In high school, Rodrico Harp of Griffin, Georgia stole $5 from a junior high student. But other than that, he was supposedly a gentle man who adored his wife and two children. In 1995, however, a 21-year old Harp, along with Kendrick Ledet and Marcus Gill found themselves in jail and their names in a tabloid with the heading “U.S. Military Devils.” The title was given to them while the three marines were prosecuted for the gang rape of a 12-year-old girl in Okinawa, Japan. On the night of the crime, the men had set out to purchase a prostitute, but, finding that they didn’t have enough money, settled for rape instead.
The case is eerily mirrored by an event from October 2012, where two seamen, Christopher Browning and Skyler Dozierwalker, had been drinking when they attacked a young woman in a parking lot and violently raped her. After the assault, Browning stole her money. Later, the two marines were sentenced to ten and nine years in prison, respectively. And in another fateful case in 2008, 38-year-old marine Tyrone Hadnott committed what Okinawan governor Hirokaza Nakaima called an “unforgivable” crime when he raped a 14-year-old middle school student.
Sadly, these are not the only cases of military men committing sex crimes, nor is rape the only vice associated with American forward-deployed bases. Clubbing a man to death, killing a woman by smashing a hammer in her face and shooting a woman and then proclaiming she was mistaken for a wild boar are among the 559 cases of murder, theft and rape involving American servicemen in Okinawa between 1972 and 2008. There were thousands more criminal cases involving minor crimes in addition to almost 1,500 military-related accidents, some causing deaths and injuries. Such occurrences reflect a greater, more troubling trend abroad: U.S. bases in ally nations, instead of strengthening relations with host countries, are sullying the image of U.S. diplomacy as a whole.
One of the primary proposed causes of the prominence of sex crimes within military base abroad is that of “sheltering,” a victim-blaming culture that encourages sexual assault cases to go unreported. A number of incidents have come to light in recent months in which military higher-ups in the United States have taken steps to protect servicemen who have committed sexual crimes, but the pattern isn’t limited to a domestic scale. In the 1995 rape case in Okinawa, the military officials refused to turn the accused men over to the Japanese legal system — a move that contributed to the outrage and backlash among the local populace. This may hint at why a large degree of underreporting exists among Okinawan victims of sexual assault.
Sheltering stems from a normalization of sex crimes within the military. Dr. Agatha Herman and Dr. Richard Yarwood of Plymouth University write that “the distinctions between military and civilian space are blurred,” because training and interactions within a military space have such an impression on soldiers that, as a result, their psychosocial identities are fundamentally reshaped by their service. Gwyn Kirk and Carolyn Francis, founding members of the East Asia-US Women’s Network Against Militarism attribute this to “sexist attitudes and the hyper-masculine culture that pervade the military.” Perhaps this is why the military has imbedded policies that largely sanction the problematic culture of sexual violence. Kirk and Francis call prostitution “a necessary component” of military culture and point to U.S. military rules in South Korea, which require all women who work in bars, clubs or massage parlors near military bases to be tested for STD’s. This demonstrates active compliance in servicemen’s sexual crimes or advances by barring women who wouldn’t be suitable sex partners from positions where they are likely to interact with military members who the military sees as “inevitably” pursuing (or acquiring) sex from these women. The regulation also preserves an objectification and sexualization of women in these careers.
Though the ultimate cause of, and the role of the military hierarchy in, these crimes is uncertain, the correlation between servicemen and sexual violence exists, and the consequences have proven destabilizing—and not just in Okinawa. Kirk and Francis explain that “the security treaties and the Status of Forces Agreements (SOFAs) that provide for U.S. bases…compromise the security of local people,” listing prostitution, violence against local women and “the dire situation of mixed-race children” as problems that have had devastating health and economic consequences for communities hosting U.S. bases.
Economic consequences wouldn’t seem like a prominent issue, but the bases have been a disruption to the area’s natural economy. Near a major American base in Okinawa is a flood of Americanized business like the Nashville Bar and Pub U.S.A. They serve chicken wings and carry American beers. Many of the servicemen live here with their families, teaching their children to ride bikes on the streets of the tropical island. Okinawa was only integrated into Japanese territory in the mid-1800’s, but it was by no means uninhabited, or culturally insignificant, before that. The local language is heavily influenced by Japanese, but the indigenous Ryukyuan dialects are still broadly spoken. While, for the economy, tourism and more modern industries are becoming increasingly important, Okinawa remains a largely agricultural and fishing-based community. Okinawans have their own music, spiritual beliefs and architectural style. In no place on earth do people live longer than on Okinawa.
That is, if they can avoid being tragically entangled with the American military. The tolls of crime have been high, and the islanders have responded. A 1996 referendum vote revealed that 89% of Okinawans wanted the base removed. This is a result of a long-standing series of protests calling for the removal of the base. And while the United States and Japan have now reached an agreement to transfer 9,000 marines off of the island, the plans for the land to be restored to the Japanese won’t be executed in full until the 2020’s. U.S. ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy recently visited Okinawa as part of a next-step effort to move the problematic Futenma base to the Henoko district in a different part of the Okinawan island. Her reception was met with a mix of approval and protest, with some islanders insisting that the base be removed from Okinawa entirely. While the movement of the base at all could be seen as a step forward, it’s more of a throwback: A 1996 agreement between the U.S. and Japan already laid out plans to move Futenma to Henoko, but its terms were never implemented.
Okinawa, which makes up about 1% of Japan’s total territory, currently hosts half of the approximately 50,000 American troops in Japan; the rest are dispersed throughout Japan’s various other islands. These bases have experienced troubled relations with their hosting populations as well. A recent effort on Japan’s main island, Honshu, demonstrates growing discontentment with the U.S. military bases: A beach near the Yokosuka Naval Base recently banned beachgoers from displaying tattoos, barbecuing, drinking alcohol and playing loud music in an effort to drive servicemen from its shoreline.
But Okinawa, with its history dotted by violence and crime, remains the symbol of the military’s tumultuous standing in Japan. Significantly, the Japanese government has paid the United States to withdraw troops from its borders, with the $8.6 billion effort to remove some marines from receiving more than $3.1 billion from Japan. The marines to be removed are ultimately destined for Guam, but amidst hold-ups in constructions plans for the extension of the Guam base, they will be placed in rotation among other bases in Asian nations, such as those in South Korea, Singapore and Thailand.
The problem of U.S. bases abroad doesn’t end with Japan, or even Southeast Asia. In 2013, there were 3,319,730 military personnel deployed in 183 countries—that’s over 1% of the U.S. population spread across 93% of the world’s nations. These numbers show the truly massive extent of the military’s reach. The tendrils of American servicemen extend from a small navy base in Djibouti to a lone soldier in Zimbabwe to the almost 55,000 troops that accompanied Browning and Dozierwalker in bases across Japan. For the United States, these bases are a major investment; we even spend a little under five times as much as that of the country with the next-highest military spending, China. On forward-deployed bases alone, the United States spends upwards of $10 billion each year with approximately 70% of those funds going to the three countries with the most U.S. troops: Germany, South Korea and Japan. The nine American bases in Germany cost about $4 billion in 2013.
Despite conventional wisdom, American money spent on bases isn’t really being pumped into foreign economies. As opposed to creating new business opportunities and serving as way stations for U.S. military personnel who are abroad to experience the surrounding cultures, the bases have instead opted for insular environments which breed crime and the mistreatment of local populations. Around American bases, American companies tend to spring up. The aforementioned Nashville Bar and Pub U.S.A is complimented by A&W locations around the base in Okinawa and the Burger Kings and Pizza Huts established on bases in Afghanistan. Military-run stores on bases largely import their goods from the United States, providing servicemen with their American comforts, but also decreasing what would otherwise be major opportunities for local businesses in host nations. Bases can even have a direct cost on the economy of a host country: The bill for an $11 billion project to modernize bases in South Korea, for example, is being paid for largely by the ROK government. When the salaries of military men do go to foreign economies, it may be happening through prostitution and draining back out again through crime.
Bases create economic reliance on the military in host areas, but the investments aren’t stable. Military personnel are moved around with frequency and bases can close on a whim—the Okinawa case shows that this is largely due to US priorities, not local wishes. Aside from elusive economic benefits, US bases have systematically ignored the effects of the operation on the environment of base host areas. In 2010, when the United States first began investigating building a base in Guam, the EPA asked the military not to proceed with their plans and called them “environmentally unsatisfactory.” Guam was not consulted while plans were being devised. In 2006 and 2007, several acres of coral reefs were destroyed in Navy harbor-dredging projects.
Near an American base in Naples is the small picturesque town of Acerra, where an average of three children have brain cancer at any given time, a phenomenon attributed in part to irresponsible U.S. actions in the area. Acerra sits in an area called the “triangle of death,” a patch extending from Naples to Caserta to Mt. Vesuvius in which the Camorra crime syndicate, called “Italy’s most ruthless organised crime syndicate” by the BBC, has been dumping toxic waste, much of which is produced by the U.S. base. Since then, the waste-dumping has gotten worse, with estimates claiming that between 100,000 and 10 million tons of waste have been left in the region. The waste contaminates water supplies, devastates agriculture and causes outbreaks of disease.
The idea that US bases are a mutual benefit for the United States and the host countries is a mirage. Apart from provoking crime, directly or indirectly, they also threaten the diplomatic relations of host countries with their neighbors. Bases provide launching points for military action, and as Dr. Paul MacDonald and Dr. Joseph Parent of Foreign Affairs write, “Immense forward deployments will only exacerbate U.S. grand strategic problems and risk unnecessary clashes.” The presence of U.S. bases and routine military exercises has incited several aggressive reactions in the past, although the United States itself is rarely affected. A 2012 border skirmish between North and South Korea that killed four individuals was blamed on a joint South Korea-United States naval exercise. U.S. presence in the Philippines has similarly been blamed by some as one provocation for the South China Sea conflicts. China has frequently criticized American forward deployment in Southeast Asia. The conventional response asserts that these troops are needed as deterrents and safeguards against those clashes, but as Chalmers Johnson, former President of the Japan Policy Research Institute noted, these troops, especially in Asia, “have virtually no deterrent effect.”
Forward deployed bases may ultimately have little to offer their host countries. “The people of Okinawa feel very betrayed,” remarked Bruce Gagnon, co-founder of the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space. Rather than the security they were promised, Okinawans have instead received a brutal punch from what Gagnon calls “an empire [that] is like a cancer, expanding and expanding all the time.” Unless it is willing to better address the disastrous consequences of its bases abroad, the United States might find the discontented Okinawans to be in growing company.