What Are Foreign Military Bases For?

If you’re like most people in the United States, you have a vague awareness that the U.S. military keeps lots of troops permanently stationed on foreign bases around the world. But have you ever wondered and really investigated to find out how many, and where exactly, and at what cost, and to what purpose, and in terms of what relationship with the host nations?

A wonderfully researched new book, six years in the works, answers these questions in a manner you’ll find engaging whether you’ve ever asked them or not. It’s called Base Nation: How U.S. Military Bases Harm America and the World, by David Vine.

Some 800 bases with hundreds of thousands of troops in some 70 nations, plus all kinds of other “trainers” and “non-permanent” exercises that last indefinitely, maintain an ongoing U.S. military presence around the world for a price tag of at least $100 billion a year.

Why they do this is a harder question to answer.

Even if you think there is some reason to be able to quickly deploy thousands of U.S. troops to any spot on earth, airplanes now make that as easily done from the United States as from Korea or Japan or Germany or Italy.

It costs dramatically more to keep troops in those other countries, and while some base defenders make a case for economic philanthropy, the evidence is that local economies actually benefit little — and suffer little when a base leaves. Neither does the U.S. economy benefit, of course. Rather, certain privileged contractors benefit, along with those politicians whose campaigns they fund. And if you think military spending is unaccountable at home, you should check out bases abroad where it’s none too rare to have security guards employed purely to guard cooks whose sole job is to feed the security guards. The military has a term for any common SNAFU, and the term for this one is “self-licking ice cream.”

The bases, in many cases, generate an enormous amount of popular resentment and hatred, serving as motivations for attacks on the bases themselves or elsewhere — famously including the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Bases around the borders of Russia and China are generating new hostility and arms races, and even proposals by Russia and China to open foreign bases of their own. Currently all non-U.S. foreign bases in the world total no more than 30, with most of those belonging to close U.S. allies, and not a single one of them being in or anywhere near the United States, which would of course be considered an outrage.

Many U.S. bases are hosted by brutal dictatorships. An academic study has identified a strong U.S. tendency to defend dictatorships where the United States has bases. A glance at a newspaper will tell you the same. Crimes in Bahrain are not equal to crimes in Iran. In fact, when brutal and undemocratic governments currently hosting U.S. bases (in, for example, Honduras, Aruba, Curaçao, Mauritania, Liberia, Niger, Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Chad, Egypt, Mozambique, Burundi, Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Yemen, Qatar, Oman, UAE, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, Israel, Turkey, Georgia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Thailand, Cambodia, or Singapore) are protested, there is a pattern of increased U.S. support for the government, which makes eviction of the U.S. bases all the more likely should the government fall, which fuels a vicious cycle that increases popular resentment of the U.S. government. The U.S. began building new bases in Honduras shortly after the 2009 coup.

Vine also tells a troubling story of the U.S. military’s alliance with the Camorra (the mafia) in Naples, Italy, a relationship that has lasted from World War II to the present, and which fueled the rise of the Camorra — a group reportedly deemed reliable enough by the U.S. military to protect nuclear weapons.

The smaller bases that don’t house tens of thousands of troops, but secretive death squads or drones, have a tendency to make wars more likely. The drone war on Yemen that was labeled a success by President Obama last year has helped fuel a larger war.

In fact, I want to quibble with Vine’s account of the birth of Base Nation, because I think the facilitation of the worst war ever was involved. Vine gives the history of the U.S. bases in Native American lands, starting in 1785 and very much alive today in the language of U.S. troops abroad in “Indian territory.” But then Vine dates the birth of the modern base empire to September 2, 1940, when President Franklin Roosevelt traded Britain old ships in exchange for various Caribbean, Bermudan, and Canadian bases to be used in or after the war he was supposedly not planning on. But I’d like to back the clock up a little.

When FDR visited Pearl Harbor (not actually part of the United States) on July 28, 1934, the Japanese military expressed apprehension. General Kunishiga Tanaka wrote in the Japan Advertiser, objecting to the build-up of the American fleet and the creation of additional bases in Alaska and the Aleutian Islands (also not part of the United States): “Such insolent behavior makes us most suspicious. It makes us think a major disturbance is purposely being encouraged in the Pacific. This is greatly regretted.”

Then, in March 1935, Roosevelt bestowed Wake Island on the U.S. Navy and gave Pan Am Airways a permit to build runways on Wake Island, Midway Island, and Guam. Japanese military commanders announced that they were disturbed and viewed these runways as a threat. So did peace activists in the United States. By the next month, Roosevelt had planned war games and maneuvers near the Aleutian Islands and Midway Island. By the following month, peace activists were marching in New York advocating friendship with Japan. Norman Thomas wrote in 1935: “The Man from Mars who saw how men suffered in the last war and how frantically they are preparing for the next war, which they know will be worse, would come to the conclusion that he was looking at the denizens of a lunatic asylum.” The Japanese attacked Wake Island four days after attacking Pearl Harbor.

In any case, Vine points to the uniqueness of World War II as a war that has never been ended, even after the Cold War was said to have ended. Why have the troops never come home? Why have they continued to spread their forts into “Indian Territory,” until the U.S. has more foreign bases than any other empire in history, even as the era of conquering territory has ended, even as a significant segment of the population has ceased thinking of “Indians” and other foreigners as subhuman beasts without rights worthy of respecting?

One reason, well-documented by Vine, is the same reason that the huge U.S. base at Guantanamo, Cuba, is used to imprison people without trials. By preparing for wars in foreign locations, the U.S. is often able to evade all kinds of legal restrictions — including on labor and the environment, not to mention prostitution. GIs occupying Germany referred to rape as “liberating a blonde,” and the sexual disaster area surrounding U.S. bases has continued to this day, despite the decision in 1945 to start sending families to live with soldiers — a policy that now includes shipping each soldier’s entire worldly possessions including automobiles around the world with them, not to mention providing single-payer healthcare and twice the spending on schooling as the national average back home. Prostitutes serving U.S. bases in South Korea and elsewhere are often virtually slaves. The Philippines, which has had U.S. “help” as long as anyone, provides the most contractor staff for U.S. bases, cooking , cleaning, and everything else — as well as likely the most prostitutes imported to other countries, like South Korea.

The most isolated and lawless base sites include locations from which the U.S. military evicted the local population. These include bases in Diego Garcia, Greenland, Alaska, Hawaii, Panama, Puerto Rico, the Marshall Islands, Guam, the Philippines, Okinawa, and South Korea — with people evicted as recently as 2006 in South Korea.

In hundreds of other sites where the population was not evicted, it might wish it had been. Foreign bases have been environmentally disastrous. Open-air burns, unexploded weaponry, poisons leaked into the ground water — these are all commonplace. A jet fuel leak at Kirkland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, N.M., started in 1953 and was discovered in 1999, and was more than twice the size of the Exxon Valdez spill. U.S. bases within the United States have been environmentally devastating, but not on the scale of those in some foreign lands. A plane taking off from Diego Garcia to bomb Afghanistan in 2001 crashed and sank to the bottom of the ocean with some 85 hundred-pound munitions. Even ordinary base life takes a toll; U.S. troops produce over three times the garbage each as local residents in, for example, Okinawa.

Disregard for people and the land and the sea is built into the very idea of foreign bases. The United States would never tolerate another nation’s base within its borders, yet imposes them on Okinawans, South Koreans, Italians, Filipinos, Iraqis, and others despite huge protest. Vine took some of his students to meet with an official at the U.S. State Department, Kevin Maher, who explained to them that U.S. bases in Japan were concentrated in Okinawa because it was “the Puerto Rico of Japan” where people have “darker skin,” are “shorter,” and have an “accent.”

Base Nation is a book that should be read — and its maps seen — by everyone. I wish Vine did not write “Russia’s seizure of Crimea” when referring to a free and open and legal vote, especially in the context of a book about military bases. And I wish he did not only use selfish points of reference in terms of financial tradeoffs. Of course the United States could be transformed for the better with the redirection of military spending, but the United States and the world both could be. It’s that much money.

But this book will be an invaluable resource for years to come. It also includes, I should note, an excellent account of some of the resistance struggles that have in some cases shut bases down or scaled them back. It’s worth noting that just this week, in the first of two necessary rulings, an Italian court has ruled for the people, against the U.S. Navy’s construction of communications equipment in Sicily.

Just this month, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff published “The National Military Strategy of the United States of America — 2015.” It gave as justification for militarism lies about four countries, beginning with Russia, which it accused of “using force to achieve its goals,” something the Pentagon would never do! Next it lied that Iran was “pursuing” nuclear weapons, a claim for which there is no evidence. Next it claimed that North Korea’s nukes would someday “threaten the U.S. homeland.” Finally, it asserted that China was “adding tension to the Asia-Pacific region.” This “Strategy” admitted that none of the four nations wanted war with the United States. “Nonetheless, they each pose serious security concerns,” it said.

So, one might add, does each of the U.S. foreign bases. Vine’s book ends with some excellent proposals for change, to which I would add only one: Smedley Butler’s proposed rule that the U.S. military be forbidden to travel more than 200 miles from the United States.

David Vine is this week’s guest on Talk Nation Radio.

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  • diogenes

    If it walks like a duck … The significance of these bases is exactly the same as of the British ones at Gibraltar and (once) at Singapore: empire. Guantanamo and Subic Bay mark the first wave of American imperial activity, the seizure of the Philippines and “liberation” of Cuba in 1898. It is no accident that FDR’s cousin Teddy Roosevelt was a key player in this. The Roosevelts have been key players since before 1700 in the small world of New York City finance and international trade and its mercantilist imperial project. In the 1890s it funded the Cuban insurrection in Cuba and Washington. It was a beginning. Its proper name is empire. On its character see especially Tacitus.

    • A well articulated, and knowledgeable post! Welcome to the home of mostly well reasoned folks and reality based insight and additionally packed with facts with support!

  • tom

    Come to think of it, the people at the White House, State, and the Pentagon probably see eye-to-eye with the Camorra. It’s an outfit very much to their taste, after all, and with a similar philosophy and strategy.

  • elline

    i just didnt get my answer. what are the benefits of these bases???????????????/

    • nick quinlan

      They benefit the Military/Industrial Complex and its assortment of hundreds of corporations….Profits!

      • We are an ‘EMPIRE’ without a question, and most should know history is littered with many of them!

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