How U.S. Taxpayers Are Paying the Pentagon to Occupy the Planet
By David Vine
Mars? Venus? Earth-like bodies elsewhere in the galaxy? Who knows? But here, at least, no great power, no superpower, no hyperpower, not the Romans, nor imperial China, nor the British, nor the Soviet Union has ever garrisoned the globe quite the way we have: Asia to Latin America, Europe to the Greater Middle East, and increasingly Africa as well.
Build we must. If someday Washington took to the couch for therapy, the shrink would undoubtedly categorize what we've done as a compulsion, the base-building equivalent of a hoarding disorder.
And you know what else is unprecedented? Hundreds of thousands of Americans cycle annually through our various global garrisons, ranging from small American towns with all the attendant amenities, including fast-food joints, PXes, and Internet cafes to the most spartan of forward outposts, and yet our "Baseworld," as the late Chalmers Johnson used to call it, is hardly noticed in this country and seldom considered worthy of attention.
We built, for example, 505 bases at the cost of billions of dollars in Iraq (without a single reporter uncovering anything close to that number until we abandoned all of them in 2011). Over the years, millions of soldiers, private contractors, spies, civilian employees of the U.S. government, special ops types, and who knows who else spent time on them, as undoubtedly did hundreds of reporters, and yet news of those American ziggurats was rare to vanishing. On the whole, reporters on bases so large that one had a 27-mile fortified perimeter, multiple bus lines, and its own electricity grid and water-bottling plant generally looked elsewhere for their "news."
Our latest base-building mania: Washington's expanding "empire of bases" for its secret CIA and Special Forces drone wars in the Greater Middle East goes almost unnoticed (except at sites like this). We now, for instance, have a drone base in the Seychelles, an archipelago that evidently needs an infusion of money. Unless you had the dough for a high-end wedding in the middle of the Indian Ocean or a vacation in "paradise," you've probably never heard of the place.
No matter. You're still paying for the deployment of 82 people to those islands to fly and land crash-prone drones in our now endless "covert" robotic air wars in the Greater Middle East and Africa. With the so-called fiscal cliff now eternally on the media horizon, there's been reporting recently on how your tax dollars are being spent, but do you have the faintest idea what it actually costs you to garrison the globe? No? Then you're in good company, and the Pentagon certainly isn't interested in telling you either.
Fortunately, basing expert and TomDispatch regular David Vine decided to make sense of what garrisoning the planet means to our pocketbooks. Read this piece and you'll know what it costs all of us to build and support that Baseworld and more generally the American global military presence. Think about it: at the cost of possibly $2 trillion since 9/11, it should be one of the stories of the century. If it were, maybe by now we would be starting to pull back from the "military cliff." Tom
Picking Up a $170 Billion Tab
How U.S. Taxpayers Are Paying the Pentagon to Occupy the Planet
By David Vine
"Are you monitoring the construction?" asked the middle-aged man on a bike accompanied by his dog.
"Ah, sì," I replied in my barely passable Italian.
"Bene," he answered. Good.
In front of us, a backhoe's guttural engine whined into action and empty dump trucks rattled along a dirt track. The shouts of men vied for attention with the metallic whirring of drills and saws ringing in the distance. Nineteen immense cranes spread across the landscape, with the foothills of Italy's Southern Alps in the background. More than 100 pieces of earthmoving equipment, 250 workers, and grids of scaffolding wrapped around what soon would be 34 new buildings.
We were standing in front of a massive 145-acre construction site for a "little America" rising in Vicenza, an architecturally renowned Italian city and UNESCO world heritage site near Venice. This was Dal Molin, the new military base the U.S. Army has been readying for the relocation of as many as 2,000 soldiers from Germany in 2013.
Since 1955, Vicenza has also been home to another major U.S. base, Camp Ederle. They're among the more than 1,000 bases the United States uses to ring the globe (with about 4,000 more in the 50 states and Washington, D.C.). This complex of military installations, unprecedented in history, has been a major, if little noticed, aspect of U.S. power since World War II.
During the Cold War, such bases became the foundation for a "forward strategy" meant to surround the Soviet Union and push U.S. military power as close to its borders as possible. These days, despite the absence of a superpower rival, the Pentagon has been intent on dotting the globe with scores of relatively small "lily pad" bases, while continuing to build and maintain some large bases like Dal Molin.
Americans rarely think about these bases, let alone how much of their tax money -- and debt -- is going to build and maintain them. For Dal Molin and related construction nearby, including a brigade headquarters, two sets of barracks, a natural-gas-powered energy plant, a hospital, two schools, a fitness center, dining facilities, and a mini-mall, taxpayers are likely to shell out at least half a billion dollars. (All the while, a majority of locals passionately and vocally oppose the new base.)
How much does the United States spend each year occupying the planet with its bases and troops? How much does it spend on its global presence? Forced by Congress to account for its spending overseas, the Pentagon has put that figure at $22.1 billion a year. It turns out that even a conservative estimate of the true costs of garrisoning the globe comes to an annual total of about $170 billion. In fact, it may be considerably higher. Since the onset of "the Global War on Terror" in 2001, the total cost for our garrisoning policies, for our presence abroad, has probably reached $1.8 trillion to $2.1 trillion.
How Much Do We Spend?
By law, the Pentagon must produce an annual "Overseas Cost Summary" (OCS) putting a price on the military's activities abroad, from bases to embassies and beyond. This means calculating all the costs of military construction, regular facility repairs, and maintenance, plus the costs of maintaining one million U.S. military and Defense Department personnel and their families abroad -- the pay checks, housing, schools, vehicles, equipment, and the transportation of personnel and materials overseas and back, and far, far more.
The latest OCS, for the 2012 fiscal year ending September 30th, documented $22.1 billion in spending, although, at Congress's direction, this doesn't include any of the more than $118 billion spent that year on the wars in Afghanistan and elsewhere around the globe.
While $22.1 billion is a considerable sum, representing about as much as the budgets for the Departments of Justice and Agriculture and about half the State Department's 2012 budget, it contrasts sharply with economist Anita Dancs's estimate of $250 billion. She included war spending in her total, but even without it, her figure comes to around $140 billion -- still $120 billion more than the Pentagon suggests.
Wanting to figure out the real costs of garrisoning the planet myself, for more than three years, as part of a global investigation of bases abroad, I've talked to budget experts, current and former Pentagon officials, and base budget officers. Many politely suggested that this was a fool's errand given the number of bases involved, the complexity of distinguishing overseas from domestic spending, the secrecy of Pentagon budgets, and the "frequently fictional" nature of Pentagon figures. (The Department of Defense remains the only federal agency unable to pass a financial audit.)
Ever the fool and armed only with the power of searchable PDFs, I nonetheless plunged into the bizarro world of Pentagon accounting, where ledgers are sometimes still handwritten and $1 billion can be a rounding error. I reviewed thousands of pages of budget documents, government and independent reports, and hundreds of line items for everything from shopping malls to military intelligence to postal subsidies.
Wanting to err on the conservative side, I decided to follow the methodology Congress mandated for the OCS, while also looking for overseas costs the Pentagon or Congress might have ignored. It hardly made sense to exclude, for example, the health-care costs the Department of Defense pays for troops on overseas bases, spending for personnel in Kosovo, or the price tag for supporting the 550 bases we have in Afghanistan.
In the spirit of "monitoring the construction," let me lead you on an abbreviated account of my quest to come up with the real costs of occupying planet Earth.
Although the Overseas Cost Summary initially might seem quite thorough, you'll soon notice that countries well known to host U.S. bases have gone missing-in-action. In fact, at least 18 countries and foreign territories on the Pentagon's own list of overseas bases go unnamed.
Particularly surprising is the absence of Kosovo and Bosnia. The military has had large bases and hundreds of troops there for more than a decade, with another Pentagon report showing 2012 costs of $313.8 million. According to that report, the OCS also understates costs for bases in Honduras and Guantánamo Bay by about a third or $85 million.
And then other oddities appear: in places like Australia and Qatar, the Pentagon says it has funds to pay troops but no money for "operations and maintenance" to turn the lights on, feed people, or do regular repairs. Adjusting for these costs adds an estimated $36 million. As a start, I found:
$436 million for missing countries and costs.
That's not much compared to $22 billion and chump change in the context of the whole Pentagon budget, but it's just a beginning.
David Vine, a Tom Dispatch regular, is assistant professor of anthropology at American University, in Washington, DC. He is the author of Island of Shame: The Secret History of the U.S. Military Base on Diego Garcia (Princeton University Press, 2009). He has written for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian, and Mother Jones, among other places. He is currently completing a book about the more than 1,000 U.S. military bases located outside the United States. To read a detailed description of the calculations described in this article and view a chart of the costs of the U.S. military presence abroad, visit www.davidvine.net.
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