Symposium INDEX

Japan Peace Conference 2009
International Symposium


John Lindsay-Poland

Fellowship of Reconciliation USA


Dismantling Military Bases:

Constructing Our Own Narrative and Finding a Role for Each of Us

I am deeply grateful to the Japan Peace Committee for creating this opportunity to talk with you about movements to close US military bases around the world, especially in Latin America.

In the subway station near where I live, in California, I was looking at the billboard announcements on the walls. They were arranged in pairs, and it was very striking. In the first pair, was an ad promoting medical marijuana, together with an ad for a video gun game called “Resident Evil”, with a picture of a woman aiming a gun-like instrument at her TV, with a monster egging her on and the invitation to “Let your dark side come out.” In the second pair, was an ad promoting shots against the flu with an ad for the film “Left for Dead 2” with a picture of a ghoulish hand. In the third pair, was an ad that said “It takes the courage of a true warrior to ask for help,” from the Veterans Administration, for war veterans who need counseling, together with an ad for the film “SAW VI” about the violent deaths of corporate criminals forced to play sadistic games. And finally, there was ad that said “How will you take over?” about a basketball video, together with, again, “Resident Evil”.

I think these describe very well the fascinations of my country at this time – how to be healthy in a system that we can’t afford (and it’s California, so marijuana is part of this mix), along with images of death and murder for entertainment, along with a game about a game to “take over.”

People say that the United States leads the world in culture and that others follow. If that’s the case, I hate to think what these billboards in my city mean for Article 9 in yours.

I will talk about experiences with Latin America, because that is the area I have worked on for many years, as well as the United States, where I live. And I hope afterward we can have some dialogue. I have worked on this through the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a pacifist organization founded at the beginning of World War One, on the conviction that love and truth can reconcile human conflict without the suffering caused by war and injustice. In Latin America, we have worked with nonviolent justice and peace movements to promote a demilitarized US policy and collaborative relationships with similar movements in the United States.

After the US invasion of Panama in 1989, we learned how the US military bases in Panama had been used as a platform for US intervention in other countries, as well as in 20 interventions in Panama itself, about the lives lost, about the environmental harms caused by these military activities. And we worked together with Panamanian groups to ensure the bases closed in accordance with the Canal Treaties. When they did, we also worked with the mass movement in Puerto Rico to close military bases there, and with organizations in Ecuador to support closure of the base in Manta that began to operate in 1999. Latin America has much to teach about transforming from the presence of military bases and domination by the United States to greater regional autonomy from the Superpower to the north.

In preparation for this presentation, I interviewed a number of veteran US activists working for the closure of foreign military bases, and for demilitarization and disarmament generally. What brought about the closure of foreign military bases in countries that have successfully accomplished this? What combinations of forces and spirit and politics and economy?

Gwyn Kirk of Women for Genuine Security observes that the successful campaigns – in the Philippines, Kaho’olawe, Panama, Vieques, Okinawa, Ecuador - all involved sustained direct action.

Let’s look at what have been the conditions for closing the military bases in Panama, Puerto Rico and Ecuador. These conditions have included: rejection at a national level (though not at the local level in some cases). Direct action. A substantially united population. These produced political will at the governmental level (though not of the same governments that negotiated the bases or their continuation). These conditions don’t exist yet in Colombia, at least not yet. But they also did not exist at the beginning of the presence of bases in Ecuador, Puerto Rico or Panama.

National opinion on Manta began with a majority in favor of the base, but that majority declined until it became the reverse: the national majority wanted the US soldiers to leave. In Manta itself, there was a progressive increase of public opinión that rejected the US military presence, from 0% in 2000, increasing to 18% in 2004, and later to 30% in 2005 and 2006.

Another element has been that the circumstances of establishing the military presence were seen as illegitimate. In Panama, the bases were set up by a treaty signed in New York just a few days after independence in 1903, behind the backs of the new Panamanian leaders, that delivered US sovereignty over the most important real estate on the Panama isthmus. In Puerto Rico, the bases were established through conquest in the war with Spain and expanded through extraordinary legal powers in World War Two. In Ecuador, the agreement was signed in 1999 by President Jamil Mahuad, who was overthrown shortly afterward, and the agreement was never reviewed by the Ecuadorian Congress.

In Puerto Rico, the people’s indignation about the elevated levels of cancer in the island-municipality of Vieques, bombed for more than 60 years, boiled over with the death of David Sanes, a civilian guard, by two bombs that fell on the Observation Post in 1999. The US Navy used Vieques to train pilots before going to the Persian Gulf and in this case to the war in Kosovo. The movement that erupted after David Sanes’ death united Puerto Rico, normally politically fractured over its relationship to the United States.

For four years they protested, setting up camps inside the bombing area. When the bombing was resumed after a year, small groups went inside the impact area – beginning with a group of women. More than 1,500 people were arrested in acts of civil disobedience. In 2003, the Navy announced the closure of the bombing range and an end to the bombing as a result of the nonviolent protests carried out by ordinary Puerto Rican people, people prepared their families for 30-day prison terms and made sure their medicines were in order, people who, by acting, became extraordinary. Or maybe we should say they already were. Not long afterward, the Navy closed the large Roosevelt Roads base that was operationally tied to Vieques, on the big island.

In Panama, the movement to remove the US military bases on the banks of the Panama Canal took hold in the late 1950s, with a strong nationalist student movement. After the “flag riots” in January 1964, the new US president Lyndon Johnson committed the United States to fundamentally restructure the US-Panama relationship, which led eventually to the 1977 Treaty that committed the United States to withdraw all of its troops by the end of 1999.

In these cases, solidarity in the United States played a role, though it was never the protagonistic role. It was most prominent in the Vieques movement, mostly because the Puerto Rican diaspora living in the United States was very active, and large, and was able to access the media, political structure and courts more easily than most immigrant groups. The movement used legal strategies, such as civil lawsuits for health damages and for an injunction to stop the naval bombing practice. It used lobbying, bringing hundreds of Puerto Ricans to Washington. It used culture, with film and music that celebrate and documented the resistance in Vieques. It used dramatic action, such as when one man hung a Vieques flag and a banner to stop the bombing from the Statue of Liberty in New York. It used education, such as the work of our organization and many others that distributed written information and did presentations. It drew on technical experts, who investigated the environmental, military, health impacts of bombing in Vieques. There were discourses and roles for people of the church acting on their faith and religious values, for women acting against the pervasive male violence of the military, for politicians, for peace activists who understood the role of Vieques in US wars, for doctors who saw stopping the bombing as a health measure, for cooks and videographers, for journalists, for folks at home when their loved ones went to jail, for people who have money, for fishermen who brought protesters out to the bombing range, for businesspeople and urban planners who foresaw that ending the bombing would increase tourism, for some of you in Japan and Hawai’i and island cultures who felt a bond with Puerto Ricans and their situation, and for many of us around the world who visited and felt indignant and inspired and went home to find a way to act in our own contexts, out of our own gifts.

The movement to stop the bombing in Vieques was a mass movement, and although it has not yet accomplished all its goals – for community development and return of the lands and environmental cleanup – it did win a great victory when the Navy conceded in 2003 that “The level of protests, attempted incursions, and isolated successful incursions generally remains high when Battle Group training occurs on the island” requiring “extremely aggressive and costly multi-agency security actions” in order to bomb the island. “Navy’s departure from Vieques will relieve us from this burden,” the Navy concluded. This achievement by a people in a colony using nonviolence against the most powerful military in the history of the world was all the more impressive, considering that the Navy considered Vieques the “crown jewel” of its training facilities and it fought hard against the movement.

In Ecuador, the United States did not put up the same fight. The military had not had a military base in Ecuador for as long a time, and the activities there were not as integrated into its operations regionally and globally as in Vieques. It was a tenant and not an owner of the base. And a sovereign elected government had campaigned on the plan to terminate the lease for the base. In addition, Colombia next door provided a fairly simple exit. Like Guam for Okinawa, Colombia’s problems are exploited by the United States even as Ecuador achieves greater freedom.

So what is the state of activism in the United States to close foreign military bases now? In February of this year, 17 organizations organized a national conference in Washington, titled “Security without Empire,” that brought more than 200 people together and included an intensive lobby day in Congress.

The United States is clearly an empire in decline, as measured by production, health, debt, and the ability to set global standards. (Empires always break international laws, but these days, the United States opposes even the establishment of many such standards.) This can be a very dangerous situation, in which the empire is tempted to compensate for its deficiencies and satisfy its subjects’ sense of entitlement through the use of violence to enforce unequal terms of trade. But in such a situation, other nations have an opportunity to assert their strength – I don’t mean military strength (in which the United States still dominates the world), but strength of culture, of production, of ethics, of community.

There are three things that are shaping the peace movement and specifically activism in the United States for the closure of foreign military bases.

The first is the economic crisis, which affects people of all classes, although in very different ways. The crisis may reflect imperialism’s decline, but it has deeply affected civil society organizations, including the peace movement. Many organizations are barely holding on, including the national coalition United for Peace and Justice, which has no staff and just two working groups.

A second factor is the love of Obama. “Every time you elect a Democratic president,” says Joseph Gerson of American Friends Service Committee, “for 18 months to 2 years the liberal end of the movement has fallen in love with the president. You have a trough in that period. We’re in that trough. As Obama’s numbers decline, you’ll see it coming back.” Joseph says this period began last year when people started to get serious about the election, and an enormous amount of money and energy went into the campaign.

A third factor is the increasing digitalization of life, of media, and of activism. People spend a lot of time looking at screens that are connected to the Internet, text messages, and the phone, not as much time with print or face-to-face, which are more expensive than email blasts or web pages, especially for international activism. In one sense, this is an asset for international work at a time when the availability of jet fuel is peaking. But it also means that many people’s connection to others’ experience of war and injustice is thin and abstract.

What this has added up to is that peace activism is drawing from the solid core of activists, many of whom are middle aged and older.

So what is it that moves people to action? There is some kind of emotional pinch, something that grabs you and you say, “I’m going to do this.” “Urgency works on you when you’re in place when you can make some choices, and when basics of life are taken care of,” says Gwyn Kirk. “It doesn’t have the same impact when your sense of urgency is how you’re going to put food on the table.”

Humor also helps. Some of you know CODEPINK, the women’s peace organization in the United States. They issued an action appeal about the reduction of US military force in Iraq, about which the Obama administration has given mixed messages. “Ladies,” they said, “is this a withdrawal method that you trust?”

For military bases, it is also important to frame the bases as part of the large and deep issues that concern us. At the moment, a majority in the United States opposes an escalation of the US war in Afghanistan, which is being fought from bases in Afghanistan and Qatar and Germany and other nations. Some messages focus on how overseas military bases cost the United States more than $100 billion (after you subtract what nations like Japan are paying for them), which could be used to make the United States more healthy, productive and self-sufficient.

There is a good deal going on: research by academics such as the books on Diego Garcia by David Vine and global bases by Catherine Lutz; educational events such as what Grannies for Peace organized in New York last month; campaigns to stop the production of drones (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles used to attack Afghanistan and Pakistan) in towns where people are being hired to make them; the gathering of women in Guam in September that celebrated the fragile reconstruction of Chamorro culture. The successful campaign against missile ‘defense’ radars in the Czech Republic was well supported by Global Network and the Campaign for Peace and Democracy. Our own work to make visible and oppose the new US bases in Colombia has found resonance with many people in the United States and beyond.

The work to close US military bases finds strength and energy in the relationships born of people-to-people connections, in visits and speaking tours and events like this one, when we engage the emotions we feel about the lives of Amer-asian children and Okinawans living in such a militarized island and the dugongs and the painful history the two countries share, about wars in Iraq and elsewhere and cruelty in California or Tokyo, and we also engage our minds to understand why and how these things happen and what is effective to do in response. We also find energy in what we do physically, with our bodies, where we place ourselves in critical moments, with whom we stand.

In all of this, we can draw up from our core, from the knowledge that there is no reason to harm, that none of us carry “resident evil” or need be “left for dead” as the movies say, that we are creating another narrative. Call it love. It is our own narrative, it has force, and whatever happens in the world, it is what gives our lives meaning and beauty. In this swift life, we will keep finding ways to walk together, to work together, and hear – really hear - each other’s voices across ocean and city and table. This is our faith; this is our peace.

Thank you for listening.