Base Nation: How U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World. David Vine. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2015. 406pp. $35.
Review by Vic Allen
The concept of a distributed network of forward bases as the centerpiece of a strategy is not new — with the advent of steam-powered ships, the United States worked to rapidly expand their network of coaling stations, enabling forward presence both on the base and in the surrounding areas.
Inspired by his work researching the history of the indigenous peoples of Diego Garcia, as outlined in his first book Island of Shame: The Secret History of the U.S. Military Base on Diego Garcia, David Vine looks at the network of far-flung U.S. military bases throughout the world with an eye toward illustrating their scope and cost. Vine seeks to examine both tangible costs such as treasure and materiel, and also the impact that such bases have on the surrounding population along with the men and women who operate from the bases.
The book is part of a larger collection known as “The American Empire Project,” and as such inherits a great deal of its culture.
Started in 2004 by historians Tom Engelhardt and Steven Fraser, the project aims to examine recent trends that point to increasing imperial and exceptionalist tendencies in conduct and constitution of United States foreign policy. Accordingly, Vine’s tone throughout the book is one of skepticism — skepticism of the fiscal numbers that the Department of Defense sends him, of the good stewardship of the money that is spent on bases by DOD, and is most strongly skeptical of the benefits of a policy that has resulted in the establishment of over 680 bases worldwide, at an annual cost of at least $70 billion — not counting bases in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Opening with an overview of the historical background of global basing, Vine methodically lays out an exhaustively researched case that the current base network is wasteful at best, and at worst makes the United States less secure. Some of the most effective passages detail the deleterious effects of bases on local populations is they examine sex workers in Korea, displaced groups in Diego Garcia and Japan, and the embrace of dictators in Central and South America.
The Pentagon position that rebalancing towards Asia will not result in new U.S. bases is anticipated and refuted by Vine’s exploration of the Joint Task Force Bravo’s base of operations in Soto Cano, Honduras. Similar arrangements are detailed throughout the book, as are the consistent efforts to classify them as anything but a United States base. The book makes a strong argument that, regardless of their size, scope, and location, “little Americas” located entirely within other countries reduces U.S. prestige and soft power. In light of China’s increasing use of soft power to increase its sphere of influence, any degradation of U.S. soft power is cause for concern.
The mushy language in Vine’s assessment of the number of bases and their operating costs is found throughout the book, echoed in sections where he reaches to make associations. One section, titled “Militarized Masculinity,” could just as well be found in a book about life in the United States or its military as a whole, as could “In Bed With The Mob” or “We’re Profiteers.” While these sections aren’t without merit, their lack of distinct applicability as problems raised by basing strategies distracts the reader from the otherwise strong case made in other sections.
Throughout Base Nation, Vine seeks to move past the bureaucratic accounting of numbers surrounding the United States’ bases, instead using plain-language definitions and consistent methods to provide a striking picture of the money and manpower expended to maintain forward presence. In developing and using unique metrics, the arguments are occasionally misguided, yet the overall effect of the book is strong, presenting a rhetorical framework for reducing the U.S. footprint around the world.
LT Vic Allen is a helicopter pilot, Action Officer at Naval History and Heritage Command, and Treasurer of the Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC). He is a graduate of Norwich University and the Georgia Institute of Technology, and the University of Southern California’s Center for Public Diplomacy.