This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com.
The United States has 460 bases overseas! It has 507 permanent bases! What is the United States doing with more than 560 foreign bases? Why does it have 662 bases abroad? Does the United States really have more than 1,000 military bases across the globe?
In a world of statistics and precision, a world in which "accountability" is now a Washington buzzword, a world where all information is available at the click of a mouse, there’s one number no American knows. Not the president. Not the Pentagon. Not the experts. No one.
The man who wrote the definitive book on it didn’t know for sure. The Pulitzer Prize–-winning New York Times columnist didn’t even come close. Yours truly has written numerous articles on US military bases and even part of a book on the subject, but failed like the rest.
There are more than 1,000 US military bases dotting the globe. To be specific, the most accurate count is 1,077. Unless it’s 1,088. Or, if you count differently, 1,169. Or even 1,180. Actually, the number might even be higher. Nobody knows for sure.
In a recent op-ed piece, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof made a trenchant point: "The United States maintains troops at more than 560 bases and other sites abroad, many of them a legacy of a world war that ended 65 years ago. Do we fear that if we pull our bases from Germany, Russia might invade?"
For years, the late Chalmers Johnson, the man who literally wrote the book on the US military’s empire of bases, The Sorrows of Empire, made the same point and backed it with the most detailed research on the globe-spanning American archipelago of bases that has ever been assembled. Several years ago, after mining the Pentagon’s own publicly-available documents, Johnson wrote, "The United States maintains 761 active military ‘sites’ in foreign countries. (That’s the Defense Department’s preferred term, rather than ‘bases,’ although bases are what they are.)"
Recently, the Pentagon updated its numbers on bases and other sites, and they have dropped. Whether they’ve fallen to the level advanced by Kristof, however, is a matter of interpretation. According to the Department of Defense’s 2010 Base Structure Report, the US military now maintains 662 foreign sites in thirty-eight countries around the world. Dig into that report more deeply, though, and Grand Canyon–sized gaps begin to emerge.
A Legacy of Bases
In 1955, ten years after World War II ended, the Chicago Daily Tribune published a major investigation of bases, including a map dotted with little stars and triangles, most of them clustered in Europe and the Pacific. "The American flag flies over more than 300 overseas outposts," wrote reporter Walter Trohan. "Camps and barracks and bases cover 12 American possessions or territories held in trust. The foreign bases are in 63 foreign nations or islands."