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David Vine: U.S. Empire of Bases Grows

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

 

It was January 15, 2004, and TomDispatch had only been in existence for a year when Chalmers Johnson, author of the prophetic book Blowback (published in 2000 and a bestseller after the 9/11 attacks), did a piece for this site entitled "America's Empire of Bases."  He wrote then: "Due to government secrecy, our citizens are often ignorant of the fact that our garrisons encircle the planet. This vast network of American bases on every continent except Antarctica actually constitutes a new form of empire -- an empire of bases with its own geography not likely to be taught in any high school geography class. Without grasping the dimensions of this globe-girdling Baseworld, one can't begin to understand the size and nature of our imperial aspirations or the degree to which a new kind of militarism is undermining our constitutional order."

It was a benchmark essay for TomDispatch and a theme -- the unprecedented way Washington was garrisoning the planet -- that Johnson would return to repeatedly and that others of us would take up.  This mattered because, despite the crucial role that Washington's empire of bases played in the American way of war and its dreams of global dominance, bases were then, and remain today, a phenomenon largely ignored in the mainstream media.

In 2004, the Pentagon was, for instance, already building the first of its 505 bases, the biggest among them meant to be "enduring," in Iraq -- American ziggurats, I called them at the time.  Some of these were large enough to qualify as full-scale American towns, with PXs, fire departments, bus routes, the usual range of fast-food joints, internet cafes, and the like -- and yet it was the rare American reporter who saw a story of any sort in them, even when visiting one of them.  The same was true in Afghanistan, where the U.S. was building (and is still upgrading) 400 or more bases.  No one even bothered to try to count them up until Nick Turse did so in February 2010 for this site.  (Ann Jones took TomDispatch readers onto one of them in August of that same year.)

In his books and at TomDispatch, Johnson put significant effort into trying to come up with a number for the bases the Pentagon garrisoned outside the United States.  In January 2011, Turse returned to that task and found that number to be well over 1,100.  Again, it's not a figure you normally see reported in the mainstream.  In March 2010, John Feffer reminded TD readers of just how far the Pentagon would go to hang onto a single major base, among so many, on the Japanese island of Okinawa.

One of the last essays Chalmers Johnson published at this site before his death in 2010 was entitled "Dismantling the Empire" and it was concerned with just how the U.S. could downsize its global mission and end its empire of bases.  David Vine, anthropologist and author of Island of Shame: The Secret History of the U.S. Military Base on Diego Garcia, has been touring American bases for the past three years.  In a major survey of the changing shape of our Baseworld, he suggests that unfortunately it isn't shrinking at all, and that "dismantling" isn't yet on the American horizon.  This means that -- until the mainstream finally stumbles upon the import of this story -- TomDispatch has little choice but to stay on the bases beat for the foreseeable future. (To catch Timothy MacBain's latest Tomcast audio interview in which Vine discusses his experiences with the Pentagon's empire of bases, click here or download it to your iPod here.) Tom  

The Lily-Pad Strategy:
How the Pentagon Is Quietly Transforming Its Overseas Base Empire and Creating a Dangerous New Way of War

By David Vine

The first thing I saw last month when I walked into the belly of the dark grey C-17 Air Force cargo plane was a void -- something missing. A missing left arm, to be exact, severed at the shoulder, temporarily patched and held together.  Thick, pale flesh, flecked with bright red at the edges. It looked like meat sliced open. The face and what remained of the rest of the man were obscured by blankets, an American flag quilt, and a jumble of tubes and tape, wires, drip bags, and medical monitors.

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That man and two other critically wounded soldiers -- one with two stumps where legs had been, the other missing a leg below the thigh -- were intubated, unconscious, and lying on stretchers hooked to the walls of the plane that had just landed at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. A tattoo on the soldier's remaining arm read, "DEATH BEFORE DISHONOR."

I asked a member of the Air Force medical team about the casualties they see like these. Many, as with this flight, were coming from Afghanistan, he told me. "A lot from the Horn of Africa," he added. "You don't really hear about that in the media."

"Where in Africa?" I asked.  He said he didn't know exactly, but generally from the Horn, often with critical injuries. "A lot out of Djibouti," he added, referring to Camp Lemonnier, the main U.S. military base in Africa, but from "elsewhere" in the region, too.

Since the "Black Hawk Down" deaths in Somalia almost 20 years ago, we've heard little, if anything, about American military casualties in Africa (other than a strange report last week about three special operations commandos killed, along with three women identified by U.S. military sources as "Moroccan prostitutes," in a mysterious car accident in Mali). The growing number of patients arriving at Ramstein from Africa pulls back a curtain on a significant transformation in twenty-first-century U.S. military strategy.

These casualties are likely to be the vanguard of growing numbers of wounded troops coming from places far removed from Afghanistan or Iraq. They reflect the increased use of relatively small bases like Camp Lemonnier, which military planners see as a model for future U.S. bases "scattered," as one academic explains, "across regions in which the United States has previously not maintained a military presence."

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Disappearing are the days when Ramstein was the signature U.S. base, an American-town-sized behemoth filled with thousands or tens of thousands of Americans, PXs, Pizza Huts, and other amenities of home. But don't for a second think that the Pentagon is packing up, downsizing its global mission, and heading home. In fact, based on developments in recent years, the opposite may be true. While the collection of Cold War-era giant bases around the world is shrinking, the global infrastructure of bases overseas has exploded in size and scope.

Unknown to most Americans, Washington's garrisoning of the planet is on the rise, thanks to a new generation of bases the military calls "lily pads" (as in a frog jumping across a pond toward its prey). These are small, secretive, inaccessible facilities with limited numbers of troops, spartan amenities, and prepositioned weaponry and supplies.

Around the world, from Djibouti to the jungles of Honduras, the deserts of Mauritania to Australia's tiny Cocos Islands, the Pentagon has been pursuing as many lily pads as it can, in as many countries as it can, as fast as it can. Although statistics are hard to assemble, given the often-secretive nature of such bases, the Pentagon has probably built upwards of 50 lily pads and other small bases since around 2000, while exploring the construction of dozens more.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews (more...)
 

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