US Military Presence Abroad

CATHERINE LUTZ – “There is nothing more American, in many ways, unfortunately, than a place bristling with weapons and soldiers.”

You study the impact of military bases on communities around the world. How has the War on Terror during the last decade exacerbated the impact of military spending and military practice on these communities?

 Whenever a country fights a war it generates a tremendous amount of movement — of equipment, people, and other resources — and this always spills over into the communities surrounding military facilities. In addition, during war, the sheer number of military facilities increases. Under normal conditions, there are near one thousand US military facilities around the world, but that number jumped up significantly during the last decade: several hundred new bases were built in Iraq and Afghanistan to support operations there. Some of those bases were truly gigantic, so that within just three years of the wars’ inception, two additional billion dollars of construction money was spent. Some of that money, for example, went towards the construction of Balad airbase in Iraq, that has the capacity to house 30,000 individuals and an additional 10,000 contractors. This base covered an immense amount of Iraqi territory: 16 square miles for the base itself, and to secure it another 12 square miles were claimed as a perimeter.

We speak about military bases in Guam, Europe, and elsewhere. What role have similar installations played specifically in Iraq and Afghanistan?

 The wars have been fought from a number of locations, but some of the logistics hubs and deployment centers are in Germany, Italy, Kuwait — outside Iraq and Afghanistan. The bases inside the conflict zones are used to position troops and launch operations.

In Mother Jones, you wrote “there is nothing more American, in many ways, unfortunately, than a place bristling with weapons and soldiers.” Is this how civilians living near overseas military bases view the United States on a macro-level?

 It depends on which countries we are looking at. In Italy, for example, most Italians see American tourists or students rather than soldiers or weapons. In many countries, the US soldiers are restricted to base or encouraged to stay on base due to local sensitivities. Yet in other cases the US presence is very visible. In Okinawa there is a base directly in the center of a major urban area. When soldiers leave the base to eat or go to a bar, they are not always on their best behavior. Soldiers will not be walking around with their weapons, but the various kinds of noxious behavior associated with the base can be quite stressful on the local population: piercing noises come from jet airplanes that arrive and depart constantly, soldiers leave base, get drunk, become rowdy, or help to support the local sex industry. A few even commit crimes, not rarely, against women and girls. And the local population is very unhappy with this situation.

Earlier empires have established colonies to maintain military and resource security, yet those territories would not be sovereign. Today, many some American bases are located in nations which have independent governments. Are these military bases indicative of a new kind of American “Empire”?

 Empires of the past have garrisoned soldiers in regions for a variety of reasons. What is new about the American Empire relates to the question of how much military presence the US maintains in other countries. American holdings today rival the extent of the British Empire in terms of how many military bases were constructed around the world. Yet, America is less likely to establish colonies of civilians — yes, the US does send many civilians to various countries, as businesspeople or tourists. What is truly new is that the US is militarily covering the globe, as it says, for the benefit of all people: the idea that a global military presence is required to have a secure world.

 Would you label America today as an Empire?

 Yes, because the definition of “Empire” refers to a country that tries to extend its control and power over countries that are nominally sovereign or unable to control their own territory. An empire is an expansive state government that invests in sending its people — uniformed or not — into the world to its own benefit: to extract resources, to gain compliance for any projects the government might want to undertake. The US has invested trillions of dollars over the years in implementing this project of control. That is indisputable.  The discussion starts when we begin to speak about whether this practice provides any benefits, and for whom.

Many analysts have been noting that American power is on the decline. How will the US presence, in terms of these bases, overseas evolve or dissolve in the future?

 There are a few people who benefit from US military bases abroad. Businesspeople sometime benefit as well, since they will sell commodities to people who are living on these bases. The bigger question is: What is the future of these bases? Are they moral? Are they sustainable? I do not think they are sustainable or moral. In other words, the US should not be using military force overseas. The effects of this imposition of American power are psychological and cultural and political and they are often deadly: Americans often make deals with local tyrants or elites that ultimately are not the benefit of the rest of the country. It shapes American identity in unfortunate ways, leading many to want to interpret the bases as a gift to the world and to ignore their militarizing and other negative effects.

These bases suggest that military force is the modern way to solve problems, which is a very unfortunate conclusion. They tend to accelerate arms races. When President Obama sent marines to new bases in Australia, for example, the move was just the latest in a series of provocations to the Chinese. These are actions that do not create a collective security, but rather spark the Chinese and other effected nations to meet the American “challenge” with their own military build-up and counter responses.

It is interesting that these bases are, in part, built to maintain peace and security around the world. But it seems, perhaps ironically, that these bases could be the catalyst for a future conflict.

 Absolutely. One of the most telling insights into this problem that I have heard comes from the people on the Pacific island of Palau. There was an attempt to build a nuclear submarine port there for the US Navy a number of years ago. The local people fought the construction; they had experienced war during World War II when the Japanese had garrisoned themselves in Micronesia. What the people of Palau concluded from those Japanese military bases was that “when soldiers come, war comes.” When a society is preparing for war, even if it is trying to prevent it, these preparations often bring on conflict. Either the country is disingenuous about its claims, or despite its best intentions, it provokes arms races, leads to support for military strongmen who attack their own or neighboring citizens.

How are these bases reported about in the media, that is, are Americans hidden from the reality of the military’s influence?

 Yes, absolutely. These bases are to America the way water is to fish. The US is swimming in bases, but it does not recognize their presence: they are taken-for-granted. There is a great deal of secrecy as well; the Pentagon would be just as happy if people did not pay any attention to these bases.

However, these bases are not sustainable. People around the world are becoming more aware of their impact, and their price tag in terms of human and political costs. There is a chance that this unsustainable amount of military investment is going to collapse.

How should we remember this period of conflict, especially given our continued military presence internationally? 

One of the most important lessons is that the US population did not want to go to war in Iraq, yet the government went to war anyway. Disinformation, misinformation, and lack of information played a crucial part of being able to prosecute the conflict. One of the things we must talk about is ‘what makes it so difficult to think about the United States in critical terms or to conclude that horrible and avoidable mistakes have been made in US foreign policy over the last ten years?” How can this country account for and take responsibility for the great human, political, and social cost of these wars?


CATHERINE LUTZ is the Thomas J. Watson, Jr. Family Professor of Anthropology and International Studies at Brown University, where she is the chair of the Department of Anthropology. She is also co-director of the Costs of War research project based at Brown’s Watson Institute of International Studies.

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