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The endurance of impermanence

Military bases, once built, just have a habit of sticking around...
 
 
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There has been quite a bit of talk of late about whether or not "permanent" military bases are being built in Iraq -- and what this means for American troops.

The AP reports,

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, asked about "permanent duty stations" by a Marine during an Iraq visit in December, allowed that it was "an interesting question." In Washington, Iraq scholar Phebe Marr finds the language intriguing. "If they aren't planning for bases, they ought to say so," she said. "I would expect to hear 'No bases.'"

The language is indeed intriguing. But, before we frame the fight against "permanent bases," we should recognize that the phrase is something of a redundancy. My housemate Gwyn Kirk, who happens to be the woman behind the East Asia, U.S., Puerto Rico Women's Network Against Militarism, has studied military bases for years. Here's what she has to say:

At her town hall meeting in San Francisco in January, Rep. Nancy Pelosi insisted that U.S. military installations in Iraq are not permanent bases.  Many of the audience were, rightly, skeptical.  The issue of whether a base is 'permanent' is largely a semantic one.  A base is developed and used for as long as it is needed by the military.  U.S. bases in Okinawa (Japan) were developed in 1945 at the end of World War II.  Okinawa was under U.S. military administration until 1972, when it reverted to Japanese control.  But the bases remained and have been used for training and deployments to the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the 1991 Persian Gulf War, and the current war against Iraq. 

There are churches, schools, playgrounds, baseball fields, and family housing on the larger bases, as well as administration buildings, aircraft hangars, repair shops, refueling depots, and the like.  To all intents and purposes they are permanent bases. They have been there for over 60 years.  They could be abandoned at some point by the U.S. military when they cease to be useful.  Or Japanese citizens could make life so politically difficult for the military that they would be thrown out, as happened in the Philippines in 1991. 

U.S. bases in the Philippines dated back to the American War against the Philippines which started in 1899.  Were these bases permanent?

This administration has become quite accomplished in the art of employing pseudonyms and wordplay (see: "enhanced interrogation techniques", "self-injurious behavior"). So while Congresswoman Barbara Lee announces that "Congress Has Spoken: No Permanent Military Bases in Iraq," it's important to clarify that the Pentagon prefers to call them "enduring" or "long-term" bases. Many of the 14 sites that the military has identified as such are already built -- structures formerly used by the Iraqi military.

So let's not listen to Rumsfeld when he says that suggestions that the U.S. is planning a permanent military presence in Iraq are "inaccurate and unfortunate." Whether or not a base is called "permanent," in practice, it is. And the view of the bases from the ground only bolsters this:

Away from the flight lines, among traffic jams and freshly planted palms, life improves on 14-square-mile Balad for its estimated 25,000 personnel, including several thousand American and other civilians. They've inherited an Olympic-sized pool and a chandeliered cinema from the Iraqis.

Onnesha Roychoudhuri is an assistant editor at AlterNet.