The Sorrows of Empire

Chalmers Johnson, Holt Paperbacks, 2004, reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

        Johnson sketches the history of American imperialism, seeing its beginnings in 1898 with the Spanish-American war, portraying its brutal colonization of the Filipinos as ‘divinely ordained racially inevitable and economically indispensable’ (p 43).

        Intellectual foundations of American imperialism replaced the militaristic formulation (eg manifest destiny),reaching new heights(depths?) during WW II. The Korean and Vietnamese wars furthered the spiral.

        Johnson cites three hallmarks of militarism: a withering of the influence of non-military options (eg decrease of the State Department’s influence), increased presence of military officers or representatives of arms industry in high government position, military preparedness becomes the highest priority of the state.

        The United States is ‘drifting away from regarding treaties as an essential element in global security to a more opportunistic stand of abiding by treaties only when it is convenient/ (p 73). President Clinton signed the treaty creating the International Criminal Court, but the Bush administration ‘unsigned’ it.

        Johnson points out that Roman imperial sorrows mounted up over hundreds of years; our experience will lead to lack of resemblance to the country once outlined in our constitution in a much shorter time-frame. First, there will be perpetual war, leading to more terrorism. Second, there will be a loss of democracy as the presidency eclipses Congress. Third, truthfulness will be replaced by propaganda, disinformation and glorification of war, power and the military legions. Fourth, there will be bankruptcy. (p 285)

        These are the lessons learned by the early church as it confronted the empire of its day; Johnson outlines the issues (non-theologically) that the church faces today in an empire given over to militarism.

Vern Ratzlaff is a pastor and professor of historical theology at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.