Base Nation: How U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2015), 432 pages.
There is much in U.S. history that Americans should not be proud of. Chattel slavery. The genocide of indigenous populations. Jim Crow. The U.S. war on terror currently under way and still with no end in sight. But few are aware of what the U.S. military did to the inhabitants of Diego Garcia, a small atoll in the Indian Ocean.
Between 1968 and 1973, the U.S. military forcibly removed the population of the island, which the United States acquired from Great Britain for $14 million, to build a military base. With the help of the British, the inhabitants, known as Chagossians, were forced onto overcrowded cargo ships in miserable conditions. The dispossessed were then dropped off on the islands of Mauritius and the Seychelles with no compensation for their homes or their suffering. Destitute and shocked, many Chagossians spiraled into sagren — profound sorrow. Some died. The Washington Post called what happened to the island’s people an “act of mass kidnapping.” The U.S. military has a nickname for Diego Garcia. It is called “the Footprint of Freedom.”
In less than 250 years, the United States has gone from being a country that mistrusted a standing army on its own shores to one where its military bases and service members garrison the planet. In Base Nation, David Vine, an associate professor of anthropology at American University, documents how a country founded on anti-imperialist ideals has erected a massive network of military bases that would make the Romans blush in its audacity and scope. Have no illusion: U.S. military bases are the infrastructure of the American empire. Strategically built since the United States gained global supremacy after World War II, U.S. military bases send an unmistakable message: It’s our planet. Everyone else just lives on it.
The nuts and bolts of empire
Currently, Vine estimates that the Pentagon controls approximately 800 bases outside of the territorial United States. Why must he rely on his own well-documented estimate? Because the Defense Department doesn’t even know or, more likely, doesn’t want us to know. Vine notes that the military’s most recent count, which tallied 686 “base sites,” excludes even well-known bases in Kosovo, Kuwait, and Qatar that aren’t secrets.
That same imprecision extends to the cost of what Vine refers to as “base nation.” According to the Pentagon, America’s “Overseas Cost Summary” came in at $22.7 billion in fiscal year 2012. But that’s pure nonsense, says Vine. The Pentagon’s calculations don’t account for obvious things, such as ships outside of U.S. waters, personnel health care and other assorted benefits, base rent payments to host countries, and, absurdly, basing costs in active war zones. All told, Vine estimates that the United States spent nearly $170 billion on base nation in 2012. That’s some serious dough, and he isn’t wrong to conclude that “every base that is built overseas signifies a theft from American society.” But like the true number of bases, the real number is a mystery.
Bases and expansion
The construction of base nation started during the early years of the young republic. “While scholars generally identify Guantanamo Bay as the first U.S. military base abroad, they strangely overlook bases created shortly after independence,” Vine observes. “Hundreds of frontier forts helped enable the westward expansion of the United States, and they were built on land that was very much abroad at the time.” Vine is wise to the “salt water” fallacy, or the belief that the United States didn’t become an imperial nation until it set sail for conquest in the Spanish American War. In that self-serving version of history, the native populations were just squatters awaiting the arrival of the continent’s absentee owners.
Though military bases have always been a U.S. foreign-policy tool, they didn’t become the nuts and bolts of American hegemony until World War II and its immediate aftermath as hot war turned cold. The policy justifying hundreds of overseas bases staffed by hundreds of thousands of service members is known rather deceptively as the “forward strategy.” The gist of it was simple: encircle the Soviet Union and deny it the ability to expand as well. Yet that dogma tying bases to U.S. national security persists today, even though the Soviet threat hasn’t existed for nearly three decades. For instance, the opening words of a U.S. Army War Study from 2005 are: “U.S. national security strategy requires access to overseas military bases.”
Vine disagrees, and his book is very much a lengthy indictment of how U.S. belief in the forward strategy both directly and indirectly does considerable damage to U.S. national security, particularly America’s reputation abroad. That should come as little surprise, considering the United States has a knack for building or acquiring bases on soil controlled by authoritarian regimes.
Vine’s prime example of that is Honduras. The United States has always seen Latin America as its backyard, and it has constantly had to tend to that Honduran patch. Between 1903 and 1925, the United States intervened in Honduras eight times. In 1954, it used a banana plantation on Honduras’s soil to train the rebel army that deposed the democratically elected government of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala. Three decades later during Central America’s disastrous civil wars, the entire nation was dubbed the “USS Honduras,” “a stationary, unsinkable aircraft carrier, strategically anchored at the center of the war-torn region.” From the Soto Cano Air Base, the United States supported the murderous regimes in Guatemala and El Salvador while using Honduras as a training ground for the bloodthirsty Contras, who committed atrocity after atrocity in Nicaragua. It’s safe to say that U.S. bases aren’t the harbingers of liberal democracy and human rights that their proponents say they are.
Then there are the very real security concerns of overseas bases. One of the very reasons al-Qaeda attacked the United States on 9/11 was U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia, Osama bin Laden’s home. That anger over U.S. military basing on ostensibly sovereign soil isn’t the irrational response of jihadis. It’s shared by Puerto Ricans, Okinawans, Italians, Hondurans, and many others across the globe, who regularly protest the economic, environmental, and political problems that arise or are exacerbated when the U.S. military puts down roots.
“If there’s no problem having foreign soldiers on a country’s soil,” observed Ecuador’s president Rafael Correa, “surely they’ll let us have an Ecuadorian base in the United States.” But Correa doesn’t need to go that far with his quip. The United States doesn’t want foreign troops on others’ foreign soil either, even if U.S. basing strategy ensures that’s precisely what will happen. Russia has already announced plans to establish bases in the Seychelles, Singapore, and, more dangerously, in Nicaragua and Venezuela. China, Vine adds, will probably try to acquire or build bases in Africa and around the Indian Ocean.
The latter half of the 20th century was about the nuclear arms race. The 21st century could be marked by “base races,” as the likes of China and Russia try to turn a unipolar world multipolar. The prospects for peace are not good.
Home away from home
The postwar beginnings of base nation were a scandal. It was a man’s world, and a young man’s world at that. When American boys were stationed in Germany after the end of World War II, tensions between service members and the locals occurred immediately over “fraternization” — American GIs having sex with local women, not all of it consensual. As Vine writes, “Even when outright force was not involved, the nature of sexual relationships between GIs and German women — romance, prostitution, or assault — was often hazy at best.”
The military’s solution to the fraternization problem was to allow service members’ families to join them in Germany in 1945. As the American population swelled, the military requisitioned more German land to segregate service members and their families from the locals. This led to the construction of “Little Americas,” bases “that resemble insulated, self-contained American towns that allow their inhabitants to hardly ever leave” the complex, which would spread across the world.
From bases constructed to look like the America Dream to the giant Walmart-like PXs selling comfort at a discount price, Vine is adept at describing the creepiness of base life when you remember what men and women are there to do. “Throughout my visits to various bases, I repeatedly had to remind myself about the role they play in waging war — such is the distance one can feel from conflict in these manicured Little Americas, with all their comforts and conveniences.” These pseudo-suburban bubbles are designed to make living the military life, combined with good pay and generous housing allowances, worth the risk of death.
But always just below the surface is the macabre. People watch out for “notification teams,” the men and women in Class A uniforms who deliver the bad news to loved ones. Base residents know the news is coming because when a death occurs, “there’s a three-day blackout on Internet and phone contact with the unit that has lost a member.” The unit’s loved ones hold their breaths, hoping the notification team doesn’t roll up on their doorstep. “People say that after getting the news,” writes Vine, “widows will hurt themselves, while widowers will hurt others.”
Base construction, operations, and maintenance also means money, lots and lots of money for private defense contractors. The Pentagon’s overreliance on contractors, Vine writes, is due to the evolution of the U.S. military from a conscripted force to an all-volunteer one. In other words, you won’t find many service members peeling potatoes anymore, something my grandfather said he did a lot of during his time in the Navy during World War II.
According to Vine’s calculations, the Pentagon spent about $385 billion on contractors between late 2011 and 2013. A good portion of that money vanished. The Commission on Wartime Contracting has estimated that waste and abuse in just the Iraq and Afghanistan wars amounted to $31 billion to $60 billion. One of the most corrupt companies is also the military’s top defense contractor, Kellogg, Brown & Root. The company received $44.4 billion in contracts between October 2001 and May 2013, according to Vine’s analysis. Yet in 2009, the Pentagon’s auditor went before the Commission on Wartime Contracting and testified that the company was responsible for the “vast majority” of suspected incidents of combat-zone fraud.
“We’re profiteers,” a defense contractor representative said at a London conference called “Forward Operating Bases 2012.” Vine recalls the admission had only a “touch of irony.” In another enlightening remark at the conference, a representative from General Dynamics asked, referring to Afghanistan, “What if we have peace break out?” Maj. Tim Elliot replied, “God forbid!”
If war is the health of the state, then the empire represented by base nation is the fleecing of Americans’ hard-earned dollars by crony capitalist interests.
The tiny base movement
Because large bases on foreign soil often result in protests and political instability, the Pentagon’s basing strategy has evolved toward “cooperative security locations,” or what is known more simply as “lily pads.” Generally located in poor and weak countries, lily pads are relatively cheap bases where the U.S. military can train and pre-position weapons and supplies for when needed in a pinch. While the story remains that lily pads are the property of the host country, say in the Philippines or throughout Africa, they are for all intents and purposes U.S. military bases.
The Pentagon, it seems, is learning to be more discreet, even if there is no real change in U.S. imperial ambitions. Towards the end of Base Nation, Vine recalls journalist Robert D. Kaplan’s visits to various lily pads across the globe. Upon arrival, he heard over and over again, “Welcome to Injun Country.” As Vine gravely notes, “One doesn’t go to ‘Injun Country’ just for the scenery. One goes looking for Injuns.”
And that can mean only more and more “Footprints of Freedom,” with all the dangers they bring, as the U.S. national security establishment tries to extend the American century into the 21st.