Collective Karma and “Blowback”

Oct 1st, 2017 | By | Category: Articles, O Books, Psyche Books, Psychology

by William Ferraiolo

Chalmers Johnson’s book, Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire offers a prescient analysis of the dangers presented by an unchecked U.S. military-industrial complex and the likely consequences of American interventionism abroad.  Its prescience is revealed by the fact that Johnson predicted escalating terrorist attacks on the United States and its citizens prior to the tragedies of September 11, 2001.  He also predicts the likely decline and ultimate collapse of what he describes as the “American Empire,” largely as a result of the socio-economic consequences of hyper-militarism and growing anti-American sentiment resulting, at least in part, from America’s aggressive militarism and persistent socio-economic meddling abroad.  In this paper, I attempt to formulate the “consequences of American empire” as the fruit of what some Buddhists have termed “collective karma”.  A proper analysis of collective karma will, I contend, illuminate the role of America’s military and economic imperialism as causal antecedents of “Blowback,” and will also help us grasp the degree to which American citizens unknowingly (or unthinkingly) support the U.S. military-industrial complex that virtually ensures resentment, hostility, and, ultimately, the collapse of the “empire”.

(Photo by aladdin hammami on Unsplash)

Terrorism and Other Forms of “Blowback”

In Blowback, Chalmers Johnson details some of the malignity, covert and overt, that the U.S. military-industrial complex has fostered, and makes a compelling case that consequences of those actions have afflicted, and will continue to afflict, nations, economies, and cultures around the globe.  The inevitable response is enmity and violence directed at the perceived agents of imperialism and hegemony.  Throughout Latin America, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and elsewhere, anti-American enmity festers as a consequence of the U.S. imperial apparatus destroying lives, infiltrating economies, and pilfering natural resources.  This results in “blowback,” a term initially used by the Central Intelligence Agency to refer to the unintended consequences of covert actions.  It is instructive to imagine a literal case of blowback in the form of, for example, dispersed toxins on a battlefield being hurled back, by an unanticipated wind, into the faces of those who dispensed the poisons in the first place.  Johnson uses the now standard metaphor to refer to the consequences of hegemony:

Given its wealth and power, the United States will be a prime recipient in the foreseeable future of all of the more expectable forms of blowback, particularly terrorist attacks against Americans in and out of the armed forces anywhere on earth, including within the United States.  But it is blowback in its larger aspect – the tangible costs of empire – that truly threatens it. [2000, pp. 231-2]

Johnson does not argue that Americans deserve to be victimized by blowback, but merely that terrorist attacks are caused, in part, by unenlightened interventionism and aggression of which the public is largely unaware.  Aggression directed against American “enemies,” and the socio-economic manipulation of vassal states, must result in undesirable (and sometimes tragic) consequences for American citizens and, ultimately, for U.S. national interests.  In Blowback, Johnson details many of the hegemonic policies and practices that have encouraged, he argues, anti-American sentiment, terrorism, and increasing geopolitical instability.  These instances of “blowback” are, Johnson claims, largely consequences of unwise, short sighted, and self-aggrandizing behavior on the part of the architects and engineers of U.S. foreign policy.

Our economic dependence upon the military-industrial complex, and decades of interventionism abroad leave Americans especially vulnerable as both individual and collective targets of attack.  Johnson is blunt in his assessment of imperialism’s central role in our current situation:

In a sense, blowback is simply another way of saying that a nation reaps what it sows.  Although people usually know what they have sown, our national experience of blowback is seldom imagined in such terms because so much of what the managers of the American Empire have sown has been kept secret.  As a concept, blowback is obviously most easy to grasp in its most straightforward manifestation.  The unintended consequences of American policies and acts in country X are a bomb at an American embassy in country Y or a dead American in country Z.  Certainly any number of Americans have been killed in that fashion, from Catholic nuns in El Salvador to tourists in Uganda who just happened to wander into hidden imperial scenarios about which they knew nothing.  But blowback, as demonstrated in this book, is hardly restricted to such reasonably straightforward examples. [p. 17]

Note that Johnson does not blame the Catholic nuns or the tourists to Uganda for their deaths.  They are not individually culpable for the actions that led to their unfortunate ends.  There were causal antecedents in these cases “about which they knew nothing”.  The “managers of the American Empire” are the agents of unwanted intervention.  In many cases, this has been part of the web of causal antecedents resulting in the deaths of innocents abroad (and, more recently, at home) – and those deaths are then avenged upon the next round of innocents (and so spins the cycle of enmity).

Blowback thoroughly details and elucidates many instances of meddlesome activity on the part of various agents of the U.S. military-industrial complex and, in a number of cases, traces out very plausible causal relations between that meddling and reciprocal attacks directed against Americans because of a perceived collective culpability.  The specifics and complexities of such activities and putative instances of blowback cannot be presented here, but Johnson does an admirable job of explicating many of the accumulated grievances underlying anti-American sentiment (as well as similar cases of antipathy to previous hegemonic powers such as the Soviet Union and the British Empire). The aggrieved can neither “match weapons” with the U.S. military on a battlefield nor stand athwart the economic and cultural juggernaut that is “the West”, but they can still strike back against those whom they perceive to be oppressors, bullies, or interlopers.

Collective Karma and Consequences

It is crucial to note that, contrary to popular misconception, karma theory does not entail that the death of apparent innocents is a matter of dispensing justice or of people who only seem to be innocent “getting what they really deserve”.  Karma is not about desert, justice, or even morality.  It is fundamentally a theory about causes and their consequences.  As Walpola Rahula explains in What the Buddha Taught, karma is not properly understood as a moral principle in which justice is meted out for virtuous or vicious behavior.  The Sanskrit term karma means “action,” and actions have consequences and reverberations within the world surrounding the agent.  One does not get what one deserves; rather agents are, themselves, subject to the consequences that their actions have wrought:

The theory of karma should not be confused with so called ‘moral justice’ or ‘reward and punishment’.  The idea of moral justice, or reward and punishment, arises out of the conception of a supreme being, a God, who sits in judgment, who is law-giver and who decides what is right and wrong…The theory of karma is the theory of cause and effect, of action and reaction; it is a natural law, which has nothing to do with the idea of justice or reward and punishment.  Every volitional action produces its effects or results. [1959, p. 32]

When we exert volitional efforts in the world, consequences ensue and, as we live in the world, we may well face the consequences of our actions.  This applies not only to individual behavior, but also to collective action.  What a nation does will produce consequences for that nation, its citizens, and humanity at large.

In Money, Sex, War, Karma: Notes for a Buddhist Revolution, David Loy analyses the seduction of warfare, and our persistent militarism, as a karmic consequence of the experience of individual feelings of meaninglessness writ large (and in blood) at the societal level:

If our modern, secularized world is plagued by an unacknowledged and therefore misunderstood sense of lack, it is not surprising that war too continues to be so attractive, even addictive.  War can give us the meaning we crave, because it provides a reassuring way to understand what is wrong with our lives.  War offers a simple way to bind together our individual lacks and project them outside, onto the enemy.  They are evil because they want to destroy us.  Since we are merely defending ourselves, we can feel good about what we do to them.  The karma that results is not difficult to understand: the cause of each war is usually the previous one. [2008, p. 138]

Each resort to military violence results in death, terror, and intense resentment on the part of those against whom the war machine has been deployed.  Sooner or later, and it seems that the cycle of violence spins more rapidly now than ever before, that resentment produces the bitter, bloody fruit of the next violent conflict or act of reciprocal enmity.  This is true with respect to relationships between individuals, within families, and across intra-societal or intra-national cultural, racial, ethnic, or socio-economic groups.  It is, however, most devastating, and tragic in greatest proportion, in the arena of international and/or intercultural hostility.  Like any other addiction, warfare and militarism provide short-term benefits (a kind of societal “high” for the victor), but only at the cost of long-term damage to the addicted party – and others.

In Calming the Fearful Mind: A Zen Response to Terrorism, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, peace activist, and father of the Engaged Buddhism movement, Thich Nhat Hahn, makes the case that we are all collectively responsible for warfare, terrorism, and societal violence in general:

No one can say they are not responsible for this current situation, even if we oppose our country’s actions.  We are still members of our community, citizens of our country.  Maybe we have not done enough.  We must ally ourselves with the bodhisattvas, the great awakened beings, who are around us in order to transform our way of thinking and that of our society.  Because wrong thinking is at the base of our present situation, thinking that has no wisdom or compassion.  And we can do this every day, in every moment of our daily life, to nourish the seeds of peace, compassion, and understanding in us and in those around us.  We can live in a way that can heal our collective karma and ensure that these atrocities will not happen again in the future. [2005, p. 37-38]

The urge to militarism or terror is individual hatred and insecurity manifested on a societal scale.  A nation of mindful, compassionate citizens (if there were one) would be far less likely to find itself embroiled in ongoing military conflict than a nation of self-centered, greedy, angry individuals with elected representatives stoking delusions of grandeur (e.g. “This is the greatest nation on earth!”). Citizens of the United States, and other militarily and economically aggressive nations, behave in a manner that creates or contributes to the violence with which they, their loved ones, and their nations are all too frequently afflicted.  “Blowback” is one manifestation of our cultural heedlessness, and it is caused, at least in part, by ignorance, greed, and delusion.

It is with an eye to such concerns that Chalmers Johnson reminds us that in war there really are no winners.  One party may surrender, and another may throw grand victory parades in its streets, but even the “victor” must contend with the aftermath.  This may manifest in resentment and violence from outside, or it may appear in the form of misguided arrogance and self-aggrandizement born of the fresh flush of conquest.  Military success has a way of breeding a myopic overindulgence of the warrior ethos and a kind of corrosive national insolence about which Johnson warns us:

World politics in the twenty-first century will in all likelihood be driven primarily by blowback from the second half of the twentieth century – that is, from the unintended consequences of the Cold War and the crucial American decision to maintain a Cold War posture in a post-Cold War world…The United States likes to think of itself as the winner of the Cold War.  In all probability, to those looking back a century hence, neither side will appear to have won, particularly if the United States maintains its present imperial course. [p. 238]

With that comment, Johnson concludes Blowback.  If the United States is, in fact, to reap what Johnson claims it has sown, then the “American Empire” is headed for the same fate as every great historical power that acted without wisdom, restraint, or recognition of the enmity with which it inevitably surrounds itself.  Hegemony is collective karma on a grand scale.  Our actions, individually and collectively, cause consequences.  Some of the fruit of our collective karma is blowback.  Over time, the karmic blowback of imperialism may prove to be our collective undoing.

William Ferraiolo received a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Oklahoma in 1997. Since then, William has taught philosophy at San Joaquin Delta College in Stockton, California. He lives in Lodi, CA.

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