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AlterNet is resurfacing some of the best and most popular articles published in 2008 as the year comes to a close. First, Tom Engelhardt's essay on the spread of American military bases and global empire, published this September.
Here it is, as simply as I can put it: In the course of any year, there must be relatively few countries on this planet on which U.S. soldiers do not set foot, whether with guns blazing, humanitarian aid in hand, or just for a friendly visit. In startling numbers of countries, our soldiers not only arrive, but stay interminably, if not indefinitely. Sometimes they live on military bases built to the tune of billions of dollars that amount to sizeable American towns (with accompanying amenities), sometimes on stripped down forward operating bases that may not even have showers. When those troops don't stay, often American equipment does -- carefully stored for further use at tiny "cooperative security locations," known informally as "lily pads" (from which U.S. troops, like so many frogs, could assumedly leap quickly into a region in crisis).
At the height of the Roman Empire, the Romans had an estimated 37 major military bases scattered around their dominions. At the height of the British Empire, the British had 36 of them planetwide. 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 5,000-6,000 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.
Now, that's the gist of it. If, like most Americans, that's more than you care to know, stop here.
Where the Sun Never Sets
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 U.S. 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 -- aka military bases -- in or near the oil heartlands 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 then the stalemated "police action" in South Korea (1950-1953) -- vast structures which 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.)