David Vine’s “Base Nation” takes a hard look at the influence and utility of overseas U.S. military bases.

Share story

‘Base Nation: How U.S. Military Bases Abroad Harm America and The World’

by David Vine

Henry Holt, 418 pp., $35

When I arrived in southern Afghanistan in 2012 to report on U.S. troops, Kandahar Air Field boardwalk flourished as an island of Americana in a conservative Pashtun heartland.

In many of the villages outside this military compound, women only ventured outside clad in the obligatory burqas. On the base boardwalk, among the throngs of civilian and military personnel in T-shirts and shorts, I could grab a hot dog at Nathan’s World’s Finest. And, at one of the dining halls, if I happened to arrive on “surf and turf night,” I could sample lobster, scallops or perhaps snow crab along with steak.

With the U.S. military drawdown in Afghanistan, Kandahar Air Field is now a much more Spartan place. But it still houses U.S. troops, part of a global arc of more than 800 U.S. military installations — large and small — that reaches from Asia, to Australia to Africa to Latin America. We often take this vast U.S. presence on foreign soils for granted, even as we would bridle at the thought of foreign governments setting up similar bases on our soil.

In his edgy investigative work, “Base Nation,” David Vine asks a fundamental question about this military empire — do all these bases actually make us safer? Vine concludes that all too often, they do not make the nation more secure, even as they siphon off tens of billions of taxpayer dollars in a post-World War II expansion.

Vine, an associate professor of anthropology at American University, has been reporting about U.S. military bases for more than 13 years. He begins the book with a description of the Guantánamo Bay Naval Station in Cuba. There, he focuses not on the infamous prison but the golf courses, McDonald’s golden arches and suburban-style residential neighborhoods that reflect “who we are as a country, and how we relate to the world.”

The chapters that follow are a wide-ranging critique of overseas bases and include a look at the enormous profiteering by U.S. contractors, and the alliances forged over decades with dictators in many of the countries where bases are located.

But Vine also dives into some surprising corners of the military’s overseas conduct.

In a chapter titled “In Bed with the Mob,” he details a long-running Navy collaboration with firms controlled by the Mafia to facilitate the construction of bases in southern Italy, including Gricignano, where areas outside the base have used as illegal dumping grounds for toxic chemicals.

In another chapter, Vine looks at the role that U.S. military bases in South Korea have helped to facilitate the rise of sex trafficking as he visits the bars around Osan Air Base where Filipino women work under exploitative conditions.

Vine ends his book with a list of policy reforms, which include closing bases in Okinawa, Japan, as well as shutting Cold War bases built for a much larger military. He admits that such actions would face big challenges in Congress at a time when Russia and China are flexing plenty of muscle. But he finds signs of a new political willingness to consider such actions from conservative Republicans such as Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, who proposed cutting U.S. troop deployments in Asia and Europe by a third by 2021.