- The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic
- Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company 389 pp.
Back in 2008 the United States had what was called a “California style” referendum. Empire or No Empire. Simple as that. If Empire won, we’d stay the course. If No Empire won, the Pentagon budget would immediately be cut in half. We’d “starve the beast” to use a Republican phrase popular at the time. All of our overseas bases would be closed, and our troops brought home. Half of what was cut from the military budget would simply be returned to the taxpayers. The other half would be used as the foundation for an energy program to eliminate our dependence on Middle East oil. (This was a compromise between the left wing No Empire forces, who wanted all monies to go into the energy program and the libertarian/anarchist No Empire supporters who wanted all savings returned to the citizens.)
For once, the voters were making a significant choice about what kind of country they wanted to live in. The power was in our hands. It captivated the nation (and the world) like nothing had in our lifetime. The presidential election that year was, to be blunt, irrelevant. The differences between the candidates were insignificant when one is deciding between Empire or No Empire. For those of us on the No Empire side, Chalmers Johnson’s book The Sorrows of Empire was our bible. An American Empire had bankrupted us both financially and spiritually. It was time to end it voluntarily before it crashed under its own weight. The Empire side held up An End To Evil by Richard Perle and David Frum. The world is a dangerous place and sticking our head in the sand will only make it worse, they countered.
The country was engaged. Debates were held almost nightly on national television. The William F. Buckley Jr. vs. Gore Vidal slugfest one week before the election received television’s highest ratings ever. The following night the Pat Buchanan vs. Paul Wolfowitz wrangle topped even those numbers. Years of tough economic times, the return of the draft, and an unending war against any number of enemies gave the No Empire side a huge early lead, surprising almost everyone. The media went to elaborate lengths to point out the flaws in the poll questions. When voters enter the privacy of their voting booths, we were told, they can be trusted to do the “right thing.” Historians became pop-culture icons. Watching the news, one might have thought we were deciding the future of the Roman Empire and not 21st Century America.
The arguments got repetitive after a while. The Marshall Plan and the fall of the Soviet Union were countered with Greece, Chile, Vietnam, etc. Was it a fight for freedom and democracy or merely a cover story for power and hegemony? Oil, a warm house, and reasonably priced gas vs. let’s solve the problem of our dependence. And then suddenly the terrorist attacks increased in frequency and intensity. We’d “adjusted” to this savagery over the years, but this was beyond the pale. Some left the No Empire camp to rally around the President and the military. Who’s going to defend us? Some tree-hugger from Portland? But the conspiracy guys, who thought the terrorists were CIA or Mossad, gained a few new adherents, and enough of the No Empire core remained to help us win the election rather easily.
After the election some of the Empire side’s warnings came true. Oil prices were volatile. Europe, Russia and China were in constant skirmishes over Middle East and African oil. But oil could always be purchased from whomever was controlling it and most Americans were happy that the Middle East was no longer our mess to be involved in. And neither was the Far East, South America or Europe for that matter. Without a suffocating military budget, American business became much more competitive and was again drawing the brightest minds from around the world to start companies here. The Empire crowd was wrong when they said we’d become more vulnerable to the bad guys in the world. Terrorism abruptly stopped after we brought our troops home. The tactic of targeting civilians was still believed to be the work of immoral madmen, but as long as we “tended our own garden” the world was a much safer, less violent place for America and Americans. Our military budget was still the highest in the world and the thought that any country was going to invade a nuclear armed America was just laughable. And finally, our research into alternative energy sources (particularly fusion) began showing great promise. The long predicted great oil war of the 21st Century was one that America could sit out. As Americans are now fond of saying “we have no dog in that fight.”