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Chalmers Johnson On The Cost Of Empire

By Chalmers Johnson

26 May, 2009

Review of “The Bases of Empire: The Global Struggle Against U.S. Military Posts” an important collection of articles on United States militarism and imperialism, edited by Catherine Lutz

In her foreword to “The Bases of Empire: The Global Struggle Against U.S. Military Posts,” an important collection of articles on United States militarism and imperialism, edited by Catherine Lutz, the prominent feminist writer Cynthia Enloe notes one of our most abject failures as a government and a democracy: “There is virtually no news coverage—no journalists’ or editors’ curiosity—about the pressures or lures at work when the U.S. government seeks to persuade officials of Romania, Aruba or Ecuador that providing U.S. military-basing access would be good for their countries.” The American public, if not the residents of the territories in question, is almost totally innocent of the huge costs involved, the crimes committed by our soldiers against women and children in the occupied territories, the environmental pollution, and the deep and abiding suspicions generated among people forced to live close to thousands of heavily armed, culturally myopic and dangerously indoctrinated American soldiers. This book is an antidote to such parochialism.

Catherine Lutz is an anthropologist at Brown University and the author of an ethnography of an American city that is indubitably part of the American military complex: Fayetteville, N.C., adjacent to Fort Bragg, home of the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare School (see “Homefront, A Military City and the American Twentieth Century,” Beacon Press, 2002). On the opening page of her introduction to the current volume, Lutz makes a real contribution to the study of the American empire of bases. She writes, “Officially, over 190,000 troops and 115,000 civilian employees are massed in 909 military facilities in 46 countries and territories.” She cites as her source the Department of Defense’s Base Structure Report ( for fiscal year 2007. This is the Defense Department’s annual inventory of real estate that it owns or leases in the United States and in foreign countries. Oddly, however, the total of 909 foreign bases does not appear in the 2007 BSR. Instead, it gives the numbers of 823 bases located in other people’s countries and 86 sites located in U.S. territories. So Lutz has combined the foreign and territorial bases—which include American Samoa, the District of Columbia, Guam, Johnston Atoll, the Northern Marianas Islands, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and Wake Island. Guam is host to at least 30 military sites and Puerto Rico to 41 bases.

Combining the two numbers is a good idea. Some of the most deplorable conditions in the American military empire exist in U.S. territories, notably in Puerto Rico, where the citizens fought a long battle to stop the naval bombardment of Vieques Island, and in Guam, where the government plans to relocate more than 8,000 Marines from Okinawa together with a $13 billion expansion of Air Force and Navy facilities. The result will be an almost 15 percent increase in Guam’s population, which will significantly exceed the capacity of the island’s water and solid-waste systems. (See “U.S. Military Guam Buildup Spurs Worry over Services,” San Diego Union-Tribune, April 12, 2009.) In the book under review here, Lutz also includes an essay on the state of Hawaii, with its 161 military installations (in 2004) covering 6 percent of the state’s land area (22 percent of the state’s most densely populated island, Oahu). The military is easily Hawaii’s largest polluter, including the secret use of depleted uranium ammunition at the Shofield range, evidence of which was uncovered in 2006.

It should be noted that the BSR for fiscal 2008 has been available since the summer of last year and it somewhat alters Lutz’s figures. It gives details on 761 bases in other people’s countries and 104 U.S. territories, which produces a Lutz total of 865. Such small variations from year to year have been typical of the American empire throughout the Cold War. Some 865 bases located in all the continents except Antarctica is not only a staggeringly large number compared even with the great empires of the past, but one the U.S. clearly cannot afford given its severely weakened economic condition.

Nonetheless, there has been no public discussion by the Obama administration over starting to liquidate our overseas bases or beginning to scale back our imperialist presence in the rest of the world. One must also remember that the BSR is an official source that often conflicts with other reports on the numbers of American military personnel located all over the world. It omits many bases that the Department of Defense wants to conceal or play down, notably those in Iraq, Afghanistan and Israel. For example, just one of the many unlisted bases in Iraq, Ballad Air Base, houses 30,000 troops and 10,000 contractors, and extends across 16 square miles with an additional 12-square-mile “security perimeter.”

One other subject that Lutz touches on in her introduction and that cries out for a book-length study is the political machinations that every American embassy and military base on earth engages in to undermine and change local laws that stand in the way of U.S. military plans. For years the United States has interfered in the domestic affairs of nations to bring about “regime change,” rig elections, free American servicemen who have been charged with extremely serious felonies against local civilians, indoctrinate the local officer corps in American militarist values (as at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation at Fort Benning, Ga.), and preserve and protect the so-called Status of Forces Agreements that the United States imposes on all nations with U.S. bases. These SOFAs give our troops extraterritorial privileges such as freedom from local laws and from passport and travel regulations, and they absolve the U.S. from a country’s anti-pollution requirements, noise restrictions and environmental laws.

Mapping U.S. Power

The first essay in Lutz’s collection is by one of the few genuine veterans of military base studies, Joseph Gerson, the New England director of programs for the American Friends Service Committee. He is the editor (along with Bruce Birchard) of “The Sun Never Sets: Confronting the Network of U.S. Military Bases” (Boston: South End Press, 1991). His essay on “U.S. Foreign Military Bases and Military Colonialism: Personal and Analytical Perspectives” is particularly good on the hypocrisy and opportunism that imperialism imposes on our foreign policy, regardless of our intentions. For example, he notes, in the words of the American Declaration of Independence, the “abuses and usurpations” that King George III of England imposed on us though his “standing armies kept among us, in times of peace.”

Today the “abuses and usurpations” of American standing armies “include more than rape, murder, sexual harassment, robbery, other common crimes, seizure of people’s lands, destruction of property, and the cultural imperialism that have accompanied foreign armies since time immemorial. They now include terrorizing jet blasts of frequent low-altitude and night-landing exercises, helicopters and warplanes crashing into homes and schools and the poisoning of environments and communities with military toxins; and they transform ‘host’ communities into targets for genocidal nuclear as well as ‘conventional’ attacks.” When it comes to opportunism, Gerson notes that the Navy’s Indian Ocean tsunami relief operations of 2005 helped open the way for U.S. forces to return to Thailand and for greater cooperation with the Indonesian military.

John Lindsay-Poland’s essay “U.S. Military Bases in Latin America and the Caribbean” is informed by his extensive background in organizing and supporting struggles for the closure and environmental cleanup of U.S. military bases in Panama and Puerto Rico. His essay is comprehensive and historically detailed, although it appears to have been completed in late 2007 or early 2008 and some of the information has been overtaken by recent events. Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa has refused to renew our lease on Manta Air Base when it expires in November 2009; and the U.S. Army’s 2005 attempt to woo Paraguay flopped. After the Americans are expelled from the Manta base in November the only physical facilities of the U.S. military in South America will be in Colombia.

In 2005 and 2006, the United States tried to seduce Paraguay into giving the U.S. a permanent base by sending several hundred soldiers to provide medical assistance and dig wells. As it turned out, these ancient ploys did not work. Suspicions of the American military’s motives were aroused throughout the cone of South America, and the local population pronounced itself fully capable of digging wells unassisted by foreign troops. Lindsay-Poland notes that the “medical attention [in Paraguay] was one-time only, and … U.S. personnel handed out unlabeled medicines indiscriminately, regardless of the differences in medical conditions.”

David Heller and Hans Lammerant have contributed one of the most useful essays in the volume on “U.S. Nuclear Weapons Bases in Europe.” Information on this subject is scarce and the U.S. press is frightened of reporting what little is available for fear of raising a taboo topic. Heller has been actively involved with anti-nuclear and anti-militarist campaigns in Britain, Belgium and other European countries since the early 1990s. Lammerant has long supported the Belgian branch of War Resisters International.

They reveal that there are today still an estimated 350 to 480 free-fall B-61-type tactical nuclear weapons in the territories of the NATO allies, compared with a maximum of 7,300 land, air, and sea-based nuclear weapons based in Europe in 1971. The bombs are housed at eight air bases in six NATO countries, all of which enjoy Bechtel-installed Weapons Storage and Security Systems, type WS-3. These devices are vaults installed in the floors within a “protective aircraft shelter” and allow for the arming of bombs and aircraft inside hangars, offering high degrees of secrecy and (supposedly) security. Heller and Lammerant note that the weapons based in Europe are “secret, deadly, illegal, costly, militarily useless, politically motivated, and deeply, deeply unpopular.” Before they were all withdrawn, ground-launched nuclear missiles were based at Greenham Common and Molesworth in Britain, Comiso in Italy, Florennes in Belgium, and Wuescheim in the former West Germany. Pershing II missiles were based at Schwaebisch-Gmuend, Neu Ulm, and Waldheide-Neckarsulm in West Germany.

One of the themes stressed by Catherine Lutz as editor of this book is the prominent role played by women and women’s organizations in resisting American military imperialism over the years. All of the chapters offer details on the contributions of women to anti-base resistance activities, particularly in the case of the nuclear bases in Europe. Following the U.S. decision to station nuclear weapons at Greenham Common in the south of England, local women created “Women for Life on Earth” and maintained a constant presence ( in front of the base from 1981 to 2000 (even though the nuclear weapons were secretly removed in 1991).

Heller and Lammerant conclude their essay with details on the early-warning radars, anti-missile bases, military hubs to support operations in Africa, and facilities extant or being constructed at Thule in Greenland, Vardo in Denmark, the Czech Republic, Poland, and Vicenza in northern Italy. On March 17, 2009, the Czech government rejected a proposal by the Pentagon to install a U.S. military radar base in the Czech Republic because the lower house of the Czech parliament seemed certain to vote against it.

Tom Engelhardt’s contribution, “Iraq as a Pentagon Construction Site,” is a cobbled-together version of two essays first published on TomDispatch, of which Engelhardt is editor. All source citations have been removed from the Lutz version, but readers can consult the original essays—“A Basis for Enduring Relationships in Iraq,” (
) Dec. 2, 2007, and “Baseless Considerations,” ( Nov. 4, 2007.

The essays are tours de force on the construction of probably permanent American military bases in occupied Iraq and of the massive fortress—- as large as the Vatican—in the Green Zone of Baghdad that is the “American Embassy.” Engelhardt’s work is a model of how to glean information from the public press on subjects that the American military is trying to keep secret. This is the best research we have to date on the bases in Iraq and the billions of dollars that flowed into the coffers of Halliburton Corp. to build them. (Truth in reporting: Engelhardt is the editor of all three of my books in the Blowback Trilogy.)

Global Resistance

Roland G. Simbulan’s “People’s Movement Responses to Evolving U.S. Military Activities in the Philippines” is a detailed analysis of how the United States has tried to get back into its former colony after the Philippine Senate voted on Sept. 16, 1991, to close all American military facilities and ordered U.S. troops to withdraw. Simbulan is a professor at the University of the Philippines and he played an active role in the “people’s power” movement that overthrew the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos and led to the 1991 rejection of the bases treaty.

Simbulan is justified in calling his country’s active protests against the Americans and their domestic lackeys “the most vibrant social movement in Southeast Asia,” but he is at pains to stress that the Americans are unreconciled to their colonial defeat. They continue with unabated creativity to invent “visiting forces agreements” aimed at restoring the U.S. troops’ old extraterritorial privileges and “joint military exercises” against domestic criminal gangs such as the Abu Sayyaf bandits in Mindanao and other Islamic provinces of the southern Philippines.

After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. has also tried to overstate the threat of Islamic radicalism in the Philippines, even though there has been a slow-burning insurgency by indigenous Muslims for over 20 years, and it has pressured the Philippine government to abandon the anti-nuclear weapons provisions of its 1987 constitution. Americans may also be implicated in a clandestine campaign of selective killings of political activists, peasant and trade union leaders, human rights workers, lawyers and church people “in a pattern that was strikingly similar to that of Operation Phoenix”—the terrorist exercise run by the CIA in Vietnam that took the lives of some 30,000 suspected members of the National Liberation Front. Simbulan has written an important analysis of why the Philippines seems unable to get out from under the shadow of the United States despite the victories of “people power” almost 20 years ago.

David Vine’s and Laura Jeffrey’s article entitled “Give Us Back Diego Garcia: Unity and Division Among Activists in the Indian Ocean,” is a lively treatment of the seemingly hopeless efforts of the indigenous people of the island of Diego Garcia to obtain some measure of justice. In 1964, they were expropriated and forcibly expelled by the British government at the insistence of the U.S. Navy so that it could turn the entire island into an American military base.

This essay builds on Vine’s important monograph “Island of Shame: The Secret History of the U.S. Military Base on Diego Garcia,” Princeton University Press, 2009. Vine is a professor of anthropology at American University in Washington, D.C. Jeffrey holds a postdoctoral fellowship in anthropology at the University of Edinburgh. She has carried out ethnographic fieldwork among the Chagossians, the exiled people of Diego Garcia, now living in Mauritius and the United Kingdom.

In 1960, U.S. government officials secretly approached their British counterparts about acquiring the tiny island of Diego Garcia in the middle of the Indian Ocean as a site for a military base. By 1964, the United Kingdom agreed to detach Diego Garcia and the rest of the surrounding Chagos archipelago from its colony Mauritius and several island groups from colonial Seychelles to create a strategic military colony, the British Indian Ocean Territory. In a flagrant violation of human rights, Britain then removed the native inhabitants of Diego Garcia and Chagos, dumping them in Mauritius and Seychelles, 1,300 miles away, where they live today in abject poverty.

By 1973, the United States had completed the nucleus of a super-secret base that would grow faster than any other U.S. base since the Vietnam War. After the attacks of 9/11, the United States used Diego Garcia’s twin parallel runways, each over two miles in length, to launch its fleet of B-1, B-2, and B-52 bombers in its assault on Afghanistan, and its 2003 “shock and awe” campaign against Iraq. Diego Garcia also became the site of a secret CIA detention and torture facility for suspected terrorists.

According to John Pike, who runs the military analysis Web site ( , Diego Garcia lies at the center of American imperialist plans in case the nations of East Asia should decide that they have had enough of American military forces based on their territories. According to Pike, “[Diego Garcia] is the single most important military facility we’ve got.” The military’s goal, Pike says, is that “we’ll be able to run the planet from Guam and Diego Garcia by 2015, even if the entire Eastern Hemisphere has drop-kicked us from bases on their territory.” With characteristic hypocrisy, the Pentagon has named the Diego Garcia base “Camp Justice.”

Environmental Issues

Environmental and health issues have become the most important new focus in the long-standing conflicts between the U.S. military and civilian communities. Chief evidence is the victory of popular mobilization and civil disobedience against the Navy’s 60-year-long bombing of Vieques, a 51-square-mile island municipality six miles off the southeast coast of the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico. Katherine T. McCaffrey’s expert treatment of the four-year-long movement to force an end to the bombing of Vieques is one the most important pieces in Lutz’s anthology. The bombing of a Caribbean island inhabited by 10,000 American civilians also exposed Puerto Rico’s lack of sovereignty and the second-class status of its residents within the U.S. polity. Emphasis on environmental issues overcame the Puerto Ricans’ traditional reluctance to politicize their plight and created a broad popular movement that mobilized women and caused the Catholic and Protestant churches to join hands.

On April 19, 1999, the Vieques movement was further strengthened and united when it acquired a martyr. Two U.S. Navy F-18 jet aircraft traveling at supersonic speeds accidentally dropped two 500-pound bombs on the compound that the Navy used to survey the shelling. A civilian security guard, David Sanes, who was patrolling the area, was knocked unconscious and subsequently bled to death. The result was that civilians occupied the site for more than a year, causing the Navy to move its bombing range to North Carolina. Given their access to the site, the occupiers also discovered that the Navy was using depleted uranium ammunition on Vieques. In May 2003, the Navy was finally forced off the island. McCaffrey concludes, “After decades of secrecy surrounding its activities, the military is emerging as the single largest polluter in the United States, single-handedly producing 27,000 toxic-waste sites in this country.”

From Vieques, mobilization based on environmental and health concerns spread to the Navy-controlled island of Kahoolawe in Hawaii, where it was equally successful in forcing the Navy to pull out. Kahoolawe had been occupied and bombed by the U.S. Navy since the outbreak of World War II. Kyle Kajihiro’s essay “Resisting Militarization in Hawaii,” touches on this and other military issues in Hawaii. Kajihiro is the American Friends Service Committee’s program director in Hawaii, who since 1996 has been active in the Hawaiian sovereignty movement. His article is less a scholarly analysis of the popular protests against the huge military presence in Hawaii than a well-informed, impassioned brief for the rights of the Kanaka Maoli (native Hawaiians). Kajihiro also points out that for the first time since World War II, tourism is now a bigger part of the Hawaiian economy than the military installations. His essay is a valuable contribution to the comparatively small literature on the problems of militarism within the United States.

The essay by Ayse Gul Altinay and Amy Holmes, “Opposition to the U.S. Military Presence in Turkey in the Context of the Iraq War,” is important for three reasons. First, there is very little published on the bases in Turkey; second, Incirlik Air Base on the outskirts of Adana, Turkey, is the largest U.S. military facility in a strategically vital NATO ally; and third, the decision on March 1, 2003, of the Turkish National Assembly not to deploy Turkish forces in Iraq nor to allow the United States to use Turkey as an invasion route into Iraq was one of the Bush administration’s greatest setbacks. Public opinion polls in January 2003 revealed that 90 percent of Turks opposed U.S. imperialism against Iraq and 83 percent opposed Turkey’s cooperating with the United States. Nonetheless, major U.S. newspapers either ignored or trivialized Turkey’s opposition to U.S. war plans.

Altinay is a professor of anthropology at Sabanci University, Turkey, and the author of “The Myth of the Military Nation: Militarism, Gender, and Education in Turkey” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004). Holmes is a doctoral candidate in sociology at the Johns Hopkins University and has written extensively on American bases in Germany and Turkey.

Turkey is not an easy place to do research on American bases. Some 41 percent of bilateral agreements between the U.S. and Turkey between 1947 and 1965 were secret. It was not known that the U.S. had stationed missiles on Turkish territory until the U.S. promised to remove them in return for the USSR’s withdrawing its missiles from Cuba. Incirlik became even more central to U.S. strategy after 1974. In that year, Turkey invaded Cyprus and the United States imposed an arms embargo on its ally. As a result, Turkey closed all 27 U.S. bases in the country except for one, Incirlik. As Altinay and Holmes write, “It is difficult to overemphasize the importance of the Incirlik Air Base for U.S. power projection in the Middle East, particularly since the early 1990s; for more than a decade, the entire Iraq policy of the United States hinged on Incirlik.”

My choice of the best article in the Lutz volume is Kozue Akibayashi’s and Suzuyo Takazato‘s “Okinawa: Women’s Struggle for Demilitarization.” The persecution of the native population of the island of Okinawa, Japan’s most southerly and poorest prefecture, by the American occupiers and the Japanese government since at least the Battle of Okinawa in 1945 has been told often and is reasonably well known in mainland Japan and among the U.S. armed forces. Akibayashi and Takazato expertly retell the essence of the story here, but what makes the article a standout is their emphasis on the mistreatment of Okinawan women and girls and their theoretically sophisticated conclusions.

Akibayashi is a researcher at the Institute for Gender Studies of Ochanomizu University in Tokyo. Takazato is one of the best-known activists in the struggle of Okinawan women to escape the threat of sexual violence by American military personnel. She is an elected member of the City Council in Naha, the capital of Okinawa, and one of the founders of Okinawa Women Act Against Military Violence, which was created in the wake of the gang rape ( on Sept. 4, 1995 of a 12-year-old Okinawa schoolgirl by two U.S. Marines and a sailor. The purpose of Takazato’s organization was to prevent a recurrence of attacks by the U.S. military on Okinawan women and to protect the young victim of Sept. 4 from unwanted publicity. The organization subsequently created the Rape Emergency Intervention Counseling Center in Okinawa, and has worked to end the U.S. military occupation of the island chain. Unfortunately, despite heroic efforts to get American military commanders to enforce discipline among their troops and strong representations to the Japanese government to take an interest in the plight of the Okinawans, little has changed. This has led Akibayashi and Takazato to two significant conclusions.

(1) “Integral elements of misogyny infect military training. …The military is a violence-producing institution to which sexual and gender violence are intrinsic. … The essence of military forces is their pervasive, deep-rooted contempt for women, which can be seen in military training that completely denies femininity and praises hegemonic masculinity.”

(2) “The OWAAMV [Okinawa Women Act Against Military Violence] movement illustrates from a gender perspective that ‘the protected,’ who are structurally deprived of political power, are in fact not protected by the militarized security policies; rather their livelihoods are made insecure by these very policies. The movement has also illuminated the fact that ‘gated’ bases do not confine military violence to within the bases. Those hundred-of-miles-long fences around the bases are there only to assure the readiness of the military and military operations by excluding and even oppressing the people living outside the gated bases.”

These two propositions—misogyny in the official education of American troops and hypocrisy in describing the benefits to locals of foreign military bases—are significant. I believe that they should inform future research on the American empire around the world to see if they can be verified in many different contexts and to further develop their various implications. Meanwhile, these erudite essays should cause Americans to reflect on the nature of U.S. imperialism just at the point where it is most probably starting to decline due to economic constraints and popular exhaustion with the wars and deaths it has caused.

Copyright © 2009 Truthdig

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