How U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World
by David Vine
How U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World
by David Vine
From a hilltop at the Guantánamo Bay naval station, you can look down on a secluded part of the base bordered by the Caribbean Sea. There you’ll see thick coils of razor wire, guard towers, search lights, and concrete barriers. This is the U.S. prison that has garnered so much international attention and controversy, with so many prisoners held for years without trial. But the prison facilities take up only a few acres of the forty-five-square-mile naval station. Most of the base looks nothing like the detention center. Instead, the landscape features suburban-style housing developments, a golf course, and recreational boating facilities. This part of the base has received much less attention than the prison. Yet in its own way, it is far more important for understanding who we are as a country and how we relate to the rest of the world.
What makes most of the naval station so remarkable is just how unremarkable it is. Looking out on Guantánamo Bay, a U.S. flag flies outside base headquarters. Nearby, an outdoor movie theater has a regular schedule of Hollywood blockbusters. Next door, there are bright-green artificial turf fields for football and soccer, at a new sports facility that also features two baseball diamonds, volleyball and basketball courts, and an outdoor roller-skating rink. In the air-conditioned gym, ESPN’s Sportscenter plays on TV. Across the main road there’s a large chapel, a post office, and a sun-bleached set of McDonald’s golden arches. Neighborhoods with names like Deer Point and Villamar have looping drives and spacious lawns with barbecue grills and children’s toys. There’s a high school, a middle and elementary school, and a childcare facility. There are pools and playgrounds, several public beaches, a bowling center, barber and beauty shops, a Pizza Hut, a Taco Bell, a KFC, and a Subway.
From the hilltop you can also faintly see two nearby Cuban towns, but most everywhere else on base it’s easy to forget you’re in Cuba. What base residents call “downtown,” for example, could be almost anywhere in the United States-or at another of the hundreds of U.S. military bases spread around the globe, which often resemble self-contained American towns. The downtown is where you find the commissary and the Navy’s version of the post exchange, or PX-the shopping facility present on U.S. military bases worldwide. Surrounded by plentiful parking, the commissary and exchange feel like a Walmart, full of clothing and consumer electronics, furniture, automotive products, and groceries. At Guantánamo, the base souvenir shop is one of the few reminders of where you really are. There, along with U.S. Naval Station Guantánamo Bay postcards and mugs, you can buy a T-shirt bearing the words DETAINEE OPERATIONS.
During years of debates over the closure of Guantánamo Bay’s prison, few have asked why the United States has such a large base on Cuban territory in the first place, and whether we should have one there at all. This is unsurprising.
Most Americans rarely think about U.S. military bases overseas. Since the end of World War II and the early days of the Cold War, when the United States built or acquired most of its overseas bases, Americans have considered it normal to have U.S. military installations in other countries, on other people’s land. The presence of our bases overseas has long been accepted unquestioningly and treated as an obvious good, essential to national security and global peace. Perhaps these bases register in our consciousness when there’s an antibase protest in Okinawa or an accident in Germany. Quickly, however, they’re forgotten.
Of course, people living near U.S. bases in countries worldwide pay them more attention. For many, U.S. bases are one of the most prominent symbols of the United States, along with Hollywood movies, pop music, and fast food. Indeed, the prevalence of Burger Kings and Taco Bells on many of our bases abroad is telling: ours is a supersized collection of bases with franchises the world over. While there are no freestanding foreign bases on U.S. soil, today there are around eight hundred U.S. bases in foreign countries, occupied by hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops.
Although the United States has long had some bases in foreign lands, this massive global deployment of military force was unknown in U.S. history before World War II. Now, seventy years after that war, there are still, according to the Pentagon, 174 U.S. bases in Germany, 113 in Japan, and 83 in South Korea. There are hundreds more dotting the planet in Aruba and Australia, Bahrain and Bulgaria, Colombia, Kenya, and Qatar, to name just a few. Worldwide, we have bases in more than seventy countries. Although few U.S. citizens realize it, we probably have more bases in other people’s lands than any other people, nation, or empire in world history.
And yet the subject is barely discussed in the media. Rarely does anyone ask whether we need hundreds of bases overseas, or whether we can afford them. Rarely does anyone consider how we would feel with a foreign base on U.S. soil, or how we would react if China, Russia, or Iran built even a single base somewhere near our borders today. For most in the United States, the idea of even the nicest, most benign foreign troops arriving with their tanks, planes, and high-powered weaponry and making themselves at home in our country-occupying and fencing off hundreds or thousands of acres of our land-is unthinkable.
Rafael Correa, the president of Ecuador, highlighted this rarely considered truth in 2009 when he refused to renew the lease for a U.S. base in his country. Correa told reporters that he would approve the lease renewal on one condition: “They let us put a base in Miami-an Ecuadorian base.”
“If there’s no problem having foreign soldiers on a country’s soil,” Correa quipped, “surely they’ll let us have an Ecuadorian base in the United States.”1
At the height of the U.S. occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, the total number of bases, combat outposts, and checkpoints in those two countries alone topped one thousand.2 With American troops largely withdrawn, almost all of those have been shut down. Yet officially, according to the most recent publicized count, the U.S. military currently still occupies 686 “base sites” outside the fifty states and Washington, D.C.3
While 686 is quite a figure, that tally strangely excludes many well-known U.S. bases, such as those in Kosovo, Kuwait, and Qatar. Less surprisingly, the Pentagon’s count also excludes secret (or secretive) American bases, such as those reported in Israel and Saudi Arabia. There are so many bases, the Pentagon itself doesn’t even know the true total.4 By my count, eight hundred is a good estimate.
But what exactly is a “base”? Definitions and terminology vary widely, and each of the military’s services has its own preferred vocabulary, including “post,” “station,” “camp,” and “fort.” The Pentagon defines its generic termbase site as a “physical (geographic) location”-meaning land, a facility or facilities, or land and facilities-“owned by, leased to, or otherwise possessed” by an armed service or another component of the Department of Defense.5 To avoid linguistic debates and because it’s the simplest and most widely recognized term, I generally use “base” to mean any place, facility, or installation used regularly for military purposes of any kind.6
Understood this way, bases come in all sizes and shapes, from massive sites in Germany and Japan to small radar facilities in Peru and Puerto Rico. Other bases include ports and airfields of all sizes, repair facilities, training areas, nuclear weapons installations, missile testing facilities, arsenals, warehouses, barracks, military schools, listening and communications posts, and drone bases. While I exclude checkpoints from my definition, military hospitals and prisons, rehab facilities, paramilitary bases, and intelligence facilities must also be considered part of the base world because of their military functions. Even military resorts and recreation areas in places such as Tuscany and Seoul are bases of a kind; worldwide, the military runs more than 170 golf courses.7
The Pentagon says that it has just sixty-four “active major installations” overseas and that most of its base sites are “small installations or locations.” But it defines “small” as having a reported value of up to $915 million.8 In other words, small can be not so small.
The United States is not the only country to control military bases outside its own territory. Britain and France have about thirteen between them, mostly in their former colonies. Russia has around nine in former Soviet republics. For the first time since World War II, Japan’s so-called Self-Defense Forces have a foreign base, located in Djibouti alongside American and French bases. South Korea, the Netherlands, India, Australia, Chile, Turkey, and Israel reportedly have one foreign base apiece. In total, all the non-U.S. countries in the world combined have about thirty foreign bases among them-as compared to the United States and its eight hundred or so. If we add up all the troops and the family members living with them, plus the civilian base employees and their family members, the bases are responsible for over half a million Americans abroad.9
THE FORWARD STRATEGY
Since the end of World War II, the idea that our country should have a large collection of bases and hundreds of thousands of troops permanently stationed overseas has been a quasireligious dictum of U.S. foreign and national security policy. The opening words of a U.S. Army War College study bluntly declare: “U.S. national security strategy requires access to overseas military bases.”10
The policy underlying this deeply held belief is known as the “forward strategy.” These two words, this wonky term of art, have had profound implications. Cold War policy held that the United States should maintain large concentrations of military forces and bases as close as possible to the Soviet Union, in order to hem in and “contain” supposed Soviet expansionism. Suddenly, as the historian George Stambuk explains, “the security of the United States, in the minds of policy-makers, lost much of its former inseparability from the concept of the territory of the United States.”11
Two decades after the Soviet Union’s collapse, in a world without another superpower rival, people across the political spectrum still believe as a matter of faith that overseas bases and troops are essential to protecting the country. At a time when bipartisanship has hit all-time lows, there are few issues more widely agreed upon by both Republicans and Democrats alike. The George W. Bush administration, for example, proclaimed that bases abroad have “maintained the peace” and provided “symbols of … U.S. commitments to allies and friends.”12 The Obama administration, for its part, declared that “forward-stationed and rotationally deployed U.S. forces continue to be relevant and required” as they “provide a stabilizing influence abroad.”13
And these are just two prominent examples. The forward strategy has been the overwhelming consensus among politicians, national security experts, military officials, journalists, and many others. It’s hard to overestimate how unquestioned this policy has been and remains. Any opposition to maintaining large numbers of overseas bases and troops is generally pilloried as peacenik idealism, or isolationism of the sort that allowed Hitler to conquer Europe.
Superficially, it seems hard to argue against maintaining U.S. bases overseas. It seems logical enough that more bases mean more security. Since the bases have been there for decades, it’s easy to assume that there must be good military reasons for them. U.S. leaders often portray our bases as a double gift to host countries, offering both security and economic benefits; thanks to the jobs and business contracts that bases provide and the money that U.S. military personnel and their families spend off base, many locals covet their presence. Why would anyone not want U.S. bases and troops in their countries? Many Americans assume that any “Yankee go home” sentiment must reflect a seething anti-Americanism. With bases in Europe and Asia, some might go so far as to invoke the old joke that if it weren’t for us, the locals would probably be speaking German or Japanese right now.
Nevertheless, for the first time in decades, an unusually bipartisan group has slowly begun to question the conventional wisdom. “In a sense it’s unnatural that any country be the host to large numbers of foreign forces,” former Pentagon official and base expert Andy Hoehn told me. “It was a necessary condition for a long time. And it’s a situation that we should be celebrating that we’re able to make that change, not one that we should be bemoaning.”
A TROUBLING RECORD
The most obvious reason to question the overseas base status quo is economic. Especially in an era of budget austerity, it makes sense to ask whether closing bases abroad can be an easy source of savings. Like many things far from home, overseas bases are very expensive. Even when host countries like Japan and Germany cover some of the costs, U.S. taxpayers still pay an average of $10,000 to $40,000 more per year to station a member of the military abroad compared to in the United States. The costs of transportation, the higher cost of living in some host countries, and the expense of providing schools, hospitals, housing, and other support to family members of military personnel abroad all contribute to the extra expense. With more than half a million troops, family members, and civilian employees on bases overseas, the expenses add up quickly.
By my very conservative calculations, the total cost of maintaining bases and military personnel overseas reaches at least $71.8 billion every year and could easily be in the range of $100-$120 billion. That’s larger than the discretionary budget for every government agency except the Defense Department itself. And this number doesn’t even include spending on bases in overseas war zones. If we include the cost of bases and troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, in 2012 the total easily topped $170 billion.
Other financial losses add up, too. When military personnel and family members spend their paychecks overseas rather than in communities at home, the U.S. economy is that much worse off. Allocating U.S. taxpayer dollars to build and run overseas bases means forgoing investments in areas like education, infrastructure, housing, and health care, which generally create more jobs and increase economic productivity far more than military spending does.
But beyond such financial costs, there are also human ones. The families of military personnel are among those who suffer from the spread of overseas bases, given the strain of distant deployments, family separations, and frequent moves. Overseas bases also contribute to the shocking rate of sexual assault in the military: an estimated one in three servicewomen is now assaulted, and a disproportionate number of these crimes happen at bases abroad. Outside the base gates, meanwhile, in places like South Korea, one often finds exploitative prostitution industries that frequently rely on human trafficking.
And once one begins to look closely at U.S. bases abroad, the list of problems only grows. Worldwide, bases have caused widespread environmental damage because of leaks, accidents, and, in some cases, the deliberate burial or discharge of toxic materials. In Okinawa, U.S. troops have repeatedly committed rapes and other crimes against the local population. In Italy, twenty died after a Marine jet severed a gondola cable. The military has also repeatedly built installations by displacing local peoples from their lands, in areas ranging from Greenland to the tropical island of Diego Garcia. Today, the disproportionate presence of bases in places that lack full democratic rights within the United States, such as Guam and Puerto Rico, helps perpetuate a twenty-first-century form of colonialism, tarnishing our country’s ability to be a model for democracy.
Indeed, despite rhetoric about spreading democracy, the government’s track record shows a clear preference for bases in undemocratic and often despotic states such as Qatar and Bahrain. The willingness to partner with unsavory characters for the sake of bases has also entangled the U.S. military with mafia organizations in Italy. Meanwhile, imprisonment, torture, and abuse at bases from Guantánamo Bay to Abu Ghraib have generated international anger and damaged the country’s reputation. Similarly, drone bases enabled missile strikes that have killed hundreds of civilians, producing outrage, opposition, and new enemies. In Iraq, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia, foreign bases have created fertile breeding grounds for radicalism and anti-Americanism; the presence of our bases in the Muslim holy lands of Saudi Arabia was a major recruiting tool for al-Qaeda and part of Osama bin Laden’s professed motivation for the September 11, 2001, attacks.
The hundreds of bases around the globe are a major (though largely unacknowledged) aspect of the “face” our country presents to the world, and bases often show us in an extremely unflattering light. Given the track record, it’s little wonder that the base nation has frequently generated grievances, protest, and antagonistic relationships with others.
Most crucially, it’s not at all clear that U.S. bases overseas actually protect national security and global peace. During the Cold War, there was an argument to be made that to some extent U.S. bases in Europe and Asia played a legitimate defensive role. In the absence of a superpower enemy today, however, the argument that bases many thousands of miles from U.S. shores are necessary to defend the United States-or even its allies-is much harder to sustain. To the contrary, the global collection of bases has generally been offensive in nature, making it all too easy to launch interventionist wars of choice that have resulted in repeated disasters, costing millions of lives from Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan.
There are also questions about the degree to which bases actually increase host country safety. The presence of U.S. bases can turn a country into a target for foreign powers or militants. On Guam, a dark Cold War joke said that Soviet nuclear missile targeters were just about the only people who could locate the island on a map; with a China-focused U.S. military buildup under way, some are expressing similar concerns about Chinese missiles potentially targeting the island today.14
For those concerned that closing bases abroad might slow deployment times in case of a legitimate defensive war or peacekeeping operation, studies by the Pentagon and others have shown that in most cases, advances in transportation technology have largely erased the advantage of stationing troops overseas. Nowadays, the military can generally deploy troops just as quickly from bases in the continental United States and Hawaii as it can from many bases abroad.
Rather than stabilizing dangerous regions, foreign bases frequently heighten military tensions and discourage diplomatic solutions to conflicts. Placing U.S. bases near the borders of countries such as China, Russia, and Iran, for example, increases threats to their security and encourages them to respond by boosting their own military spending. Again, imagine how U.S. leaders would respond if Iran were to build even a single small base in Mexico, Canada, or the Caribbean.
Notably, the most dangerous moment during the Cold War-the Cuban missile crisis-revolved around the creation of Soviet nuclear missile facilities roughly ninety miles from the U.S. border. Similarly, one of the most dangerous episodes in the post-Cold War era-Russia’s seizure of Crimea and its involvement in the war in Ukraine-has come after the United States encouraged the enlargement of NATO and built a growing number of bases closer and closer to Russian borders. Indeed, a major motivation behind Russia’s actions has likely been its interest in maintaining perhaps the most important of its small collection of foreign bases, the naval base in the Crimean port Sevastopol. West-leaning Ukrainian leaders’ desire to join NATO posed a direct threat to the base, and thus to the power of the Russian navy.
Perhaps most troubling of all, 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 help create the very threat against which they are supposedly designed to protect. In other words, far from making the world a safer place, U.S. bases overseas can actually make war more likely and America less secure.
BEHIND THE FENCES
To cast light on this long-overlooked world of bases, I traveled around the world, conducting research over the course of six years at more than sixty current and former bases in twelve countries and territories, including Japan, South Korea, Italy, Germany, Britain, Honduras, El Salvador, Ecuador, Cuba, the United States, and the U.S. territories of Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands.
In many cases, U.S. officials were very helpful in accommodating my research, arranging base tours and interviews, and answering questions. At other times, bases denied my requests to visit, sent me from office to office in endless quests for visiting rights, or never responded to my inquiries. After exchanging more than fifty emails with military representatives over several months about visiting U.S. bases in Afghanistan, I am still waiting for an official response to my application.
At the naval station on Guam, I made it on base only by attending services for the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. On several occasions in Germany and Italy, I was stopped and questioned by police or private security guards while on public property outside a base. Outside the main caserma in Vicenza, Italy, I was taking photographs of a protest against the planned construction of a new base in the city when law enforcement seized my passport. After a few nervous moments and some brief questioning, the Italians and U.S. military personnel allowed me to enter the base-which was holding an open-to-the-public Fourth of July celebration. Within a few minutes I got another polite questioning from a civilian working on base, and I realized that I was going to be followed for the rest of the night by two friendly members of the Italian military police who asked me to call them “Starrrskeee and Huuutch.“
Off base, I used a range of local contacts to meet as many people with as many perspectives as possible, including government officials, local residents, journalists, business leaders, academics, activists, military retirees, and many others both supportive of and opposed to bases in their communities. In Washington, D.C., and elsewhere in the United States, I interviewed Pentagon and State Department officials (one of whom, as you will see, I inadvertently helped get fired), military analysts, reporters, veterans, and many others with knowledge about overseas bases. In most cases, I recorded my interviews or took detailed notes. In the stories that follow, I have used quotation marks only when I know that I captured a speaker’s exact words.
With the military having closed most of its bases and withdrawn most troops from Afghanistan after the longest war in U.S. history, we’ve reached a moment of transition in U.S. foreign and military policy. There’s no better moment to ask whether the hundreds of overseas bases that keep on running whether the country is technically at war or at peace are a positive and necessary presence in the world, and whether they reflect how we should be engaging with the rest of the planet.
I say “we” because although I have written this book for readers worldwide, at times I address a U.S. audience directly. Ultimately, I believe all Americans bear responsibility for the base nation we’ve become and for the lives that our largely forgotten bases have shaped around the world. This book tells the stories of some of those lives-the U.S. troops and their families who live and work on foreign bases, the locals who live nearby, and others. And beyond the bases themselves, I examine the impact that the Pentagon’s foreign-base strategy has on the lives of all of us in the United States and around the world, whether we know it or not.
In this respect, Base Nation is about more than bases alone. Overseas bases offer a lens through which we can look honestly and unflinchingly at our country, our place in the world, and how we interact with the rest of the planet. Examining America’s sprawling collection of bases abroad can help us see how the United States has placed itself on a permanent war footing, with an economy and a government dominated by continuous preparations for battle.
Ultimately, the story of our bases abroad is a chronicle of the United States in the post-World War II era. In a certain sense, we’ve all come to live behind the fences-“behind the wire,” as military folks say. We may think these bases have made us safer. Instead, they’ve helped lock us inside a permanently militarized society that in many ways has made all of us less safe and less secure, damaging lives at home and abroad.
Copyright © 2015 by David Vine