As the editor of Chalmers Johnson’s Blowback Trilogy for the American Empire Project, I was struck by an oddity when the second volume, The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic, was published in 2004 to splendid reviews in this country. Johnson’s focus in the book — its heart and soul, you might say — was what he called our "empire of bases," the over-700 military bases, giant to micro, that the Pentagon then listed as ours. The book vividly laid out the Pentagon’s global basing structure, its "footprint" (to use the term the Defense Department favors), in startling detail.
It was a way of getting at the nature of imperial power for a country that largely avoided colonies, but nonetheless managed to garrison the globe. As a topic, all those bases would have seemed unavoidable in any serious review, no less one praising the book. Yet, somehow, review after review managed not to mention, no less substantively discuss, this crucial aspect of Johnson’s thesis. Only recently, all these years later, has a mainstream review appeared in this country that focused on his work on those bases. Jonathan Freedland, reviewing the third volume in Johnson’s trilogy, Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic, in the New York Review of Books, took up the subject eloquently — and (wouldn’t you know it?), he isn’t an American. He works for the British Guardian.
Isn’t it strange that we Americans can garrison the planet and yet, in this country, bases are only a topic of discussion when some local U.S. community suddenly hears that it might lose its special base and an uproar ensues. Typically, we have made it through years of war since 2001, during which untold billions of dollars have gone into constructing massive bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, and yet these bases (as well as the planning behind them) have, until recently, gone almost totally unmentioned in all the argument, debate, and uproar over what to do about Iraq.
In reality — explain it as you will — Americans have little grasp of the enormity of the Pentagon, despite real military budgets that, by some calculations, exceed three-quarters of a trillion dollars yearly. (And don’t forget that, since 2002, we’ve been piling on with a second Defense Department, the hapless bureaucratic morass that goes by the name of the Department of Homeland Security.) Nick Turse, whose book, The Complex — about all the newest twists on the old Military-Industrial you-know-what — will be out in the spring of 2008, has just sized the Pentagon, the place that unabashedly refers to itself as "one of the world’s largest landlords," for rest of us in a piece at Tomdispatch.com, "Planet Pentagon."
Did you know, for instance, that the Pentagon owns more land in this country than America’s ten largest individual landowners; has 3,731 sites in its global "real property portfolio"; boasts around 587,900 "buildings and structures"; controls 20% of the Japanese island of Okinawa; has utilized 330,149 creatures for various types of experimentation in a single year; owns over 2,050 railcars; spent $6 million on sheet music, musical instruments, and accessories in 2005; or that it is one of the world’s largest slum landlords with, according to the Office of the Deputy Undersecretary of Defense, "180,000 inadequate family housing units." And that’s just the beginning.
And yet the Pentagon has its problems, as in Iraq, where property values have turned out to be steep indeed. In the end, Turse wonders: "Will Iraq be added to the list of permanently occupied territories and take on the look of long-garrisoned South Korea have urged — or will it be added to a growing list of places that have effectively resisted paying the rent on Planet Pentagon?"