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January 2008

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America Town: Building the Outposts of Empire
Reviewed by Gerald J. Loftus

America Town: Building the Outposts of Empire. By Mark L. Gillem (University of Minnesota Press, September 1, 2007, 350 pages, $24.95)

For a unique study of “American empire” from the perspective of an architect with a keen historical sense and a holistic approach to planning, America Town is a worthy addition to the corpus of work on the subject. It’s not just the thoughtful prose; there are black & white photos, drawings, and maps aplenty in America Town. Mark Gillem is a professor of architecture at the University of Oregon, and his recent book about the footprint of American military installations around the world is a very interesting take on a subject that has gotten much less dispassionate and erudite focus over the past seven years in the hands of less rigorous authors.

Mark Gillem is an architect with a difference: Lt. Col. Gillem of the Air Force Reserve has spent upwards of twenty years on active duty and the reserves, and knows personally of what he writes. Though he continues to serve his country, he is not uncritical. Gillem is disturbed by the implications of the “empire” as it is seen by the foreign hosts of our numerous bases and forts.

A look at his bibliography shows that Gillem has gone far beyond journeyman architectural or planning tomes: Andrew Bacevich, Niall Ferguson, Chalmers Johnson, and Edward Said, among many others, inform his reading of empire, and his reach is encyclopedic. I found his study of British garrisons in the Indian Raj to be among the best-researched chapters of his book, especially the parallels between such eighteenth and nineteenth century colonial practices as “cantonment” of brothels to service His or Her Majesty’s soldiers, and the modern “America Towns” (actually, the name of a South Korean honky-tonk neighborhood adjacent to an air base) that have sprung up in the wake of an expanding modern empire.

There are times when you want Dr. Gillem to use terms like “spatial impacts” and “density patterns” a bit more sparingly, but the book is mercifully free of too much technical jargon. There are some chapters — especially where he drills down into the minutiae of space planning at bases in Italy and East Asia — that bear skimming (unless you’re an area specialist), but much of America Town makes fascinating reading.

Dr. Gillem is, I think, too self-deprecating when he says that his intent is not to analyze grand imperial strategies.” Yes, he is essentially embarrassed by what he sees as a massive U.S. land grab, where gated, armed suburbias proliferate in land-scarce countries. Ever more expansive compounds,” as he sees American bases, with longer borders that will be more difficult to defend,” will actually detract from security. The same could be said of the very notion of American Empire, where a multiplicity of commitments creates an exponential growth in targets — both physical and political — for America’s enemies.

Consider the disturbing parallels for the United States in Gillem’s view of the twilight of the British Empire: For the British, the peak of their colonial power announced the decline of their global leadership. Paying the empire’s bills, in terms of human lives and financial resources, became a challenge.” He discusses the withering effect of a series of “small wars” (actually, the title of a 1940 U.S. Marine Corps manual, in vogue again in low intensity conflict” and counterinsurgency circles): As the British were overextending themselves in India and across Africa, another empire was preparing to wage war near Britain’s back yard. World War I... in the victorious end, awarded the Crown with new colonies whose costs nearly drained the queen’s coffers. Hence, by World War II, the British could barely afford to hold onto their island nation.”

Many readers of American Diplomacy will be familiar with American bases overseas — sometimes as customers in the ubiquitous commissaries and “PXes” offering consumer goods (in dollars!). My experience with such facilities is largely limited to Western Europe, where the contrast between an American Army camp (mostly residential and administrative buildings) in, say, Stuttgart, is probably less striking than the impact of a U.S. Air Force base (fighter jets taking off and landing) in urban Japan. And yet, as Gillem shows, the cultural, architectural, and security assumptions that go into planning (and expanding) such facilities are common to all.

Whether or not the reader accepts the desirability of American bases ringing the globe — Why American camps and not Chinese, for example, scattered throughout the Pacific? How about Russian installations in former satellites? Or Indian outposts in the ocean surrounding the subcontinent? Does only the United States get to slice up the world map into “Areas of Responsibility” for its military? — one can sympathize with Gillem’s discomfort at the reflexive implantation of cookie-cutter suburbs dedicated to consumerism in countries where we often preach “keep a low profile.”

Then there’s the almost complete disdain for the (insert Korean, Japanese, Italian) way of doing things, especially in terms of living space. While military planners pay lip service to local architectural tradition — a pagoda motif on a food court roof — perfectly acceptable local norms are discarded because they don’t fit the worldwide service guidelines. The common denominator is waste of space in countries that don’t have the American tradition of endless frontiers. “This may be why,” says Gillem, “so many maps of military outposts do not show anything beyond an installation’s borders except white space. These outposts might as well be islands.”

Gillem is well aware of the sometimes unhappy juxtaposition of U.S. military installations and foreign civilian neighbors. He cites three incidents (the rape of a 12-year-old Japanese girl on Okinawa; the cowboy Marine aviator who sliced a gondola cable in an Italian alpine valley, killing twenty; and the crushing of two South Korean teenage girls by a U.S. armored vehicle on maneuvers) to illustrate how even these public relations disasters (and human tragedies) are turned to the seemingly never-ending goal of expanding the “white space” between base and host population.

Bothersome as some might find the notion of “empire” and its military manifestations, Gillem points to a trend that could be even more troublesome: the prospect that technology could obviate the need for overseas bases. The 2002 National Security Strategy says, “The presence of American forces overseas is one of the most profound symbols of the U.S. commitment to allies and friends.” Why then would the United States build on the trend already seen with the basing of B-2 bombers in the continental United States, and avoid use of its foreign outposts? The answer might be seen in the imbroglio over the requested (and denied) use of Turkey for the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. U.S. bases on foreign soil require coordination with allies, permissions from hosts. “CONUS” based B-2s allow for unilateral action.

“America Towns” are in fact tripwires, with both negative and positive aspects for the practice of international relations. As Gillem shows, the United States has been reducing the exposure of American troops (surely a worthwhile goal) in the Korean peninsula, where troops have been removed from the DMZ in the event of a North Korean incursion into the demilitarized zone. The repositioning of the human tripwire therefore gives American policy makers more flexibility. But if there’s no American tripwire on the ground at all — and if it is possible to rain down “shock and awe” from a continent away — will there be a consequent brake on the decision to use military force? Mark Gillem gives us much material for reflection, and his book is a valuable contribution to the study of American engagement with the world.


Software: Microsoft OfficeGerald Loftus, a Foreign Service Officer from 1979 to 2002, lives in Brussels, Belgium. He consults and writes on defense and diplomacy, and publishes a policy newsletter, “Avuncular American” at http://avuncularamerican.typepad.com/blog/.

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