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Empire of Bases

F-16N Fighting Falcon

An air-to-air right side view of a Fighter Squadron 43 (VF-43) F-16N Fighting Falcon aircraft making a high-speed run over the bombing range at Dare County bombing range (October 19, 1990). Contributed to Wikimedia Commons by National Archives at College Park - Still Pictures as part of a cooperation project. Public Domain, Link.

Zoltán Grossman is a professor of geography and Native American studies at the Evergreen State College.
David Vine, Base Nation: How U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World (New York: Metropolitan, 2015), 418 pages, $35.00, hardcover.

The United States maintains about 800 military installations around the world, and the number is growing, despite partial withdrawals of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan and scaling back of major European bases. The continued expansion, writes David Vine in his recent book, has come mainly through a series of smaller “lily pad” installations, originally proposed by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, that are now being built in Africa, Eastern and Central Europe, Latin America, the Middle East, and beyond.

In researching Base Nation, Vine, a professor of anthropology at American University, visited more than sixty current or former bases in twelve countries and territories. Although scholars such as Chalmers Johnson, Cynthia Enloe, and Catherine Lutz, as well as contributors to Monthly Review, have for decades sounded the alarm about the ever-expanding global network of U.S. military bases, Vine’s new study provides a comprehensive update, persuasively documenting the ways that “far from making the world a safer place, U.S. bases overseas can actually make war more likely and America less secure” (12).

The story of the international base network begins not with the Second World War or the Cold War, or even the Spanish-American War, but more properly in the series of North American military assaults known as the Indian Wars. Vine includes a map of Native nations showing how “hundreds of frontier forts helped enable the westward expansion of the United States…built on land that was very much abroad at the time” (19). Like Richard Drinnon in his classic Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian-Hating and Empire-Building, Vine recognizes the continuity between “manifest destiny” and imperial incursions into the Pacific, Indochina, and eventually the Middle East. This legacy lives on in the culture of U.S. military life: Vine cites a report by the journalist Robert D. Kaplan, who “visited U.S. troops at new lily pad bases” during the early years of the Iraq War and “heard a consistent refrain: ‘Welcome to Injun Country'” (329).

The processes of military and imperial expansion are reciprocal: the quest for strategic naval bases has itself fed the drive toward empire, as when the desire to claim Pearl Harbor contributed to the subversion and overthrow of the U.S.-recognized, independent Hawaiian Kingdom. In a series of maps from 1903, 1939, 1945, and 1989, Vine shows how the military bases network grew rapidly from the Second World War through the Cold War, slowing briefly at the end of each conflict only to resume its inexorable expansion. Throughout the Cold War, the United States established “Little Americas,” virtual military cities clustered around bases in Europe, Japan, and Korea, fanning tensions with local populations and provoking strong opposition as the “Communist threat” receded. Each post-Cold War intervention—in the first Gulf War, the Yugoslav wars, Afghanistan, and Iraq—has left behind strings of new U.S. bases, securing a new sphere of influence in the region to thwart emerging competitors, mainly Russia and China. Not only are bases built to wage wars, but wars are waged in order to build bases.

Bases can also serve as a “tripwire” for intervention, convincing the public that military personnel already based in a country must be protected from local violence, an argument peddled by President George H. W. Bush and his military advisors to justify the 1989 Panama invasion—one of many U.S. military actions that have left a lasting legacy in the invaded country while largely disappearing from collective memory in the United States. Vine asserts that permanent bases make future interventions more, not less likely, giving the lie to the claim that they provide “security” and “stability.” The Pentagon, in a romantic rhetorical turn, now defines permanent bases as merely “enduring.”

Rumsfeld’s lily pad strategy—emphasizing smaller and less visible “cooperative security locations,” prepositioned supplies, and Special Forces operations—is being reinforced by President Obama’s drone wars in the so-called “tribal regions” of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Mali, and beyond. As with nuclear weapons, shrinking bases without closing them altogether can make them even more dangerous, since they can narrow the threshold between peace and war, enabling interventions in ever farther reaches of the globe. The lily pad bases also become less visible by excluding military spouses and children, putting even more pressure on military families already strained by repeated deployments.

In addition to vividly documenting these changes in the global base network, Base Nation literally puts U.S. militarism in place, revealing it as not only an attitude or policy, but as constituted in specific places that project force abroad and control local populations, and which can also become hotspots of resistance. Where most studies of contemporary globalization tend to subsume the specificity of place into the discourse of economic development, the U.S. imperial state still manifests itself in material, place-based ways that can provide sites for activism. Major protests against U.S. bases have broken out in Italy, Germany, Turkey, Japan, South Korea, Australia, Honduras, and elsewhere. Since 1989, popular resistance has helped drive out bases from the Philippines, Panama, Kyrgyzstan, Puerto Rico, Hawai’i, Ecuador, Colombia, the Czech Republic, and at least temporarily from Iraq. In a memorable episode, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa announced that his country would only agree to continue hosting the Manta air base if “they let us put a base in Miami—an Ecuadorian base” (3).

Vine identifies the varied forces driving these acts of opposition, showing clearly that U.S. military bases directly undermine democracy around the world, rather than defend it. The most obvious and troubling evidence is Washington’s partnership with dictatorships that not only acquiesce in stationing bases, but also snuff out popular movements that oppose—or might oppose—their presence. This postwar pattern has stretched from Italy, where the military worked directly with the mafia around the bases, through Latin America and the Middle East.

The recent history of Honduras, for example, “dramatically demonstrates just how much the military’s actions contradict the very ideals that it is supposedly dedicated to protecting” (97). The country has long served as a strategic outpost for the Pentagon’s wars, first in neighboring El Salvador and Nicaragua, and more recently in the “drug war” counterinsurgencies in Colombia and Central America. Two years after the U.S.-backed 2009 coup against a democratically elected Honduran government, Vine personally witnessed a police crackdown on citizens protesting U.S. troop presence at the Soto Cano Air Base. He also points to the massive commitments of U.S. military personnel and aid supporting the fundamentalist regime in Saudi Arabia, including its current slaughter of civilians in Yemen, as well as its 2011 proxy invasion to crush a democratic uprising in Bahrain, headquarters of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet.

Military bases also reinforce the second-class citizenship of residents of current and former U.S. colonies. There is no better example than Guam, where 27 percent of the land—the most productive on the island—is under military control, and continual influxes of military personnel threaten to overwhelm the indigenous population. Vine observes that “the ability to do whatever it wants without fear of eviction—and with greater ease than in the fifty states—is a major part of why the military likes Guam so much” (84). The native Chamorros have borne the brunt of this economic and cultural dispossession, and now even face the prospect of their homeland being obliterated in a future war with China, currently developing the DF-26 missile, nicknamed the “Guam Killer.”

The construction and expansion of U.S. bases has displaced many other indigenous peoples around the world. In his previous book Island of Shame, Vine documented the U.S.-British collusion in the forced removal of Chagossians from Diego Garcia, a strategic base in Indian Ocean that has been instrumental in Middle East interventions. The Pentagon has perpetrated some of its worst abuses against residents of U.S. territories: a partial list includes the nuclear weapons testing that devastated and irradiated the Marshall Islands, the naval bombing of the Vieques and Kaho’olawe island ranges, and the construction of bases (most recently in Pagat) in the Northern Marianas.

Okinawa, which reverted from U.S. to Japanese control in 1971, still endures a “dual colonialism” of both Tokyo and Washington; a State Department spokesman once described it as the “Puerto Rico of Japan” (257). The U.S. military controls fully 20 percent of the island, which hosts 75 percent of the U.S. presence in Japan. For decades, Okinawans have been burdened with a disproportionate share of jet and helicopter crashes in dense urban neighborhoods, environmental contamination, and sexual violence by U.S. service members. Sexual violence and harassment has accompanied military encampments for millennia, but the global reach of the U.S. military has meant that a service member accused of rape or murder can be flown back to U.S. territory to escape local prosecution, while Status of Forces Agreements are structured to preempt local justice. Movements against bases in the Philippines and Okinawa have grown with each such assault. In May 2016, the rape of a Japanese tourist by a U.S. Marine and the murder of a local woman by a former Marine working as a private contractor have inspired renewed outrage among Okinawans.

Further, sexual exploitation has long been a lucrative industry in the “camptowns” around U.S. bases in South Korea, the Philippines, and Bosnia. As one prostituted South Korean woman attested, “Women like me were the biggest sacrifice for my country’s alliance with the Americans. Looking back, I think my body was not mine, but the government’s and the U.S. military’s” (166). Vine visited these South Korean camptowns with outreach volunteers from the Durebang (“My Sister’s Place”) Counseling Center, and saw firsthand how the sex industry—made up predominantly of Filipinas—was hidden in plain sight.

As if all this were not enough, U.S. military installations have also degraded and destroyed environmental health: “it is no coincidence,” Vine writes, “that places under colonial or semicolonial rule, such as the Philippines, Panama, Okinawa, and Puerto Rico, have experienced some of the worst environmental damage from U.S. bases” (145). The same is true in Hawai’i, where about a quarter of O’ahu is in military use, including Superfund sites around Pearl Harbor, and where depleted uranium munitions have been used in the Big Island’s Pohakuloa Training Area. The Vieques and Kaho’olawe islands were returned after the Navy stopped bombing them, but they remain riddled with toxins and unexploded ordnance, because the Navy claims to have run out of funds allocated for environmental restoration.

In recent years, the Department of Defense has made great efforts to clean up (or at least “greenwash”) its operations, and to portray itself as the federal agency most conscious of the effects of climate change. But,

regardless of the progress the U.S. military has made in improving its practices, there is no underestimating the profound environmental damage caused by most military bases…. Bases magnify those effects, both inadvertently—through toxic leaks, accidental ordnance detonation, and other dangerous accidents—and through the intentional discharge of weapons and other environmental damage caused during training….Even the greenest military installation has a carbon footprint vastly disproportionate to the number of people living and working on base (137).

Vine breaks new ground, and may attract new allies, with his detailed study of the fiscal toll of maintaining these hundreds of foreign bases, which he estimates cost about $100 billion every year. The lion’s share of base construction contracts go not to host country businesses, but to U.S.-based contractors, such as Halliburton and KBR; such corporations raked in $385 billion worth of contracts in 2001–13 alone (216). During the Iraq War, soldiers stationed at the sprawling Balad Air Base—so large it was clearly visible in satellite photos of the region—referred to one part of the base as “KBR Land,” after the company’s many private contractors involved in military construction, or what the Pentagon calls MilCon.

Vine excoriates this system of construction contracts as the “MilCon Con,” a global military-industrial racket that helps explain why the Air Force is spending a half-billion dollars to expand the Vicenza Air Base, despite strong opposition from Italian locals and dubious strategic utility. Even the Army estimates that U.S. world base capacity exceeds its needs by 18 percent, so it can hardly argue that closing more bases would harm its mission. Vine adds that “closing Cold War bases built for a much larger military would lead to both immediate and long-term savings…bringing troops and base spending back to the United States will mean stemming the leakage of money out of the U.S. economy and ensuring that economic spillover effects remain at home” (335).

The huge cost of the global bases network has attracted unexpected attention from fiscal conservatives. Former Texas Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson, who chaired the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee for Military Construction, urges in a blurb on the book’s jacket that “Pentagon officials and members of Congress should pay close attention to Vine’s arguments in favor of reducing our foreign presence in the interest of strengthening the future security posture of U.S. military forces and the fiscal health of our country.” But just as overseas bases have faced unprecedented resistance abroad and even at home, new missions are designed to further extend the chain of “lily pads” into new areas. The endless war against Islamist militants has underwritten the return of bases to the Philippines and Iraq, and the establishment of new bases in Djibouti and throughout Africa, and perhaps soon within Syria. Russian actions in Ukraine and Chinese expansion into the South China Sea have provided the most recent rationales for retaining or expanding bases in Europe and the Pacific. President Obama’s strategic “pivot to Asia” has also expanded war games and provocative incursions around North Korean and Chinese-claimed islands. As Vine points out, “The creation of new U.S. bases to protect against an alleged future Chinese or Russian threat runs the risk of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. By provoking a Chinese and Russian military response, these bases may create the very threat against which they are supposedly designed to protect” (12). But of course, inventing or recasting enemies to justify military buildups may be precisely the purpose of such provocations.

Although anti-base resistance movements have made significant gains, they are also pitted against each other, or rolled back each time a new strategic “threat” emerges. Vine celebrates their victories, but proposes a more comprehensive international ban on foreign bases of any military power. A negotiated ban would begin to limit the use of foreign bogeymen to justify new escalations, and call attention to the United States’ hugely disproportionate military reach relative to other powers. Russia’s base in Syria, for example, is its only fixed presence outside the former Soviet Union.

“Given the danger of foreign base races,” Vine warns, “the United States would be wise to use its current position of relative strength to propose and negotiate an international ban on foreign bases except under the strictest of circumstances and under the most transparent of conditions,” as when a country is under attack or hosting peacekeeping forces (337). The United States is today following in the footsteps of previous empires that overextended their global reach, forcing them to choose between military hegemony and economic security. “The only questions,” Vine concludes, “are when and whether the country will close its bases and downsize its global mission by choice, or whether it will follow Britain’s path as a fading power forced to give up its bases from a position of weakness” (338). Whether or not its warning is heeded, Base Nation proves how integral these relatively small militarized places are to the globe-spanning U.S. empire.

2016, Volume 68, Issue 07 (December)
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