Remember back when your high school or college had foreign exchange programs? A family would host a student from some far off land (although now days the world wide web makes it seem less far, but it still indeed is) and you’d meet them at school and get to know them, learn about their culture and broaden your perspective of the world. It's fun to interact with those who come from somewhere else. There is so much to learn from that experience.
Recently I edited an industrial for a pacifist organization, who’s objective is to promote the removal of U.S. overseas military bases, by peaceful means.
I digitized highlights from a couple hours of interview footage with an American professor who discussed the negative aspects of the United States presence in other countries, particularly in third world nations.
I am a citizen that only knows a few people who have served in the armed forces, so I realize I’m speaking from limited resources, but working on this project really go me thinking.
I know that any powerful nation has a tendency to get their way, whether other less powerful countries like it or not, but I don’t think I fully understood what happens when our country sets up shop in another country, especially if that other nation is an impoverished one.
This professor (I won’t mention any names here because the industrial isn’t finished or distributed yet) explained the figurative and literal fence that divides the bases and the local community around those bases.
I’m paraphrasing here, but in the case of overseas bases located in disadvantaged areas, the fence is the established border (wall & concertina wire that surrounds each camp) between the super power and the super poor. From what I understand, the local business around the camps prosper, but that’s where the prosperity slows down. The rest of the community suffers on several levels that include (but not limited to) environmentally and socially. Although many are grateful for the idea of being protected by the United States, many resent out presence and feel demoralized by the huge contrast between their own community and their foreign guests. Local woman are especially effected by this, as they frequently end up objectified and exploited by the American soldiers. It also costs the United States tax payer a ton (not exaggerating when I say ton) of money to keep these camps up and running. The camps remain a huge source of corporate income as well. Big American companies manufacture supplies for the military (from planes to toothpaste). In addition to all this, there exists the debate about whether these overseas bases provide real security or safety for our country and/or the country the camps are located in.
Many believe the U.S. military overseas bases are set-up to protect countries where their democracy is threatened, and in contrast, many feel U.S. military overseas bases are set-up as a strategic location for those that threaten us. I think it’s probably some of both, but being the jaded person I am, I tend to think it leans to the later.
I have to admit though, I feel very conflicted about the notion of complete removal of overseas U.S. military presence. I was very interested in what this professor had to say as well as the other content and facts we reviewed in editing this piece. The number of U.S. overseas bases (officially speaking) is something like 823. I kept wondering though, about situations like World War II. Not that I’m a historian, but where would we be during that time without overseas military stations? It’s a hard call. No one wants to be the guest that overstays their welcome, or for that matter arrives uninvited, but sometimes it’s unavoidable. Isn’t it?
In an ideal situation, I think of our U.S. presence as more geared toward humanitarian efforts, but that’s just not always what our nation’s mission is or can be.
I watched interview footage of a former labor attaché of a country where U.S. camps are located. He unfortunately recalled being harassed by American military personal while enforcing labor laws in the bars and clubs that surround the bases. He said it was sometimes difficult to believe these young men's mission is to keep democracy and protect their freedoms. Of course not all soldiers behave badly and are noble, brave individuals that make me proud of the country I am lucky enough to live in. Stories like his, however, give me concern. It’s no wonder I hear the world outside the U.S. frequently has the impression that America is a big bully. And we all know what’s really beneath the facade of a bully – fear. (but that’s for another blog :-))
I know there are a huge number of soldiers out there that aren't bullies, and are respectful to the country that are hosting them and treat the local community with dignity. Then there are jerks that aren’t as kind and give us a bad name. No doubt there is military training about proper conduct in foreign communities where we are guests. However, my guess is it’s probably difficult to maintain decent conduct when you young men (most likely pretty impressionable if they are new to travel and the armed forces) are sent to a poor area where they represent the super power, not be effected by the social and economic contrast between us and them. It is unfortunately sometimes a human flaw to become arrogant if you’re not reminded that we’re all part of the human race, regardless of social or economic status.
To finally wrap this all up, I guess the opinion I’ve arrived at is it may not be realistic to remove all the U.S. overseas military presence considering our world today. I do believe though, that there are many practical and moral reasons for reducing our presence. It might be a timely endeavor with our soiled global reputation and our national money troubles (more consistent training and reminding of proper behavior wouldn’t hurt either). Our nation might be more appreciated for it as a gesture of good will and trust, knowing that we will be there when other countries call for help, but we don’t always have to be a dominate permanent force in some countries that may not even want us there.