US military bases abroad: A case study of Vicenza, Italy


In an earlier post, I highlighted Chalmers Johnson’s article that described the US global military empire that is sustained by a vast network of bases around the world, more than most Americans perhaps realize. The huge bases being currently constructed in Iraq should be viewed as the extension of this plan and creating such bases could well have been the driving force behind the decision to invade Iraq. This becomes more plausible since the various ‘official’ justifications (weapons of mass destruction, war on terror, spreading democracy) have been shown to be untenable.

Periodically, one hears of rumblings of discontent among the local population living near these US bases and demands for their removal. When this happens in countries whose governments are friendly with the US, such as in Europe, the reaction here is often one of indignation at those ungrateful people who are biting the hand that protects them.

A fascinating and detailed case study of one particular American military base is that in the town of Vincenza, Italy where in February 2007 somewhere between 70,000 and 150,000 people demonstrated against the expansion and extension of the US base in their city. The kinds of problems such bases create and the hostility they generate can be found in this article (and which has been highlighted here) by Paul Iversen, a professor of classics at Case Western Reserve University, who happens to have family connections in that town that take him there regularly.

Iversen emphasizes the deep and long-standing connections between Vincenza, a “world renowned city of art and architecture,” that influenced US government buildings through the fact that its native son architect Andrea Palladia’s work was the inspiration for many US government buildings including the Capitol dome, the White House, and Monticello. Perhaps because of these connections “Vicenza is thought by many Italians to be the most pro-American of Italian cities” and hence bitter protests over the US plans to expand its military base there cannot be dismissed as reflexive anti-Americanism.

Iversen says the extent of the public opposition was quite severe:

As for public opinion, local polls showed that 61% of the residents were against it, while a whopping 85% were in favor of settling the matter through a popular referendum. The City Council, surrounded by “unprecedented security”, had 20 representatives speak for the “yeas” and 20 speak for the “nays”, and then they voted first to reject the idea of a referendum and then to approve the expansion. The final tally for the project-vote was strictly along party lines, with 21 “yeas” (right coalition), 17 “nays” (left coalition), 2 abstentions, and 1 missing in action. The vote to reject holding a referendum was even closer, winning by only a margin of 1. After the vote, the previous mayor of Vicenza for 15 years, Achille Variati, is reported in the local paper to have said about the council’s decisions, “No, they cannot decide the future of Vicenza themselves. I will work to bring about the referendum.”

The main problem was that the plans for expansion did not take into account the already existing problems of congestion and pollution in the town and would actually aggravate them.

They would also inherit a new US air base that is a mere 25-minute leisurely walk from the Basilica Palladiana, which sits in the heart of the city.
. . .
Expanding the airport here, then, would be far worse than building a major military airbase one and half miles from the most historic piece of real estate in the US. As such it represents a serious callousness on the part of the US to local conditions and thus to justice itself.

As is usually the case, discussions over the decision to expand the US base is being done without consultation with the local populace or taking its interests into account, and involved heavy-handed arm-twisting by the US.

There was, however, one major problem with the discussions and agreement – the governments of Berlusconi, [center-right mayor] Hüllweck and the US had done all of the negotiating behind closed doors, thus keeping the people of Vicenza, including members of the city council, completely in the dark about it.
. . .
In fact, several months later Prodi’s Foreign Minister, Massimo D’Alema, would say that “Revoking the authorization would have been a hostile act on our part against the United States.” This clearly demonstrates that the US government was leaning hard on Prodi’s government and telling them that if they did not allow the base expansion, the US government would put Italy on a list of uncooperative or even “hostile” countries. This “all or nothing” approach to the relationship by the US, which amounts to extortion, is hardly what one would expect of a just and fair ally.

Iversen points out that such bases, contrary to conventional wisdom, are not an unmitigated economic boon to the local area.

Most Americans might be surprised to learn that Italian tax payers actually cover a significant share of American bases on their soil (this is called Host-Nation Support [pdf], see also here). While the exact stipulations of who pays what for each specific project are mostly kept hidden per the stipulations of the post-WWII treaty, in Italy it is widely believed that Italian tax-payers are required to pick up just over 40% of the tab, in addition to the large sums for the enormous amounts of water and electricity. This doesn’t cover time of war, when America often asks Host Nations to kick in even more ad hoc support, so a new base may also entangle Italy in paying greater costs for future conflicts. Any suggestion, therefore that somehow the Italians or the other nations where we have bases are “freeloaders” is terribly misguided. They help pay for a significant chunk of our bases on their soil. In addition, few Vicentini think that America’s help during WWII, as much as it is appreciated, obliges them to build yet another base in their overcrowded and beautiful back yard. Most are tired of America always expecting another pay back and treating them as their eternal client state.

And always in the background is the fact that the disastrous Iraq war and other actions by the US has squandered any goodwill on the part of people around the world towards US government policies. Iversen continues:

There is no doubt that in Italy and most of the world there is a widespread and growing conviction that Bush’s America is no longer the same America that reluctantly fought to end a horrific war sixty years ago; rather, she is going out of her way to pick unnecessary fights, thus displaying obvious signs of fascist, militaristic and imperial behavior herself – things the Italians have quite a bit of experience with, can easily recognize, and for which they now have a term that recalls the Fascismo of yester-year: Bushismo. It also hasn’t helped that the Bush administration has thumbed its nose at the UN, IAEA, the Kyoto Protocols, the Geneva Conventions, Habeas Corpus, and is responsible for Abu Gharib, Guantanamo, the recent probable involvement of CIA agents in an illegal case of extraordinary rendition in Milan, and that the US military cleared of all wrongdoing the American soldiers who in Iraq killed an Italian Secret Service agent named Nicola Calipari while he was rescuing an Italian journalist. Naturally the Italian public would prefer the US to change its policies and behavior, but if the US doesn’t, even traditionally pro-American cities like Vicenza would rather risk future Vandals, Visigoths and Huns rather than be complicit enablers of US imperial hubris by hosting another American base.

Iversen has written a wonderful article. You should read the full thing.

POST SCRIPT: Hubris

It is great fun talking to classics scholars. They are a font of interesting information about the ancient origins of words and ideas, and Iversen’s article had an interesting digression on the origins of the word ‘hubris.’

The noun hybris is derived from the Greek preposition hyper meaning “above” (which is cognate with the Latin preposition super from which is derived the Latin noun superbia). Hubris to the ancient Greek, however, was not just a matter of “pride”, as the word is usually poorly translated in English. Hubris was the condition of having a haughtiness so high that it led to a feeling of impunity, which in turn led to a wanton act of violence. That is why the Athenians prosecuted crimes such as rape under the rubric of hybris. For the Greeks, then, the pride of hubris was one that produced a wanton act of violence that caused great ruin, even death (which is why hubris was later listed amongst the Seven Deadly Sins). That death, however, was not limited to the victim, as any one who has read Greek literature can tell you, but the ruin of hubris eventually doubled back upon the perpetrator’s own head.

While many people have used the word hubris to describe the Bush administration, Iversen’s clarification of its full meaning makes that description even more apt.

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