It was only by reading Tom Englehardt’s obituary on the Web site for The Nation that I learned that Chalmers Johnson died on Saturday. There is no sense in my repeating any of the praises that Engleghardt heaped on Johnson, which are based on far more extensive experiences than my own. From a more personal point of view, I was never able to get any closer to him than a Book TV broadcast of one of his talks; but this was enough to convince me that he was as compelling a speaker as he was a writer.
I see from my records that I have not written about him lately. As a matter of fact, the last time I cited him was during Barack Obama’s Presidential campaign, when I referred to Obama’s “AIPAC debut” as “his first serious encounter with the blowback effect.” To this day I have no idea how much Obama has read of Johnson’s “Blowback Trilogy” (Blowback, The Sorrows of Empire and Nemesis). However, I do know that I took a lot of flack from Obama supporters during the campaign for taking Obama to task for his compromising position toward AIPAC, on the grounds that my critical remarks would only benefit the Republicans. Today it seems as if Obama has become just as much an imperialist as Bush ever was, and we need look no further than his NATO remarks over the weekend.
However, it was not Johnson’s warnings about imperialism that had the greatest appeal to me. Rather, it was his understanding about the need for quality writing to stave off the dangers of mind rot and, specifically, his application of that understanding to taking on the likes of Ken Burns. I encountered this side of Johnson in the book review he prepared for Truthdig concerning the posthumously-published book by David Halberstam about the Korean War, The Coldest Winter. The best way for me to honor Johnson is to cite the passage I quoted when I wrote about his review:
One aspect of Halberstam’s commitment as a historian and the consequent effect on his writing must be dealt with at the outset and then put aside. That is what he conceives of as his duty to present a populist portrayal of the ordinary soldier in day-to-day, sometimes hand-to-hand, combat and endless homilies on courage, fear, leadership, stamina, cowardice and any other emotions and qualities that might be encountered on the battlefield. I call this the Ken Burns-Tom Brokaw school of writing, hero worship, Great Generationism and military narcissism. Even in ordinary doses it is unimaginably tedious and boring. The amount of it in this 700-page book sometimes generated in me a deep regret that I had agreed to write this review.
I quoted that passage almost exactly three years ago; and, if the quality of writing on Public Television has changed at all since then, it has only become more narcissistic. I suppose that means that Johnson’s efforts to sound alarms about writing were no more effective than those about our descent into imperialism, but he kept trying to make his points as long as he could put them in writing. His shoes will be hard to fill.