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Tomgram: David Vine, "The Truth About Diego Garcia, And 50 Years of Fictions About a U.S. Military Base"

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

I'm sure that you've heard about the three bare-bones "staging outposts" or, in the lingo of the trade, "cooperative security locations" that the U.S. Marines have established in Senegal, Ghana, and Gabon. We're talking about personnel from Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Crisis Response-Africa, a unit at present garrisoned at Morón, Spain. It would, however, like to have some bases -- though that's not a word in use at U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), which oversees all such expansion -- ready to receive them in a future in which anything might happen in an Africa exploding with new or expanding terror outfits.

Really? You haven't noticed anything on the subject? Admittedly, the story wasn't on the nightly news, nor did it make the front page of your local paper, or undoubtedly its inside pages either, but honestly it was right there in plain sight in Military Times! Of course, three largely unoccupied cooperative security locations in countries that aren't exactly on the tip of the American tongue would be easy enough to miss under the best of circumstances, but what about the other eight "staging facilities" that AFRICOM now admits to having established across Africa. The command had previously denied that it had any "bases" on the continent other than the ever-expanding one it established in the tiny nation of Djibouti in the horn of Africa and into which it has already sunk three-quarters of a billion dollars with at least $1.2 billion in upgrades still to go. However, AFRICOM'S commander, General David Rodriguez, now proudly insists that the 11 bare-bones outposts will leave U.S. forces "within four hours of all the high-risk, high-threat [diplomatic] posts" on the continent.

Really, you didn't hear a peep about those bases either, even though Stars and Stripes had the story front and center?

Hmmm, that might be truly strange if anyone in this country (outside the Pentagon) paid the slightest attention to the issue of U.S. global garrisons. Of course they don't. They never have, which should qualify as one of the great mysteries of American life and yet somehow doesn't. U.S. bases abroad are just about never in the news. Few are the journalists who write stories about them, though they often spend time on them. Pundits rarely discuss them. Candidates don't debate them. Editorialists don't write about them. These days, who even remembers the 505 (!) bases, ranging from tiny combat outposts to small American towns (with most of the amenities of home), that the U.S. built, maintained, and then abandoned in Iraq between 2003 and 2011 to the tune of tens of billions of dollars -- before, that is, American trainers and other personnel were sent back to a few of them in 2014-2015 for Iraq War 3.0? Almost no one, including a Congress generally eager to cut funds on just about anything, discusses the costs of preserving the hundreds and hundreds of bases of every size and shape that the Pentagon maintains globally in a fashion that is historically unprecedented. Back in 2012, TomDispatch regular David Vine estimated that those costs ran to about $170 billion a year, conservatively speaking, and since 9/11 had added up to a total of perhaps a couple of trillion dollars.

If you don't get the way this country has garrisoned the planet, if you never notice its empire of bases, there is no way to grasp its imperial nature, which perhaps is the point. And of course, if you haven't taken any of this in, as is likely if you're a red-blooded American, then you probably have no idea that this country has sunk billions of dollars into a single base on a single island, Diego Garcia, lost in the far reaches of the Indian Ocean but crucial to America's Middle Eastern conflicts. This also means you don't know that the Pentagon, in an act of cruelty of the first order, demanded that a whole people be exiled from their country, their lives, everything that mattered to them, everything that rootedness means in this world, so that the base could be built, staffed, and used in America's endless wars in the Greater Middle East without any onlookers whatsoever.

It's a grim tale you probably won't have heard (even if you read Military Times or Stars and Stripes). David Vine is that rarest of Americans who has found himself riveted by what Chalmers Johnson once called America's Baseworld. He's written about it vividly in Base Nation: How U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World, a book Andrew Bacevich has termed "a devastating critique" and that's due out this August. No one knows more about Diego Garcia and the fate of its people than Vine does. (He wrote a previous book on the subject, Island of Shame.) So take a moment to cast your eyes to the distant edge of America's empire of bases and briefly consider some of the other costs of this country's mania for garrisoning the world. Tom

The Truth About Diego Garcia
And 50 Years of Fiction About an American Military Base
By David Vine

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First, they tried to shoot the dogs. Next, they tried to poison them with strychnine. When both failed as efficient killing methods, British government agents and U.S. Navy personnel used raw meat to lure the pets into a sealed shed. Locking them inside, they gassed the howling animals with exhaust piped in from U.S. military vehicles. Then, setting coconut husks ablaze, they burned the dogs' carcasses as their owners were left to watch and ponder their own fate.

The truth about the U.S. military base on the British-controlled Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia is often hard to believe. It would be easy enough to confuse the real story with fictional accounts of the island found in the Transformers movies, on the television series 24, and in Internet conspiracy theories about the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.

While the grim saga of Diego Garcia frequently reads like fiction, it has proven all too real for the people involved. It's the story of a U.S. military base built on a series of real-life fictions told by U.S. and British officials over more than half a century. The central fiction is that the U.S. built its base on an "uninhabited" island. That was "true" only because the indigenous people were secretly exiled from the Chagos Archipelago when the base was built. Although their ancestors had lived there since the time of the American Revolution, Anglo-American officials decided, as one wrote, to "maintain the fiction that the inhabitants of Chagos [were] not a permanent or semi-permanent population," but just "transient contract workers." The same official summed up the situation bluntly: "We are able to make up the rules as we go along."

And so they did: between 1968 and 1973, American officials conspired with their British colleagues to remove the Chagossians, carefully hiding their expulsion from Congress, Parliament, the U.N., and the media. During the deportations, British agents and members of a U.S. Navy construction battalion rounded up and killed all those pet dogs. Their owners were then deported to the western Indian Ocean islands of Mauritius and the Seychelles, 1,200 miles from their homeland, where they received no resettlement assistance. More than 40 years after their expulsion, Chagossians generally remain the poorest of the poor in their adopted lands, struggling to survive in places that outsiders know as exotic tourist destinations.

During the same period, Diego Garcia became a multi-billion-dollar Navy and Air Force base and a central node in U.S. military efforts to control the Greater Middle East and its oil and natural gas supplies. The base, which few Americans are aware of, is more important strategically and more secretive than the U.S. naval base-cum-prison at Guanta'namo Bay, Cuba. Unlike Guanta'namo, no journalist has gotten more than a glimpse of Diego Garcia in more than 30 years. And yet, it has played a key role in waging the Gulf War, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, and the current bombing campaign against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

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Following years of reports that the base was a secret CIA "black site" for holding terrorist suspects and years of denials by U.S. and British officials, leaders on both sides of the Atlantic finally fessed up in 2008. "Contrary to earlier explicit assurances," said Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs David Miliband, Diego Garcia had indeed played at least some role in the CIA's secret "rendition" program.

Last year, British officials claimed that flight log records, which might have shed light on those rendition operations, were "incomplete due to water damage" thanks to "extremely heavy weather in June 2014." A week later, they suddenly reversed themselves, saying that the "previously wet paper records have been dried out." Two months later, they insisted the logs had not dried out at all and were "damaged to the point of no longer being useful." Except that the British government's own weather data indicates that June 2014 was an unusually dry month on Diego Garcia. A legal rights advocate said British officials "could hardly be less credible if they simply said 'the dog ate my homework.'"

And these are just a few of the fictions underlying the base that occupies the Chagossians' former home and that the U.S. military has nicknamed the "Footprint of Freedom." After more than four decades of exile, however, with a Chagossian movement to return to their homeland growing, the fictions of Diego Garcia may finally be crumbling.

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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 (more...)
 

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