As part of our special investigation “Mission Creep: US Military Presence Worldwide,” we asked a host of military thinkers to contribute their two cents on topics relating to global Pentagon strategy. (You can access the archive here.)
The following dispatch comes from Katherine T. McCaffrey, an assistant professor of anthropology at Montclair State University in New Jersey and author of Military Power and Popular Protest: The US Navy in Vieques, Puerto Rico.
Fighting for Freedom but Projecting Misery
In a recent essay, “Warmaking as the American Way of Life,” Brown University anthropologist Catherine Lutz argues persuasively that there is no institution so deeply revered and powerful in American society as the military. Indeed, America is built on and devoted to warmaking. As a society we honor and valorize not our schoolteachers, farmers, or poets, but our warriors. We emblazon our cars with yellow ribbon magnets professing support for “our” troops. We send our kids to school with camouflage-patterned knapsacks, baseball caps, T-shirts, slacks, and lunch boxes. In US society, Lutz writes, “there is an utterly thorough agreement that the United States needs a large military, that it should and can use it to do good in the world, and that the one it has is selfless and honorable. In this consensus, soldiering expresses a love for the community greater than any other form of work and deserves commemoration at sporting events, school graduations, and multiple national holidays.”
Besides having the most powerful military in the history of the planet, we also have more people in our prisons than any other country in the world has ever had. There appears to be a perverse relationship between our so-called “freedom fighting” around the globe and our denial of freedom at home.
As our military further expands its power, we see our own civil liberties and freedoms at home shrinking. Witness the manhandling of journalists at both of the major party conventions, the wiretapping of private homes, and the detention of citizens without formal charges. Attacks on freedom follow our troops wherever the government sets up secret rendition camps and other covert military operations—at Guantanamo Bay, Diego Garcia, or aboard US Navy vessels. Given the power and influence of our military machine, it is essential that citizens develop a rudimentary awareness of its scope and the broader implications of projecting that might all over the planet; in pursuit of our own happiness and security, we export a tremendous amount of violence and misery.
As an anthropologist, I have been concerned with the impact of military bases on communities that, like it or not (usually not), are on the receiving end of the US boot tread. What are the social and environmental costs of US bases? What is it like to live in the shadow of the US military? This concern took me to Vieques, Puerto Rico, where for decades the Navy conducted live bombing exercises on an island twice the size of Manhattan with a population of 10,000 US citizens. Several years ago, Vieques gained international attention for its grassroots struggle to remove the Navy. Rising rates of cancer convinced residents that they could no longer tolerate living downwind from the Navy’s bomb blasts. A number of misfired bombs, including one that killed a civilian base employee, sparked protest.
The islanders eventually won that David-and-Goliath battle, halting the bombing and evicting the Navy. Now they are left to recover from six decades of military domination and destruction. Most of the land shifted from the Navy’s hands to federal control; former military property was legally designated as a “wildlife refuge,” which exempted the Pentagon from responsibility for major environmental remediation.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 60 years of live-fire exercises have left a toxic legacy on Vieques’ land and surrounding waters that may include “mercury, lead, copper, magnesium, lithium, perchlorate, TNT, napalm, depleted uranium, PCBs, solvents, and pesticides.” Most of the refuge is closed to the public indefinitely due to thousands of unexploded bombs. Cleanup is under way, so quiet nature walks may be punctuated by the open detonation of 500-pound bombs.
“Mission Creep” makes an important contribution to public debate because it documents the transformation, expansion, and cost of the US military adventure. David Vine’s article, for example, puts this cost in human terms as he details the tragic conditions of the Chagossians, expelled from their home in the Indian Ocean to make way for what is now a multibillion-dollar base the Pentagon calls “the footprint of freedom.” While Diego Garcia has been used as a launching pad for long-range bombers, weaponry, and supplies destined for Iraq, the islanders live in misery in exile. Mother Jones‘ project is the first and most basic step in evaluating, and hopefully changing, our national priorities.