The Empire of Bases and the American Anti-War Movement

The anti-war movement in the US is in a deep funk.  To date, even news of a surge in troops to Afghanistan has not really awakened it.  The new book The Bases of Empire may help to clarify what we are trying to do.

Many suggest that the problem with the anti-war movement today is that it does not break with the Democratic Party, but this argument is somewhat ahistorical.  When the movement was stronger in the sixties (against the Vietnam war) and the eighties (against intervention in Central America) painful debates raged on about the relationship of the movement to the Democrats.  There were similar voices–sometimes the same people!–on each side.

What was different was not that the movement had a great deal of clarity about this (I’m not sure that is possible in a non-revolutionary time in a two party state) but that the movement was larger and livelier.  What was different was that a sense of purpose animated the movements then that is lacking now.  

In both the sixties and the eighties, there was a core of activists who strongly identified with the Marxist Leninist aspirations of those arrayed against the US. The goal was not simply to stop wars, but to advance socialism.  This was a minority view in the movements, but it provided an immense source of energy and conviction for some, who did a great deal to keep the movements going (it could also be an obstacle–most labor unions in the US stood on the other side of the cold war, and, so long as opposing US intervention meant supporting communists, kept their distance from anti-war movements).

The basic narrative of advancing socialism through armed confrontation with the US or its proxies collapsed in 1989.  I think a good chunk of the problem today is that no alternative narrative has replaced it (there has also long been a robust pacifist tradition in the US, but this often leans towards individualistic bearing witness rather than mass organizing).  Instead, we lurch from mobilization to mobilization with the intuition that war is bad.

When there is some prospect of intervening in public debates — during the drive to war with Iraq in 2003, or when the elite consensus about maintaining the occupation of Iraq started to crumble around 2005 — the crowds at our demonstrations swell.  When these moments pass, the crowds dwindle.  With the exception of a handful of honorable groups, hardly anyone seems to be doing anything besides grumbling in private. 

Rather than a struggle against particular wars, the movement can, inspired by the thinking of the activists documented in Bases of Empire, think of itself as broadly counterposed to a global empire in which the ‘war on terror’ (or the ‘war in Iraq’, ‘war in Afghanistan’, etc) is simply a particular instance.

This orientation would counter the tendency to go into hibernation whenever debate on particular interventions recedes.  Notwithstanding this tendency, the empire grinds on, sometimes in places like the Indian Ocean island of  Diego Garcia that are almost unknown in the US (one of the most useful aspects of the book is a map of all known US military bases around the world–particularly heavy in Iraq, Afghanistan, Japan and Germany, of course, but also including numerous bases in Italy, Spain and Portugal, and throughout the Caribbean and the Andean and Equatorial portions of Latin America, among others).  

The alternative to this empire is not an armed counterpower, but a variety of movements with complex priorities — feminist, ecological, culturally diverse.  This parallels the way the struggle against dogmatic neoliberalism is no longer obsessed with the imposition of a singular, planned economic model.  Rather, when we abandon the simple minded formulation that what is best for investors is best for the world, complex alternatives gradually emerge. “One no, many yeses”, as the saying goes.

Similarly, the alternative to equating ‘security’ with the US military is a complex picture of what is needed to produce a meaningful and happy co-existence.  US militarism, like neoliberalism, is a one dimensional view of the world developed from a position of power.  The world is simply a space to be controlled by the military, through the endless gobbling of land for military bases, and the subordination of other needs — cultural, economic, political, etc. — to this project.  

The examples described in The Bases of Empire clarify this dynamic and how to resist it.  In places as diverse as the Philippines, Iraq, Hawaii, and Turkey, one sees similar processes over and over.  

The steamrolling of the rights of those considered in the way, perhaps with the support of some local group that has long had it in for them.  The destruction of the environment to facilitate military ‘security’. The inability to imagine those outside of the US military complex as equals. The introduction and reinforcement of regressive gender relations epitomized by prostitution around bases (worth pondering by those who hope that the US will improve the lot of Afghan women through military occupation).  Divide and conquer strategies that involve siding with one local group at the expense of another to secure the former’s support.

To date, changes in the party which controls the White House or congress, and even defeat in wars, has resulted more in modest shifts in geography and strategy than  in fundamental change.

Sometimes the US seeks rights over a country’s territory, or co-ordination with its military, rather than a formal base, per se.  The pressure on the US to get out of places like the Philippines or Okinawa increases the importance of other territories, like Guam.  Although the bases are gone from the Philippines, the US remains, now involved as ‘advisors’ in a war on separatists. This tendency for the empire to mutate rather than shrink can be infuriating.

Yet reading this book, it is difficult not to sense growing isolation for this project.  Compounded with the economic weakness, military failures, and diplomatic isolation of the US (not dealt with in this volume), there are grounds for hope that a military that now strides across most of the globe may someday soon begin to shrink, and a real discussion of the actual national security needs of the American people (and the people of the world) might begin in earnest.

The Bases of Empire is notably different from most texts about the US empire in its emphasis on non-violent resistance to US military bases and their malign impact.  Feminism, and non-Western spiritualities which assert a sacred relation to the land are recurrent themes.  As is the case with social struggles in general, even when these are not immediately successful in achieving their demands, their impact on individuals and societies can be quite positive.  

For example, the anti-war demonstrations in Turkey helped revitalize civil-society based politics in that country.  Greenham Common in England made an enduring impact as a feminist encampment.  It also becomes clear that the end of the cold war actually often strengthened the hand of those pushing to close bases, since this position no longer placed them on the Soviet side of the cold war.  They could therefore reach portions of the population who might be anti-communist, but nonetheless aware of the malign impact of the bases on their lives. Puerto Rico is one of the most salient cases of this.  

To combat the tendency to go dormant whenever political space in the US starts to close up, the US anti-war movement — at least its most determined core — might want to consider thinking of itself as instead an anti-empire movement.  This would facilitate building links with these movements around the world.  Understanding their visions would also help undermine the reactive quality of the anti-war movement, wherein we are typically more confident about what we are against than what we are for.  

Although the anti-bases movement is not a unified, singular political actor on the world stage, it does have a coherent set of demands that provide an alternative to the idea of security for Americans (and, allegedly the world) through a global network of military bases.  These demands include the recognition of all people as equals, rather than as subordinates of empire.  An alteration in the way we interact with the planet that is inflected by spiritual traditions that see the earth as sacred, rather than as space to be controlled.  The valuing of the work of caring, rather than the servicing of the sexual needs of foreign military personnel and the glorification of warriors.  Finally, a concept of security grounded in the interrelationship between all people and between people and the wider world, rather than the production of more and more arms and bases.

Although the anti-war movement will and should invoke a basic populism — money for health care, jobs, and schools, not war — when making its case, it should not loose sight of this broader platform of transformation. 

Steven Sherman can be reached at: threehegemons@hotmail.com. Read other articles by Steven, or visit Steven's website.

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  1. Alan MacDonald said on March 12th, 2010 at 5:43pm #

    This article states, “The alternative to this empire is not an armed counterpower, but a variety of movements with complex priorities”.

    This could not be more wrong and more importantly ineffective against Empire.

    The only non-violent strategy of confronting this Global corporate/financial/militarist Empire — which now fully controls our government (and several others) by hiding behind the facade of its TWO-PARTY sophisticated ‘Vichy’ sham of democracy — is a consolidated solidarity movement, such as just formed by Kevin Zeese, David Beito, and Ralph Nader in a Global People’s Anti-EMPIRE Movement.

    All of the multiple ‘symptom issue’ problems and ‘sorrows’ that are caused by the very same hidden cancerous tumor of EMPIRE can only be addressed by striking at the singular, signal, seminal, and causal EMPIRE and EMPIRE-thinking itself, and will only distract. distort, and ineffectively ‘divide’ our efforts if we allow ourselves to follow such a stupid strategy as “a variety of movements with complex priorities”.

    We, the oppressed people of the globe must be totally united and focused in solidarity against the singularity of Empire itself if we are to ever have a chance of solving all Empire’s complex symptom issues!

    Alan MacDonald
    San ford, Maine