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Wilbert van der Zeijden of NO BASES speaks on closing down bases


We have pleasure in presenting the speech made by No Bases co-ordinator Wilbert van der Zeijden on "Closing military Bases". He gave the speech at the LALIT Free Diego Conference, on 30 October, 2010 at GRNW Hall to a full house:

I would like to start by saying thank-you to the organisers for such a brillant conference. I must say that for me personally, it is really a deep honour to be here. I've been working for quite a while on the issue of military bases, and for me, it really started 7 years ago when the Institute I worked for at the time was asked to take on this work, to look at the issue of military bases as a sort of underlying structure for warfare. And I've got to be honest with you: my first response was like "No, no, I don't see us working on this, I mean come on, who's going to close military bases. This is too big for us." And then people kindly gave me some stuff to read. They said "OK if you don't want to work on it, why don't you read about Okinawa and why don't you read about Diego Garcia. And then we will talk after that."

So for me, this work really started when learning about Diego Garcia and the stuff that happened here and my involvement with the No Bases struggle as a whole.

This morning we talked mostly about intertwined relations between the three things that we want in this conference: to close the base, the right to return to Diego Garcia and the other Chagos islands and reunification of Mauritius. I am going to focus only on one of these three points which doesn't mean that I think that this is the most important of the three issues, but I think it is good to go deeper into the broader topic of American bases worldwide because it explains how this base came about, how Diego Garcia base came about and why there was so much of a push for Diego Garcia to be a military base.

So I will briefly look at the history of military bases worldwide, I will then say something about the current pressures on base strategy; there are several sorts of pressures for the US to close some bases and I'll give some examples of how that plays out in actual base closures and I hope to have the time to end with something again on Diego Garcia, to bring it back to the conference theme. If I don't have time then we will have to talk about it at a later stage.

So the story begins, and this is what the map that I showed you comes in: this is a map of all the American military bases worldwide, each little dot is one base. It is a map that we have to give credit to David Vine for. He wrote a beautiful book about the Chagossian struggle called "Island of Shame" and this is map he uses. A little bit of credit to me, because he based it on a map that I made.

The map is in order to keep in front of you when I speak because I think that it shows how the "military basing" of the US over time sort of spread in different directions.

The story starts really in 1898 when the last Spanish-American war ended in a victory for the Americans and the Americans in one go colonized the Phillipines, Hawaii, Guam, Puerto Rico and Guantanamo Bay, and shortly after that, the Marshall Islands then several other islands like the Midway Island and several others. The reason for this according to the US was firstly, as President McKingley at the time put it, to get their "fair share of China". So they really saw it as a way of getting to China. So it was a sort of first colonial step.

We have been made to believe that US is not a colonial power or that it is not a territorial colonial power, but the facts contradicts this: they really started out as being a colonial power, and they had this preoccupation of trying to get to China.

Then after that, what they basically did, and I think that is important, is that for the first time the US decided to put its defense borders outside its own territory. So it basically said "Our defense starts on the Western rim of the Pacific Ocean and our defense starts in the Caribbean not in Florida. And they soon started to broaden out. The US at one point said "Every political business in Latin America is also our business. So if there is bad regime in Latin America, we're going to do something about it because this will be a danger to our national security." So first they spread out to the West, then to the South and they sort of put Latin America in the same defense border, as they saw it.

Then for a while not so much happened in terms of base strategy. There was the First World War, but in terms of basing strategy nothing much changed. They seemed content for a while with this system. Then with the Second World War , the Americans won the war against the Germans and this is how all this whole blacking of Europe with bases [that you see on the map] came about. This is right after the Second World War, but also the bases in Japan and Korea came about at that time. So the US again expanded its border in that sense and said "You know from now on, our first defense line is going to be in the middle of Europe and it is going include Japan and Korea." (I am going through this really fast because we don't have so much time.)

This is also the period that Diego Garcia for the first time was mentioned in documents in the US. They were looking for islands. They said "This is going to be our defense border, but outside this we also need some control." So the first reason they started a base in Diego Garcia was not that they wanted military control over the Indian Ocean, but they were afraid that the Russians would. This is how they put it. As they saw it, the British were withdrawing so they were getting weaker and weaker on the international level, and they were withdrawing from a lot of places and from a lot of bases. The US said "Why don't we make several bases in these very strategic remote islands." They actually called this the "remote island model". This is how Guam became so important.

Somebody mentioned this morning how Diego Garcia became so important. At the beginning not, though. There was a lot of resistance within the US. The Pentagon wanted the base but Parliament was not very enthusiastic about it so they said at one point "OK we'll keep the base, but we'll keep it small". So it is only later on that the base got so many functions; it is only later that they brought in this whole idea of docking of nuclear submarines; and the B52's came later, of course; and this whole idea of Diego Garcia being the centre, the pinnacle of control over the Horn of Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia and South Asia if necessary only came later. And that's where we're at now.

After the Cold War, everybody expected the great so-called "restructuring" and for a long time, the US would, every year, publish a report called the "base restructure report" in which they explained how many bases there are that are ready to close; what the movements are going to be; because the Cold War had ended, they needed different bases in different places. (I am talking too fast, I was afraid of that. Sorry about that.) It is kind of telling that this whole base restructure report is now for the first time since this year no longer called the "base restructure report" anymore, but just "base structure report". So it means that they have given up on their own idea of restructuring. They are no longer planning to restructure. They are no longer planning to close all these bases in Europe, for example, as they said they would, nor are they planning to close many bases in Japan and Korea as they said before they would. So unless we do something, we are going to be stuck with them for a long time it seems.

I want to close this part now and then look a bit at the different sorts of pressures there are on the US to close bases, because there are pressures. And the pressures are growing I think. Some of it has been mentioned this morning already. Somebody mentioned the US's sort of bankrupt empire and that's the one I want to start with.

There is a growing economic pressure on the US to look again at its basing strategy because it costs an awful lot of money.

You can see, maybe not now, maybe you might look at it later, but on the back of the map that I handed out, some facts about the bases. You can see how much bases cost, and also how much they are worth. For example the total amount of value of all the property the US army has outside the US is $484 billion. So it is the biggest land owner by far. But I wasn't going to talk about that. The economic pressure is like this: bases are generally speaking quite expensive. So it depends what kind of base, but a base can be anything. It can be really small, just a few troops or for example, a radar system, but it can also be a huge base. The huge bases, mainly in Japan, Korea, Germany and Italy, and other European countries are extremely expensive. You have to not only pay for the concrete defense system itself, you also have to pay for the salaries of the people living there, the maintenance of the buildings, the security, and then also all the weaponry or whatever system you're keeping there.

The recent closing of bases that we have seen in Germany and in Korea seem to be a consequence of that: it seems to be because of the US realizing that this is getting way too expensive. This in combination with the redundancy of these bases. They really no longer serve any purpose anymore. It's just difficult to close them. That's another thing: it is difficult even within the context of the US Pentagon to close them. You have to imagine that there is a lot of internal struggle going on in the Pentagon. So if the Pentagon plans to close an airforce base, the airforce is going to be upset and they are going to be saying something like "OK but why not the army, or why not the marine, why us? Last time you closed one of our bases as well." There's also this sort of petty struggle. Sometimes, base plans have to do with the territory of people within an organisation and this happens a lot in the US and it is clearly something that breaks the momentum for closing of redundant bases. I speak of redundant , from their perspective, of course. (...)

There is also political military pressure. It has also been mentioned this morning; this has to do with the "rise of China". I will start somewhere else, I will start with the military overstretch of the US at the moment. Being engaged in the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan at one point in time has really strained the US, and also the partners of the US in these occupations. Apart from being extremely expensive, it also just means that troops that you have sent out have to get home again. There's not a limitless number of troops you can send out on a war. This is why the French at one point lost Mauritius, because they just couldn't bring out the personnel anymore to go there and guard islands like Mauritius. The same is happening now with the US.

It is also about something else: every bomb that you use has to be replaced. This kind of thing is tremendously expensive, and it also takes time. And the US is in military overstretch. They are no longer able to engage in any other military intervention unless it were really necessary. They might do it, but something like another Iraq or another Afghanistan is not going to happen any time soon. They just can't. They cannot do it. This also has an effect on the international bases strategy. It is increasingly difficult to find personnel for many of the bases and this is especially true for the bases where people do not bring their family. So in Italy, in Western Europe and in East Asia, people are allowed to bring their families, but in many other cases and it is getting more and more difficult to find people willing to stay for any period of time on a base because it is really isolated. It might seem like fun to be in Diego Garcia, but a lot of the people who are actually stationed there complain about it. They send flashy postcards home "Oh, look at me in Diego Garcia", but we know for a fact from diaries, and from talks with people who have been stationed there that there is a high rate of suicide, there is a high rate of depression, there is a high rate of drug use. People are homesick. Some of them also have more problems with the reason why they are there (not all of them, I am afraid). So the whole military vision and the sort of "open" militarist period that we have just gone through under the Bush periods, certainly has had an effect on the eagerness of American to work on overseas bases.

It is also about base redundancy: some of these bases no longer have a true military function anymore. The technology that they once adopted, for example, is no longer used. For example with the nuclear weapons in Europe, and this is something that I am, in my new job, focusing quite a lot on, there are problems. I would always be against any nuclear weapon but at least you can understand that back in the old days of the Cold War, when the enemy was say, East Germany, this particular sort of nuclear bomb in this particular place made military sense. But now, this is not the enemy anymore. The bombs that we have in Western Europe cannot reach outside NATO territory except maybe Switzerland, but I don't think we have these bombs to bomb Switzerland. I don't think there is any military planning. So there is a lot of redundancy in these bases. Now the problem is that the US has always maintained a policy of base redundancy as they call it. It is the idea, and it is a deep-grained idea in the US. A sort of "overkill" of possibilities of intervening in other places in the world is seen as being "good". So if you need 100 bases to rule the world, you better have 200, because if something else happens or if something goes wrong or whatever (It is also about the internal politics again: say, if there is a new government that is less willing to spend money) you at least have all those bases already. So it is going to be more difficult to close them. But at the same time, the political military pressures on the US to close bases also come from, for example, China. For the first time we see the US now challenged by China. Slowly China is making problems about the US being militarily in force with their fleets in the Chinese sea. They are also putting pressure on the US to demilitarize South Korea for example. Taiwan of course, is another issue for China.

We see the start here of a new period where China is rising as a military superpower, and the US is starting to look more and more like the UK after the First World War.

There are examples of political pressure to close military bases. One example is the base in Equador, that Lindsey and I closed (laughter). Lindsey and I were involved in Conferences on closing this base, because then really for the first time, because of the new Left in governments in Latin America, there was so much pressure from the population and also from other countries to find a solution that did not involve an American base. The Americans had a base in Manta [in Equador] and Equador at one point didn't want it anymore. They really worked with their neighbours, with the other countries to set up another system, to say that "We don't need this outside force anymore for our security. We can do this differently. We can do a regional security pact that does not involve any bases, that does not involve an American." President Corea was the first Head of State that at one point dared to say to the US, "Listen if you wan't a base in our country, that's fine, but then we want a base in your country. We want a base near Miami." Which was not OK with the US of course.

We see a similar thing happening in Central Asia where Russia has drawn a new line. It has clearly drawn a new red line clearly saying: "OK, it"s gone far enough. We collapsed the Soviet Union, you've been rapidly evolving your base structure again on this map, now we have all these black dots in the middle in Eastern and Central Asia. They weren't there before. This happened after the Soviet Union collapsed." Russia has for the first time drawn a new line saying, "This is as far as it goes. No further. This is it." So it is putting a sort of limit on the expansion of bases.

Another very important example, I think, is AFRICOM. Although the US did establish AFRICOM, and had established several bases in Africa already, it was quite remarkable that all the African countries together said "We do not want your command system here." Maybe it's a bit too long to go into how the command system worked for the US and about the idea of the US making a special command section. The US is the only country in the world that divided the World in different commands. They were going to make a new command specifically for Africa, and they wanted bases in Africa. But then all the African countries said "No, we don't want this".

Then the last thing I would like to get into in terms of pressures is the stuff that I have been mostly engaged in over the past years and that is the "societal pressures".

I think what we've seen since the 90's is that because of the new technology, it's become more easy for activists also to connect worldwide. So it has become easy here for people working on the Chagos issue to hear from people from Okinawa and to hear from people in other places. Which really, for the first time, made it possible to come together and create a story for ourselves, like a joint story, not only on the specific base the people are working on. That is the network that Lindsey and I have been involved in which there are about 350 groups worldwide that are in one form or another are saying "No" to the base that they live next to, or that is in their country, or to a system of bases.

I think we've been very successful not so much per se in closing bases, which is the objective of course, but that's hard to do: we have been successful in raising the issue, of raising the attention for the issue.

There are several things that are very unpopular around foreign military bases. Some of them also apply to Diego Garcia, of course, but in totality, the unpopularity is linked to the high crime rate that always come with bases, the drug trade, drug use, rape, prostitution, health hazards, pollution or ecological effects. It is also economic and political dependency. If you allow a base in your country especially if it is in a small country, your country can become dependent on the sort of military "aid" that you get from the US, and it's going to be extremely difficult to get the base out. There are impunity issues: often the service men that are stationed on the base do not fall under the local laws. So if they rape you, they cannot be tried under the law of your country and the US is often eager to get them out as fast as possible.

I don't have time to go into all the details, but in terms of successful campaigns through that style of societal pressure, there are a few worth mentioning. I think first of all, Thule, because it is very similar to Diego Garcia in some ways. In Thule in Greenland, the people, Inuit people, were forced off their holy land, their sacred lands to make way for a huge American base. The base has not been closed yet, but it is by now clear that is is probably going to be closed in the next coming years. The Inuit people got the right to return to some of the sites there so the base has been made smaller to specifically allow for these people to tend to their peoples' graves and to tend to their holy sites. I don't know how much further compensation is due, but in comparison to what has been proposed to the Chagossians, there is an incredible difference. They have more of a real compensation plan now for the Inuit in Thule.
Manta is a good example of where pressure was really starting from the lowest level in Quito in Equador. A few people started saying: "We don't think we want this base anymore." They managed to grow this campaign and grow this campaign, both through political means via political parties and political pressure and also via demonstrations, via making their own movies, through women's caravans, etc, etc. Until they finally managed to close this base.

Okinawa, is a great example where the US wanted to build a new base offshore, off the coast of Okinawa. There, the local fishermen went out with their boats and ships to block the construction of this new base every day for three years. Every day they went there, and every day they negotiated with the construction company. They didn't fight with them, but they would negotiate with them. So if they would put forward five demands, they would allow them to win one demand. In the end, the US decided not to build this base anymore because it was just getting too expensive, too "long-term" and too unpopular.

I think the radar station in the Czech Republic is also a good example. The US wanted to build a radar installation specifically for missile defense. In this case, the success of the campaign was that they got connected quite early. It was very non-political this campaign, but they connected to local Mayors, and they got almost all the Mayors of the whole country to sign that they didn't want a base. They then tried to hold a big demonstration, but nobody showed up and they radically changed their method, started to invite novelists and film actors, famous people to speak out against the radar station. Within two years, the US decided not to build the radar base.

(Speech ends as time is up. Applause).