Base Nation: How U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World
By David Vine
New York: Metropolitan Books, 2015
Review by Jeremy Kuzmarov
In November 2015, two dozen activists representing the all-Okinawa Council came to Washington to urge the Obama administration to cancel an agreement with Japan’s conservative government of Abe Shinzo to build a new military base on reclaimed land on a coral-rich bay on the northern coast of Okinawa, an island that already hosts 32 U.S. military bases. Over 80 percent of Okinawans and the island’s entire elected leadership oppose the new base in Henoko, which will severely damage coral reefs and wreck the last feeding ground of the dugong, an endangered species.
As David Vine, a professor of anthropology at American University informs us in his important new book, Base Nation: How U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World, Okinawa fits with a broader pattern in which American attempts to garrison the planet have met with considerable opposition. The most violent reaction was the formation of Al Qaeda by Osama bin Laden in response to the hosting of U.S. military bases in Saudi Arabia near Muslim Holy Ground. According to official Pentagon data, the United States currently occupies 686 overseas military base sites, a total which excludes secret bases such as those in Saudi Arabia and Israel, along with smaller facilities and installations and recreational areas like golf courses of which the Pentagon operates more than 170. By comparison, all other countries combined have only about 30 military bases outside their own countries. The thousands of American personnel living on the bases live privileged lifestyles and alienate the local populace by sexually assaulting the local women, leaving behind children or abusing prostitutes, by carrying out training exercises that cause noise and pollution, and by committing a host of additional crimes for which they are usually exempted from serious punishment under Status of Forces Agreements.
American bases are frequently located on pristine land including world heritage sites as in the case of Cheju-island in Korea and in countries with antidemocratic governments for whom the U.S. troop presence provides a security guarantee. In the case of the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, a 1969-1970 U.S. Senate investigation discovered that annual U.S.-Spanish military exercises at Moron Air base were designed to prepare a military response to an anti-Franco uprising and keep his regime in power despite its domestic repression. The United States has often intervened in political processes to empower regimes that would allow for military bases. In Italy, the Truman administration used propaganda, smear campaigns and military threats to ensure the 1948 election of the Christian democrats who provided widespread base access over the next five decades. More recently, the United States has provided police advisers to the government of Bahrain, home of the U.S. fifth fleet and naval forces command, during its violent crackdown on pro-democracy protestors and assisted the consolidation of a post-coup regime in Honduras responsible for systematic human rights abuses.
Base Nation was born on September 2, 1940 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized an agreement considered “the most important action in the reinforcement of our national security since the Louisiana Purchase” in which Britain provided the United States with 50 World War I-era destroyers in exchange for U.S. control over a collection of air and naval bases in Britain’s colonies, mainly in the Caribbean. Previously hundreds of frontier forts had helped to enable Westward expansion, with the U.S. having acquired overseas bases at Guantanamo Bay and in the Philippines following the Spanish-American War. By the end of World War II, the United States had built the largest collection of bases in world history, including a chain of bases from the Philippines through the Ryuku Archipelago and its main bastion, Okinawa, set up as part of the effort to turn the Asia-Pacific into an “American lake.”
A decade and a half later, the United States was committed to more than 43 nations by treaty and agreement and had some 375 major foreign military bases and 3,000 minor military facilities spread all over the world, virtually surrounding the Soviet Union and China. To secure access to Middle East petroleum, the Carter (1977-1981) and Reagan administrations (1981-1989) acquired new facilities in Egypt, Oman, and Saudi Arabia as part of “one of the greatest base construction efforts in history” approaching the scale of “Cold War garrisoning of Western Europe and the profusion of bases built to wage wars in Korea and Vietnam.”
The Johnson administration previously acquired Diego Garcia, a base facility off the Indian Ocean which the U.S. effectively bought for $14 million from the British in a 1966 secret agreement detaching the Chagos Archipelago from colonial Mauritius. The Chagossian population was slowly removed from the island and sent out on ships whose conditions were comparable, according to some eyewitnesses to those found on slave ships. They were left to live in the Seychelles and Mauritius in “abject poverty” as the victims of an “act of mass kidnapping,” with few in Washington “caring very much at all about these populations,” according to former Pentagon official Gary Sick.
The U.S. military had displaced thousands more people to make way for bases in Vieques Island, Puerto Rico and in Bikini Island (in the Marshall Islands), which became “hopelessly contaminated” after the Navy conducted 68 atomic and hydrogen bomb tests between 1946 and 1958 that spread radiation exposure over a wide area. Besides high cancer rates, the displaced Bikini population came to suffer from malnutrition and became dependent on food aid, with high suicide rates and despondency. None of this was of concern to Henry Kissinger who allegedly stated: “There are only 90,000 people out there. Who gives a damn?”
Kissinger’s remarks underscore the callousness of American foreign policymakers towards the fate of indigenous local populations. Like past empire builders, they were fixated with projecting national power and gaining an edge over strategic rivals such as the Russians and Chinese whose “threat” was always played up.
In the last decades, private interests have come to drive U.S. policy more and more. Vine estimates that the Pentagon disbursed around $385 billion in taxpayer-funded contracts for work outside the U.S. in 2013, most of it on overseas bases. Almost a third of the total was disbursed to leading military contractors including the former Haliburton subsidiary Kellogg, Brown & Root, the private security company DynCorp, and British Petroleum. Staffed by former government and military officials as part of the revolving door, these companies have defrauded the government, been responsible for shoddy construction work and cost cutting that has led to poor environmental standards and even the deaths of U.S. soldiers, and have been implicated in an array of scandals, including involvement in the child-sex-slave trade in Bosnia (DynCorp) along with arms smuggling and narcotics trafficking.
With a loosening campaign financing structure, the same companies have been able to increasingly buy political influence. PACs linked to military contractors gave more than $27 million in election donations in 2012 alone and almost $200 million since the 1990s. Most of the money has gone to members of the committees on appropriations and armed services in the Senate and House of Representatives who have most of the authority over awarding military dollars. When Peter Eberle, a representative from General Dynamics asked a military officer: “What if we have peace break out,” after the NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan, the officer replied: “God forbid,” underscoring how the privatization of war has all but ensured its permanence.
Vine’s book brings up to date the work of the late Chalmers Johnson, who exposed the extent of the military base network and its contribution to “blowback” in his trilogy on the American empire. His extensive research helps to put to rest the canard that the United States empire was created by “invitation” or as a historical “accident “ and that the United States exhibits a purely benign influence on world affairs. This is clearly not the case if one considers the fate of the Okinawans, Chagossians, Bikinians, and a host of other peoples’ striving to rid their homeland of an American military presence.