Back in September 1989 – almost a lifetime ago
– I published an article in The Progressive magazine under the title
"Star Wars Won't Die." Star Wars was, of course, the movie-inspired nickname
for Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), his vision of putting
an "impermeable shield" against nuclear weapons in space. ("The Force is with
us," he joked at the time – and when it came to high-tech R&D weapons research,
he wasn't wrong.) I wrote then that SDI would never be canceled, no matter
how many of its prospective parts failed. ("The loss of any particular [weapons]
system," I indicated, "can only lead to the creation of others.") And today,
of course, we still have SDI's impaired progeny: the missile defense system
that the Bush administration has tried so
hard to install in Poland and Czechoslovakia.
More generally, nearly two decades ago, I suggested that we already had a
highly militarized country "that conforms to no notions we hold of militarism….
The United States… still has the look of a civilian society…. In the Reagan-Bush
era, the military has gone undercover in the world that we see, though not
in the world that sees us. For if it is absent from our everyday culture, its
influence is omnipresent in corporate America, that world beyond our politics
and out of our control – the world which, nonetheless, plans our high-tech
future of work and consumption. … Those who fantasize about the possible militarization
of America in terms of a future military coup should not hold their breath.
To the extent that any takeover may be possible, it has already taken place,
hardly noticed, in the economic sphere of our lives."
I stand by every one of those words, though little did I know then what was
actually coming down the pike. If you read Nick Turse's new book The
Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives, you'll find out
in eye-opening detail just how far the military-industrial complex has ventured
since then – and, of course, twenty years later the military is anything but
out of sight. Increasingly, it's everywhere,
doing everything, and itself has been privatized
and corporatized in a way I couldn't have imagined back then.
The militarization of our society is, unfortunately, a subject most Americans
seem remarkably uninterested in thinking about, and so what might be involved
in demilitarizing our country (which is not faintly the same as disarming it,
thank you) and un-garrisoning the planet is not much discussed. That's why
Turse's thoughts below about what a "Pentagon tag sale" might mean for us seem
so refreshing. Tom
The Trillion Dollar Tag Sale
How the Pentagon could help bail out America
by Nick Turse
Wars, bases, and money. The three are inextricably
In the 1980s, for example, American support for jihadis like Osama
bin Laden waging war on (Soviet) infidels who invaded and constructed
bases in Afghanistan, a Muslim land, led to rage by many of the same jihadis
at the bases (U.S.) infidels built in the Muslim holy land of Saudi
Arabia in the 1990s. That, in turn, led to jihadis like bin Laden declaring
war on those infidels, which, after Sept. 11, 2001, led the Bush administration
to launch, and then prosecute, a Global War on Terror, often from newly built
bases in Muslim lands. Over the last seven years, the results of that war have
been particularly disastrous for Iraqis and Afghans. Sizable numbers of Americans,
however, are now beginning to suffer as well. After all, their hard-earned
taxpayer dollars have been poured into wars without end, leaving the country
deeply in debt and in a state of economic turmoil.
In his 1988 State of the Union message, President Ronald Reagan called
the jihadis in Afghanistan "freedom fighters." They were, of course,
fighting the Soviet Union then. He, too, pledged eternal enmity against the
Soviet Union, which he termed an "evil empire." For years, conservatives
have claimed that Reagan not only won his Afghan War, but by launching an
all-out arms race, which the economically weaker Soviet Union couldn't match,
bankrupted the Soviets and so brought their empire down.
While that version of history may be disputed, today, it is entirely possible
that one of Reagan's freedom fighters, Osama bin Laden, actually returned
the favor by perfecting the art of financially felling a superpower. While
Reagan ran up a superpower-sized tab to outspend the Soviets, bin Laden has
done it on the cheap. Essentially for the cost of box cutters and flight
training, he got the Bush administration to spend itself into penury, without
a superpower in sight.
Since bin Laden's supreme act of economic judo in 2001, the U.S. military
has spent multi-billions of tax dollars on a string of bases in Iraq and Afghanistan,
wars in both countries,
and a failed effort to make good on George W. Bush's promise to bring in bin
or alive." Despite this record, the Pentagon still has a success option
in its back pocket that might help bail out the American people in this perilous
economic moment. It could immediately begin to auction off its overseas empire
post haste. To head down this road, however, U.S. military leaders would first
have to take a brutally honest look at the real costs, and the real utility,
of their massively expensive weapons systems and, above all, those bases.
Today, the Pentagon acknowledges
761 active military "sites" in foreign countries – and that's without bases
in Iraq, Afghanistan, and certain other countries even being counted. This
"empire of bases," as Chalmers Johnson has noted,
"began as the leftover residue of World War II," later evolving into a Cold
War and post-Cold War garrisoning of the planet.
With those bases came a series of costly wars in Korea in the 1950s, Vietnam
in the 1960s and 1970s, and the Persian Gulf in the early 1990s. An extremely
conservative estimate of their cost by the Congressional Research Service
– $1 trillion (in 2008 dollars) – tops the present economic bailout. Add
in brief cut-and-run flops like Lebanon in 1983 and Somalia, from 1992-1995,
as well as now-forgotten hollow victories in places like the island of Grenada
and Panama, and you tack
on billions more with little to show for it.
Since 2001, the Bush administration's Global War on Terror (including the
wars in Afghanistan and Iraq) has cost
taxpayers more than the recent bailout – more than $800 billion and still climbing
by at least $3.5 billion
each week. And the full bill has yet to come due. According to Nobel Prize-winning
Stiglitz and Harvard University professor Linda Bilmes, the total costs
of those two wars could top out between $3 trillion and $7 trillion.
While squandering money, the Global War on Terror has also acted as a production
line for the creation of yet more military bases in the oil heartlands of the
planet. Just how many is unknown – the Pentagon keeps exact figures under wraps
– but, in 2005, according
to the Washington Post, there were 106 American bases, from macro
to micro, in Iraq alone.
If you were to begin the process of disentangling Americans from this world
of war and the war economy that goes with it, those bases would be a good
place to start. There is no way to estimate the true costs of our empire
of bases, but it's worth considering what an imperial tag sale could mean
for America's financial well-being. One thing is clear: in getting rid of
those bases, the United States would be able to recoup, or save, hundreds
of billions of dollars, despite the costs associated with shutting them down.
Tag Sales and Savings
If the Pentagon sold off just the buildings and structures on its officially
acknowledged overseas bases at their current estimated replacement value,
the country would stand to gain more than $119 billion. Think of this as
but a down payment on a full-scale Pentagon bailout package.
In addition, while it leases the property on which most of its bases abroad
are built, the Pentagon does own some lucrative lands that could be sold
off. For instance, it is the proud owner of more than 11,000 acres in Abu
Dhabi, "the richest and most powerful of the seven kingdoms of the United
Arab Emirates." With land values there averaging
$1,100 per square meter last year, this property alone is worth an estimated
$48.9 million. Add in the structures there and you're talking almost $80
million. The Pentagon also owns several thousand acres spread across Oman,
Japan, South Korea, Germany, and Belgium. Selling off these lands as well
would net a sizable sum.
Without those bases, billions of dollars in other Pentagon expenses would
immediately disappear. For instance, during the years of the Global War on
Terror, the Overseas Cost of Living Allowance, which equalizes the "purchasing
power between members [of the military] overseas and their U.S.-based counterparts,"
about $12 billion. Over the same period, the price tag for educating the children
of U.S. military personnel abroad has clocked
in at around $3.5 billion. By shutting down the 127 Department of Defense
schools in Europe and the Pacific (as well as the 65 scattered across the U.S.
mainland, Puerto Rico, and Cuba) and sending the children to public schools,
the U.S. would realize modest long-term savings. Once no longer garrisoning
the globe, the Pentagon would also be able to cease paying out the $1 billion
or so that goes into the routine construction of housing and other base facilities
each year, not to mention the multi-billions that have gone into the construction,
and continual upgrading, of bases in Iraq and Afghanistan.
And that's not the end of it either. Back in the 1990s, the Pentagon estimated
that it was spending $30 billion each year on "base support activities" – though
the exact meaning of this phrase remains vague. Just take, for example, five
bases being handed back
to Germany: Buedingen, Gelnhausen, Darmstadt, Hanau, and Turley Barracks
in Mannheim. The annual cost of "operating" them is approximately $176 million.
Imagine, then, what it has cost to run those 750+ bases during the Global War
on Terror years.
Some recent Pentagon contracts for general operations and support functions
overseas are instructive. In March, for instance, Bahrain Maritime and Mercantile
International was awarded a one-year contract worth $2.8 billion to supply
and distribute "food and non-food products" to "Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine
Corps, and other approved customers located in the Middle East countries of
Bahrain, Qatar and Saudi Arabia."
In July, the French food services giant Sodexo received a one-year contract
worth $180 million for "maintenance, repair, and operations for the Korea Zone
of the Pacific Region." These and other pricey support contracts for food,
fuel, maintenance, transport, and other non-military expenses, paid
to foreign firms, would disappear along with those U.S. garrisons, as would
enormous sums spent on all sorts of military projects overseas. In 2007, for
instance, the Army, Navy, and Air Force spent $2.5 billion in Germany, $1 billion
in Japan, and $164 million in Qatar. And this year, the Pentagon paid a jaw-dropping
$1 billion-plus for contracts carried out in South Korea alone.
Men and Materiel
With most or all of those 761 foreign bases off the books, and a much reduced
global military "footprint," the U.S. could downsize its armed forces. As
Andrew Bacevich notes in his book The Limits of Power, it already
costs the Pentagon a bailout-sized $700 billion a year to "train, equip,
and sustain the current active-duty force and to defray the costs of ongoing
operations." Even if current U.S. forces were simply brought home, there
would still be significant savings (including, of course, the $10 billion
a month going into the Iraq and Afghan wars).
The very opposite, however, is happening. Facing manpower demands on an
overstretched military, the Pentagon is planning to ramp up the size of the
armed forces by 92,000 over the next several years. That expansion comes
with a sure-to-rise price tag of $108 billion. This step has the support
of large majorities in Congress and both presidential candidates. John McCain
has denounced the notion of "roll[ing] back our overseas commitments" and
"to increase the size of the Army and Marine Corps." Barack Obama agrees,
but has been more specific. He has long touted plans, echoing the Pentagon's
desires, to "increase the size of the Army by 65,000 troops and the Marines
by 27,000 troops."
Just attracting this many recruits would cost a small fortune. This year,
the Army had to spend
$240 million on advertising alone to help meet its recruiting goals. On top
of that, it paid
out $547 million in bonuses to recruits – a 164 percent increase since
And this is to say nothing of how much it costs to train, equip, feed, and
pay these future troops.
Capping, if not decreasing, the size of the military and bringing troops
home would be the foundation for a new foreign policy based on non-aggression
and fiscal responsibility. This would, of course, be a major departure for
the military. In the 120 years between 1888 and 2008, according to a study
by the Congressional Research Service, only seven – using generous criteria
– were without "notable deployments of U.S. military forces overseas." Beginning
in 2009, U.S. forces could aim for a complete reversal of this trend for
the next 120 years, enabling the slashing of budgets for force-projection
Take the F-22A Raptor, a fighter plane designed to counter advanced Soviet
aircraft that were never built. Pentagon budget documents released earlier
this year put the estimated cost of the program, 2007 to 2013, at almost
$3.7 billion. With no advanced Soviet fighters around to dogfight – Russian
aircraft had trouble
enough in their recent Georgian encounters – and no need for its "global
strike" capabilities, the program could be scrapped. Such a step is not without
precedent. As Wired magazine's Danger Room blog reported
last month, Congress "all-but-eliminated funding for the so-called 'Blackswift'
program," a prototype hypersonic aircraft for which the Pentagon had requested
almost $800 million in 2009 startup funding. If the project remains stillborn,
that alone will mean billions in future savings.
This year, for example, the Air Force is spending
nearly $65 billion on new weapons systems. By shutting current and future
weapons programs not meant for actual defense of the United States, Americans
would be looking at hundreds of billions of dollars in savings in the near
term. If the Pentagon demilitarized and sold off existing equipment as well,
including, for instance, some of its 120,000 Humvees, at least 280 ships,
and 14,000 aircraft, you're talking about another significant infusion of
Bases Gone Bust
If history suggests anything, it's that one way or another, on a long enough
timeline, all imperial garrisons fall. Some, of course, go bust sooner than
others. As one Army publication noted
in the 1970s, "[t]he ravages of rot, jungle, and weather have left only memories
of the once-mighty World War II bases of the South Pacific." The fate of
many bases built since has been no less inglorious.
While it would be difficult to total up just how many firebases, camps,
airbases, port facilities, and base camps the U.S. had in Indochina during
the Vietnam War, or what it cost to build and upgrade them, the numbers would
surely be staggering. What we do know is instructive. For instance, the U.S.
Army-Vietnam headquarters complex at Long Binh, about 16 miles from Saigon,
had a value of more than $100 million in 1972 – the year the U.S. gave it
away to its South Vietnamese allies. They, in turn, lost it when the Saigon
regime collapsed in 1975. Today, it's an industrial park. Similarly, the
U.S. poured huge sums into its naval base at Cam Ranh Bay. By 1979, the Soviet
Navy was using
it and, after abandoning it earlier
this decade, may do so again.
Similarly, in the 1990s, the U.S. got kicked
out of its massive bases in the Philippines. A volcano laid waste to
Clark Air Base and the Philippine Senate rejected U.S. efforts to extend
the lease on its massive installation at Subic Bay. Just moving out personnel
and equipment afterwards cost billions. More recently, the same process played
out on fast forward in Central Asia. As adjunct professor at the Air Force's
Air Command and Staff College Stephen Schwalbe pointed
out in an article in Air & Space Power Journal, after the
U.S. negotiated the right to use Uzbekistan's Karshi-Khanabad Air Base in
2001, as part of its Afghan War plans, it pumped millions of dollars into
the base to improve infrastructure and facilities – from increased aircraft
parking space to a movie theater. It also ponied up a $15 million fee for
In 2005, however, Uzbek security forces perpetrated a massacre of domestic
protesters, leading to a Bush administration demand for an investigation.
In the end, all the money spent on the base was wasted. Not long after the
American request, Uzbekistan gave
the U.S. military 180 days to leave the base and the country – and promptly
signed friendship pacts with Russia and China.
The buildings and structures at the U.S. base at Ecuador's Manta Air Field
are valued at over $176 million and are also soon to move into the Pentagon's
loss column. Last year, Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa offered
the following terms for continued use of Manta after 2009: "We'll renew the
base on one condition: that they let us put a base in Miami – an Ecuadorian
base." The U.S. did not take him up on the proposal. Correa has since offered
to lease the base to China for commercial use.
The Pentagon stands to lose billions more when it finally withdraws from
Iraq and Afghanistan. The cost of manning, maintaining, and regularly upgrading
the mega-bases in Iraq, in particular, is already a significant financial
burden on American taxpayers, but it would be dwarfed by the losses incurred
if they had to be abandoned. As such, getting out, even in today's depressed
real-estate market, would be the financially prudent thing to do.
Similarly, closing down the Bush administration's notorious torture bases
might yield significant financial savings (while enhancing global opinion
of the U.S.). Selling off the Pentagon's facilities on the British-owned
island of Diego
Garcia in the Indian Ocean, for instance, where Global War on Terror
"ghost prisoners" have been held (and U.S. air raids on Iraq and Afghanistan
have been regularly launched), could yield $2.6 billion. Saying goodbye to
the facilities at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba could net another $2.2 billion –
and some global cheers.
The Pentagon Comes Home
While we may never know if it was bin Laden's knowledge of America's "expeditionary"
history that drove him to plan out the 9/11 attacks, he certainly goaded
the Bush administration into a Soviet-style military spending spree, complete
with a Soviet-style ruinous war in Afghanistan. With some caves for bases,
he managed to sink Americans into a multi-trillion dollar financial quagmire.
If the United States had never wasted the better part of a trillion dollars
fighting a war in Vietnam and, following defeat there, embarked on a scheme
to saddle the Soviets with a similarly ignominious loss – which has now led
to wars with a multi-trillion dollar price tag – the United States might
not be in such dire financial straits today. And yet, despite the worst economic
downturn since the Great Depression, the U.S. continues to sink money into
costly wars fought from expensive bases overseas with no end in sight. The
result is sheer waste in every sense of the word.
When Americans want to get serious about a long-term bailout strategy that
brings genuine financial and national security, they'll look to real cost-cutting
options like stopping America's string of costly wars and getting rid of
the Pentagon's vast network of overseas bases. Until then, they are simply
helping Ronald Reagan's freedom fighter, Osama bin Laden, be a better Reagan
than Reagan ever was.
Nick Turse is the associate editor and research director of TomDispatch.com.
His work has appeared in many publications, including the Los Angeles Times,
Le Monde Diplomatique (German edition), Adbusters, the Nation,
and regularly at TomDispatch.com. His first book, The
Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives, an exploration
of the new military-corporate complex in America, was recently published by
Metropolitan Books. His Web site is NickTurse.com.
Copyright 2008 Nick Turse