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Chalmers Johnson on the Cost of Empire
Posted on May 15, 2009
Editor’s note: Author, scholar and Truthdig contributor Chalmers Johnson passed away Nov. 20. In his honor, we are reposting this 2009 book review, which, like much of Johnson’s work, remains relevant to this day.
In her foreword to “The Bases of Empire: The Global Struggle Against U.S. Military Posts,” an important collection of articles on United States militarism and imperialism, edited by Catherine Lutz, the prominent feminist writer Cynthia Enloe notes one of our most abject failures as a government and a democracy: “There is virtually no news coverage—no journalists’ or editors’ curiosity—about the pressures or lures at work when the U.S. government seeks to persuade officials of Romania, Aruba or Ecuador that providing U.S. military-basing access would be good for their countries.” The American public, if not the residents of the territories in question, is almost totally innocent of the huge costs involved, the crimes committed by our soldiers against women and children in the occupied territories, the environmental pollution, and the deep and abiding suspicions generated among people forced to live close to thousands of heavily armed, culturally myopic and dangerously indoctrinated American soldiers. This book is an antidote to such parochialism.
Catherine Lutz is an anthropologist at Brown University and the author of an ethnography of an American city that is indubitably part of the American military complex: Fayetteville, N.C., adjacent to Fort Bragg, home of the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare School (see “Homefront, A Military City and the American Twentieth Century,” Beacon Press, 2002). On the opening page of her introduction to the current volume, Lutz makes a real contribution to the study of the American empire of bases. She writes, “Officially, over 190,000 troops and 115,000 civilian employees are massed in 909 military facilities in 46 countries and territories.” She cites as her source the Department of Defense’s Base Structure Report for fiscal year 2007. This is the Defense Department’s annual inventory of real estate that it owns or leases in the United States and in foreign countries. Oddly, however, the total of 909 foreign bases does not appear in the 2007 BSR. Instead, it gives the numbers of 823 bases located in other people’s countries and 86 sites located in U.S. territories. So Lutz has combined the foreign and territorial bases—which include American Samoa, the District of Columbia, Guam, Johnston Atoll, the Northern Marianas Islands, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and Wake Island. Guam is host to at least 30 military sites and Puerto Rico to 41 bases.
Combining the two numbers is a good idea. Some of the most deplorable conditions in the American military empire exist in U.S. territories, notably in Puerto Rico, where the citizens fought a long battle to stop the naval bombardment of Vieques Island, and in Guam, where the government plans to relocate more than 8,000 Marines from Okinawa together with a $13 billion expansion of Air Force and Navy facilities. The result will be an almost 15 percent increase in Guam’s population, which will significantly exceed the capacity of the island’s water and solid-waste systems. (See “U.S. Military Guam Buildup Spurs Worry over Services,” San Diego Union-Tribune, April 12, 2009.) In the book under review here, Lutz also includes an essay on the state of Hawaii, with its 161 military installations (in 2004) covering 6 percent of the state’s land area (22 percent of the state’s most densely populated island, Oahu). The military is easily Hawaii’s largest polluter, including the secret use of depleted uranium ammunition at the Shofield range, evidence of which was uncovered in 2006.
It should be noted that the BSR for fiscal 2008 has been available since the summer of last year and it somewhat alters Lutz’s figures. It gives details on 761 bases in other people’s countries and 104 U.S. territories, which produces a Lutz total of 865. Such small variations from year to year have been typical of the American empire throughout the Cold War. Some 865 bases located in all the continents except Antarctica is not only a staggeringly large number compared even with the great empires of the past, but one the U.S. clearly cannot afford given its severely weakened economic condition.
Nonetheless, there has been no public discussion by the Obama administration over starting to liquidate our overseas bases or beginning to scale back our imperialist presence in the rest of the world. One must also remember that the BSR is an official source that often conflicts with other reports on the numbers of American military personnel located all over the world. It omits many bases that the Department of Defense wants to conceal or play down, notably those in Iraq, Afghanistan and Israel. For example, just one of the many unlisted bases in Iraq, Ballad Air Base, houses 30,000 troops and 10,000 contractors, and extends across 16 square miles with an additional 12-square-mile “security perimeter.”
One other subject that Lutz touches on in her introduction and that cries out for a book-length study is the political machinations that every American embassy and military base on earth engages in to undermine and change local laws that stand in the way of U.S. military plans. For years the United States has interfered in the domestic affairs of nations to bring about “regime change,” rig elections, free American servicemen who have been charged with extremely serious felonies against local civilians, indoctrinate the local officer corps in American militarist values (as at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation at Fort Benning, Ga.), and preserve and protect the so-called Status of Forces Agreements that the United States imposes on all nations with U.S. bases. These SOFAs give our troops extraterritorial privileges such as freedom from local laws and from passport and travel regulations, and they absolve the U.S. from a country’s anti-pollution requirements, noise restrictions and environmental laws.
Mapping U.S. Power
The first essay in Lutz’s collection is by one of the few genuine veterans of military base studies, Joseph Gerson, the New England director of programs for the American Friends Service Committee. He is the editor (along with Bruce Birchard) of “The Sun Never Sets: Confronting the Network of U.S. Military Bases” (Boston: South End Press, 1991). His essay on “U.S. Foreign Military Bases and Military Colonialism: Personal and Analytical Perspectives” is particularly good on the hypocrisy and opportunism that imperialism imposes on our foreign policy, regardless of our intentions. For example, he notes, in the words of the American Declaration of Independence, the “abuses and usurpations” that King George III of England imposed on us though his “standing armies kept among us, in times of peace.”
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