Examining the U.S. military’s extensive network of bases
By Jacquie Simone
Every day, children pass the bases on their way to school. The native language is often heard alongside English as U.S. military personnel walk through the streets. The noises of the local area are interrupted by the thunder of jets taking off and landing. This is not in a war zone in Iraq or Afghanistan: This is in one of the many permanent U.S. military bases around the world.
The U.S. military is like a bad houseguest: Long after the main event is over, it continues to linger around indefinitely. The military personnel stationed at these bases fulfill a variety of functions, from logistical operations to actually flying to other countries from the bases. The Pentagon says there are 662 U.S. military installations in other countries around the world, with more than half of those in Western Europe and Northeast Asia. This number does not include bases in Afghanistan or Iraq, nor does it include any other bases related to the intervention in the Middle East, meaning that there are hundreds of bases separate from our current wars. In fact, there have not been armed conflicts anywhere near many of these permanent U.S. bases in decades. This extensive network of bases raises questions of sovereignty, necessity and the possibility of an American empire.
Even though the United States often reaches agreements with the host country’s government, the general population is usually not part of the negotiations. This has proven particularly devastating for indigenous peoples. When the United States brokered a deal with the United Kingdom during the Cold War to establish a base on the British-controlled island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, the native Chagossian people were forced from their homes and barred from returning. Today, they are still fighting for the right to return to the land that had historically been theirs but was turned into the ironically named Camp Justice, now known as Camp Thunder Cove. Meanwhile, many U.S. aircrafts take off from the island for Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.
The military justifies the existence of these bases by claiming that they are in strategically significant locations. They might not be within warzones, but the network of bases ensures that the U.S. military is never too far from a potential conflict. Critics of the bases argue that modern technology has already made it easy for the military to travel long distances quickly, so there is no real need to maintain a permanent presence in another country in case a nearby conflict erupts.
Kelly Dietz, who teaches politics at Ithaca College, was born on a U.S. base in Muenchweiler, Germany. She later spent a year and a half researching the colonial dimensions of the U.S. military presence in Okinawa, Japan. She said the actual number of U.S. military forces overseas is far greater than 662: The Pentagon often counts several bases in the same area as one and U.S. soldiers regularly train with other countries’ militaries. In addition, the United States has joint use agreements, in which U.S. forces are stationed at other countries’ military bases.
“One of the rationales for this is to address what the Pentagon calls the ‘political sensitivities’ of local populations toward having U.S. bases in their communities,” Dietz said. “While the practice of joint use results in the Pentagon listing fewer overseas bases, it won’t necessarily reduce the presence of U.S. forces.”
Dietz observed such tensions between local populations and the military during her time in Okinawa. The U.S. government took control of Okinawa for 27 years following World War II, and their justifications for maintaining the bases have shifted throughout the decades; originally, they claimed they were needed for the containment of communism, and now the bases are considered strategic points to manage threats from North Korea and China. Dietz said there has been an organized movement against the 38 bases in Okinawa since the U.S. military started to expand their presence there in the late 1940s. She specified that protesters told her they opposed “the policies of the military and U.S. government, not individual service members or individual Americans.” The protesters have a variety of goals, with motivations such as regaining control of land, preserving the environment or generally calling for independence from U.S. influences.
“Some seek to end their own role in facilitating U.S. and their own country’s wars and militarism, while others seek to end their dependence on an economy organized chiefly to maintain U.S. bases,” Dietz said.
The military usually ignores these protests, claiming that such controversies are domestic issues that should be handled by the host government. In Okinawa, Dietz said, the local government is unwilling to engage in regular conversations with citizens about the negative impacts of U.S. military bases, so protesters have little means of effecting change.
However, Capt. Caine Goyette of the U.S. Marines said he never sensed any discontent from locals while he lived in Okinawa for three years.
“I never had one bad experience with anybody,” he said. “From what I saw there, we were very welcome.”
He said the media often created hype about tensions, but in reality the few protests that did occur were small and ineffective. Additionally, he said the main resistance to the bases came from mainland Japan, not Okinawa.
Often, people in areas surrounding U.S. bases eventually become supportive of the military presence once their local economies come to rely on the base. The initial protests and resistance might give way to acceptance, as local business owners strive to make the most of the situation and profit from the steady influx of soldiers and their families. After the bases have been in place for a while, the threat of base closures would upset the entire local infrastructure. In this way, the military-industrial complex stretches far beyond our national borders. Goyette said the military presence significantly supports the Okinawan economy, so locals realize that their livelihoods would be jeopardized if the U.S. military did not have bases there.
“We lived right in the community,” he said. “We ate in all their restaurants and shopped in all their stores.”
Dietz said the economic benefits are exaggerated, and even the military-related funds directly from the Japanese and U.S. governments are not bolstering the Okinawan economy significantly.
“For the last 30-plus years, the economy has remained stagnant,” she said. “Unemployment is highest and incomes are lowest compared to the rest of Japan, which leads many to question the claim that the bases are an economic benefit.”
The military presence affects more than just the local economy. Retired Lt. Cmdr. John Epling, who served as a doctor in the Navy and was stationed in Guam for two years, said the military presence can also provide services to the local residents.
“Since there is only one other hospital on Guam, the Naval Hospital served the community’s health care needs, especially trauma and emergency, as much as the civilian hospital did,” Epling said.
He commented that although there were some tensions about the greater issue of U.S. relations with Guam, the majority of interactions between military personnel and locals were positive.
“The Guamanians are very friendly and welcoming,” he said. “Even today, when there’s a lot of argument about the impact of a military buildup on Guam—it is of vital strategic importance—we were greeted by people who had no reason to even talk to us, in an exceedingly friendly manner.”
Guam is a U.S. territory, so the military is just one way in which American politics and culture influence the island. Many people in the United States and Guam accept that the U.S. military has a right to be on the island, since it is technically part of the United States.
The existence of bases in other countries that are independent of U.S. control, such as Germany and Japan, is more complicated and raises questions of sovereignty and even imperialism. The U.S. military usually does compromise and reach agreements with host countries, but some still find it strange that a country could have bases in another independent nation.
The continued presence of a military base can drastically affect the local culture. Goyette said that the military gives all service members training in Okinawan customs and courtesies so that they do not offend residents or experience as much culture shock. Even so, he said he could see evidence that the areas around the bases had adopted certain American characteristics.
“I think the island is Westernized because we’ve been there so long,” he said.
Meanwhile, Dietz said the effects of the military presence on Okinawans are evidence of “how empire ‘works’ today.” She said the agreements between countries might make the network of bases appear legitimate, but that they have significant implications for American policies and local identities.
“Foreign military presence impacts social, cultural and economic institutions and relations at all levels,” she said. “It always constrains, sometimes profoundly, local control over everyday life, as well as over a community’s and a country’s ongoing relations.”
Whether the extensive network of overseas bases is seen as normal military strategy or evidence of a new form of imperialism, many American civilians do not consider the hundreds of bases around the world where their flag is flown. We might not have to walk past the bases everyday, but all U.S. citizens are caught up in the complicated web of military bases and are implicated in its global repercussions.
Jacquie Simone is a senior journalism and politics major who thinks it would suck to have the military as a houseguest. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.