My dissertation was easy to write, because of the lack of writings on the topic, which all seemed to prove my point. Although Guam is clearly a significant site for US military interests, much of the literature on dismantling the US empire or demilitarization or peace studies or antiwar movements, was all formed around a massive, gaping banality for Guam, as it was a site that was something to mention, but have floating around as an empty signifier, but never to be considered as anything truly important. I had hundreds of conversations with activists of all stripes who made clear this banality. They resisted any attempt to engage with what Guam might mean. They were more interested in locations with more blood, more bombs, not necessarily the strategic importance of a site, which is often imperceptible or invisible to your average person, but the way it fit easily into their ideas of resistance, peace or demilitarization. It was hard getting them to see another map, where that which is the most openly violent may not be the most essential in terms of disruption, but that focusing on the invisible sites, the places where that power is the most comfortable and hums without interference might be more productive.
Two academics who have long engaged in Guam's status in varying ways, and whom I cited in my dissertation are David Vine and Stephen Kizner. Interestingly enough I came across two op-eds by them in the Boston Globe today, that reminded me of this part of my dissertation.
US Military's 'lily pad' expansion may prove costly
The Boston Globe
For an institution that too often revolves around hyper-macho masculinity, the military’s use of the flowery term “lily pad” is striking. Lily pad entered common parlance recently when Army General Martin Dempsey, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that the Pentagon is considering the creation of new lily pads in Iraq. This followed the announcement that the military would be sending an additional 450 military “advisers” to a sixth base occupied by US forces, al-Taqaddum in Anbar Province. Military planners are now “actively” considering at least four new lily pads and possibly dozens more, according to reports. This could mean adding hundreds of US troops in Iraq to a deployment of what will soon be about 3,500.
Formally called “cooperative security locations,” lily pads allude to the aquatic flora allowing a frog to jump across a pond and suggest small installations allowing troops in isolated locations to deploy quickly into battle. They are nothing like the massive bases that characterized the US occupation of Iraq between 2003 and 2011, with their fast food, car dealerships, and swimming pools. Nor are they the “Little Americas” where tens of thousands of troops and family members have lived with all the comforts of suburbia while occupying countries like Germany and Japan since World War II.
Lily pads have spartan amenities, no families, and relatively small numbers of military personnel. Often, they house pre-positioned weaponry and supplies at the ready for larger troop deployments.
Although the terminology has been obscure until now, there is little new about the lily pad strategy. The military has been building a collection of these bases around the world since about the turn of the century. Their secretive nature makes a full count difficult, but the Pentagon has probably built upwards of 50 lily pads and other small bases during this period.
With lily pads in places as diverse as Colombia, Kenya, and Thailand, a principal aim of the new strategy is to steer clear of local populations, publicity, and potential opposition to the creation of “new bases.” As the Pentagon explained in a 2009 presentation, the aim is to “lighten US foreign footprints to reduce friction with host nations” and avoid offending “host nation and regional sensitivities.”
In Iraq, US officials want to avoid inflaming local opposition to a renewed occupation in the Middle East. After all, the Iraqi parliament turned down the Pentagon’s request to maintain about 58 “enduring” bases after the 2011 withdrawal. While new lily pads would pale in comparison to the billions of dollars worth of bases once in the country, they would represent an escalation of a US presence.
Relying on large numbers of smaller bases may sound smart and cost effective. But the “lily pad” language is dangerously misleading. By design and otherwise, small bases can quickly grow much larger, and more costly. According to the Pentagon, a lily pad is “rapidly scalable and . . . expandable to become a [larger forward operating site].”
In the Philippines, for example, US forces have created at least seven lily pads since 2002 — just a decade after Filipinos evicted the US military from the giant Clark and Subic Bay air and naval bases. By 2006, journalist Robert D. Kaplan found a lily pad there that had been transformed from a “grim, spartan camp . . . with an air of impermanence” into a base “with proper walkways and creature comforts that befit a more hardened, permanent arrangement.”
Indeed, bases of all sizes prove notoriously difficult to close — whether there’s a strategic need for a base or not. This helps explain why the military still has hundreds of Cold War bases in Europe and East Asia despite the disappearance of the Soviet Union and any rival to US military power. In Afghanistan, despite the official end of US combat operations, the military has rights to occupy nine or more major bases through at least 2024. In Iraq, lily pads could provide the Pentagon with a second chance at creating a de facto permanent presence.
New lily pads would make attractive targets for attacks (as Islamic State leaders quickly recognized), further endangering US and Iraqi troops. Some fear ISIS could overrun the installations and seize weaponry.
At its core, the lily pad proposal represents the continuation of a larger failed strategy in Iraq. The purpose of the bases, General Dempsey explained, is to better train Iraqi forces and to “encourage [them] forward.” This sounds like wishful thinking. US forces have been training and encouraging Iraqi troops for more than a decade, with little to show for the energy and billions of dollars expended. Iraqi forces have been consistently unwilling or unable to challenge Islamic State fighters. Conducting training at vulnerable, isolated lily pads is unlikely to improve outcomes. It only avoids recognizing that there is no technical fix, no military solution, to solve the struggle for political and economic power in the region set off by the 2003 US invasion. Just as the introduction of growing numbers of military “advisers” in Vietnam led to a half million US troops and full-fledged war, the lily pad strategy runs the risk of helping push the United States toward a third major conflict in Iraq.
Don’t be fooled by the flowery terminology: Lily pads are actually aquatic weeds. Like them, the installations they’re named for tend to expand uncontrollably, deepening US military involvement in the process.
David Vine is associate professor of anthropology at American University in Washington, D.C., and the author of “Base Nation: How US Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World,” to be published in August.
Conventional Military Has Lost its Power
Horrific conflicts are shaking the Middle East, and war has erupted in Eastern Europe. The United States seems unable to shape the course of events. This is despite the fact that we have by far the most powerful military in the world.
For much of history, power has been won on the battlefield. Victory depended on your army. If it was bigger, stronger, and better led than the enemy, you would probably win.
That charmingly simple equation is now evaporating. In the emerging new world, cultural forces and webs of global politics and economics bind nations together in ways that make the exercise of military power more difficult. The idea that a big power can easily stop, win, or decisively intervene in an overseas conflict by applying massive force is a relic of past centuries. Potent armies are less valuable than they once were.
This is naturally troubling for the United States. No one wants to see the value of a principal asset decline. Our military, however, is best prepared to fight the kind of battles that are no longer fought. It is a truism that generals are great at fighting the last war. Something similar could be said of American security policies: They address past challenges, which are easy to see, but not the more complex ones the future holds.
Nowhere is this clearer than in Iraq. A violently anti-American force has seized a huge part of the country, and the state itself may be on the brink of collapse. The United States, with all its military power, sits helplessly on the sidelines. This is not because of fecklessness in the White House. It is because in Iraq, as in many other places, our military power could achieve only short-term success at best.
In fact, it was our use of military force that helped produce this disaster. Our invasion in 2003 not only failed to produce victory in Iraq. It set off processes that led, among other things, to a palpable decline in our global power.
Another vivid example of the limited value of military force is now unfolding in Gaza. Radicals there, armed with rudimentary weapons, have dragged the mighty Israeli army into a bloody conflict. They win strength — and blacken Israel’s name in the world — even as they suffer inevitable defeat on the battlefield. Israel clings even more fervently than the United States to the dangerously outmoded view that countries can guarantee their long-term security by military means alone.
The United States has not won a war since 1945 — unless you count the defeat of Grenada in 1983. Despite the application of huge resources, and enormous sacrifices in blood and treasure, we lost major wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. This is despite the fact that by conventional standards, our military is the world’s best.
Tradition, inertia, and the natural impulse to cling to old certainties all contribute to America’s refusal to confront the declining value of our prized military. Something else also drives it: the defense industry.
Military contractors have mastered the art of applying campaign contributions to gain political influence. They habitually divide major projects into pieces so that powerful members of Congress depend on them not just for contributions, but for employment in their districts. This naturally discourages the posing of questions about the true value of projects like the F-35 fighter jet, which is to cost taxpayers an eye-popping $1.45 trillion over the coming decades.
Centuries ago Christopher Marlowe asked, “What are kings, when regiment is gone,/But perfect shadows in a sunshine day?” It is a fit question for the modern United States. We are accustomed to being something like kings of the world, but our regiment is now — not gone, but weakened. The decreasing value of armies threatens our standing in the world. Given this reality, how can we prevent ourselves from fading like shadows? How can we influence the world when the instrument we wield best — military force — no longer allows us to impose our will?
Successful countries of the 21st century will be those that are skillful at public diplomacy, cultural politics, and alliance-building. In the past, because of our military power, we have not had to develop those skills. We will have to learn them if we hope to project power in the future.
Stephen Kinzer is a visiting fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer.