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Imperium Watch: Okinawa and the Ugly Americans

Is the U.S.’s empire of military bases worth all it costs?


Thursday, November 22, 2012

The U.S. military’s long-strained relationship with the people of Okinawa is more tense than usual now that two American servicemen are being prosecuted for gang-raping a Japanese woman in mid-October. Okinawans, who are tired of hosting more than 20,000 American soldiers—half of the 47,000 American servicepeople stationed in Japan—still remember the gang rape of a 12-year-old Japanese girl in 1995. That incident led to demands by Okinawans that the U.S. reduce the number of troops stationed on the island.

Sixteen years ago the U.S. agreed to move the Futenma base, where the perpetrators of the 1995 rape were stationed, out of the city of Ginowan, but since then it has temporized. Two years ago it deployed crash-prone MV-22 Osprey aircraft to that urban base, infuriating Okinawans. Still-smoldering anger about the Ospreys is now exacerbated by this fall’s rape.

The history of the U.S.’s dealings with Okinawa is a troubled one. The island was ruled by the U.S. Department of Defense from 1945 until 1972; it was a bit like an Asian Guantanamo. During that time, according to Chalmers Johnson in The Sorrows of Empire, Okinawans were citizens neither of Japan nor of the U.S., and had to have special permission from the American military to travel anywhere.

“Okinawa was closed to the outside world,” Johnson wrote, “a secret enclave of military airfields, submarine pens, intelligence facilities, and CIA safe houses. Some Okinawans who protested these conditions were declared probable Communists and hundreds of them were transported to Bolivia, where they were dumped in the remote countryside of the Amazon headwaters to fend for themselves.” The U.S. seized land from farmers to build extensive bases. Later, during the Vietnam War, nuclear weapons and nerve gas were stored on the island; no warnings were given the local people.

The Okinawan installations are among the 73 bases (91 according to the Japanese) maintained by the U.S. in Japan. According to information in Chalmers’ book, as recently as 2001 the Japanese government was paying the U.S. $4 billion a year for the services it takes to keep the bases going: building maintenance, motor pool operation, translation, even intelligence-gathering in the form of electronic eavesdropping. As Johnson noted, those payments make Japan “perhaps the only country that pays another country to carry out espionage against itself.”

As is the case with many American military bases abroad, Johnson wrote, Okinawa has long outlived the reason it was established in the first place. It was “first justified by the need to mount an invasion of the main Japanese islands... then as a secure enclave for fighting the war in Korea, next as a forward base for deplying force against China, then as a B-52 bomber base and staging area for the Vietnam War, a training area for jungle warfare, and most recently a home base for troops and aircraft that might be used elsewhere in Asia or the Middle East. As Patrick Lloyd Hatcher, a historian and retired U.S. Army colonel, writes, ‘Foreign real estate has the same attraction for American defense planners that Nimitz-class aircraft carriers do for admirals and B-2 stealth bombers and heavy Abrams tanks do for generals... They can never have enough.’”

Johnson advocated, and so have others after him, that the U.S. put its extensive global empire of bases under review with a view to shrinking it. The bases leave us more vulnerable to terrorism, not less, in his view, because they are so often a source of provocation for residents of their host countries; the way they are managed often contradicts our statements about the values of democracy and justice; and they are costly to maintain, especially at a time when budget deficits are making basic services harder to furnish in our own country. “Permanent military domination of the world,” he pointed out, “is an expensive business.”

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