Book review: Base Nation: How U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World, maps American military mishaps
Despite its grim reputation, the US Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba is a place of manicured golf courses, an outdoor cinema, suburban lawns, schools, a bowling alley, and fast food joints.
As David Vine writes in Base Nation: How U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World, Guantánamo could be Anywhere, USA, or, more to the point, any “of the hundreds of US military bases spread around the globe”.
There is a link, Vine says, between the “1950s-era Mayberry” feel to such places and his central argument that bases create more damage than security. As such, bases must be dressed-up to seem what they are not. “Little Americas” – whether at Guantánamo or in Germany – are family-friendly places, softening the hardships of overseas postings. And with little reason to leave the base, “friction” with locals is greatly reduced.
On Guam, blatant American colonialism is masked by a euphemism: the island is an American “territory”. The Pentagon’s current preference for “lily pad” bases reflects a wish to disappear altogether; “secluded and self-contained” so as to “avoid local populations, publicity, and potential opposition”, the lily pad motto is: “No flag, no forward presence, no families”.
Today, the US has some 800 foreign outposts, Vine estimates. The rest of the world has thirty.
With changing Pentagon priorities, more contrarian politicians, and a relative drawdown in the Middle East, Vine, an anthropology professor at American University in Washington, says it is time to challenge the “permanent war footing” America’s overseas bases represent.
The modern era of American bases began during the Second World War when president Franklin Roosevelt gave American warships to a beleaguered Britain in exchange for several of the country’s bases.
By 1943 the US Joint Chiefs of Staff declared the worldwide acquisition of bases should be “amongst our primary war aims”. Military and business interests dovetailed, then, as now. The Cold War helped to entrench this “forward strategy”—bases were thought crucial to hem in the Soviet Union.
Redundancy was one protection against planners’ fear of eviction. Another was the Strategic Island Concept: the “stockpiling” of “relatively small, lightly populated islands, separated from major population masses, [that] could be safely held under full control of the West”.
Also, the Pentagon has put many bases in non-democratic countries – no elections mean no surprise evictions should local sentiment sour. The main activity at an American base in 1960s Spain was practicing saving the regime of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco in the case of an uprising.
Even allied democracies seem to have been compromised. With covert and overt American support, Vine writes, “of the four countries worldwide hosting the largest number of US bases, three [Japan, South Korea, Italy] saw virtually unbroken one-party rule for half a century or more. The other, Germany, had twenty years of one-party rule after the war”.
Base Nation is essentially reportage. Vine’s descriptions of sex workers, often trafficked, labouring in the “camptowns” near bases – is particularly poignant.
“You know something is wrong when the girls are asking you to buy them bread,” one American soldier told Vine.
The exile of the Chagossians from Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean to make way for a major American base (“The Footprint of Freedom”) is an outrageous episode. So, too, is what happened to Pacific Islanders subjected to the brutalities of US nuclear weapons testing.
Vine deals at length with the misogyny and sexual violence that plagues military life (and bases in particular).
So much of that problem is distilled in the reaction of a top navy commander to the abduction and rape of a 12-year-old Okinawan girl by three American troops: “I think that it was absolutely stupid. I have said several times: For the price they paid to rent the car they could’ve had a girl”.
The book is hampered by a tendency to conflate problems – family separation, sexual assault, prostitution, environmental damage and even one-off tragedies (such as the 20 people killed when an American jet sliced through a gondola cable in Italy). That Vine fails to distinguish well-enough between hardship, crime, vice and freak accident means Base Nation never quite comes together as a coherent argument. Vine’s reporting, however, makes the book worth reading.
This book is available on Amazon.
Caleb Lauer is a freelance journalist based in Turkey.