By Ray Acheson

As noted in other blogs in this series, military spending is undergoing increasing scrutiny these days due its direct contribution to the lack of money available to governments for dealing with the coronavirus. We recently learned that the world has collectively wasted more than $1.9 trillion on militarism and is completely unprepared to deal with COVID-19, the climate crisis, as well as persistent poverty and growing economic inequality. These bloated military budgets warrant serious critique and massive cuts. One means of reducing military spending—and to reduce global conflict as well as sexual- and gender-based violence—is to abolish foreign military bases.

The status of foreign military bases

The United States currently operates nearly 800 military bases in at least 80 countries around the world. The US bases constitute about 90–95 per cent of all foreign military bases. No other country maintains more than 20 bases outside their own territory; most countries don’t have any.

These bases are meant to “support the daily operations” of the US military by providing housing for soldiers and their families as well as other facilities for operations and training, administration, community and recreation, and medical practice. The estimated annual cost of maintaining the US bases ranges from $25 billion to $150 billion per year, depending on what is being included in the calculation.

But the amount of money spent by US taxpayers is not the only issue of concern, nor is the additional money spent by taxpayers in host nations. There are many critiques against foreign military bases: they have been frequently used to launch wars or military interventions; their presence often correlates with increased recruitment by non-state armed groups and they are often targets for those groups; they cause environmental damage locally and are part of why the US military is one of the single largest contributors to climate change. And as feminist activists have highlighted time and again, US military bases are directly linked to sexual exploitation, trafficking, rape, and murder.

The misogyny of militarism

Since the first foreign military bases, activists and academics alike have highlighted and condemned the relationship between US military bases and forced prostitution, trafficking, and sexual exploitation of women and girls on or near the bases. During World War II, explains feminist scholar Cynthia Enloe in Bananas, Beaches, and Bases, the US military worked to “create racialized military prostitution systems,” including by setting up racially segregated brothels in Hawai’i, Germany, Korea, Japan, and France. These systems continued after the war and have been a constant throughout the US military’s wars from Korea to Viet Nam to the “Global War on Terror”.

Thus, it is not a coincidence or an organic development that US military bases correlate with sexual exploitation, abuse, and trafficking. The situation has been deliberately created and sustained over time. It facilities the cultivation of what David Vine describes in Base Nation as a “predominantly male military environment, in which women’s visible presence is overwhelmingly reduced to one role: sex.” The institutionalisation of the sex industry around military bases influences the identities and behaviour of male soldiers as men. These identities are deliberately constructed in order to help the military to function.

This has an impact on all women involved in base life, from wives to soldiers to sex workers. High rates of sexual violence against female military personnel are starting to be recognised and acknowledged. In 2015, the UN Human Rights Council urged the US military to take action to prevent sexual violence, ensure prosecution of offenders, and offer redress for victims. However, as US Department of Defense reports have shown, 75 per cent of those who have been sexually assaulted in the military lack the confidence in the military justice system to even report the crimes against them.

Military bases and sexual violence

If impunity remains rife in within the military system, it is rampant when it comes to those committing crimes outside of that system. This has real world implications in particular for women and girls living or working near US military bases.

The US currently operates 34 bases on the island of Okinawa and is currently building a new Marine base. Since 1972, there have been more than 120 reported cases of rape by US military personnel against local women and girls. Only seven soldiers have ever been tried in Japanese courts. Local activists believe there are likely hundreds more unreported cases. It is widely known that the bases foster an environment of sexual violence against women, yet the US and Japanese governments allow it to continue.

In the 1960s, the Korean government established “camptowns”—districts for businesses catering to US troops that prominently featured prostitution. A former sex worker noted, “Our government was one big pimp for the U.S. military.” While initially mostly Korean women worked the camptowns, since the 1990s migrant women from the Philippines, Thailand, and the former Soviet Union have been brought over on “entertainment” visas specifically created by the Korean government. These women are usually stripped of their passports and mot of their pay, sold to different clubs, and threatened with arrest, fines, incarceration, or deportation.

The US maintains the largest foreign military base in Djibouti, which also hosts bases for China, France, Germany, Japan, and Spain, as well as troops from several other countries. The number of US military personnel stationed in Djibouti has increased by 450% since 2002 and has expanded to nearly 200 acres. The presence of foreign militaries and private military and security contractors in Djibouti is a driving factor in the sexual exploitation of women and girls in the region. About 100,000 migrants pass through Djibouti every year and about 21,000 refugees live in camps. There are not sufficient means to feed, house, or educate inhabitants. The unemployment rate in Djibouti is about 60 per cent. The combination of high numbers of foreign military personnel, flows of migrants, high numbers of refugees, and low unemployment and opportunities for work creates a powder keg for sexual violence and exploitation.

Resistance in the time of coronavirus

These are just a few of the countless examples that feminist activists have been documenting and working against for decades. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the same groups have been active in tracking and resisting the impacts of US military bases on spreading the coronavirus.

At an online teach-in organised by the International Women’s Network Against Militarism, Joyce Kim of Durebang (My Sister’s Place) noted that the US military began enforcing lockdowns in early March 2020, closing the majority of the camptown bars and clubs. Many of the sex workers and other women working in the camptowns were relieved about the closures in regards to their own health and well-being, but have completely lost their income and their ability to support their families back home. Many women have been faced with the choice between accepting transfer to other, often unknown locations, to leave and go into hiding without their passports, or to meet customers outside of the clubs.

In other locations with US military bases, feminists have been organising during the pandemic to prevent construction of new base facilities and to stop military exercises from going ahead. In Okinawa, for example, Suzuyo Takazato of Okinawa Women Act Against Military Violence explained that anti-base feminist activists have been leading protests against the construction of a new US Marine base. They have had to suspend their sit-ins against construction of the base due to the coronavirus, but are still demanding that the money allocated by the Japanese government for the new base be used instead to help people suffering from COVID-19.

In Guåhan (Guam), which has been occupied by the US military since 1898, local activists are protesting the stationing of thousands of US soldiers in civilian hotels after an aircraft carrier docked with hundreds of positive COVID-19 cases. The soldiers risk infecting hotel workers and the local population; have begun to conduct military training exercises in civilian areas; and have deemed base development an “essential service” to continue despite the pandemic. Lisa Natividad of I Hagan Famalåo’an Guåhan said it is clear that not only is the US military not providing for the community, but that the community is once again sacrificing itself for the needs of the US military.

Abolish bases now

The efforts to prevent base construction and joint military exercises during the COVID-19 pandemic are crucial to building broader resistance to military bases and militarism beyond this crisis. As feminists and other anti-militarist activists have meticulously documented, foreign military bases undermine human rights, increase geopolitical tensions, lead to conflict, and facilitate sexual violence. This mode of militarism is damaging to local people, local economies, and as Vine has argued, “they’ve helped lock us inside a permanently militarized society that has made all of us—everyone on this planet—less secure.”

These bases, as many activists including former US military personnel have suggested, should be abolished. There is no better time than now, when the United States and host governments are in desperate need of cash. Even those who broadly support and participate US militarism have posited that the “post-pandemic world” may require the US military to draw-down its “forward defence” strategy, including its global network of military bases.

Just like reducing military spending is not a naïve dream but a practical necessity, so too is abolishing foreign military bases. We have precedents: many US bases have been shut down, prevented, or forbidden by host governments. From Diego Garcia to Japan, activists have been demanding closure of bases and redirection of resources to the well-being of the local populations. Amplifying these demands now, in this moment of crisis—including by reflecting on the pandemic’s physical, economic, and gendered impacts on local populations—is an urgent call for all of us.