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 unitmade 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.

Two years ago, a piece on TomDispatch titled “Out of Iraq, Into the Gulf" predicted much the same, revealing an American military building boom in the region, specifically Kuwait:

...from 2003 to 2009, the U.S. Army spent in excess of $502 million on contracts for construction projects in the small, oil-rich nation, while the Air Force added almost $55 million and the Navy another $7 million. Total military spending there has been more massive still. Over the same span, according to U.S. government data, the Pentagon has spent nearly $20 billion in Kuwait, buying huge quantities of Kuwaiti oil and purchasing logistical support from various contractors for its facilities there (and elsewhere), among other expenditures.

In 2006, for example, the international construction firm Archirodon was awarded $10 million to upgrade airfield lighting at Al-Salem and Al-Jaber, two Kuwaiti air bases used by American forces. Recently, there has also been a major scaling up of work at Camp Arifjan. In September, for example, the Pentagon awarded CH2M Hill Contractors a nearly $26 million deal to build a new communications facility on the base. Just days later, defense contractor ITT received an almost $87 million contract for maintenance and support services there.

An analysis of U.S. government documents by AlterNet finds that, since then, the Pentagon has awarded an additional $65 million in contracts for construction projects in Kuwait. These deals include work on both U.S. bases like Camp Arifjan and those of the Kuwaiti military, such as facilities used by Kuwait’s elite 25th Commando Brigade.

Top of the Pops

Tops In Blue kicked off this year with a performance at the Super Bowl and will end it on little-talked-about U.S. military bases in places like Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. The group is likely to see a lot more of these Middle Eastern locales in the years ahead.

During a recent telephone interview, Major General Russell Handy, the senior U.S. Air Force representative in Iraq, mentioned that his service is in the process of redeploying a “large number” of  forces “elsewhere in the region” as the U.S. winds down its role in Iraq. While he’s tight-lipped on exactly which countries will see the influx of troops, Kuwait, Oman and the United Arab Emirates are all likely possibilities.

In a blog post earlier this year, at Tops In Blue’s Pentagon-sponsored Web site, one member of the troupe wrote, “this is the first time I have traveled to the desert as a member of the world’s greatest Air Force… Everything is dusty and dirty. The weather is unbearably hot and sometimes miserable. The routines are often mundane and repetitive. Life becomes a countdown… a countdown to your return home, your return to America.” While individual troops, like Tops In Blue, come and go from the region, U.S. bases there continue to be built, hardened and expanded.

As the U.S. withdraws most of its forces from Iraq; rumbles about scaling down the Afghan war; looks to prop up favored weapons-makers by brokering deals with Arab states; flies drones out of, and makes war on, the Arabian Peninsula, in Saudi Arabia and Yemen, respectively; and does the same just across the Gulf of Aden in Djibouti and Somalia, military bases in Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates will become increasingly important for U.S. power projection.

Next year, Tops In Blue has already scheduled numerous domestic performances from a “fuel barn hangar” at Seymour-Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina to Florida’s Hurlburt Field. But you can rest assured they’ll be traveling back to the Greater Middle East for multiple tour dates and perhaps, in the years to come, Africa, too. America’s empire of bases is shifting, but it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.  

Nick Turse is the associate editor of and a senior editor at AlterNet. His latest book is The Case for Withdrawal from Afghanistan (Verso). You can follow him on Twitter @NickTurse, on Tumblr, and on Facebook