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Based in Empire

I spent much of my childhood on US military bases. From San Antonio, Texas to Fairbanks, Alaska and from Peshawar, Pakistan to Frankfurt am Main, Germany, my life was surrounded by military uniforms, ID cards, and walls. In his new book, The United States of War, author David Vine describes one aspect of these bases as attempts to create little suburbia for US soldiers and their families overseas. This was certainly the case in Pakistan. The houses were little three-bedroom ranches. There was a swimming pool and a golf course. There was also a grocery store (called the commissary) and a Post Exchange, where everything from blue jeans to shaving kits to record albums were available to purchase at reduced prices. The closed-circuit radio and television station played the latest Top 40 hits and showed popular US television shows. When I was in high school, living in Germany and going to a school on a military post, the cheap records at the Post Exchange were the best possible deal; I bought a good amount of my rock and roll at $2.50 a disc.

It was when I was Reading Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim that I first began to understand that US military bases were more than just pieces of real estate granted by the host country to ensure that nation’s security. Even though I had not begun questioning the US military when I was ten and reading Kipling, I did realize then that the US base was just a different version of the colonial outposts of the British Raj, from which the novel’s protagonist came. No matter how interesting and enjoyable my life was because of my father’s assignments, this was an essential truth I could not ignore.

This is the foundation o David Vine’s newest book, The United States of War: A Global History of America’s Endless Conflicts, from Columbus to the Islamic State. While expanding on his previous work, titled Base Nation, Vine provides a comprehensive history of Washington’s quest for empire. Conceiving military outposts as actual colonial usurpations of other nations’ land, Vine argues that not only do these bases assist the US military in its wars, but their presence across the globe makes war more likely and all too often the preferred means to accomplish the goals of Washington and Wall Street. This fact, when combined with the mammoth amount of monies spent to arm the United States, spy on humans around the globe, and defend markets and other resources abroad, puts the generals in the Pentagon at the helm of US foreign policy. That prominence is rarely good for any nation and never good for one that claims to be a democracy. After all, generals rarely answer to anyone and, when they do, they usually end up having the upper hand.

From the US Army outposts set up on the frontier in support of white settlers determined to take indigenous lands to the so-called lily-pond bases scattered around the globe in support of the US empire, author Vine has composed a catalog of destruction and mass murder. Not only were these bases essential to the expansion of said empire, they remain essential to its existence. Indeed, it is the author’s contention that no antiwar movement can be successful unless and until one of its demands is the closure of all overseas bases. Furthermore, each base is in and of itself an extension of the United States, where for the most part its laws take precedence over that of the nation the land is actually located on.

From the first slaughter of the indigenous peoples in the first years by Puritan colonizers in North America to the ongoing special forces missions around the world, military outposts have been key to that history. Just like the US interstate highway system was built after World War Two to facilitate moving military equipment around the country, so is the global military base system designed to facilitate moving weaponry and troops around the world. In The United States of War, David Vine makes a powerful argument that demanding the closure of US military bases overseas is an essential and important part of ending us wars of empire. His text also makes clear that convincing people of this is not as simple as it appears. This is true because of their role in maintaining the US empire, but also because of the profits involved in the building, maintaining and servicing of those bases.

The United States of War is a unique history text. Convincing in its portrayal of US military bases as both the outposts of empire and the remote supplier to the troops whose mission is to maintain and expand that empire, the timeline the author constructs is one that argues the US has always been an imperial nation—and not by some accident or circumstance of history. The intention of the empire builders is as clear as the numbers of humans slaughtered in their pursuit of that empire; from the shores of the Massachusetts colony to the jungles of Vietnam, from the halls of the Navy Yard to the shores of Tripoli.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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