Dec 6, 2013
The Italian Job
Posted on Oct 4, 2013
By David Vine, TomDispatch
This piece first appeared at TomDispatch. Read Tom Engelhardt’s introduction here.
The Pentagon has spent the last two decades plowing hundreds of millions of tax dollars into military bases in Italy, turning the country into an increasingly important center for U.S. military power. Especially since the start of the Global War on Terror in 2001, the military has been shifting its European center of gravity south from Germany, where the overwhelming majority of U.S. forces in the region have been stationed since the end of World War II. In the process, the Pentagon has turned the Italian peninsula into a launching pad for future wars in Africa, the Middle East, and beyond.
At bases in Naples, Aviano, Sicily, Pisa, and Vicenza, among others, the military has spent more than $2 billion on construction alone since the end of the Cold War—and that figure doesn’t include billions more on classified construction projects and everyday operating and personnel costs. While the number of troops in Germany has fallen from 250,000 when the Soviet Union collapsed to about 50,000 today, the roughly 13,000 U.S. troops (plus 16,000 family members) stationed in Italy match the numbers at the height of the Cold War. That, in turn, means that the percentage of U.S. forces in Europe based in Italy has tripled since 1991 from around 5% to more than 15%.
Last month, I had a chance to visit the newest U.S. base in Italy, a three-month-old garrison in Vicenza, near Venice. Home to a rapid reaction intervention force, the 173rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), and the Army’s component of the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), the base extends for a mile, north to south, dwarfing everything else in the small city. In fact, at over 145 acres, the base is almost exactly the size of Washington’s National Mall or the equivalent of around 110 American football fields. The price tag for the base and related construction in a city that already hosted at least six installations: upwards of $600 million since fiscal year 2007.
There are still more bases, and so more U.S. military spending, in Germany than in any other foreign country (save, until recently, Afghanistan). Nonetheless, Italy has grown increasingly important as the Pentagon works to change the make-up of its global collection of 800 or more bases abroad, generally shifting its basing focus south and east from Europe’s center. Base expert Alexander Cooley explains: “U.S. defense officials acknowledge that Italy’s strategic positioning on the Mediterranean and near North Africa, the Italian military’s antiterrorism doctrine, as well as the country’s favorable political disposition toward U.S. forces are important factors in the Pentagon’s decision to retain” a large base and troop presence there. About the only people who have been paying attention to this build-up are the Italians in local opposition movements like those in Vicenza who are concerned that their city will become a platform for future U.S. wars.
Most tourists think of Italy as the land of Renaissance art, Roman antiquities, and of course great pizza, pasta, and wine. Few think of it as a land of U.S. bases. But Italy’s 59 Pentagon-identified “base sites” top that of any country except Germany (179), Japan (103), Afghanistan (100 and declining), and South Korea (89).
Publicly, U.S. officials say there are no U.S. military bases in Italy. They insist that our garrisons, with all their infrastructure, equipment, and weaponry, are simply guests on what officially remain “Italian” bases designated for NATO use. Of course, everyone knows that this is largely a legal nicety.
No one visiting the new base in Vicenza could doubt that it’s a U.S. installation all the way. The garrison occupies a former Italian air force base called Dal Molin. (In late 2011, Italian officials rebranded it “Caserma Del Din,” evidently to try to shed memories of the massive opposition the base has generated.) From the outside, it might be mistaken for a giant hospital complex or a university campus. Thirty one box-like peach-and-cream-colored buildings with light red rooftops dominate the horizon with only the foothills of the Southern Alps as a backdrop. A chain link fence topped by razor wire surrounds the perimeter, with green mesh screens obscuring views into the base.
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