Shortly after the Covid-19 pandemic struck the United States, a reporter asked Donald Trump if he now considered himself a wartime president. “I do. I actually do,” he replied. Swelling with purpose, he opened a press briefing by talking about it. “In a true sense, we’re at war,” he said. Yet the press and pundits rolled their eyes. “Wartime president?” scoffed The New York Times. “It’s far from clear if many voters will accept the idea of him as a wartime leader.” His “attempt to adopt the military mien raised more than a few eyebrows,” NPR reported. What few noted at the time is that Trump, of course, was a wartime president, and not in a metaphorical sense. He presided—and still does—over two ongoing military missions, Operation Freedom’s Sentinel in Afghanistan and Operation Inherent Resolve in Iraq and Syria. More quietly, thousands of US troops patrol Africa and in recent years have endured casualties in Chad, Kenya, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Somalia, and South Sudan. US planes and drones, meanwhile, fill the skies and since 2015 have killed more than 5,000 people (and possibly as many as 12,000) in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen.
Why is it so easy to screen these facts out? The relatively low number of US casualties plays an obvious role. Yet surely what matters more is how relentless the slow drip of news reporting is. The United States has been fighting in so many places, for so many vaguely defined reasons, that it’s easier for some to forget the combat altogether and ask instead whether a virus made Trump a wartime leader. In two presidential debates, neither candidate even mentioned the fact that the United States is at war.
But it is, and it’s unsettling to reflect on just how long the country has been. Students who entered college this fall have lived their entire lives during the Global War on Terrorism and its successor campaigns. The decade before that saw American deployments in the Gulf War, the Balkan conflicts, Haiti, Macedonia, and Somalia. In fact, since 1945, when Washington cast itself as the global peacekeeper, war has been a way of life. Classifying military engagements can be tricky, but arguably there have been only two years in the past seven and a half decades—1977 and 1979—when the United States was not invading or fighting in some foreign country.
The question is why. Is it something deep-seated in the culture? Legislators in the pocket of the military-industrial complex? An out-of-control imperial presidency? Surely all have played a part. A revelatory new book by David Vine, The United States of War, names another crucial factor, one that is too often overlooked: military bases. Since its earliest years, the United States has operated bases in foreign lands. These have a way of inviting war, both by stoking resentment toward the United States and by encouraging US leaders to respond with force. As conflicts mount, the military builds more, leading to a vicious circle. Bases make wars, which make bases, and so on. Today, Washington controls some 750 bases in foreign countries and overseas territories.
China, in a telling contrast, has just one foreign base, in Djibouti. And its military confrontations since the 1970s have been almost entirely limited to border clashes and skirmishes over small islands. Though a rising power with a huge military, few qualms about violence, and no shortage of possible enemies, China only recently broke its decades-long streak of not losing any combat troops in action. For the United States, which was fighting in every year of that period, such peace is inconceivable. The question is whether, by retracting its bases, it could cure itself of the scourge of constant war.
It’s easy not to think about the bases. Look at a map of the United States, and you’ll see only the 50 states; you won’t see the hundreds of other sites over which the US flag flies. For those who haven’t served in the military, those tiny dots are barely noticeable. And they are truly tiny: Mash together all of the overseas bases that the US government admits to controlling, and you’d have an area not much larger than Houston.
Yet even a single speck of land controlled by a foreign military can, like a grit of sand in an oyster, be an immense irritant. In 2007, Rafael Correa made this clear when, as president of Ecuador, he faced pressure to renew the lease on a US base in his country. He told reporters that he’d agree on one condition: that he be allowed to put a base in Miami. “If there’s no problem having foreign soldiers on a country’s soil,” he said, “surely they’ll let us have an Ecuadoran base in the United States.” Of course, no US president would agree to such a thing. A foreign military operating a base in Florida or anywhere else in the United States would be an outrage.
As Vine points out, it was precisely this sort of outrage that fueled the creation of the United States in the first place. The British crown did not just burden its colonists with taxes; it viscerally angered them by stationing redcoats in the colonies for a war with France. In the 1760s and ’70s, alarming reports of assaults, harassment, theft, and rape by the soldiers were common. The authors of the Declaration of Independence denounced the king for “quartering large bodies of armed troops among us” and exempting them from local laws. It is not an accident that the Third Amendment to the Constitution—coming before rights concerning fair trials and freedom from unreasonable searches—is the right not to have soldiers quartered on one’s property in a time of peace.
A country born of hostility to military bases nevertheless quickly began building its own. Vine’s book shows just how central they have been to US history. The national anthem, he notes, recounts the story of an Army base, Fort McHenry outside Baltimore, under siege by British ships in the War of 1812. US coastal defenses kept the British incendiary rockets largely out of range, so that despite a barrage of hundreds of “bombs bursting in air,” at the end of the combat, “our flag was still there.”
The British never took Fort McHenry, but US troops during that war seized bases in Canada and Florida. Andrew Jackson, whose troops won the war’s final battle (fought, awkwardly, two weeks after the peace treaty was signed), followed the peace by building yet more outposts in the South, from which he waged destructive campaigns against Native nations.
You can tell a similar story about the Civil War. It began with a Confederate assault on Fort Sumter, an Army post outside Charleston, S.C. And just as it did in the War of 1812, the Army used the Civil War as an occasion to push farther into Indian lands. Its volunteer units and other militias fought not only in Georgia and Virginia but also in Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah. In March 1864 the Army forced some 8,000 Navajos to march 300 miles to Fort Sumner in New Mexico, where they were incarcerated for four years; at least a quarter died of starvation. The years during and after the Civil War, Vine shows, saw a flurry of base building west of the Mississippi.
Fort McHenry, Fort Sumter—these are familiar names, and it’s not hard to think of others throughout the United States, like Fort Knox, Fort Lauderdale, Fort Wayne, and Fort Worth. “Why are there so many places named Fort?” Vine asks.
The answer is obvious yet unnerving: They were military installations. Some, like Fort Sumter in South Carolina, were built on the coast and designed for defense. Yet far more, like Fort Sumner in New Mexico, were placed inland, near Native lands. They were intended not for defense but offense—for fighting, trading with, and policing Indian polities. Today there are more than 400 populated places in the United States whose name contains the word “fort.”
The presence of forts was not limited to North America. As the United States took territories overseas, it built still more bases, such as Fort Shafter in Hawaii, Fort McKinley in the Philippines, and a naval base at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba. Yet again, the vicious circle held. All over the Philippine archipelago, the Army built forts and camps to extend its reach, and those bases then became tempting targets, such as when a group of 500 irate townspeople in Balangiga stormed an Army encampment in 1899 and killed 45 soldiers there. That attack provoked a bloody campaign of slaughter, with US soldiers under orders to kill any Filipino male over the age of 10 who didn’t turn himself over to the government.
Four decades later, the pattern continued. Japan launched an all-out attack on a series of US bases in the Pacific, most famously Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The United States responded by entering World War II, napalming dozens of Japanese cities, and dropping two atomic bombs.
The war, by its end, had positioned the United States as “the most powerful nation, perhaps, in all history,” as President Harry Truman put it in a radio address in 1945. Measured in bases, this was certainly true. The number of outposts the United States built during World War II “defies the imagination,” one international relations scholar wrote at the time. An oft-cited count puts the US overseas base inventory at 30,000 installations on 2,000 sites by the end of the war. The troops posted to them were so entranced by their sudden access to all corners of the earth that they came up with a graffiti tag, “Kilroy was here,” to proudly mark the many improbable places they’d been. Inhabitants of the base-strewn countries had a different slogan: “Yankee, go home!”
Would the Yankees go home at the end of World War II? Perhaps. The Axis powers had been crushed, leaving little chance of a renewed attack. The only power that might plausibly threaten the United States was the Soviet Union. But the two countries had fought side by side, and if they could continue to tolerate each other, the war-bruised world might finally see peace.
Peace did not come, however, and the reason it didn’t is that the two superpowers learned to interpret each other as existential threats. Histories often emphasize the role of the diplomat George Kennan in firming up US fears. In early 1946 he sent a highly influential cable arguing at length that the “traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity” could never allow for peace. Moscow was a menace, he argued, and its actions must be systematically opposed.
Less is usually heard about the Soviet side. After Kennan’s long telegram was intercepted, Stalin ordered his ambassador in Washington, Nikolai Novikov, to prepare a parallel assessment, which was ghostwritten by Vyacheslav Molotov, the Soviet minister of foreign affairs. Molotov believed the United States was bent on “world domination” and preparing for a “future war” with the Soviet Union. The evidence? He pointed to the hundreds of overseas bases Washington held and the hundreds more it sought to build.
That’s the thing about bases, Vine argues. In the eyes of US leaders, they seem innocuous. But for those living in their shadow, they are often terrifying. Khrushchev would make that point, when vacationing on the Black Sea, by handing his guests binoculars and asking them what they saw. When they replied that they saw nothing, Khrushchev grabbed the binoculars back, peered at the horizon, and said, “I see U.S. missiles in Turkey, aimed at my dacha.”
He wasn’t the only one to fear US aggression. After the CIA tried and failed to overthrow Fidel Castro’s socialist government in Cuba, Castro looked to the Soviet Union for protection. Khrushchev offered to deploy missiles to Soviet bases in Cuba. Beyond protecting an ally, Khrushchev saw this as a way to give his adversaries “a little taste of their own medicine.” As he later explained, “the Americans had surrounded our country with military bases and threatened us with nuclear weapons, and now they would learn just what it feels like to have enemy missiles pointed at you.”
They did learn, and they were horrified. John F. Kennedy moaned that it was “just as if we suddenly began to put a major number of MRBMs [medium-range ballistic missiles] in Turkey.” “Well, we did, Mr. President,” his national security adviser reminded him. In fact, Kennedy was the one who had sent Jupiter missiles to America’s Turkish bases. After a 13-day standoff—“the closest the world has come to nuclear Armageddon,” Vine writes—Kennedy and Khrushchev agreed to disarm their bases.
Historians call this harrowing event the Cuban Missile Crisis, but should they? The name puts the focus on Cuba, implicitly blaming the near cataclysm on Castro and Khrushchev. Kennedy’s earlier stationing of missiles in Turkey slips quietly into the background of the story, as part of the natural order of things. After all, the United States controlled so many armed bases that Kennedy could forget he had even put missiles in Turkey. Calling the event the Turkish Missile Crisis might better drive home Vine’s point: There is nothing natural about a country maintaining an enormous system of military bases in other nations.
Even after the US bases in Turkey almost triggered a nuclear war, military leaders struggled to grasp how politically volatile bases could be. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, the United States moved thousands of troops into Saudi Arabia, including to the large Dhahran base on the country’s east coast. The idea was to use Saudi bases to push back Hussein’s forces, but as usual, the presence of US troops on foreign soil kicked up considerable resentment. “It is unconscionable to let the country become an American colony with American soldiers—their filthy feet roaming everywhere,” fumed one Saudi, Osama bin Laden.
“After the danger is over, our forces will go home,” then–Defense Secretary Dick Cheney promised the Saudi government. But the troops stayed on after Hussein’s defeat, and resentment flared. In 1996 a bomb near Dhahran killed 19 US Air Force personnel. It’s not entirely clear who was responsible, although bin Laden claimed responsibility. Two years later, on the eighth anniversary of the arrival of US troops at Dhahran, bin Laden’s Al Qaeda set off bombs at the US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing more than 200 people. On September 11, 2001, Al Qaeda hijackers flew planes into the Pentagon (“a military base,” as bin Laden described it) and the World Trade Center.
“Why do they hate us?” terrorism expert Richard Clarke asked after the attacks. Bin Laden’s reasons were multiple, but bases loomed large in his thought. “Your forces occupy our countries; you spread your military bases throughout them; you corrupt our lands, and you besiege our sanctuaries,” he wrote in his “Letter to America.”
Can the United States free itself from its endlessly recurring wars? Deescalating or, as Vine puts it, “deimperializing” won’t be easy. There is an intricate worldwide system of security pacts built around the US armed forces, there are cadres of civil servants and military strategists who are used to making war, and there are huge defense contractors with lobbying power. None of those will go away easily.
Yet by identifying the link between bases and war, Vine has found a simple and possibly powerful lever with which to move these large structural forces. You want peace? Close the bases. Fewer overseas outposts would mean fewer provocations for foreign anger, fewer targets for attacks, and fewer inducements for Washington to solve its problems by using force. Vine doesn’t believe that shrinking the base system would prevent US wars entirely, but his case that doing so would significantly calm the waters is hard to gainsay.
Reducing the US military footprint would help in other ways, too. In his previous book Base Nation, Vine calculated that overseas bases cost taxpayers more than $70 billion annually. In United States of War, he argues that this figure underestimates their toll. Because of their propensity to encourage war, cutting back on the number of overseas bases would likely reduce other military costs, putting a further dent in US taxpayers’ enormous $1.25 trillion annual military bill. The amount the United States has spent on its post-9/11 wars, Vine writes, could have funded health care to adulthood plus two years of Head Start for every one of the 13 million children living in poverty in the United States, as well as public college scholarships for 28 million students, two decades of health care for 1 million veterans, and 10 years of salaries for 4 million people working in clean energy jobs.
Was that trade-off even remotely worth it? By now, a majority of US adults think the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were not worth fighting. A majority of veterans feel that way, too. And what of such countries as Niger, where Vine counts eight US bases and where four US soldiers died in an ambush in 2017? Given that key senators reported not even knowing there were troops in Niger, it’s hard to imagine a groundswell of popular support for the nebulous mission there.
The public is weary of war and seems to have little fondness for—or even awareness of—the overseas bases that keep the fighting going. Trump repeatedly threatened to close some of them to fund his wall. Vine has little sympathy for the president but regards Trump’s airing of “once-heretical views” as symptomatic of a growing dissatisfaction with the status quo. The question is whether Joe Biden, a three-time chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, will recognize and respond to that dissatisfaction.
Biden should. We’re long overdue for a new US foreign policy, one that regards war as a terrible exception requiring justification rather than as a taken-for-granted background condition. Trump was, like all of his predecessors for decades, a wartime president. Let’s hope the coming years bring us something far rarer: a peacetime one.
Daniel ImmerwahrDaniel Immerwahr is an associate professor of history at Northwestern University. He is the author of Thinking Small: The United States and the Lure of Community Development and How to Hide an Empire.