The Military-Leisure Golf Complex

The following is an excerpt from Nick Turse's new book "The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives" (Metropolitan, 2008).

Back in 1975, Senator William Proxmire (D-Wisconsin) decried the fact that the Department of Defense spent nearly $14 million each year to maintain and operate 300 military-run golf courses scattered across the globe. In 1996, the weekly television series America's Defense Monitor noted that "Pentagon elites and high government officials [were still] tee-ing off at taxpayer expense" at some "234 golf courses maintained by the U.S. armed forces worldwide." In the intervening twenty-one years, despite a modest decrease in the number of military golf courses, not much had changed. The military was still out on the links. Today, the military claims to operate a mere 172 golf courses worldwide, suggesting that over thirty years after Proxmire's criticisms, a modicum of reform has taken place. Don't believe it.

In actuality, the military has cooked the books. For example, the Department of Defense reported that the U.S. Air Force operates 68 courses. A closer examination indicates that the DoD counts the 3 separate golf courses, a total of fifty-four holes, at Andrews Air Force Base in Washington, D.C., as 1 course. The same is true for the navy, which claims 37 courses (including facilities in Guam, Italy, and Spain) but counts, for example, its Admiral Baker Golf Course in San Diego, which boasts 2 eighteen-hole courses, as a single unit. Similarly, while the DoD claims that the army operates 56 golf facilities, it appears that this translates into no fewer than 68 actual courses, stretching from the U.S. to Germany, Japan, and South Korea.

Moreover, some military golf facilities are mysteriously missing from all lists. In 2005, according to the Pentagon, the U.S. military operated courses on twenty-five bases overseas.

A closer look, however, indicates that the military apparently forgot about some of its golf courses -- especially those in unsavory or unmentionable locales. Take the unlisted eighteen-hole golf course -- where hot-pink balls are used so as not to lose them in the barren terrain -- at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Also absent is the army's Tournament Players Club, a golf course built, in 2003, by army personnel in Mosul, Iraq. Another forgotten course can be found in the Republic of the Marshall Islands, at Kwajalein, a little-discussed island filled with missile and rocket launchers and radar equipment that serves as the home of the U.S. Army's Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site. Similarly unlisted is a nine-hole golf course located on the shadowy island of Diego Garcia, a British Indian Ocean Territory occupied by the U.S. military and long suspected as the site of one of the CIA's post-9/11 secret "ghost" prisons. But even courses not operating on secret sites, in war zones, or near prisons and possible torture centers have been conveniently lost. For example, while the Pentagon lists the navy's Admiral Nimitz Golf Course in Barrigada, Guam, in its inventory of overseas courses, it seems to have skipped Andersen Air Force Base's eighteen-hole Palm Tree Golf Course, also on the island. And you'd think the Pentagon would be proud of the USAF's island links; after all, it was the runner-up, in 2002, for the title of "Guam's Most Beautiful Golf Course."

Whatever the true number of the military's courses, at least some of them are distinctly sprucing up their grounds. Take the Eaglewood Golf Courses at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia. In 2004, the Pentagon paid out more than $352,000 to George Golf Design to refurbish its two courses (known as "the Raptor" and "the Eagle"). George Golf Design considerately worked on the courses one at a time, so that local duffers would not be left linkless. This was of critical importance since if both courses were out of commission, Virginia would have been left with only nine military golf facilities (navy, five; army,three; Marine Corps, one) with a total of fourteen courses.

Even though the military operates so many courses, apparently these still aren't enough to satisfy the insatiable golfing appetites of the armed forces -- at least judging by the number of golf resorts to which the Pentagon paid out American tax dollars in 2004. For instance, the Del Lago Golf Resort and Conference Center, in San Antonio, Texas, which offers an "18-hole championship golf course home to some of the region's most challenging and beautiful holes," received over $19,000, and the Lakeview Golf Resort and Spa in Morgantown, West Virginia, which boasts "two championship golf courses," received $16,416 from the army in 2004. When asked what exactly the army was up to at Lakeview, a resort spokesperson declined to "disclose any information" and stated that she was "unable to confirm activities" of the military at the resort if, in fact, they occurred at all. At the Arizona Golf Resort and Conference Center in Mesa, Arizona, which boasts "fine accommodations, great dining and a host of amenities, including a championship golf course, surrounded by beautifully maintained grounds," the army dropped a cool $48,620 in 2004. That resort wasn't, however, the top recipient of military funds among Arizona golf resorts.

That year, according to DoD documents, the U.S. Army paid $71,614 to the Arizona Golf Resort -- located in sunny Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. A Saudi homage to the American Southwest that claims to offer the "only residential western expatriate golf resort in Riyadh with activities for all ages," the resort actually boasts an entire entertainment complex, complete with a water-slide-enhanced megapool, gym, bowling alley, horse stables, roller hockey rink, arcade, amphitheater, restaurant, and even a cappuccino bar -- not to mention the golf course and a driving range. It's the perfect spot, in the so-called arc of instability, for military folks to play a few rounds with other Westerners. For those in the Persian Gulf who prefer their links on a smaller scale, there are also miniature golf courses at such military bases as Ahmed Al Jaber Air Base and at Camp Doha, both located in Kuwait, Balad Air Base in Iraq, and the air force'sbase at Eskan Village, near Riyadh Air Base, in Saudi Arabia. But minigolf isn't the only activity for duffers stationed at Eskan. In 2002, the U.S. General Accounting Ofce investigated "seemingly unneeded expenditures" by the military and found that $5,333 had been spent on "golf passes" for folks from Eskan Village.

In fact, the GAO reported: "Air Force units purchased several golf items during their deployments to Southwest Asia that included a golf cart for $35,000, a corporate golf membership at $16,000 ... and a golf club/bag set costing nearly $1,500." The military's ardent love affair with golf carts hardly ended with that $35,000 model. In 2004 alone, according to the Pentagon's own documents, the DoD paid $6,860 to Golf Car Company, $6,900 to Golf Cars of Riverside, $9,322 to Golf Cars of Louisiana, $16,741 to Southern Golf Cars, and a whopping $37,964 to Golf Car Specialties. Similarly, in 2006, two golf cart concerns were paid a combined $58,644 by the DoD, while a German golf-equipment supplier, Continental Golf Associates, received more than $88,000 from the Pentagon.

Despite base closures and the work of committed environmental and community groups, which have thinned out some of the military's links, the Department of Defense continues to exhibit an obsession with golf, golf carts, and, above all, golf courses. Apologists, both within and outside of the military, often counter criticisms of DoD golf expenditures by claiming that military golf courses are not simply a drain on taxpayer money but revenue earners, through greens fees.

They, however, never make mention of the fact that these facilities are located on public land and pay no taxes; that they require funds for security; and that in all likelihood the public pays for the roads, water, and electric lines that service the courses -- sore points raised by former Arizona senator Dennis DeConcini in the mid-1990s when Andrews Air Force Base was sinking $5.1 million into its third course. (If the DoD really wanted to raise revenues, it would sell its courses. For example, the army's Garmisch, Kornwestheim, and Heidelberg golf courses in Germany are worth, says the DoD, $6.6 million, $13.3 million, and $16.5 million, respectively, while the DoD's Sungnam golf course in the Republic of Korea is reportedly valued at $26 million.)

Such a defense also fails to address why the Pentagon is in the golf course business in the first place. According to its officially stated mission, the DoD engages in war-fighting, humanitarian, peacekeeping, evacuation, and homeland-security missions and, says the Pentagon, provides "the military forces needed to deter war and to protect the security of the United States. Everything we do supports that primary mission." How, exactly, golf courses ensure that primary mission is a little murky, especially since the United States has more than 8,100 public courses and over 3,500 semiprivate courses (that allow some access to nonmembers). A more apt explanation is the fact that when it comes to golf, like much else, the Pentagon does what it wants, no matter who gets tee'd off.

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