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Tomgram: David Vine, Our Base Nation

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[Note for TomDispatch Readers: This morning we have a special offer for you. TomDispatch regular David Vine will send any of you willing to donate $100 (or more) to this website a signed, personalized copy of his groundbreaking new book, Base Nation: How U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World, a genuine successor volume to the late Chalmers Johnson's Blowback Trilogy. Of it, Andrew Bacevich has says, " Base Nation offers a devastating critique, and no doubt Washington will try to ignore it. Citizens should refuse to let that happen." Vine's is a must-read book on a subject -- the U.S. garrisoning of the planet -- that, ever since Johnson himself wrote about it at this website, we've considered of primary importance. Check out our donation page for the details and many thanks, as ever, for your generosity. Tom]

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It's not that I knew nothing about U.S. military bases before I met Chalmers Johnson. In certain ways, my idea of the good life had been strongly shaped by such a base. Admittedly, it wasn't in Germany or Japan or South Korea or some other distant land, but on Governor's Island, an Army base just off the southern tip of New York City. In the 1950s, my father ran a gas station there. On Saturday mornings, I would often accompany him to work on a ferry from downtown Manhattan and spend a dreamy suburban-style day there amid zipping Jeeps and marching troops and military kids, playing ball, wandering freely, catching cowboy or war flicks at the island's only movie house, and imagining that this was the best of all possible worlds. And yet between that moment and the moment in September 1998 when Johnson's proposal for a book to be called Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire fell into my editorial hands, I probably never gave our country's bases another thought.

In that, I was like millions of Americans who, as soldiers or civilians, had cycled through such bases at home and around the world and never considered them again. And we were hardly alone when it came to the hundreds and hundreds of foreign garrisons that made up what Johnson termed our "empire of bases." Historians, political scientists, and journalists, among many others, paid them little mind. Our overseas garrisons were seldom discussed or debated or covered in the media in any significant way. No one in Congress challenged their existence. No president gave a speech about them. Though I hesitate to use the term, there was something like a conspiracy of silence around them -- or perhaps a sense of discomfort that they even existed led everyone to act as if they didn't. And yet they were the face of this country to significant parts of the world. In their profusion and their reach, they represented a staggering reality for which there was no historical precedent. Billions and billions of dollars poured into them. Hundreds of thousands of troops and their dependents were stationed on them. It should have told us all something that they were quite so unremarked upon, but until Johnson came along, they were, in essence, not so much our little secret as a secret we kept even from ourselves. As he wrote with a certain wonder in the second book in his Blowback Trilogy, The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic, "The landscape of this military empire is as unfamiliar and fantastic to most Americans today as Tibet or Timbuktu were to nineteenth-century Europeans."

Johnson broke the silence around them -- repeatedly. And yet, in an era in which such bases, still being built, have played a crucial role in our various wars, conflicts, bombing and drone assassination campaigns, and other interventions in the Greater Middle East, they remain a barely acknowledged aspect of American life. Why this is so should be considered both a curiosity and a mystery. Is it that a genuine acknowledgement of the existence of a vast network of global garrisons would lead to uncomfortable conclusions about the imperial nature of this country? I'm not sure myself. That they remain largely surrounded by an accepted and acceptable silence, however, continues to be an American reality.

Thank heavens, then, that, almost five years after Chalmers Johnson's death, TomDispatch regular David Vine has produced a groundbreaking new book, Base Nation: How U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World, which should once again bring that empire of bases back into the national discussion. Today, Vine offers an overview of what it means for this country to continue to garrison the planet 24/7. Tom

Garrisoning the Globe
How U.S. Military Bases Abroad Undermine National Security and Harm Us All
By David Vine

With the U.S. military having withdrawn many of its forces from Iraq and Afghanistan, most Americans would be forgiven for being unaware that hundreds of U.S. bases and hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops still encircle the globe. Although few know it, the United States garrisons the planet unlike any country in history, and the evidence is on view from Honduras to Oman, Japan to Germany, Singapore to Djibouti.

Like most Americans, for most of my life, I rarely thought about military bases. Scholar and former CIA consultant Chalmers Johnson described me well when he wrote in 2004, "As distinct from other peoples, most Americans do not recognize -- or do not want to recognize -- that the United States dominates the world through its military power. Due to government secrecy, our citizens are often ignorant of the fact that our garrisons encircle the planet."

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To the extent that Americans think about these bases at all, we generally assume they're essential to national security and global peace. Our leaders have claimed as much since most of them were established during World War II and the early days of the Cold War. As a result, we consider the situation normal and accept that U.S. military installations exist in staggering numbers in other countries, on other peoples' land. On the other hand, the idea that there would be foreign bases on U.S. soil is unthinkable.

While there are no freestanding foreign bases permanently located in the United States, there are now around 800 U.S. bases in foreign countries. Seventy years after World War II and 62 years after the Korean War, there are still 174 U.S. "base sites" in Germany, 113 in Japan, and 83 in South Korea, according to the Pentagon. Hundreds more dot the planet in around 80 countries, including Aruba and Australia, Bahrain and Bulgaria, Colombia, Kenya, and Qatar, among many other places. Although few Americans realize it, the United States likely has more bases in foreign lands than any other people, nation, or empire in history.

Oddly enough, however, the mainstream media rarely report or comment on the issue. For years, during debates over the closure of the prison at the base in Guanta'namo Bay, Cuba, nary a pundit or politician wondered why the United States has a base on Cuban territory in the first place or questioned whether we should have one there at all. Rarely does anyone ask if we need hundreds of bases overseas or if, at an estimated annual cost of perhaps $156 billion or more, the U.S. can afford them. Rarely does anyone wonder how we would feel if China, Russia, or Iran built even a single base anywhere near our borders, let alone in the United States.

"Without grasping the dimensions of this globe-girdling Baseworld," Chalmers Johnson insisted, "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." Alarmed and inspired by his work and aware that relatively few have heeded his warnings, I've spent years trying to track and understand what he called our "empire of bases." While logic might seem to suggest that these bases make us safer, I've come to the opposite conclusion: in a range of ways our overseas bases have made us all less secure, harming everyone from U.S. military personnel and their families to locals living near the bases to those of us whose taxes pay for the way our government garrisons the globe.

We are now, as we've been for the last seven decades, a Base Nation that extends around the world, and it's long past time that we faced that fact.

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The Base Nation's Scale

Our 800 bases outside the 50 states and Washington, D.C., come in all sizes and shapes. Some are city-sized "Little Americas" -- places like Ramstein Air Base in Germany, Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, and the little known Navy and Air Force base on Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. These support a remarkable infrastructure, including schools, hospitals, power plants, housing complexes, and an array of amenities often referred to as "Burger Kings and bowling alleys." Among the smallest U.S. installations globally are "lily pad" bases (also known as "cooperative security locations"), which tend to house drones, surveillance aircraft, or pre-positioned weaponry and supplies. These are increasingly found in parts of Africa and Eastern Europe that had previously lacked much of a U.S. military presence.

Other facilities scattered across the planet include ports and airfields, repair complexes, training areas, nuclear weapons installations, missile testing sites, arsenals, warehouses, barracks, military schools, listening and communications posts, and a growing array of drone bases. Military hospitals and prisons, rehab facilities, CIA paramilitary bases, and intelligence facilities (including former CIA "black site" prisons) must also be considered part of our Base Nation because of their military functions. Even U.S. military resorts and recreation areas in places like the Bavarian Alps and Seoul, South Korea, are bases of a kind. Worldwide, the military runs more than 170 golf courses.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("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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