Anthropologist warns of growth in U.S. bases

By Austin R. Ramsey

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Perhaps the most critical component of U.S. military power is its relentless presence around the world.

The globe is indisputably covered with U.S. military bases. Recent estimates put the number as high as 800 in more than 80 countries, but a true number may be harder to come by as bases open and close under the veil of national security. Large and small, these military installations have been the launching point for wars and invasions; they’ve served as secret locations for military prisons; and they contextualize the country’s frayed diplomatic relations with allies and foes alike.

Among them is the remote Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia. Occupied by the U.K. and jointly operated by British and American forces, Naval Support Facility Diego Garcia has been a hallmark of American University Professor David Vine’s work and served as a launching point for his first book, “Island of Shame: The Secret History of the U.S. Military Base on Diego Garcia.”

Vine, who also wrote “Base Nation: How U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World,”  is an acclaimed anthropologist whose work has framed American military might in the context of imperialism and calls into question seemingly endless wars globally.

His latest book, “The United States of War: A Global History of America’s Endless Conflicts, from Columbus to the Islamic State,” is due to be released in October. Vine sat down with Investigative Reporting Workshop reporter Austin R. Ramsey to discuss his work and his research and reporting methods.

What follows is an edited transcript.

IRW: What sparked your interest in the social sciences?

DAVID VINE: I think what sparked my interest in the social sciences was what I thought it could do in the world. I thought the social sciences can be a tool for helping to affect social change in some way, and, specifically, to expose problems in a world where there are, of course, many problems. I thought the social sciences could be helpful in trying to help make the world a better place.

Much of your published work has centered on the U.S. military and military bases. How do you go from anthropology as a general subject to military studies?

Anthropology has changed a lot, and the U.S. war on terror helped encourage more anthropologists to study the military and issues of foreign policy. My specific interest … came about because I was very lucky. I did have a longstanding interest in issues of war and peace. I went to a Quaker school growing up; my family’s history has been shaped by World War II and the Nazi Holocaust.

When I went to grad school, I wanted to study things right outside my backdoor, so I was studying gentrification in Brooklyn, New York, and the displacement associated with gentrification and the forces shaping it. And then I got a very lucky phone call the summer after my first year of graduate school from a lawyer who was representing a group of indigenous people from the Indian Ocean in a group of islands called the Chagos Islands, and one island in particular called Diego Garcia, where there is a large U.S. military base. And what this lawyer explained was that all the indigenous people had been forcibly removed from their homes — from their entire homeland — and deported 1,200 miles away as part of the construction of this military base.

I vaguely knew that the United States had a military base on Diego Garcia, but I knew nothing about the people who had been displaced during the construction of the base who were called Chagossians. So this really opened my eyes to a world of U.S. military bases that encircle the globe. … Learning about the Chagossians’ exile and the impoverishment, really, that they’ve faced in exile made me start to pay attention to the effects of all these military bases and why the United States has military bases around the world — why the United States needs a military base in the middle of the Indian Ocean, how that might be defending the United States, if at all — as well as the effects that these bases are having on local people, [and] on global peace and security.

Briefly, describe what Diego Garcia is and what effect this agreement between Britain and the United States had on the indigenous people of that area.

Diego Garcia is a little-known island in the middle of the Indian Ocean halfway between Africa and Indonesia. Very isolated. Britain controls it, but there is a very large and powerful U.S. Air Force and Navy base on the island that was constructed in the late 1960s and early 1970s. During the construction … the U.S. government paid for and the British government carried out the forced removal of the entire indigenous people.

Conducting research about Diego Garcia was unusual because I was researching a base I literally couldn’t see. You can’t go unless you’re in the U.S. military or in the British military. The local people, the Chagossians, can’t go home; they’ve been barred from their homeland, despite seeking the right to return for now more than 50 years. So I was forced to focus on mostly former U.S. government officials and some current officials here in and around Washington, D.C., who could shed some light on why U.S. officials built a base in the middle of the Indian Ocean in the first place, and why U.S. officials thought it was appropriate and OK to exile an entire people during the construction of the base. I also made extensive use of U.S. and British archives, which [shows] U.S. and British officials conspiring to remove the people and to do so in incredibly callous terms. They were well aware that they were violating international law, and you can see it in the documents.

When the U.S. government approached the British government about building a base under great secrecy, the British government readily agreed. The U.S. government paid $14 million secretly to the British government to get access to the right to build a base and to get the government to carry out the removals.

The Chagossian people occupied Diego Garcia from the late 18th century until their eviction at the hands of the British military in the 1960s and ’70s. Historically, Vine said, they had occupied the island as slaves from Madagascar and Mozambique and indentured laborers from India. Together, they formed a new society known first as the Îlois people and later the Chagossians.

Most Chagossians were displaced to Mauritius, an island in the western Indian Ocean, and Mauritius was in the International Court of Justice recently claiming it is the rightful sovereign over the Chagos Archipelago. Scholars [and] legal experts were fairly unanimous on this matter. It was really only British lawyers and other British and U.S. officials backing them who took a contrary position.

Britain separated the Chagos Islands, including Diego Garcia, from colonial Mauritius when it was gaining its independence, which was in direct violation of the UN rules on decolonization — that you couldn’t chop up colonies as you were granting them independence. Indeed, U.S. officials helped pay for and British officials transferred what they described as a bribe to the Mauritian government in the form of 3 million pounds to get the Mauritian government to go along with this deal, at least temporarily, and to stay quiet about it.

Years later, after Mauritius got its independence, it began seeking the return of their sovereignty or the exercise of their sovereignty, and [last] year, by a 31-1 verdict, the International Court of Justice ruled that, in fact, Mauritius is the sovereign and Britain should withdraw its unlawful colonial administration over the islands.

You mentioned that your family has a history directly tied with the Holocaust. Tell me a little about that.

I think it clearly had to do with and has to do with my family’s experience of displacement during World War II and during the Holocaust, being forced to flee Nazi Germany. Some members of my family, of course, were not able to flee and perished in the Holocaust. … This definitely shaped my connection to the Chagossians. At the same time, I was just outraged that my government had displaced this entire people and done it in a very callous manner, aided by the British government, who also bear deep responsibility for what happened to the Chagossians. Of course, after I started doing research, I realized that the Chagossians … are not alone, and, sadly, that there is a long pattern of displacement caused by the U.S. military and the U.S. government more broadly, especially connected to the construction and expansion of U.S. military bases abroad.

That ties in with what “Base Nation” describes as the lily-pad strategy. Tell me a little bit about that strategy in your reporting.

So the lily-pad strategy … is a new approach that the U.S. military has embarked upon whereby they have been looking to build and create as many relatively small military bases in as many places as possible around the world, … but focusing on places where the U.S. hasn’t had much, if any, military presence. … So, we see lily pad bases popping up in places like Africa; now there is U.S. military infrastructure in around 75% of the countries in Africa. I think very few people in the United States are aware of this development, and this all happened since around 2000–2001. But we also see in East Asia, in parts of Eastern and Central Europe, these small, lily pad bases popping up that are [a] … relatively surreptitious way to exercise U.S. power. Sometimes it’s just U.S. military contractors and, in other cases, the U.S. military base — the lily pad — is hidden, to varying degrees, within a local host nation base.

You characterize them in some cases as being temporary to circumvent a ban on permanent installations. You almost describe them, in a way, as shadow bases — shadowy bases that exist all over the world. You said a moment ago, 800 across the globe. Why does the American government have an interest in keeping these secret or shadowed?

Largely because they’re afraid of resistance. U.S. military bases abroad have sparked resistance almost everywhere they’ve been located, and it’s pretty easy to understand why.

Americans would not want to live next to a Chinese or Russian base, nor would they want a Western-nation base on their soil, you said, noting that such action could provoke resentment and lead to an increase in crime.

The U.S. military has sought to find ways to circumvent and avoid protest and opposition. One way has been to say: “We just have a temporary presence.” … These are ways to both avoid opposition in the host nation and, actually, to avoid much questioning or opposition in the United States from people who might ask, “Why do we actually have five bases in Niger? Why do we have bases in Cameroon?”

Why do we?

The ostensible reason, according to the U.S. military and the U.S. government in places like Africa, is to bring peace and security and counter terrorist groups. The track record in Africa, in particular, has been, according to most of the research I’ve seen, quite poor in terms of the U.S. military’s presence doing anything to provide greater peace and security. If anything, as in other parts of the world, a U.S. military presence often fuels insurgence and insurgent movements, in addition to having other negative effects.

In other words, an anti-American sentiment?

Often, yes. But, the deeper roots to why there are these U.S. bases popping up in Africa in particular [is that there is] something of a new scramble for Africa that resembles that of the late 19th century scramble among European empires for control of resources in parts of Africa. Now China, the United States, to a somewhat lesser extent European powers, have been scrambling and competing for, again, African natural resources and economic opportunities. China in particular, the greatest competitor to the U.S. government, has been pursuing this competition with economic tools by making strategic investments [and] by helping to build soccer stadiums. By contrast, the U.S. government has pursued the competition largely with U.S. military might — by making investments in military infrastructure, training, military exercises and the like.

That sounds like imperialism.

U.S. military bases are, in my mind, a largely overlooked tool of U.S. imperial power since World War II. U.S. military bases have, since World War II, occupied dozens of countries and, at times, have actually numbered even more than the 800 today, and they’ve been a major tool by which the United States government has been able to exercise power and control over local governments [and] over local people to advance [the] economic and political interests of … U.S. corporations [and] U.S. elites. Many people in the United States don’t like to think of our country as an empire. In my mind, [we’re]  a country that expanded across an entire continent from 13 original states to conquer the entire continent … with all the death and destruction that entailed, and then began acquiring territories, colonies, outside of North America as well as exercising imperial power through a long series of invasions in Latin America all the way to the invasions of the Middle East that we’ve seen since 1980 — the series of wars that have been, again, in my mind, catastrophic to say the least.

If these large, competitive nations like Russia or China are making their presence known in other nations and we know what the outcome of that could ultimately be, why not show our own force, our own aggression, our own military might?

Using U.S. military bases and demonstrations of force are, generally speaking, counterproductive. There isn’t actually much evidence that shows that foreign military bases are an effective form of deterrence. There’s a large academic body of literature that shows that it’s largely [either] inconclusive [or] does not support the idea that military bases are an effective form of deterrence. If anything, my biggest concern is that encircling China and Russia, in particular, with U.S. military bases and U.S. military power only encourages them to respond …  by building up their military forces. … My fear is that there’s the danger of a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy whereby people calling for a U.S. military buildup in east Asia to counter China … are actually helping to create the very threat that they’re trying to prevent, making war more likely, rather than less likely.

A lot of people wouldn’t imagine that an anthropologist goes trekking across the globe to plot where military bases are, to talk to military personnel, to talk to people who have been displaced because of military assets, but yet that’s exactly what you do in many cases. I wanted to ask you how it is that you approach reporting the work that you do and why that is.

I do see the value of anthropology and any social science as residing in its ability to try to help make the world a better place. If social science or science more broadly isn’t making life better for human beings or other living things on Earth, what good is it? So, I think as an anthropologist, I try to dedicate myself to focusing on what I see as critical issues in the world and adapt my methods accordingly. So often my methods do look like that of an amateur investigative journalist. I had to make some tradeoffs, given that there are around 800 U.S. military bases in roughly 80 countries outside the United States. I could have spent the rest of my life studying them, so I had to trade depth for breadth to some extent, so that led me to try to tour and spend significant periods of time around and on U.S. military bases in most of the corners of the globe. My focus is on using anthropology and social science to try and expose some of what I see as some of the harms that the U.S. military is inflicting.

How are you able to get that access?

I got varying degrees of access. Largely, I just asked. I tried to build connections within the military. Many people within the military share the concerns I have about U.S. military bases abroad and people across the political spectrum increasingly [are] asking why the U.S. has so many military bases abroad [and whether] they justify the roughly $50 billion a year the U.S. government and U.S. taxpayers are paying to support them. I generally approached bases, and, in some cases they welcomed me for a tour, for interviews. In some cases I could stay on the base. In some cases I was either refused or never got a response or went through endless series of emails trying to get access but, ultimately, was unsuccessful. So it was a range of experiences.

“The United States of War,” published by the University of California Press, is scheduled for release in mid-October. It is available for pre-order directly and on Amazon.

Vine is a professor of anthropology at American University in Washington, D.C., and a founding member of the Network of Concerned Anthropologists, which promotes ethical anthropological practice around the globe. As a part of that co-publishing group, he has contributed to “Militarization: A Reader” and “The Counter-Counterinsurgency Manual or, Notes on Demilitarizing American Society.”

His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Mother Jones, The Boston Globe, HuffPost and The Chronicle of Higher Education, among others. He is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy in Focus, a project of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington. Vine donates the royalties from all of his books and speaker honorariums to the Chagossian people and other nonprofit organizations serving victims of war.

Key sources: David Vine, The United States of War: A Global History of America’s Endless Conflicts, from Columbus to the Islamic State (Oakland: University of California Press, 2020); David Vine, “Lists of U.S. Military Bases Abroad, 1776-2020,” American University Digital Research Archive; Base Structure Report: Fiscal Year 2018 Baseline; A Summary of the Real Property Inventory Data (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Defense, 2018); Barbara Salazar Torreon and Sofia Plagakis, Instances of Use of United States Armed Forces Abroad, 1798–2018 (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 2018).

Note: Some bases in the map above were only occupied for part of 2001–2020. At the height of U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, there were over 2,000 bases abroad.