Slam Dunk: What the U.S. Public Doesn’t Know About U.S. Empire

Tom Englehardt Nov 17, 2010

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Last year, it was Kuwait, Qatar, and Iraq.  This year, it’s Germany, Italy, Greece, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom.  Next year, it could easily be Afghanistan, Pakistan, Diego Garcia, Bahrain, and Turkey.  Or of course they could choose to play in Japan (with a special stop in Okinawa), South Korea, Colombia, and for a little sun and surf, the Bahamas.  And while they’re at it, the same way bands used to love playing the Palladium, they could make a triumphal return to Guantanamo Bay to bring a little cheer back into American lives, just as they did in 2005.  Or they could break out their new camouflage-colored b-ball (which on recent tours sometimes replaces their iconic red, white, and blue one), and as they’ve done in the past, slam dunk their way onto U.S. aircraft carriers on duty in places like the Persian Gulf.

Oh, come on! You haven’t guessed by now?  We’re talking about the Harlem Globetrotters on their never-ending basketball tour and dropping in no less eternally at the “front lines” of the American war on whatever.  In recent years, to entertain the troops, they’ve visited more than 25 U.S. military bases in all of the countries above, not to speak of Djibouti, Portugal, and others.  (And yes, Virginia, aircraft carriers, with the populations of American small towns, aregiant, floating military bases.)

But here’s the strange thing: let them tour those global bases year after year, let them play a baseball schedule of 162 games (and throw in the playoffs and the World Series, too), and they’ll still barely scratch the surface of America’s baseworld.  After all, the more than 25 bases they’ve visited since 2005 make up only about 15% of the approximately 400 American bases in Afghanistan alone, as Nick Turse has reported at TomDispatch.  Who even knows the total number of U.S. military bases globally?

Only one thing is certain: there are enough of them to keep the Globetrotters touring nonstop until hell freezes over.  One great mystery of American journalism is that those bases, key to our imperial status on this planet, remain of next to no interest to reporters (unless the Pentagon threatens to close one in the U.S.).  The strangest aspect of America’s global garrisons is that, while millions of Americans — soldiers, spies, private contractors, Defense Department civilians, and civilian officials of every sort — cycle through them each year, most Americans know next to nothing about them and could care less.  By the way, surprising numbers of American journalists pass through them, too, and yet, looking for a little “kinetic action” out in our war zones, they almost never bother to focus on and report on these colossi of our imperial world.

Yet, if you don’t pay attention to them, you know remarkably little about what our country actually means in, and to, the world.  Because TomDispatch considers them an essential beat, Nick Turse, the site’s associate editor as well as an award-winning journalist, has been covering them for years.  Just this week, in his latest piece, “Twenty-First Century Blowback?,”  he offers some overlooked news.  While the media has concentrated on the “drawdown” in Iraq, the Pentagon has been building up its bases and depots throughout the Persian Gulf region from Kuwait and Bahrain to Jordan, Saudi Arabia to Oman, to no attention whatsoever.  Sadly enough, it looks as if he, like the Globetrotters, has years of base-hopping to go.  In journalistic terms, America’s military bases are — or should be — the gift that just keeps giving.

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute’s He is the author of The End of Victory Culture: a History of the Cold War and Beyond, as well as of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing. His most recent book is The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s (Haymarket Books).

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