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Authors: Tom Engelhardt

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At the height of the Roman Empire, the Romans had an estimated thirty-seven major military bases scattered around their dominions. At the height of the British Empire, the British had thirty-six of them planet wide. Depending on just who you listen to and how you count, we have hundreds of bases. According to Pentagon records, in fact, there are 761 active military “sites” abroad.
The fact is: We garrison the planet north to south, east to west, and even on the seven seas, thanks to our various fleets and our massive aircraft carriers which, with five thousand to six thousand personnel aboard—that is, the population of an American town—are functionally floating bases.
And here’s the other half of that simple truth: We don’t care to know about it. We, the American people, aided and abetted by our politicians, the Pentagon, and the mainstream media, are knee-deep in base denial.
Let’s face it, we’re on an imperial bender—and it’s been a long, long night. Even now, in the wee hours, the Pentagon continues its massive expansion of recent years; we spend militarily as if there were no tomorrow; we’re still building bases as if the world were our oyster; and we’re still in denial. Someone should phone the imperial equivalent of Alcoholics Anonymous.
But let’s start in a sunnier time, less than two decades ago, when it seemed that there would be many tomorrows, all painted red, white, and blue. Remember the 1990s, when the United States was hailed—or perhaps more accurately, Washington hailed itself—not just as the planet’s “sole superpower” or even its unique “hyperpower,” but as its “global policeman,” the only cop on the block? As it happened, our leaders took that label seriously and our central police headquarters, that famed five-sided building in Washington, D.C., promptly began dropping police stations—
also known as military bases—in or near the energy centers of the planet (Kosovo, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait) after successful wars in the former Yugoslavia and the Persian Gulf.
As those bases multiplied, it seemed that we were embarking on a new, post-Soviet version of “containment.” With the USSR gone, however, what we were containing grew a lot vaguer and, before 9/11, no one spoke its name. Nonetheless, it was, in essence, Muslims who happened to live on so many of the key oil lands of the planet.
Yes, for a while we also kept intact our old bases from our triumphant mega-war against Japan and Germany, and the stalemated “police action” in South Korea (1950-1953), vast structures that added up to something like an all-military American version of the old British Raj. According to the Pentagon, we still have a total of 124 bases in Japan, up to 38 on the small island of Okinawa, and 87 in South Korea. (Of course, there were setbacks. The giant bases we built in South Vietnam were lost in 1975, and we were peaceably ejected from our major bases in the Philippines in 1992.)
But imagine the hubris involved in the idea of being “global policeman” or “sheriff” and marching into a Dodge City that was nothing less than planet Earth. Naturally, with a whole passel of bad guys out there, a global “swamp” to be “drained,” we armed ourselves to kill, not stun. And the police stations…well, they were often something to behold—and they still are.
Let’s start with the basics: Almost seventy years after World War II, the sun is still incapable of setting on the American “empire of bases”—in Chalmers Johnson’s phrase—which at this moment stretches from Australia to Italy, Japan to Qatar, Iraq to Colombia, Greenland to the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia, Romania to Djibouti. And new bases of various kinds are going up all the time (always with rumors of more to come).
There are 194 countries on the planet (more or less), and officially 39 are home to U.S. “facilities.” But those are only the bases the Pentagon publicly acknowledges. Others simply aren’t counted, either because, as in the case of Jordan, a country finds it politically preferable not to acknowledge such bases; or, as in the case of Pakistan, the American military
shares bases that are officially Pakistani. Bases in war zones, no matter how elaborate, somehow don’t count either, including the approximately three hundred the United States built in Iraq, ranging from tiny outposts to mega-bases like Balad Air Base and the ill-named Camp Victory, that house tens of thousands of troops, private contractors, Defense Department civilians, and have bus routes, traffic lights, PXes, big-name fast-food franchises, and so on.
Some of these bases are, in effect, “American towns” on foreign soil. In Afghanistan, Bagram Air Base, previously used by the Soviets in their occupation of the country, is the largest and best known. There are, however, many more, large and small, including Kandahar Airfield, located in what was once the unofficial capital of the Taliban, which even has a hockey rink (evidently for its Canadian contingent of troops). You would think that all of this would be genuine news, that the establishment of new bases would regularly generate significant news stories, that books by the score would pour out on America’s version of imperial control. But here’s the strange thing: We garrison the globe in ways that really are—not to put too fine a point on it—unprecedented, and yet, if you happen to live in the United States, you basically wouldn’t know it; or, thought about another way, you wouldn’t have to know it.
In Washington, our garrisoning of the world is so taken for granted that no one seems to blink when billions go into a new base in some exotic, embattled, war-torn land. There’s no discussion, no debate at all. And yet there may be no foreign-policy subject more deserving of coverage. It has always been obvious—to me, at least—that any discussion of Iraq policy, of timelines or “time horizons,” drawdowns or withdrawals, made little sense if those giant
facts on the ground
weren’t taken into account. And yet you have to search the U.S. press carefully to find any reporting on the subject, nor have bases played any real role in debates in Washington or the nation over Iraq policy.
Of course, millions of Americans know about our bases abroad firsthand. In this sense, they may be the least well-kept secrets on the planet. American troops, private contractors, and Defense Department civilian employees all have spent extended periods of time on at least one U.S. base abroad. And yet no one seems to notice the near news blackout on
our global bases or consider it the least bit strange. In the United States, military bases really only matter, and so make headlines, when the Pentagon attempts to close some of the vast numbers of them scattered across this country. Then, the fear of lost jobs and lost income in local communities leads to headlines and hubbub.
In purely practical terms, though, Americans are unlikely to be able to shoulder forever the massive global role the Pentagon and successive administrations have laid out for us. Sooner or later, cutbacks will come and the sun will slowly begin to set on our base-world abroad. In the meantime, occupying the planet, base by base, normally simply isn’t news. Americans may pay no attention—and yet, of course, they do pay an enormous price.
Air War, Barbarity, and Collateral Damage
Icarus (Armed with Vipers) Over Iraq
The human imagination is quicker off the mark than any six-gun, bomb, or missile. Long before humans made it into airplanes, whole cities were being destroyed from the air—in an avalanche of popular fiction. By the late nineteenth century, London had gone down in flames more than once and New York soon would follow. Genocidal wars from the air were repeatedly imagined and described in which whole nations, whole races, were wiped out. In 1914, more than three decades before the first atomic bomb was dropped, H. G. Wells had already imagined and named “atomic weapons” in
The World Set Free
, his novel about a future atomic air war.
When it came to fantasies and fears of destruction, we knew no bounds. As the scholar Spencer Weart has written in
Nuclear Fear: A History of Images
Right from the start [the] new idea of atomic weapons was linked to an even more impressive idea: the end of the world. When [scientist Frederick] Soddy first told the public about atomic energy, in May 1903, he said that our planet is “a storehouse stuffed with explosives, inconceivably more powerful than any we know of, and possibly only awaiting a suitable detonator to cause the earth to revert to chaos.” This was an entirely new idea: that it might be technically possible for
someone to destroy the world deliberately. Yet the idea slipped into the public mind with suspicious ease…. For example, in 1903 the irrepressible Gustave Le Bon got into newspaper Sunday supplements in various countries by imagining a radioactive device that could “blow up the whole earth” at the touch of a button.
In fact, for almost half a century before 1945, such weapons were the property only of science fiction. In his magisterial
The Rise of American Air Power
, Michael Sherry offers this comment on the machine that delivered the first of those atomic devices of our imagination to a real city: “More than any other modern weapon, the bomber was imagined before it was invented.” Should we be amazed or horrified, proud or ashamed to have so actively imagined a century or more of future horrors of our own making? The imagination worked so quickly, but at least as miraculous was how quickly the inventors and the scientists followed.
I doubt that any invention other than the airplane has so combined the wonder of creation, of defiance of obvious human limits, and of destruction so intimately and for so long. Now, it seems, the wonder and even the horror of airpower is largely gone, but the inventions, the destruction, and the carnage remain.
The odd thing is this: No sooner had we human beings risen above the earth in powered flight—think Icarus—than we expressed the wonder of that event by dropping bombs from the planes that took us into the heavens. After that, it was just a straight line up (or down?) for the next near century.
Look at it this way: The Wright Brothers’ “whopper flying machine” leaves the beach at Kitty Hawk for the first time on December 17, 1903. That initial flight lasts all of 12 seconds before the plane hits the sand 120 feet away. Later the same day, the plane flies 859 feet in 59 seconds before, on a final flight, it totals itself and is no more. Only five years later, the Wright Brothers are demonstrating their new invention in the skies over Washington for the U.S. Army Signal Corps. By 1911, the plane is wedded to the bomb. According to Sven Lindqvist’s
A History of Bombing
, one Lieutenant Giulio Cavotti “leaned out of his delicate monoplane and dropped the bomb—a Danish Haasen hand grenade—on the North
African oasis Tagiura, near Tripoli. Several moments later, he attacked the oasis Ain Zara. Four bombs in total, each weighing two kilos, were dropped during this first air attack.” On the “natives” in the colonies, naturally enough. What better place to test a new weapon? And that first attack, as perhaps befits our temperaments, was, Lindqvist tells us, for revenge, a kind of collective punishment called down upon Arabs who had successfully resisted the advanced rationality (and occupying spirit) of the Italian army. Given where we’ve ended up, it would be perfectly reasonable to consider this moment the beginning of modern history, even of modernism itself.
A generation, no more, from Kitty Hawk to thousand-bomber raids over Germany. Another from the atomic bombing of Hiroshima to “shock and awe” in Iraq. No more than a blink of history’s unseeing eye. Between 1911 and the end of the last bloody century, villages, towns, and cities across the earth were destroyed in copious numbers in part or in full by bombs. Their names could make up a modern chant: Chechaouen, Guernica, Shanghai, London, Coventry, Hamburg, Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Damascus, Pyongyang, Haiphong, Grozny, Baghdad, and now Falluja among too many other places to name (including the colonial countryside of our planet from Kenya to Malaya). Millions and millions of tons of bombs dropped; millions and millions of dead, mostly, of course, civilians.
And from the Japanese and German cities of World War II to the devastated Korean peninsula of the early 1950s, from the ravaged southern Vietnamese countryside of the late 1960s to the “highway of death” on which much of a fleeing Iraqi army was destroyed in the First Gulf War of 1991, airpower has been America’s signature way of war.
Think of the history of the development of the plane and of bombing as a giant, extremely top-heavy diamond. In 1903, one fragile plane flies 120 feet. In 1911, another only slightly less fragile plane drops a bomb. In 1945, vast air armadas take off to devastate chosen German and Japanese cities. On August 6, 1945, all the power of those armadas is compacted into the belly of the
Enola Gay
, a lone B-29, which drops its single bomb on Hiroshima, destroying the city and so many of its inhabitants. Remarkably, the man who commanded the U.S. Army Air
Forces, both the armadas and the
Enola Gay
, General Henry “Hap” Arnold (according to Robin Neillands in
The Bomber War: The Allied Air Offensive Against Nazi Germany
), “had been taught to fly by none other than Orville Wright, one of the two men credited with inventing the first viable airplane.” Barely more than a generation took us from those 120 feet at Kitty Hawk to the
Enola Gay
and the destruction of one city from the air by one bomb.
Since 1945, both civilian plane flight and the killing of enormous numbers of civilians from the air (now subsumed in the term “collateral damage”) have become completely normal parts of our lives. Too normal, it seems, to spend a lot of time thinking about or even writing fiction about. When we get on a plane now, we close the window shade and watch a movie on a tiny TV screen or, on certain flights, TV itself in real time, as if we were still in our living rooms. So much for either shock or awe. Today, American planes regularly bomb distant lands and no one even seems to notice. No one, not even reporters on the spot, bothers to comment. No one writes a significant word about it. Should we be amazed or horrified, proud or ashamed?
BOOK: American Way of War
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