Not Your Ordinary 4th of July in Vicenza, Italy

Or How To Get Kicked Off a US Military Base

When it was announced that the U.S. army base at Camp Ederle would once again open its doors to the public for the annual 4th of July festivities, the people of Vicenza, Italy, who have been working to stop the construction of yet another U.S. military base in their historic city, decided to organize their own “Independence Day” celebrations. And as U.S. citizens residing in Italy, we knew this was one event we did not want to miss.

We traveled from Rome and Florence to this city in the north of Italy, famous for the architecture of Andrea Palladio and a Unesco World Heritage Site. And more recently it has become known throughout Italy and Europe as a symbol of grassroots struggle against U.S. militarism.

We also wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to visit the existing base of Camp Ederle, but with more than hot dogs and frisbies on our minds. We arrived at the security checkpoint wondering if our bags stuffed with flyers on the Appeal for Redress a petition started by active duty service members calling for the immediate withdrawal from Iraq, and cards on the GI Rights Hotline, which offers counseling on everything from discharges and conscientious objector status to sexual harassment, would make it through. After a short line and a casual check of our bags, we were in.

Only a small portion of the sprawling base was open to the public, including the area around the football and baseball fields where the main festivities were being held. The Military Police were out in force, as were Italian Carabinieri. Deciding it best to first to find places to simply leave the flyers and cards, we hit the restrooms at the bowling alley and the Veneto Club, as well as the video games and slot machines. (For more on slot machines at overseas military bases, click here)

Having never set foot on a military base, we were also curious to take a walk around. At first glance, it might have seemed similar to a country fair. But then you notice the enormous military vehicles on display instead of tractors, the trained dogs exhibiting their skills at finding explosives, and the tables selling baked goods with logos that included things like skulls and swords. Most startling was the sight of 4 women playing volleyball on a special field setup so that they were up to their knees in, and covered with, mud!

We strolled up and down the main street handing out the small but information packed GI Rights cards, carefully designed by someone who knows the importance of being discreet on a military base. Everyone we encountered took them with interest.

Just before leaving to go over to the “Independence From Military Bases” celebrations on the main square in Vicenza, we decided to take a photo with our No Dal Molin flag, symbol of the protests against the new base. Just seconds after taking the photo, as we were folding the flag to put it away, 4 or 5 military police came charging over saying, “No, no, you can’t do that!” They asked, “Is that a “No Dal Molin” flag?” as one tried to take it but we held on to it tightly. They then ordered us to follow them. We explained we were on our way out and contested having done anything wrong, asking to see, in writing, any regulations against taking photos. There was no arguing with them so we decided to follow them and as we passed, two carabinieri were also “ordered” to come with us, though they seemed a bit hesitant and didn’t understand the urgency of it all.

As we arrived at the makeshift police station, two apparently high- ranking Italian police officers — with cooler heads — asked what was happening. We explained in Italian and they suggested everyone calm down and then informed the MPs that they would be escorting us to the exit, which is exactly what we wanted. They even offered to file a complaint if the MPs had treated us improperly, but at that point we just wanted off the base. The cultural differences were blatantly apparent in the two different approaches to the situation.

On our way to the exit, one of the Italian officers asked Nancy, “What does it feel like to be on a small piece of your homeland in Italy?” Nancy, looking around at all the military uniforms, police, barricades and barriers, replied, “This doesn’t really resemble my homeland.”

The irony of it all was after all that, we discovered the photo didn’t come out!

A completely different atmosphere was to be found on the main square in Vicenza. A giant Italian peace flag was flapping in the breeze, to the delight of the children, and the U.S. peace flag we left with the movement last December was flying over the main tent. Under the portico a video on the realities of war was being screened with a banner above reading, “Is this really what you want?”

Over 1,000 people were there, savoring pasta made from grain grown on lands freed from the mafia with a sauce made from organic tomatoes and mozzarella, sipping the movement’s very own wine, viNO dal Molin, and enjoying locally produced watermelon. A table selling No Dal Molin t-shirts, jackets, hats and bags quickly ran out of the most popular items. And the “mojito” station, complete with mint leaves gathered at the permanent encampment near the proposed base, which has been open 24 hours a day since last January, raised money for the monthly newspaper of the movement.

A theatrical representation by the women making up the Gruppo Donne of the movement, “Alla fiera del Nord-Est,” recounted the movement’s short but action packed history and drew a huge crowd, as did the performance of the songs — in the local dialect — that have become symbols of this movement. Speakers read from Henry David Thoreau on civil disobedience and from the U.S. Declaration of Independence, drawing parallels to the current situation in Vicenza. We were also given the chance to talk about our experience on the Ederle base earlier that day and received the usual enthusiastic round of applause. The local band Osteria Popolare Berica got much of the crowd off their feet and dancing as the fun went on until midnight.

This was the first ever “Independence From Military Bases” celebration in Vicenza, and with the Italian government’s official approval of the new U.S. base just a few weeks ago, curiously timed to coincide with a $2 billion contract awarded to the Italian aeronautical group Finmeccanica, some may think it a bit premature. But it was organized by the local people with the conviction that the new base will not be built, that they will succeed in protecting their future. “We want a city free of armies and military bases. This 4th of July, we celebrate the city of Vicenza that is to come.”

Viva l’indipendenza!

Stephanie Westbrook is a U.S. citizen who has been living in Rome, Italy since 1991. She is active in the peace and social justice movements in Italy. She can be reached at: Read other articles by Stephanie.

9 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. W. R. said on July 7th, 2007 at 11:25am #

    You pathetic bunch of spoiled American children!
    If you were truly dedicated to “challenging distortions and lies,” as your front page so proudly states, you would have report the fact that signs prohibiting unauthorized photography are posted at each entry. You obviously recognized that you were entering a military facility, but did not think that the rules applied to you? How can you be surprised that rules are enforced on a military base. Earth to Stephanie!!
    Not only did you insult your readers, but you thumbed your noses at those who proudly work and serve at Ederle and DalMolin.
    It is a fact that there is a long-standing, warm relationship between the citizens of Vicenza and the residents of the bases. Contrary to your reports, the vast majority of local residents support the base expansion and do not welcome inference by nonresident do-gooders. Outsider involvement in the local debate gets no traction.

  2. Hue Longer said on July 7th, 2007 at 9:52pm #

    So WR, does that then mean that you are an “insider”? The Nazi’s felt the same way when they viewed their multi national occupations…they would always get outraged at the idea that the world wouldn’t want them. You give new meaning to the once noble phrase, “The world is my country”.

  3. Aussie said on July 8th, 2007 at 12:57am #

    As someone who actually lives in Vicenza and has for some time now, unlike the writer and the majority of the “No Dal Molin”supporters, I can honestly say that in my experience the average Vicenzan supports the base or is entirely indifferent about the issue. The truth is that the American base in Vicenza provides employment for a large number of Italians and the Americans here pour enormous amounts of money into the local economy. Of course there are some Americans here with the military who are ignorant and outspoken, although evidently that has little to do with the military.
    As a non US citizen, I can understand many of the concerns over the proposed base however many of these concerns arise from a lack of understanding. For example, one common concern is the environmental impact of a new base as the common belief is that the US military does not abide by the environmental standards of the Italian community, obviously they are unaware that part of the agreement between the Italian and US Governments includes strict environmental regulations that the US military must adhere to.
    Another common concern is over the aircraft noise that the new base would bring to the area, however the plan for the base (a plan that has been made public) is not to use it as a staging base, therefore the runway will seldom be used and certainly not by fighter jets. This fact makes the “No Dal Molin” flag laughable as at present the base often has Italian military helicopters flying in and out, as well as the occasional Italian fighter jet, this is far more activity than the US miltary would produce.
    The “No Dal Molin” movement is not at all interested in the facts surrounding the issue, as they continually fail to address the plans that have been made very public but prefer to protest to the soldiers and their families who, realistically, have no influence over the government deal that has been made. It seems to me that people who are genuinely concerned about an issue would do their homework and a little more research. Dissapointingly it seems their only concern is jumping on the latest bandwagon and making noise, all they convince others of is their ignorance.

  4. Hue Longer said on July 8th, 2007 at 4:55am #

    Ah, if only the world could understand what most Italians seem to by Digger’s account…the US military is a benevolent peace organization occupying every continent in order to help local economies and sell cookies. Remember that the Austrians and French loved the Nazi’s too (for real- they did)…so a thousand crazies representing the vast minority that just don’t get it, show up with “No Dal Molin” flags at a protest… where has Freud been proven wrong before concerning sanity and masses?

  5. Whodat said on July 8th, 2007 at 5:32pm #

    The base I was stationed at was referred to as ‘That American Slum’ by the surrounding populace. America is an in-your-face, violent society compared to European standards of conduct. Training ‘youngsters’ to stand in rows doesn’t necessarily do anything for thier maturity so drunkeness, drugs and beating up on the locals is just the way it is. Some communities are willing to accept the rowdy bars, whorehouses and obnoxious (say it loud enough and they’ll understand english) free-spending ‘guests’. But it should be up to those affected directly, not just some government pen-pusher.

  6. Stephanie said on July 9th, 2007 at 4:35am #

    W.R. – believe me, it was not the photo, but what was being photographed — the No Dal Molin flag — that was the problem. And at the entrance there was a short list of things you could not bring in; cameras and flags were not on the list. Nor was their anything about taking photos.

    On the “long-standing, warm relationship between the citizens of Vicenza and the residents of the bases,” the best response to that is what one of the Vicenza residents once said: In a friendship, you might invite someone into your home and give them a room. But when they start demanding the kitchen and the living room and the yard and the garage, the relationship changes.

    Aussie – as far as pouring money into the local economy, I wonder if you are aware that taxpayers in Italy (I assume you pay taxes here) cover at least 37% of operating costs of U.S. bases as part of the host nation support? And did you know that they are also exempt from paying VAT taxes on things such as energy and fuel? This might explain why people outside of Vicenza are also opposed to the new base, in addition to being strongly opposed to supporting the U.S. wars.

    In any event, I do think we first need to ask, is yet another U.S. military base what Vicenza really needs to stimulate its economy? Might there be some other way to create jobs?

    You also say, “The “No Dal Molin” movement is not at all interested in the facts surrounding the issue.” You apparently missed the presentation a few weeks ago of the report by the technical team comprised of engineers and technicians who have been studying the impact of the base. It was choc full of facts! Take water for example. The request has been made for 60 liters/second on average, 260 l/s peak. This is equivalent to 30,000 Vicentini. As you know, Vicenza has a population of about 120,000. That’s quite an increase!

    There is also the very detailed study of the Site Pluto produced by the movement. And countless depliants and dossiers on the impact of the base.

    So to say they aren’t interested in fact is to not know this movement at all.

    Perhaps you should drop by the Presidio Permanente, the camp set up near the proposed base that has been open and run by the movement since last January (!) and pick-up some reading material. Or better yet, try to make it to one of the weekly assemblies that draw a couple of hundred people — every single week!


  7. Pete said on July 17th, 2007 at 4:59am #

    Stephanie, I have visited the tent site, it’s a couple of miles from our house.

    I suggest you visit the groups that travel for hours by bus from Vicenza to Rome to show support for the Dal Molin project. The last time they went they filled 6 buses or around 300 people from Vicenza at 20 Euros each for the bus ticket and traveled all night to be there in the morning.

    Our personal experience has been mostly that of support for the project from our landlords and our neighbors and have had more of them recently call on us to reiterate that support. We appreciate the Italians on both sides of the issue who study the facts and make up their own minds rather than propaganda fom the left or right.

  8. Eric said on January 21st, 2008 at 7:36pm #

    It may be late but I’d like to add my two cents worth. I lived in Vicenza from 1971 to 1974 while my Dad was stationed there and ultimately in Vietnam. World War II was over but some of the physical damage was still in evidence. Since having grown up in a military family and upon reaching the US in ’74 went on to Georgia Military Academy and then to North Georgia College and into the Army, I’ve come to the conclusion that the vast majority of Americans are clue-less. History repeats itself over and over because of the stupidity of people to learn from their mistakes. A previous poster here compares the US to Nazism, Stephanie speaks from the Ivory tower provided to her from the blood of all the people who died to give her the liberty she thinks is her birthright. Protesting is one thing but ALWAYS remember who GAVE you the ABILITY to protest, not the right but the ABILITY, the U.S. A.
    I guess the one thing that c0nstantly amazes me is the virtually all protesters , protest behind the protection of the freedoms won by the American military. If you want to truly protest, do something original like renouncing your citizenship. But apply for citizenship in a more progressive country where the goverment would welcome a protester of your caliber…My country, ever may she be right, my country!

  9. Beetlee said on February 15th, 2008 at 9:29am #

    Well, this is a very interesting debate, unfortunately, until you have lived in Vicenza or its province, you will not know what the locals say about the issue.
    I do know that my Italian friends and neighbours don’t mind having us here, they love the cultural exchange that we offer with them.
    I do know that the crafters in the area are so please of the interest that we have for their products, being the beautifull handmade leather purses, wonderfull Nove Ceramics, or awesome olive wood furniture: ask them what they think of the Americans, they will tell you that their craft is still alive because of them! So, you see Stephanie, this is not only about money, but about a way that allows them to continue to make their beautifull things the way they did one hundred years ago, and not having to manufacture everything in China, like so many other companies do.
    So, there you go, maybe you should start working on how the big companies in the States should stop thinking about making more money, and start bringing the jobs back in the States.
    But I guess it is easier to protest about the military bases overseas, than to see the real problems in the American soil.