britain: instructive, but kind of a simplification of history. Chapter 6 discusses the militarization of space and the potential for disaster it entails, but again this just builds on the arguments from the second book. Still, Nemesis is excellent as a survey of the arguments of the first two books.

UPDATE (August 1, 2008): I found the complete text of the poem Johnson quotes in the introduction.

Neighborhood Girl by John Shreffler

She's new to the neighborhood, her family just moved in
From Greece or somewhere, she's a great, tall gawky girl
With braces and earrings and uneven skin:
Hormones and acne, her change is coming in.

And today, she's playing hooky, January fog.
Orange lights on the school zone sign beat out their tattoo
And caution the Homeland's socked-in morning rush
With their strobe-light samba: Condition Amber,

As she sits invisible, swinging her legs to the beat,
Perched up high on aluminum over
The uncanny Day-Glo of the key-lime fluorescence
That says: School at the top of this composition.

I see her and she lets me. I'm an old family friend:
Sometimes I play poker with her Aunt Erato.
Her name is Nemesis and she's just moved in,
She's new to the neighborhood, she's checking it out.