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David Vine on a Base State


David Vine’s book Base Nation is a fine addition to the excellent texts about American military bases – like Chalmers Johnson’s Blowback and The Sorrows of Empire (1) and Joseph Gerson’s The Sun Never Sets. It is also a fine sequel to his own first book about the Diego Garcia base, Island of Shame.  Like the title “Blowback” taken from the concept Rosa Luxemburg used to predict what would happen to Europe after its violent colonization (i.e. that imminent blowback would hit Europe, as it soon did in the form of bloody wars and fascism) seems even more ominous in a USA with a Trump soon President; and like the title “The Sun Never Sets” is a biting prediction for the USA’s future, knowing the expression was originally used for the Spanish and then British empires – empires that don’t exist anymore for the sun to set on at all; David Vine’s own title is stark and brave: “Base Nation”.

 The USA, he argues, is a nation based on bases, from the series of forward bases into Amerindian territory to take over their land, to its 800 or so overseas bases today that lock mother earth into one of those awful slave-collars with spikes pointing inwards. And this nation based on bases makes it base. A base nation. The adjective “base” is a truly foul word, almost frightening in the degradation and moral turpitude it brings to mind. And once you’ve read the book, you agree the USA is indeed a Base State. But, as his book shows so tenderly, it is not, in fact, the American nation that is base so much as the State apparatus that dominates most of the nation, and that is run by, and in the interests of, very few in the USA nation, as he points out, himself, so clearly throughout his 400-page book.

 Because of his anthropological way of studying bases – which includes actually going there, and listening to people from armed forces and civilians chatting in, say, bars – he gives a sensitive, humane view of the lower classes of a nation that have been drawn willy-nilly into the State’s politics. He shows Americans without jobs being drawn in to work on the bases. He shows how the US gives “ice cream”, as people in the military refer to the add-ons that are not strictly necessary to the military, but that are just there to keep the soldiers “in the service” – note the paternalism and corruption of the metaphor of bribing children with ice-cream. Then later, how bringing your whole family to the base in, say, Germany becomes part of the ice-cream, and then the wives and children get to get ice cream too – all this to keep the soldiers “in the service”. For “in the service” read “in the military”. In the service of interests that David Vine shows are clearly not their own.

 And David Vine sheds light, too, on the invisible work of wives of the men in service on the bases. The servants of the servants of the US State. No wonder it’s referred to as “the service”. And behind all this, David Vine points, with a delicate hand, to the haunting shadows of war-and-violent-death just on the edges of one’s vision, beyond the golf courses for the officers, beyond the hamburger outlets, on the bases. The silence for a few days, first. No news at the base from some units of soldiers on active duty in Iraq or Afghanistan. Then the dreaded knock at the door. The wrenching tragedy of it.

 The full tragedy of the effects of the bases as war-machines that wreak destruction on other countries is not made quite as shocking, in the book, as the deathly knock on the door to announce the death of a US professional soldier. This inadvertently contrasts, as the mainstream international media does every day, the different value that death-throes US capitalism accords to the lives and deaths of human beings of different nationalities.

 And then, after tragedy, David Vine shows the farce. How almost every kind of work is now sub-contracted. Until you have a private firm of cooks whose sole job it is to cook for the security guards who work for a firm whose sole task is to protect the cooks. So common is this that in the military there is an expression for it: “a self-licking ice-cream”. David Vine thus shows how a self-perpetuating, apparently pointless, masturbatory bureaucracy thus keeps the bases “at it” for ever. So, the bases go on and on whether they have any use or not, or whether they ever did, or ever will. A mindless operation. With the distinct whiff of fin de reign to it. Public money is poured into the bases, in some instances without the least democratic oversight, let alone control. The entire operation is not unlike an immense Milo Minderbinder business, straight out of the novel Catch-22. But the death and destruction sewn is so, so far from harmless. How many individuals killed? How many civilizations in rubble? How many children maimed? How many refugees moving without cease across borders, within borders, looking back over their shoulders?

 Facts, David Vine’s book teaches us, are not easy to nail down, either. Even figures aren’t. Even how many American bases there are outside the US is not clear. The military runs more than 170 golf courses, David Vine says, all over the world. 170 golf courses. All the facts in David Vine’s book are meticulously foot-noted, so I believe that this is true. One internet site gives the figure of 234 golf courses run by the military; this was when, in 2012, President Obama was having a golf course meeting on one of them to see how to cut military spending! Most of the golf courses are in the USA. The military says that it has just 64 “active major installations” (note the Orwellian language) abroad. Maybe those are the ones with golf courses for the top brass when abroad.

 Actual lies by the military, are rife. Whether an “installation” is permanent or not, for example. Whether an “installation” is a US one, or a host country one. All these “facts” are often “lies”. Again, all this is researched with an eye for detail.

 After tragedy and farce, there is also evil: overt and covert links with the mafia – in Italy, for example – around deals over base construction. David Vine shows how the mafia allowed the bases to grow, and the bases allowed the mafia to grow – both cancerous.

 And all the while, the book reads easily, like a good novel. It is a must-read. A book with a light touch. And a brutally frank eye. And there are beautiful maps, or rather diagrams that help rather than hinder understanding. In the text, there are elements of a fine historical perspective. In all, it is delicately written, with a deft section, for example, on the militarization of masculinity. I think the book a masterpiece.

 So, what is it lacking? When I read it, I felt there was something missing.

 I am reminded of the children’s stories that were, in the violent imagery that only folk-tales can bear, about people having their hands chopped off, symbolizing – it was obvious to me even as a child – having their power to do things, or to change things, compromised, being made helpless. It is as though – by submitting to so narrow a definition of “politics” as to mean “the Democratic Party” or “the Republican Party”, or one of their “Administrations”, the writer has cut off the hands, metaphorically speaking, of the exploited and the oppressed. Even the hands of the people in past history who actually did bring about change and who actually did make past revolutions happen are retrospectively cut off. So, all that is left for today, looking forward, is the sterile corrupt politics of electoralism, or maybe a sentimental NGO-type “civil society” protest against militarism and bases, with no political perspective. This is often seen as part of single-issue advocacy, or to use the language of the American right-wing when it criticizes this from the other side, “whining” or “wimping” or being “bleeding hearts”. Corrupt traditional electoral politics and NGO-type protests are doomed to be de-linked from a vision of, and the struggle for, conscious, systemic political change. David Vine shows that he has no idea of how political will is constructed in modern history, of how the capacity to change things politically is not just a vote on a machine, not just the sum of individuals’ good intentions expressed once every few years at the polls, or alternatively in a tear-jerker single issue campaign. So, in his work there is an absence of feel for all the brave, far-sighted human endeavour that worked and works consciously towards the sudden and massive shifts that have come about as, for example, empires fall, and the shift that will come about as this empire finally meets its nemesis. Of course, the real power for change is in the hands of vast numbers of people, from amongst all the peoples of the world, who manage to get themselves organized politically around a proper, principled program, and not just electorally or on a single issue. In David Vine’s book, there is no sign of the political struggles that affect reality.

 This means he, like many people on the American left, is somewhat like the intellectuals in Europe at the end of the 18th Century into the middle of the 19th Century, as the bourgeois revolution was overthrowing the monarchy, debating earnestly which prince or princess might be a better new monarch. It was not a new monarch that was needed then. A new ruling class was overturning the rule of kings, creating a new kind of power; and it is right now not just changing elected members that will change the system that holds this vast web of military bases up and that is protecting the interests of a very small class of people who own and run the planet. The economic system, the political system and the social class system that holds up this injustice have to be challenged at the same time.

 Trump’s new cabinet shows a more direct rule by capital than other recent capitalist reigns. Maybe this hideous new “US administration” will help people like David Vine in the US academia to see the need to think of how to get rid of this whole economic system, itself. Seeing is at least the beginning of proper political action.

 Political action is necessary because the capitalist system is a system that breaks things. Humanity is broken into conflicting classes that are fight all the time so as to survive. Until “You are fired!” is shouted by the few to one of the many. (Don’t miss the military metaphor, there!) It is a system that breaks nearly all humans, nearly all of us, into saleable bits – our human endeavour sold to a small minority of other humans, who are in a position to buy it dollar-per-hour. As if our time were not our life. It is a system that uses, nay abuses, mother nature as if she were infinite and dead. And as if humans were not part of her. So, all this is what we have to challenge – in all that we do. And we need to keep this big picture in mind. Not for some obscure ideological reason, no. But simply in order to win.

 And this is precisely where the challenge to this military occupation world-wide comes from already. And this is where it will come from in the future. From this will to change the entire system. This political will. But it is absent from the book. And it need not be. Maybe the spectre of it terrifies David Vine. Maybe his own potential power, together with others, terrifies him too. As maybe so does the vengeance that we all know gets meted out against us when battles are lost. In the USA, the repressive forces are indeed vicious. And they act with notorious impunity. They lock up and kill people daily. Just as the military, until we stop it, invades and occupies, pillages and assassinates people with impunity. People are even hounded off mother earth’s own land by the few. And their puissance is worst of all when it takes up life in the minds of the oppressed. People are even hounded off reading the very books that could best help them understand class rule and how to set about getting rid of it.

 It is not a closed system. And it is    unstable as all hell. Always, there are realities bursting out of the confines of the past and present. And we need to study these, too. In particular, we need to take on the base State. It is the negation of freedom. But for this we sure need to understand the class nature of the present state apparatus as well as the class forces that must galvanise themselves to negate this negation.

Lindsey Collen

(1) I have not yet read Chalmers Johnson’s third book, Nemesis.