Italian Film Captures Anger at US Bases

Q & A with Standing Army Director

by , August 10, 2010

Only this month, Boston University Professor Andrew Bacevich, a conservative skeptic of the military’s modern militarism, released Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent Warwhich in part explores blowback over the ever-expanding U.S. military presence worldwide.

Military critic and author Chalmers Johnson has called that presence "America’s Empire of Bases."

But what’s it like being on the receiving end of our so-called global outreach?

Antiwar.com recently interviewed Thomas Fazi, co-director of Standing Army, a 90-minute documentary on the effects of America’s incredible post-World War II base expansion on the people who live with them and the efforts – most of them seemingly ineffectual – to get rid of them. 

Still from the movie Standing Army.

"It all started back in 2006, when the Vicenza affaire exploded," explained Fazi, describing the protests over the planned expansion of a U.S. military base in the ancient city of Vicenza. The protests continued until last year when the construction was in full swing. "We weren’t satisfied with the coverage the mainstream media was giving of the story, we felt they weren’t asking the right, albeit obvious questions. Such as, ‘why is the U.S. interested in building a brand new military base in the heart of Northern Italy, 20 years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall?’" 

The Vicenza base isn’t new, but the current plans for Caserma Ederle would definitely change the landscape of the city, physically and demographically. The protests, as they say, were a bust. But as it turns out, the April release of Standing Army (trailer here) was timely in other ways: Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama resigned in June, after reneging on a campaign promise to move the unpopular U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma off the island Okinawa for good. Instead, the U.S. military wants to move forward on an earlier agreement that would move 8,000 Marines now stationed in Okinawa to Guam, but shift Futenma to a base on another part of the island, which would be expanded to accommodate a new airfield.  

Okinawans protest enduring US bases.

The move is so unpopular with Okinawans, who bear the burden of almost half of the 47,000 U.S. military stationed in Japan, that the Japanese defense minister indicated in late July that the final details would likely be delayed.  

Meanwhile, the mayor of Ginowan has vowed to sue Japan’s central government over the continued operation of Futenma, to which upwards of 81 percent of Okinawans are opposed, according to past polling.  

"Since assuming office in April 2003, I have demanded to cease operations at the air station," said Mayor Yoichi Iha in a statement posted on the city’s Japanese language website. "Despite our repeated warnings about the danger, as well as noise pollution, the operations continue, spreading intolerable damage to our citizens." 

Back in Italy, the Caserma Ederle base in Vicenza is home to U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) and the 173rd Airborne Brigade and up until the recent expansion, brought some 9,000 soldiers, civilians, and families into the community of 110,000 local residents. The Italian government agreed back in 2005 to a 64,600 square foot expansion of its base, mostly utilizing part of an old Italian airfield on the other side of the city to build accommodations and other facilities for some 2,100 additional troops from the airborne brigade, which has been flying its soldiers in and out of Iraq and Afghanistan since the beginning of current operations there.

A protest in Vincenza, Italy, of the expansion of a WWII-era US base.

In 2007, more than 70,000 people took part in a protest against the expansion, which was opposed by some 70 percent of the community, according to reports at the time. Residents have lived (mostly) quietly with a U.S. presence in the region since World War II, but news of the new construction opened up myriad concerns over the impact of the increased foreign military presence on the small historic city. For its part, the U.S. military says it poured $230 million into the local economy in 2005 alone, and overall, has been a benefit, not a disadvantage to the city. 

The protests persisted, however, through 2009, with police clashing sometimes violently with protesters, touching off small but short-lived media storms until it became clear the expansion was happening with or without the peoples’ resistance. 

"The only people who can stop the construction of the new base at this point are probably the Americans themselves," said Fazi. 

Though the numbers are slippery, most assessments indicate there are currently more than 750 U.S. bases across the globe (not counting Iraq and Afghanistan), with more than 255,000 military personnel deployed in more than 130 countries worldwide. This massive grid of American power and influence tells a complicated tale. Base agreements in places like Japan, Italy and Germany, date back to World War II. Under the current agreement with Japan, the U.S. provides the island nation’s primary national defense against foreign invasion in concert with the Japan Self-Defense Forces, which is restricted in size and scope by the country’s constitution. Italy has a similar security agreement with the U.S.

U.S. bilateral security compacts span the gamut — from NATO contracts to Cold War alliances, agreements with Saudi kings and treaties with South American regimes. The U.S. military strategically "defends" allies, democratic or not, energy resources and political interests, all in return for a strategic perch in almost every corner of the earth. After 9/11, this network became a perfect platform for the Global War on Terror. Writing for The Atlantic in 2008, Robert Kaplan noted that while former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was touting a plan to bring 70,000 men and women home from antiquated overseas bases, he was retooling the "empire" for the 21st Century Long War: 

Thus, by 2004, the Pentagon unveiled plans to bring home an additional 70,000 troops from those fixed garrisons, even as it moved to expand a network of bare-bones sites in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America to support rotational rather than permanently stationed forces. Such "lily pad" bases would be different from the "Little Americas" of the Cold War: no soldiers’ spouses, no kids, no day-care centers, no dogs, no churches… 

The number of status-of-forces agreements with host countries doubled from the end of the Cold War through the end of Rumsfeld’s tenure, from 45 to over 90. And the Air Force signed more than 20 comparable gas-and-go agreements with countries in Africa while Rumsfeld was secretary of defense. 

Pres. Bush at Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo

Besides Vicenza and Okinawa, the film Standing Army looks at: 

Kageyama Asako, Japanese activist and director/producer of Marines Go Home, said each country has its own issues with the American Big Brother. But everyone needs to look at the big picture. 

"It is all too easy to see base struggles in isolation, but in reality there are similar issues in many places."  

More from my interview with Fazi: 

Antiwar: Please tell me what led you guys to this project.   

We decided to grab a camera and go and try and make sense of what was happening by ourselves. As we investigated [the Vicenza protests] further, what was supposed to have been a fairly limited reportage on the Vicenza issue, slowly "ballooned" into something bigger and bigger. We soon realized that it didn’t make sense to talk of Vicenza without talking of the wider issue of the US presence in Italy (which includes 10 major bases and 100+ minor installations), and soon after that it didn’t make sense to talk about Italy without talking of the even wider issue of US bases in Europe, and by that point we had realized that what we had on our hands was a global issue and therefore deserved a global approach. Hence our trips to Okinawa and elsewhere. But it was all relatively "casual": the documentary evolved along with our growing understanding of the subject.

How much of an effect can the base expansion have on the city, and what are the primary reasons for the resistance?  

Well, it’s very hard to gauge the concrete effects the new base will have on the city of Vicenza. The "direct" impact of the base on the everyday life of ordinary citizens will probably be fairly limited. The US military in Europe makes a big effort to keep its soldiers as much as possible out of people’s way, with a lot of effort going into having a good PR. (The situation is very different in Asia, where racial undertones still define the US military’s relationship with local populations, with serious consequences in terms of crimes and abuses against locals). You have to remember: Vicenza already hosts an important US base, the Caserma Ederle, but with the exception of US troops marching at dawn along the city’s streets (which admittedly might be unsettling for some) and crowds of young testosterone-fueled Americans gathering around the bars at night (and causing the occasional brawl), most vicentini aren’t given reason to give the current US presence much thought, and probably won’t give the future presence much thought either. Now, the "indirect" effects of the bases could be much more serious: a number of experts have denounced the fact that the new base will be built right on top of one of Italy’s largest water basins. Since military bases have been known to produce loads of toxic waste (which is often just dumped in the local riverways, as has happened in South Korea), the local activists’ concern for the basin is understandable. This said, a lot of the local protesters aren’t motivated simply by concerns about the effects the base would have on themselves and the city. There are much wider ethical and political questions at stake: what I call the "moral" impact of a base.

What does it say that the police have responded so aggressively?  

Well, the Italian police is known for being one of the most repressive police forces in any Western country, so they don’t need much of an excuse to attack protestors. But generally, regarding Vicenza, there has certainly been an escalation in the use of force against anti-base protestors. I guess the government was hoping that the protests, as they fell on deaf ear after deaf ear at all levels of the political system, would just die out by themselves and when it saw that the activists weren’t giving up but were actually stepping up their campaign and gaining a growing global support, decided to clamp down.

Tell me a little bit about the other "standing armies" you address in the film, like in Japan. What are some common threads?   

Well, as I said above, the impact of a base changes a lot from country to country. In Okinawa, for example, a lot of the opposition to the bases is due to the devastating impact these bases have on the local population in terms of environmental pollution, noise pollution, violent crimes (there have been many cases of rape against local women over the years) and the general militarization of the island’s land, air and sea. … 

I would say the main common thread in the people’s opposition to US bases, though, is certainly opposition to war and militarism. Many people who decide to campaign against the US presence in their country (in Japan but also in Germany, in Italy, in Great Britain, in Australia, etc.) are moved to do so by the realization of the crucial role that these bases in America’s war-making efforts. One can beat around the bush as much as one likes, and it’s painful to admit it, but the attack on Iraq (just to give one example) was made possible, or was very much facilitated, by the troops, weapons, aircraft, vehicles and munitions transported to the Middle East from the many bases in Italy, Germany, Great Britain, Spain etc.

How has the last eight years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq affected peoples’ feelings about these American bases?  

Well, it depends who you ask! If you asked someone in Iraq or Afghanistan, they’d probably tell you that a lot of people in these countries have come to realize that establishing bases was probably one of the long-term aims of both these wars. The US right now still controls dozens of massive military bases in Iraq, and will probably retain control over a number of them even after the official 2011 withdrawal… In Afghanistan the bases are even more widespread, running in the hundreds according some sources, although there are no official numbers. As for everyone else, I think 8 years of war are the proof that the US has definitely entered a stage of permanent warfare. And in such a context, there should be even less doubts as to why these bases are being built.

What did you learn during the making of the film — anything unexpected? What is the key message you hope will resonate with viewers? 

Well, the sheer number of US installations around the world is staggering, and is something we weren’t entirely aware of. The official papers talk of 716 bases in 40 countries, but this number doesn’t include the bases present in war zones (such as Iraq or Afghanistan) or the ones considered politically sensitive, such as the ones in Israel. This is why Chalmers Johnson has estimated the number to be closer to 1,000.

As for the message, I guess it’s different for each viewer. But in general, I hope we’ve managed to show people that war isn’t just the bombs you see going off on TV. War is a system of permanent violence and destruction of which the bases are the clearest example; a system that at any given time, in hundreds of locations around the world, is polluting societies, cultures, people, and life in all its forms. I guess you could say that now more than ever, war is everywhere. And resistance should be too.

Read more by Kelley B. Vlahos