Chain Stores, Picket Fences and Tanks

American-style sprawl is adversely affecting the outposts of our global empire

BY Adam Doster

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Much ink has been spilled over the ills of American suburbanization–homogeneity, car-dependency, systematic segregation and abolishment of public space. More and more people are questioning the value of communities once seen as the centerpiece of the American Dream. But anti-sprawl critiques are usually limited to places like Levittown or Laguna Beach. Could they be applied to U.S. military bases as well?

If Mark L. Gillem has anything to say about it, then yes. In America Town: Building the Outposts of Empire (University of Minnesota Press), Gillem details the suburbanization of America’s military bases, the facilities political scientist Chalmers Johnson has trenchantly called “America’s version of the colony.” Some may find military land-use practices banal, but not Gillem–a former planner for the U.S. Air Force and an assistant professor of architecture at the University of Oregon. By exporting American sociospatial and consumption habits, he says, the U.S. Armed Forces seize valued land and further exacerbate tenuous relations with host nations, a dangerous and often overlooked consequence of America’s imperial reach.

What kind of digs do the 600,000 deployed American service members inhabit? U.S. military bases, Gillem writes, “combine the sprawling and segregated patterns of suburbs, the social control so prevalent in nineteenth-century company towns, and the fear-driven enclosure of twentieth-century gated communities.” Through an overview of planning data and case studies of three diverse military bases, he shows that contemporary American outposts are auto-focused, extensively lawned, filled with chain retailers and restaurants, and haphazardly ordered. Features like conformity, consumption and golf dominate the lives of troops overseas, just as they do for their stateside suburban counterparts.

For decades real estate developers have transformed the outlying urban landscape without regard for ecology, geology and climate. The military takes it one step further, plotting land without regard for local populations. “The land under each base was not an island of empire, floating in a sea of white space,” writes Gillem. “Rather, the land belonged to a nation, a people, a family, and oftentimes to an individual farmer struggling to survive.” To compensate for overhauling the natural landscape, designers often try to tailor the new architecture with local flair. But collapsing a country’s architectural customs onto American land patterns and structures does not make the design compatible with its surroundings–it usually mocks a country’s visual culture.

And it’s not enough for the military to usurp excessive amounts of foreign land and fashion it to their liking. Because the host nation “benefits from mutual defense,” the United States forces its allies to cover much of the costs, establishing “burden sharing targets” of at least 50 percent. Considering that the Department of Defense controlled 711,418 acres and nearly 300 million square feet of buildings with a replacement value of $117.6 billion in fiscal year 2006, that’s quite an obligation.

If military suburbanization is so problematic, why are outposts built this way? Fear, specifically the desire for dispersed construction in the face of growing terrorism, is one justification. Gillem points to the 1996 bombing of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia as a defining moment in this line of thinking. After the incident, which killed 19 U.S. airmen, the military moved its 6,000 soldiers from Khobar to a vacant airfield in the Saudi Arabian desert, in six weeks converting an unused base into “a major military compound the size of metropolitan Chicago.” 9/11 stoked those fears, and the military not only moved troops from vulnerable urban centers into massive, fortified compounds but took extensive measures to diffuse construction density on each individual outpost.

The hierarchical military, Gillem writes, also operates under “an all-consuming corporate complex that insists on conformity.” Instead of planning construction around each individual site, policymakers at the Pentagon develop strict guidelines, forcing base planners to follow a rigid set of rules, no matter the local geography. The “General Plan,” influenced both by the policymakers’ familiarity with suburban layouts and anxiety about more attacks, results in bases best described as fortified suburban wastelands.

Gillem, who believes that “the use of space is an attribute of imperial power,” details how the military’s inefficient land-use policies not only harm the environment but also intensify the social and political cost of U.S. imperial aspirations. For one, accumulating livable land is a zero-sum game in many regions U.S. forces patrol. Accustomed to a country full of open spaces, Americans fail to comprehend how eating up valuable terrain without consent angers residents of the host nation. The immoderation that suburban living induces, such as unnecessary consumption patterns, excess noise and crime spillover, further strains national relations.

The construction of gated, sprawling compounds contributes to what Gillem sees as a changing–and counterproductive–dynamic in America’s foreign strategy. American imperialism of previous decades, while vicious in its economic and constitutional dictums, was in some cases willing to interact with local people and settings, whether for housing, food or companionship. But what was once an “empire of assimilation” has transformed into what Gillem describes as an “empire of avoidance,” marked by isolated and self-contained bases segregated from the communities in which they are situated. Building “mini-Americas” hinders cultural understanding between U.S. troops and the local residents they are supposedly deployed to protect.

While Gillem’s interpretation of imperial policies is at times crude and overgeneralized, America Town illuminates an overlooked effect of U.S. arrogance. Through his perspective as a former service-member and an architect, his accessible writing, and pictorial evidence of spatial disparities, Gillem offers a disturbing depiction of how policies devised in Washington harm the lives of innocent people the world over.

America Town provides few prescriptions for how to improve base planning policies. But the absence of such suggestions is the book’s takeaway message: Hegemons aren’t concerned with the desires of the subjugated.

Gillem’s analysis of imperial planning dating back centuries shows that an occupying country always defines how land is organized. “Other empires heavily regulated the planning and design of their outposts,” he writes. “They displaced local populations and demolished their building stock. They sought order over the seemingly disordered indigenous environments. They gained the consent of some segment of local leadership. And they officially sanctioned prostitution.”

Whether it’s exporting extravagant suburbs, condoning torture or unilaterally attacking nations without provocation, Americans–like their predecessors–act to further their own aspirations, disregarding the rights and concerns of those with whom they share the world. America Town reminds us that considerate empires have never existed and imperial powers by their nature are beyond reform.

But history suggests that, one way or another, all empires eventually collapse. Instead of trying to rein in its excesses, people need to work toward hastening that happy, inevitable outcome.

Adam Doster, a contributing editor at In These Times, is a Chicago-based freelance writer and former reporter-blogger for Progress Illinois.

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