The Damaging Effects of the U.S. Overseas Bases Empire

Much as the Pentagon cannot account for many of the items in its overall inventory, it cannot give a definitive number for U.S. overseas military bases. A prime reason for this lack of precision is that many of the bases are so-called “lily pad” bases, with a small number of U.S. troops. The number of bases range from the 800s to over a thousand. These bases constitute 95 percent of all the military bases any country maintains in any other country’s territory. The historian Chalmers Johnson, featured in my previous blog on the overall U.S. empire, says, “America’s version of the colony is the military base.”

These bases do not come cheap. Miriam Pemberton of the Institute for Policy Studies, says that excluding U.S. bases in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States spends about $102 billion a year to run its overseas military bases — this figure is as of early 2009. The purpose these bases serve is brought into question most vididly by the fact that as of early 2009, the U.S. had 227 bases in Germany. The cost factor of these bases was brought home most dramatically to the American public when the Pentagon announced last year that the “fully burdened” cost of getting one gallon of gasoline to U.S. troops in Afghanistan was $400.

Yet, despite the cost of overseas bases, they remain largely invisible when it comes to suggested budget cutting. Writing in the March 26, 2009 Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Hugh Gusterson cites a March 1, 2009 New York Times editorial, which asks for cuts in the F-22 fighter , the DDG-1000 destroyer, missile defense and the army’s Future Combat System, but doesn’t mention overseas bases. The Times is not unique in this omission, as most calls for military spending cuts treat overseas bases as untouchable.

Gusterson writes that “American leaders speak of overseas bases as cementing aliances with foreign nations, largely through the trade and aid agreements that often accompany base leases.” He, however, depicts U.S. soldiers as living “in a sort of cocooned simulacrum of America in their bases, watching American TV, listening to American rap and heavy metal, and eating American fast food, so that the transplanted farm boys and street kids have little exposure to another way of life. Meanwhile, on the other side of the barbed-wire fence, local residents and businesses often become economically dependent on the soldiers and have a stake in their staying.” Chalmers Johnson describes these bases as “military city-states” much that teach American youth “the basic ingredients of racial superiority.” Manifestations of this racism are found in U.S. soldiers calling the Vietnamese Viet Cong “gooks” and Iraqi insurgents, “ragheads.”

The U.S. bases frequently invite conflict, mostly through the toxic waste that the bases discharge into local ecosystems and the crimes committed by U.S. servicemen and women. In Guam, for instance, the military bases have created no fewer than 19 superfund sites; also, in Vieques, U.S. live-bombing practice has left the landscape littered with exploded and unexploded ordnance, depleted uranium rounds, heavy metels, solvents and acids — military pollution will be treated more thoroughly in a future blog.

The crimes committed by U.S. military statiioned overseas is exacerbated by the U.S. government’s frequent insistence that such crimes not be prosecuted in local courts. The magnitude of crimes committed overseas by those in the U.S. military services is illustrated by the claim of Korean campaigners that between 1967 and 2002, 52,000 crimes were committed by U.S. soldiers.

In 1996, the Department of Defense found that nine percent of Marines, eight percent of Army soldiers, six percent of Navy sailors and four percent of Air Force air personnel had experienced a rape or attempted rape. Since most rapes, attempted or completed, are not reported, these percentages are undoubtedly higher. These rapes, of course, occur on both domestic and foreign military bases. The much higher rate of domestic violence found in military families versus civilian families is due in part to the separation created by stationing so many military personnel overseas.

Hugh Gusterson sums up the U.S. foreign bases as having a double edge: “they project American power across the globe, but they also inflame U.S. foreign relations, generating resentment against the prostitution, environmental damage, petty crime, and everyday ethnocentrism that are their inevitable corrollaries.”

Finally, he notes that the Declaratrion of Independence criticizes the British “for quartering large bodies of armed troops among us” and “for protecting them, by a mock trial, from punishment for any murders which they should commit on the inhabitants of these States.” Gusterson calls these fine words that should be taken to heart by the United States.


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