By Matthew FarishMarch 16, 2016
Base Nation by David Vine
“AFTER WORLD WAR II,” David Vine writes in the initial pages of Base Nation, “the United States commanded an unparalleled global military presence, unmatched by any prior people, nation, or empire in history.” Critics of various political persuasions might nibble at the edges, and regional emphases have certainly waxed and waned, but seven decades later, this geographic ubiquity has become durable and largely unremarkable. It is sustained by the endlessly flexible language of national security — flexible in that security discourse can adapt to and inflate a variety of threats, but also in its reach beyond the territorial boundaries of the nation-state. Today, politicians or pundits advocating for more American troops or base infrastructure in Japan (for example) would barely merit a news chyron.
By Vine’s estimate (and his calculations are as careful as anyone’s, outside and possibly inside the Pentagon) the United States maintains about 800 military facilities in over 70 countries, employing or housing half a million Americans. The equivalent number of sites held by every other country is approximately 30 — and most of these countries are reliable US allies. Although the individual tallies are dizzying, the status of Germany (174), Japan (113), and South Korea (83) at the top of the American list should not be surprising. More startling, perhaps, are the next two: Italy (50) and the small Pacific island of Guam (47). Much of the local detail in Base Nation is drawn from these five contexts; as part of his ambitious research itinerary, Vine visited all of them.
The recent launch of a journal titled Critical Military Studies reflects the consolidation of a scholarly movement that has been gathering momentum since 2001. As with most interdisciplinary fields, its parameters are indeterminate, but the work of anthropologists — including Catherine Lutz, Hugh Gusterson, and Vine himself — has unquestionably led to a more nuanced understanding of militarization as a process, and its consequences for national and local communities. Lutz and Gusterson, among others, are acknowledged in Base Nation, the sequel to Vine’s excellent Island of Shame (2009). For several years, he has alluded in various venues to his project on what the late Chalmers Johnson called the Baseworld. Anticipating the result, I was also daunted by the very premise of the endeavor, and Base Nation is indeed a work of huge ambition. This reach is both commendable and occasionally inhibiting, but the book remains a distressing and tremendously helpful resource for grappling with the global geography of the American armed forces. Base Nation also contains some of the most effective original maps I have encountered in a study of such scale.
In confident, impassioned prose, and bolstered by a subtly impressive blend of research, Vine’s Island of Shame tells the story of Diego Garcia, the island in the Chagos Archipelago, 1,000 miles south of India, which became a crucial and controversial location for the conduct of the “war on terror.” Decades earlier, however, Diego Garcia was targeted by the United States Navy in a push to acquire strategic possessions amid the tumult of Cold War decolonization. Working with the British government, which held the island as a colony, the US forcibly deported Diego Garcia’s indigenous population, expelling them to precarious lives in Mauritius and the Seychelles. Sadly, this is not an unusual tale. As Vine notes in Base Nation, albeit rather briefly, there is a planetary record of indigenous dispossession and suffering in the name of American military occupation, construction, and experimentation, from Alaska and Greenland to Hawaii, the Marshall Islands, and the Philippines.
Vine begins Base Nation, though, by observing that the continental United States is also littered with the ruins of empires, including some sites that have been restored and converted into tourist destinations. (Will this be the fate of facilities in places like Diego Garcia?) This cheery catalog includes many monuments to the violent westward expansionism of the United States in the late 18th and 19th centuries — a precedent that is too often overlooked in discussions of the distant bases built in the 20th century. The Baseworld that was pieced together during and after World War II undoubtedly represented “a qualitative and quantitative shift,” but it is noteworthy that a place like Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, once dubbed the “western edge of civilization,” is today both a heritage landscape and an active Army facility, including, of course, the military’s most prominent prison. As historians have noted, the movement of men and motifs from the “Indian Wars” to overseas conflicts like the Philippine-American War (1899–1902) was direct. “Now that the continent is subdued,” the California-based Overland Monthly announced in 1898, “we are looking for fresh worlds to conquer.”
One of those “worlds,” formally annexed in the same year, was Hawaii; the establishment of a Naval Station just west of Honolulu followed quickly. Before the December 1941 attack on this facility at Pearl Harbor, the government of Franklin Roosevelt had drafted schemes for a global military footprint made possible by — and seemingly justified by — the reach of air power. Roosevelt had already signed the “bases-for-destroyers” agreement that traded 50 warships to Britain for extensive military access to British colonies, particularly in the Caribbean. By the end of World War II, working at tremendous speed in a multitude of locations, the United States had constructed the largest set of bases in the history of the planet. Vine notes that this mission was as much geoeconomic as it was geopolitical, which goes some way to explaining the persistence of bases where original military motivations have long since dissipated. The broader rationale, though, has endured: a condition of planetary, permanent danger, for the United States and its residents. Reflecting on the combined entrenchment and effects of this outlook is liable to induce mental stasis. It is one of the many achievements of Base Nation that Vine refuses this condition at every turn.
In the 21st century, the perverse demand for “total defense” has produced an increasingly diverse roster of base types, from Germany’s Kaiserslautern Military Community (including the massive Ramstein Air Base), home to an 840,000-square-foot mall, to the small, often secretive “lily pads” that typify the Pentagon’s role “in at least forty-nine of the fifty-four African countries. It may be operating in every single one.” By limiting the number of troops in place — sometimes replacing them with “pre-positioned” weapons and matériel — and encouraging closer ties with other national militaries, lily pads present a different sort of challenge for opponents of military presence.
At least partially cognizant of the litany of social and environmental travesties compiled by Vine and others, the Department of Defense has for several decades been attempting, where possible, to steer clear of resentful locals. Some of the most important recent scholarship on militarization has investigated anti-basing initiatives, and Base Nation includes a compelling chapter, rooted mostly in Vicenza, Italy, on these movements.
But there are also moments in Base Nation where Vine’s comprehensive agenda falters, revealing its inevitable edges. His respective chapters on families and masculinity lean a little uncomfortably on a blend of generalities, secondary sources, and anecdotes — even as some of the latter are superb, like his mention of the extravagant travel of school football teams from Okinawan bases to compete in South Korea, Guam, and elsewhere in Japan. Parts of the text gallop briskly from country to country, pausing only for a brief description or conversation; others seem more suited to Vine’s eclectic, mixed-method talents. And while there is no questioning his determination, he does not dwell much on the episodes of obfuscation or invocations of secrecy that are inevitable in such research. These obstacles are bureaucratic in nature, but they are also spatial, and Vine’s inability to access certain sites, or to write about them in any detail, is meaningful.
Base Nation joins an impressive list of volumes published by Metropolitan Books under the heading of the American Empire Project. This initiative was co-founded by the writer and editor Tom Engelhardt, whose website tomdispatch.com has long been a repository of investigative journalism and commentary that challenges powerful American institutions and orthodoxies. No institution is more formidable than the Department of Defense, and no orthodoxy is more entrenched than the need for a “strong military.” Vine’s book, therefore, is a perfect fit for Engelhardt’s series. It is tempting, though, to consider how this inclusion or a related individual rationale might have altered the book, because Base Nation is in certain respects a conservative study, beginning with its emphasis, as the subtitle indicates, on “bases abroad” and the “harm” they cause.
Vine’s decision to focus almost exclusively on “extraterritorial” sites is practical, but it is also political, even as the division implied by this word is unsustainable. The benefits of its retention seem meager: it allows Vine to advocate for a return of “troops and base spending back to the United States,” “stemming the leakage of money out of the U.S. economy and ensuring that economic spillover effects remain at home.” Despite the stupendous number of dollars at stake — tens if not hundreds of billions, annually — I still wonder if Vine’s heart is really in this argument, or if he would prefer to emphasize the “twenty-first century form of colonialism” he documents in places like Guam, and the restitutions that might result from demilitarization. But even on this charge, he follows the same path, claiming that the condition of Guam or Puerto Rico hinders “our country’s ability to be a model for democracy.” For followers of popular political speech, this is familiar prose. But it is still a fictional aspiration, all the more frustrating because it seems to be the result of authorial or editorial pragmatism. It falls apart as soon as we consider varieties of ongoing military colonialism and environmental injustice in the American Southwest, for instance.
Bases are physical manifestations of American militarism. Closing one, or 100, would therefore be locally significant and more broadly symbolic. I hope that Vine’s book will be read and discussed by those with the ability to orchestrate the changes he calls for in his final chapter. The story he tells, however, is also cause for great pessimism. Using a rather frail cluster of evidence, he claims “the issue of overseas bases […] is increasingly moving toward the center of debates about the Pentagon budget and the shape and function of the U.S. military.” Even if he is correct, these debates will not even come close to accommodating the range of evidence presented in Base Nation, and the underlying transformation of the Earth as a result of modern militarization. If overseas bases are, as Vine argues a few pages later, “the true incarnation of President Eisenhower’s worst nightmares about the military-industrial complex,” then reconfiguring budgets or changing strategic postures will do little, or nothing, to alter that complex and its deep roots.
Matthew Farish is associate professor of geography at the University of Toronto. He is collaborating on a history of the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Photography and the glamorization of battle, from the Greeks to modern-day journalism....
A destructive and endless "War on Terror" is spinning out of control....
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.