In a recent post, Australian blogger Caitlin Johnstone references an article in The New Yorker about the endless wars in which the U.S. engages. In her essay, Johnstone ruminates on the sheer idiocy of the Army’s practice of shooting a howitzer into the Syrian desert “just to say we’re here.” Leaving aside the expense of such a ludicrous operation, and the possible effects on desert fauna, not to mention on the adjacent town, what’s the rationale? Surely, every person for miles around, noncombatant or potential foe, is quite well aware that the Army is there. Macho posturing? Uber-aggressive assertion of dominance? Simple scare tactics? Whatever the actual reason and the stated logic behind it. one has to wonder: is that all those guys have to do?
Which begs the question, what do the soldiers, sailors, marines, and aviators assigned to the 800-odd U.S. bases overseas actually DO every day (Wikipedia says the Pentagon says there are about 5,000 bases, total, including domestic locations)? As one would expect, the Middle East is saturated with U.S. military presence, as is much of Europe and Australia. The high concentration in the eastern half of South America seems a bit surprising to me; likewise, the siting of bases in such places as Cameroon, Niger, Aruba, and Curacao. And as of 2016, for example, there were some 39,000 troops stationed in Japan. Why do they need to be there? I’m quite sure that the top brass could deliver a thoroughly plausible reason for their presence, having to do with securing the Pacific theater. And of course, there are U.S. forces in Poland, Boznia, and Romania, among nearby nations, as part of NATO commitments.
My Navy-vet husband informs me that, for every forward-deployed service member, the military allocates three to four other people in the areas of supply and logistics, whether those people are located at central depots, on floating warehouses, at the Pentagon, or elsewhere. Given the scale of waste and redundancy in the military, I don’t doubt the accuracy of my husband’s observation. I do find it ridiculous that that much support is necessary, when the ratio in civilian life is much smaller, in my experience.
But even allowing for the scale of behind-the-lines support for forces in action, 800 bases seems….crazy. I would assume that many of them exist for the mere fact of demonstrating a U.S. presence, like that howitzer in Syria. I would also assume that the overwhelming majority of personnel are paper pushers, gofers, and the like, likely more numerous than at civilian entities, percentage-wise. According to the Statista site, by 2019, there were some 2.35 million active and reserve military members, including National Guard contingents and excluding the Coast Guard. All those people, supposedly defending Mom, apple pie, and the American Way. Operating on a budget that beggars those of the rest of the world, at a time when there are zero imminent threats to this country. Of course, there’s the argument that there are zero threats precisely because all those people are deployed, but I tend to think that statement doesn’t hold water, in view of the limited capacities of most of the rest of the world.
But here’s a thought: as of early March, over 6,000 troops had been assigned to help with the administration of the COVID vaccine. When my husband and I went to a mass vaccination center three weeks ago, camo uniforms were a prominent feature. That these troops were working toward a productive, affirmative goal is unquestionable. They were, indeed, helping to keep our citizens alive and safe. Why, then, can they not be employed in similar roles everywhere? The Army Corps of Engineers is already utilized on various domestic infrastructure projects, such as dams and levees. The Seabees are likewise well versed in construction, so we already have trained, disciplined, capable hands to call on for needed building and refurbishing jobs here at home, particularly relevant in light of President Biden’s new infrastructure proposal. I’m aware that the military does help with such efforts overseas as part of its mission. Why not expand that mission? Make it a regular policy to accompany foreign aid with experienced help. Take those hundreds of thousands of able-bodied individuals and give them a purpose that means something. Put their expertise in myriad fields to good use. Let them be welcome ambassadors of the values that the United States is supposed to stand for, instead of being terrifying symbols of death and destruction. It would seem to me to be a much more effective, lasting way to win hearts and minds.