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The Air Force Song and Dance Troupe? What the Military's Holiday Spectacular Tells Us About Changing Times for US Empire

An all-singing, all-dancing guide to changes in the Pentagon’s foreign base world.

“You may have heard of a ‘Miracle on 34th Street’ and ‘White Christmas’ but if you haven't heard how the Air Forces' ‘Tops In Blue Holiday Tour’ touches the hearts of US troops downrange, please follow along,” begins a contract solicitation issued by the Air Force last month. 

The tour it touts, scheduled for next month and meant to boost troop morale, offers a unique window into the American empire of military bases and highlights recent and coming shifts in the Pentagon’s overseas base-world.

For the uninitiated, Tops In Blue is  a special Air Force unit made up 30 to 40 amateur performers from within the ranks -- singers, musicians, dancers, and backstage technicians – that has been entertaining military and civilian audiences around the world for decades.  This month , the troupe is performing at three different U.S. air bases in Japan, two more in Korea and one in Guam. In December, according to the Air Force, “ the team heads to Southwest Asia to lift the spirits of… Air Force, Army, Navy and Marine [personnel] serving in the combat zone.” 

Over the course of 10 days, Tops In Blue is scheduled to perform nine shows in Afghanistan, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. As the Air Force puts it, the “audience drags in toting guns and dressed in body armor but a lively rendition of ‘Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree’ [will have] them humming along and tapping their feet.” 

Just where that gun-toting audience is or isn’t located underscores the changing nature of America’s military operations abroad, from large-scale occupations to drone wars, and offers a lens through which to view shifts in overseas basing.

Working Blue

Conspicuously absent from Tops in Blue’s current tour schedule is Iraq. Only last year, the troupe performed in 100-plus-degree heat for U.S. troops occupying that country. This year, after months of attempts to derail President George W. Bush’s  agreement to pull U.S. troops out of Iraq by the end of 2011, President Barack Obama found himself forced to abide by it. While not all U.S. forces will actually leave and mercenary forces will remain along with a massive, militarized embassy and large staff of foreign service officers, advisers, and spies, there simply won’t be enough troops to warrant a stop by Tops next month.

In the next few years, it may be Kyrgyzstan that similarly gets left off of Tops In Blue’s holiday tour locales. Last week, in one of his first statements as Kyrgyzstan’s new president, Almazbek Atambayev said that when its lease runs out in 2014, he wants the U.S. armed forces out of his country’s air base at Manas. “We know that the United States is often engaged in military conflicts,” he said, according to news reports. “There was Iraq and Afghanistan, and now there are tensions with Iran. I would not want any of these countries to launch a retaliatory strike on the military base one day.”

Meanwhile, Kuwait is likely to see more Air Force song-and-dance performances in the coming years. Last week, Lolita Baldor of the Associated Press reported that the “Pentagon is poised to move at least 4,000 soldiers from Iraq to Kuwait at the end of the year, pending a final decision expected soon by Pentagon and Kuwaiti leaders.” This came on the heels of an article in the New York Times :

Obama administration plans to bolster the American military presence in the Persian Gulf after it withdraws the remaining troops from Iraq this year, according to officials and diplomats. That repositioning could include new combat forces in Kuwait able to respond to a collapse of security in Iraq or a military confrontation with Iran.

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