In January 2004, Chalmers Johnson wrote this about what he called America's "empire of bases" or its "Baseworld":
"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. 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."
Grimly enough, 15 years later, as TomDispatch managing editor Nick Turse makes clear today, not a word of what Johnson wrote isn't applicable to this moment as well. The United States remains, in the phrase of another TomDispatch author, David Vine, a base nation. Millions of Americans have been to or served at one or more of those garrisons scattered in an historically unprecedented way across, as Johnson said, every continent but Antarctica. In recent years, in every size and shape those bases have, as Turse points out, only multiplied across the Greater Middle East and increasingly parts of Africa, thanks to Washington's never-ending war on terror. Yet coverage of them, discussion of them, debate about them in this country is essentially nil. America's Baseworld, a looming reality of the twenty-first century, remains no part of any conversation, not in the mainstream media, not on cable news, nowhere -- not, at least, until Donald Trump recently withdrew perhaps 1,000 U.S. military personnel from a number of small bases in northeastern Syria (even if new ones are soon to return to Southern Syria) to the shocked reaction of national security types everywhere.
In other words, an overwhelming fact that shapes the U.S. role in the world (and the forever wars that go with it) is generally absent from American thinking about that very role, which is why today's Turse piece couldn't be more timely. Tom
Winter Is Coming
Castle Black, the Syrian Withdrawal, and the Battle of the Bases
By Nick Turse
They called it Castle Black, an obvious homage to the famed frozen citadel from the HBO series Game of Thrones. In the fantasy world of GoT, it's the stronghold of the Night's Watch, the French Foreign Legion-esque guardians of the northern border of the Seven Kingdoms.
This Castle Black, however, was all too real and occupied by U.S. Special Operations forces, America's most elite troops. In its location, at least, it was nearly as remote as its namesake, even if in far warmer climes -- not on the northern fringe of Westeros but at the far edge of eastern Syria.
Today, the real Castle Black and most of the archipelago of U.S. outposts only recently arrayed across the Syrian frontier are emptying out, sit abandoned, or are occupied by Russian and Syrian troops. At least one -- located at the Lafarge Cement Factory -- lies in partial ruins after two U.S. Air Force F-15 jets conducted an airstrike on it. The purpose, according to Colonel Myles Caggins, a spokesman for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR), the U.S.-led military coalition fighting ISIS, was to "destroy an ammunition cache, and reduce the facility's military usefulness."
"Only yesterday they were here and now we are here," a Russian journalist announced after taking selfies at the abandoned base at Manbij where U.S. forces had served since 2015 alongside allied Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition of mainly Kurdish and Arab fighters. "It appears as though the U.S. servicemen fled in their armored vehicles," said another reporter with RT's Arabic service, as she walked in front of American tents and equipment at the hastily abandoned outpost. Photographs show that when U.S. troops bugged out, they also left behind other standard stuff from American bases abroad: "crude dick drawings," a football, fridges stocked with Coca-Cola, an open package of animal crackers, a can of Pringles, and a paperback copy of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.
"I see a big problem with it. And it shows just how unplanned and half-assed this 'withdrawal' is," U.S. Marine veteran Anderson Bryant, who -- in 2016 -- fought alongside the SDF after leaving the Corps, told Military Times. "Though ISIS doesn't have the infrastructure to take and hold territory or bases anymore, just leaving equipment to be taken after a retreat looks bad for sure."
Bryant was just one of many to decry the abandonment of most of Washington's Syrian outposts. "U.S. troops and their allies feel humiliated after abandoning their bases in Syria to be taken over by gleeful Russians," read the headline of a Business Insider article, while a New York Times piece put it this way: "Pullback Leaves Green Berets Feeling 'Ashamed,' and Kurdish Allies Describing 'Betrayal.'"
A Base by Any Other Name...
After President Trump abruptly ordered the withdrawal of most U.S. forces from Syria earlier this month, a Turkish military incursion into the area those troops had previously occupied set off a humanitarian catastrophe -- sending nearly 200,000 civilians fleeing from the Syrian frontier, about one third of them children. President Trump implied the troops were coming "back home," but his secretary of defense promptly contradicted him and indicated they would simply be redeployed in the region. After being abandoned by their U.S. allies, the SDF struck a deal with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and Syrian and allied Russian troops moved into the area as well. In the chaos, some Islamic State prisoners escaped from SDF prisons.
Back in the United States, rare bipartisan outrage erupted as members of Congress lambasted the president for his decision. Vice President Mike Pence was then dispatched to Turkey to try to mitigate what was widely hailed by the Washington establishment as a foreign policy disaster. Then, in the wake of a Pence-negotiated "ceasefire" that Turkey didn't agree to and that failed to fully materialize, President Trump took a victory lap after which Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed to "crush" the heads of America's abandoned Kurdish allies if they didn't ethnically cleanse themselves from the area. In the end, the withdrawal of 1,000 U.S. military personnel turned out to be largely illusory, as an influx of new forces to a different part of Syria left troop levels almost unchanged.
In the midst of this chaos, however, something strange occurred. Just as America's Syrian bases, including its two main headquarters -- Advanced Operational Base West and Advanced Operational Base East -- the Lafarge Cement Factory, and a facility at Manbij were being abandoned, in another sense entirely they suddenly came to exist (at least in news reports anyway). This is something that Castle Black, in its relatively brief life, never officially did. When I asked about its status in late August, for example, Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve refused to even acknowledge the existence of such a base. Now, the outpost and its status are no secret at all. "Castle Black is closed," CJTF-OIR's media team told TomDispatch more recently.