Chalmers Johnson: America’s vast empire of military bases


Richard Moore

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a project of the Nation Institute
compiled and edited by Tom Engelhardt

Tomgram: Chalmers Johnson on garrisoning the planet

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Our base-mad administration now wants to establish a "research base" on the moon
by 2020, or so the President proclaimed yesterday. It makes a certain sense 
actually. At our present pace, the United States will by then have established 
military bases -- as Chalmers Johnson indicates below ­ on just about every 
possible space left on our planet. Of course, by that time who knows what shape 
our overstretched military and our overstretched empire of bases will be in. 
Only yesterday, a report from the Army War College pronounced the Army "near the
breaking point," given the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. By spring, 40% 
of the troops in Iraq will be either Reservists or National Guard members, no 
longer doing support work for front-line units, but in the front-lines (such as 
they are) themselves. The suicide rate among our troops in Iraq is up. 
Stop-orders have been issued blocking the departure from the service of 40,000 
troops, almost half of whom are Reserves or Guard members -- in an 
"all-volunteer" army a covert form of the draft; sizeable bonuses are suddenly 
being offered to soldiers willing to reenlist and serve in a war zone; and 
according to the Albany Times Union, rumors are circulating that the military 
may soon start calling up retired reservists. Yet Pentagon planning for ever 
more "forward basing" proceeds apace.

In the piece that follows, Chalmers Johnson lays out the skeletal structure of 
America's "Baseworld" and in the process offers us a powerful snapshot of an 
overstretched, heavily militarized empire whose leaders are ready to stretch 
further yet -- even, it seems, to the moon. Johnson, whose pre-9/11 book 
Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire was prescient on the 
kinds of attacks our covert imperial policies opened us up to, has just 
published a new work, The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of
the Republic as part of the American Empire Project. His new book tackles a 
great taboo subject in our country -- militarization and its effects on us as 
well as the rest of the planet. It's a magnificent, path-breaking work and -- I 
assure you -- a must-read if you really want to grasp the contours of our world.
Don't miss it. Tom


America's Empire of Bases
By Chalmers Johnson

As distinct from other peoples, most Americans do not recognize -- or do not 
want to recognize -- that the United States dominates the world through its 
military power. Due to government secrecy, our citizens are often ignorant of 
the fact that our garrisons encircle the planet. This vast network of American 
bases on every continent except Antarctica actually constitutes a new form of 
empire -- an empire of bases with its own geography not likely to be taught in 
any high school geography class. Without grasping the dimensions of this 
globe-girdling Baseworld, one can't begin to understand the size and nature of 
our imperial aspirations or the degree to which a new kind of militarism is 
undermining our constitutional order.

Our military deploys well over half a million soldiers, spies, technicians, 
teachers, dependents, and civilian contractors in other nations. To dominate the
oceans and seas of the world, we are creating some thirteen naval task forces 
built around aircraft carriers whose names sum up our martial heritage -- Kitty 
Hawk, Constellation, Enterprise, John F. Kennedy, Nimitz, Dwight D. Eisenhower, 
Carl Vinson, Theodore Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, John C. 
Stennis, Harry S. Truman, and Ronald Reagan. We operate numerous secret bases 
outside our territory to monitor what the people of the world, including our own
citizens, are saying, faxing, or e-mailing to one another.

Our installations abroad bring profits to civilian industries, which design and 
manufacture weapons for the armed forces or, like the now well-publicized 
Kellogg, Brown & Root company, a subsidiary of the Halliburton Corporation of 
Houston, undertake contract services to build and maintain our far-flung 
outposts. One task of such contractors is to keep uniformed members of the 
imperium housed in comfortable quarters, well fed, amused, and supplied with 
enjoyable, affordable vacation facilities. Whole sectors of the American economy
have come to rely on the military for sales. On the eve of our second war on 
Iraq, for example, while the Defense Department was ordering up an extra ration 
of cruise missiles and depleted-uranium armor-piercing tank shells, it also 
acquired 273,000 bottles of Native Tan sunblock, almost triple its 1999 order 
and undoubtedly a boon to the supplier, Control Supply Company of Tulsa, 
Oklahoma, and its subcontractor, Sun Fun Products of Daytona Beach, Florida.

At Least Seven Hundred Foreign Bases

It's not easy to assess the size or exact value of our empire of bases. Official
records on these subjects are misleading, although instructive. According to the
Defense Department's annual "Base Structure Report" for fiscal year 2003, which 
itemizes foreign and domestic U.S. military real estate, the Pentagon currently 
owns or rents 702 overseas bases in about 130 countries and HAS another 6,000 
bases in the United States and its territories. Pentagon bureaucrats calculate 
that it would require at least $113.2 billion to replace just the foreign bases 
-- surely far too low a figure but still larger than the gross domestic product 
of most countries -- and an estimated $591.5 billion to replace all of them. The
military high command deploys to our overseas bases some 253,288 uniformed 
personnel, plus an equal number of dependents and Department of Defense civilian
officials, and employs an additional 44,446 locally hired foreigners. The 
Pentagon claims that these bases contain 44,870 barracks, hangars, hospitals, 
and other buildings, which it owns, and that it leases 4,844 more.

These numbers, although staggeringly large, do not begin to cover all the actual
bases we occupy globally. The 2003 Base Status Report fails to mention, for 
instance, any garrisons in Kosovo -- even though it is the site of the huge Camp
Bondsteel, built in 1999 and maintained ever since by Kellogg, Brown & Root. The
Report similarly omits bases in Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, 
Qatar, and Uzbekistan, although the U.S. military has established colossal base 
structures throughout the so-called arc of instability in the two-and-a-half 
years since 9/11.

For Okinawa, the southernmost island of Japan, which has been an American 
military colony for the past 58 years, the report deceptively lists only one 
Marine base, Camp Butler, when in fact Okinawa "hosts" ten Marine Corps bases, 
including Marine Corps Air Station Futenma occupying 1,186 acres in the center 
of that modest-sized island's second largest city. (Manhattan's Central Park, by
contrast, is only 843 acres.) The Pentagon similarly fails to note all of the 
$5-billion-worth of military and espionage installations in Britain, which have 
long been conveniently disguised as Royal Air Force bases. If there were an 
honest count, the actual size of our military empire would probably top 1,000 
different bases in other people's countries, but no one -- possibly not even the
Pentagon -- knows the exact number for sure, although it has been distinctly on 
the rise in recent years.

For their occupants, these are not unpleasant places to live and work. Military 
service today, which is voluntary, bears almost no relation to the duties of a 
soldier during World War II or the Korean or Vietnamese wars. Most chores like 
laundry, KP ("kitchen police"), mail call, and cleaning latrines have been 
subcontracted to private military companies like Kellogg, Brown & Root, DynCorp,
and the Vinnell Corporation. Fully one-third of the funds recently appropriated 
for the war in Iraq (about $30 billion), for instance, are going into private 
American hands for exactly such services. Where possible everything is done to 
make daily existence seem like a Hollywood version of life at home. According to
the Washington Post, in Fallujah, just west of Baghdad, waiters in white shirts,
black pants, and black bow ties serve dinner to the officers of the 82nd 
Airborne Division in their heavily guarded compound, and the first Burger King 
has already gone up inside the enormous military base we've established at 
Baghdad International Airport.

Some of these bases are so gigantic they require as many as nine internal bus 
routes for soldiers and civilian contractors to get around inside the earthen 
berms and concertina wire. That's the case at Camp Anaconda, headquarters of the
3rd Brigade, 4th Infantry Division, whose job is to police some 1,500 square 
miles of Iraq north of Baghdad, from Samarra to Taji. Anaconda occupies 25 
square kilometers and will ultimately house as many as 20,000 troops. Despite 
extensive security precautions, the base has frequently come under mortar 
attack, notably on the Fourth of July, 2003, just as Arnold Schwarzenegger was 
chatting up our wounded at the local field hospital.

The military prefers bases that resemble small fundamentalist towns in the Bible
Belt rather than the big population centers of the United States. For example, 
even though more than 100,000 women live on our overseas bases -- including 
women in the services, spouses, and relatives of military personnel -- obtaining
an abortion at a local military hospital is prohibited. Since there are some 
14,000 sexual assaults or attempted sexual assaults each year in the military, 
women who become pregnant overseas and want an abortion have no choice but to 
try the local economy, which cannot be either easy or pleasant in Baghdad or 
other parts of our empire these days.

Our armed missionaries live in a closed-off, self-contained world serviced by 
its own airline -- the Air Mobility Command, with its fleet of long-range C-17 
Globemasters, C-5 Galaxies, C-141 Starlifters, KC-135 Stratotankers, KC-10 
Extenders, and C-9 Nightingales that link our far-flung outposts from Greenland 
to Australia. For generals and admirals, the military provides seventy-one 
Learjets, thirteen Gulfstream IIIs, and seventeen Cessna Citation luxury jets to
fly them to such spots as the armed forces' ski and vacation center at Garmisch 
in the Bavarian Alps or to any of the 234 military golf courses the Pentagon 
operates worldwide. Defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld flies around in his own 
personal Boeing 757, called a C-32A in the Air Force.

Our "Footprint" on the World

Of all the insensitive, if graphic, metaphors we've allowed into our vocabulary,
none quite equals "footprint" to describe the military impact of our empire. 
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Richard Myers and senior members of 
the Senate's Military Construction Subcommittee such as Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) 
are apparently incapable of completing a sentence without using it. Establishing
a more impressive footprint has now become part of the new justification for a 
major enlargement of our empire -- and an announced repositioning of our bases 
and forces abroad -- in the wake of our conquest of Iraq. The man in charge of 
this project is Andy Hoehn, deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy. 
He and his colleagues are supposed to draw up plans to implement President 
Bush's preventive war strategy against "rogue states," "bad guys," and 
"evil-doers." They have identified something they call the "arc of instability,"
which is said to run from the Andean region of South America (read: Colombia) 
through North Africa and then sweeps across the Middle East to the Philippines 
and Indonesia. This is, of course, more or less identical with what used to be 
called the Third World -- and perhaps no less crucially it covers the world's 
key oil reserves. Hoehn contends, "When you overlay our footprint onto that, we 
don't look particularly well-positioned to deal with the problems we're now 
going to confront."

Once upon a time, you could trace the spread of imperialism by counting up 
colonies. America's version of the colony is the military base. By following the
changing politics of global basing, one can learn much about our ever larger 
imperial stance and the militarism that grows with it. Militarism and 
imperialism are Siamese twins joined at the hip. Each thrives off the other. 
Already highly advanced in our country, they are both on the verge of a quantum 
leap that will almost surely stretch our military beyond its capabilities, 
bringing about fiscal insolvency and very possibly doing mortal damage to our 
republican institutions. The only way this is discussed in our press is via 
reportage on highly arcane plans for changes in basing policy and the 
positioning of troops abroad -- and these plans, as reported in the media, 
cannot be taken at face value.

Marine Brig. Gen. Mastin Robeson, commanding our 1,800 troops occupying the old 
French Foreign Legion base at Camp Lemonier in Djibouti at the entrance to the 
Red Sea, claims that in order to put "preventive war" into action, we require a 
"global presence," by which he means gaining hegemony over any place that is not
already under our thumb. According to the right-wing American Enterprise 
Institute, the idea is to create "a global cavalry" that can ride in from 
"frontier stockades" and shoot up the "bad guys" as soon as we get some 
intelligence on them.

"Lily Pads" in Australia, Romania, Mali, Algeria . . .

In order to put our forces close to every hot spot or danger area in this newly 
discovered arc of instability, the Pentagon has been proposing -- this is 
usually called "repositioning" -- many new bases, including at least four and 
perhaps as many as six permanent ones in Iraq. A number of these are already 
under construction -- at Baghdad International Airport, Tallil air base near 
Nasariyah, in the western desert near the Syrian border, and at Bashur air field
in the Kurdish region of the north. (This does not count the previously 
mentioned Anaconda, which is currently being called an "operating base," though 
it may very well become permanent over time.) In addition, we plan to keep under
our control the whole northern quarter of Kuwait -- 1,600 square miles out of 
Kuwait's 6,900 square miles -- that we now use to resupply our Iraq legions and 
as a place for Green Zone bureaucrats to relax.

Other countries mentioned as sites for what Colin Powell calls our new "family 
of bases" include: In the impoverished areas of the "new" Europe -- Romania, 
Poland, and Bulgaria; in Asia -- Pakistan (where we already have four bases), 
India, Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, and even, unbelievably, 
Vietnam; in North Africa -- Morocco, Tunisia, and especially Algeria (scene of 
the slaughter of some 100,00 civilians since 1992, when, to quash an election, 
the military took over, backed by our country and France); and in West Africa --
Senegal, Ghana, Mali, and Sierra Leone (even though it has been torn by civil 
war since 1991). The models for all these new installations, according to 
Pentagon sources, are the string of bases we have built around the Persian Gulf 
in the last two decades in such anti-democratic autocracies as Bahrain, Kuwait, 
Qatar, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates.

Most of these new bases will be what the military, in a switch of metaphors, 
calls "lily pads" to which our troops could jump like so many well-armed frogs 
from the homeland, our remaining NATO bases, or bases in the docile satellites 
of Japan and Britain. To offset the expense involved in such expansion, the 
Pentagon leaks plans to close many of the huge Cold War military reservations in
Germany, South Korea, and perhaps Okinawa as part of Secretary of Defense 
Rumsfeld's "rationalization" of our armed forces. In the wake of the Iraq 
victory, the U.S. has already withdrawn virtually all of its forces from Saudi 
Arabia and Turkey, partially as a way of punishing them for not supporting the 
war strongly enough. It wants to do the same thing to South Korea, perhaps the 
most anti-American democracy on Earth today, which would free up the 2nd 
Infantry Division on the demilitarized zone with North Korea for probable 
deployment to Iraq, where our forces are significantly overstretched.

In Europe, these plans include giving up several bases in Germany, also in part 
because of Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's domestically popular defiance of Bush 
over Iraq. But the degree to which we are capable of doing so may prove limited 
indeed. At the simplest level, the Pentagon's planners do not really seem to 
grasp just how many buildings the 71,702 soldiers and airmen in Germany alone 
occupy and how expensive it would be to reposition most of them and build even 
slightly comparable bases, together with the necessary infrastructure, in former
Communist countries like Romania, one of Europe's poorest countries. Lt. Col. 
Amy Ehmann in Hanau, Germany, has said to the press "There's no place to put 
these people" in Romania, Bulgaria, or Djibouti, and she predicts that 80% of 
them will in the end stay in Germany. It's also certain that generals of the 
high command have no intention of living in backwaters like Constanta, Romania, 
and will keep the U.S. military headquarters in Stuttgart while holding on to 
Ramstein Air Force Base, Spangdahlem Air Force Base, and the Grafenwöhr Training

One reason why the Pentagon is considering moving out of rich democracies like 
Germany and South Korea and looks covetously at military dictatorships and 
poverty-stricken dependencies is to take advantage of what the Pentagon calls 
their "more permissive environmental regulations." The Pentagon always imposes 
on countries in which it deploys our forces so-called Status of Forces 
Agreements, which usually exempt the United States from cleaning up or paying 
for the environmental damage it causes. This is a standing grievance in Okinawa,
where the American environmental record has been nothing short of abominable. 
Part of this attitude is simply the desire of the Pentagon to put itself beyond 
any of the restraints that govern civilian life, an attitude increasingly at 
play in the "homeland" as well. For example, the 2004 defense authorization bill
of $401.3 billion that President Bush signed into law in November 2003 exempts 
the military from abiding by the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal 
Protection Act.

While there is every reason to believe that the impulse to create ever more lily
pads in the Third World remains unchecked, there are several reasons to doubt 
that some of the more grandiose plans, for either expansion or downsizing, will 
ever be put into effect or, if they are, that they will do anything other than 
make the problem of terrorism worse than it is. For one thing, Russia is opposed
to the expansion of U.S. military power on its borders and is already moving to 
checkmate American basing sorties into places like Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, and 
Uzbekistan. The first post-Soviet-era Russian airbase in Kyrgyzstan has just 
been completed forty miles from the U.S. base at Bishkek, and in December 2003, 
the dictator of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, declared that he would not permit a 
permanent deployment of U.S. forces in his country even though we already have a
base there.

When it comes to downsizing, on the other hand, domestic politics may come into 
play. By law the Pentagon's Base Realignment and Closing Commission must submit 
its fifth and final list of domestic bases to be shut down to the White House by
September 8, 2005. As an efficiency measure, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld has 
said he'd like to be rid of at least one-third of domestic Army bases and 
one-quarter of domestic Air Force bases, which is sure to produce a political 
firestorm on Capitol Hill. In order to protect their respective states' bases, 
the two mother hens of the Senate's Military Construction Appropriations 
Subcommittee, Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) and Dianne Feinstein, are demanding 
that the Pentagon close overseas bases first and bring the troops now stationed 
there home to domestic bases, which could then remain open. Hutchison and 
Feinstein included in the Military Appropriations Act of 2004 money for an 
independent commission to investigate and report on overseas bases that are no 
longer needed. The Bush administration opposed this provision of the Act but it 
passed anyway and the president signed it into law on November 22, 2003. The 
Pentagon is probably adept enough to hamstring the commission, but a domestic 
base-closing furor clearly looms on the horizon.

By far the greatest defect in the "global cavalry" strategy, however, is that it
accentuates Washington's impulse to apply irrelevant military remedies to 
terrorism. As the prominent British military historian, Correlli Barnett, has 
observed, the U.S. attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq only increased the threat of 
al-Qaeda. From 1993 through the 9/11 assaults of 2001, there were five major 
al-Qaeda attacks worldwide; in the two years since then there have been 
seventeen such bombings, including the Istanbul suicide assaults on the British 
consulate and an HSBC Bank. Military operations against terrorists are not the 
solution. As Barnett puts it, "Rather than kicking down front doors and barging 
into ancient and complex societies with simple nostrums of 'freedom and 
democracy,' we need tactics of cunning and subtlety, based on a profound 
understanding of the people and cultures we are dealing with -- an understanding
up till now entirely lacking in the top-level policy-makers in Washington, 
especially in the Pentagon."

In his notorious "long, hard slog" memo on Iraq of October 16, 2003, Defense 
secretary Rumsfeld wrote, "Today, we lack metrics to know if we are winning or 
losing the global war on terror." Correlli-Barnett's "metrics" indicate 
otherwise. But the "war on terrorism" is at best only a small part of the reason
for all our military strategizing. The real reason for constructing this new 
ring of American bases along the equator is to expand our empire and reinforce 
our military domination of the world.

Chalmers Johnson's latest book is The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, 
and the End of the Republic (Metropolitan). His previous book, Blowback: The 
Costs and Consequences of American Empire, has just been updated with a new 

Copyright C2004 Chalmers Johnson
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posted January 15, 2004 at 8:46 am

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