Amy Austin Holmes. Social Unrest and American Military Bases in Turkey and Germany since 1945. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. 252 pp. $90.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-107-01913-3.
Reviewed by John Weigel
Published on H-War (October, 2015)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
Global Hegemony under Local Pressure
American bases tend to wear out their welcome. That is the message of Amy Austin Holmes’s Social Unrest and American Military Bases in Turkey and Germany since 1945, published in 2014. This book is an important intervention into the literature on America’s worldwide “empire of bases” described by Chalmers Johnson in his Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic (2004). Unlike the colonial empires of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, this network or “baseworld” uses territories without holding formal sovereignty over them. Since 1945, the US armed forces have operated in up to 170 formally independent states. The Americans are there “by invitation” to offer “protection,” but they owe nothing to host country populations—the “protectariat”—and leave governance to the host government (pp. 2-4). That is its strength, but also its weakness, argues Holmes, because the legitimacy of the American presence decays over time as opposition builds among a population that lacks a voice in the US command structure and therefore feels disenfranchised by the armed foreigners in its midst.
To understand this fraying of legitimacy, Holmes sets up in chapter 1 a three- or four-stage life cycle that captures changes in the relationship between US armed forces and native civilians. She begins with Charles Tilly’s insight that “legitimate protection” requires two conditions: an external threat that the would-be protector did not create and the absence of harm to people it claims to protect. In the first stage, therefore, the threat level is high and collateral harm is low. In the second stage, however, the civilian population begins to feel the presence as increasingly burdensome, though the external threat remains at a high level. The relationship is now one of “pernicious protection.” In the final stage, the external threat is now low, but collateral harm remains high. What was legitimate protection has now become what Tilly calls a “protection racket” (p. 17). Holmes finds all three stages, though with different timing, in post-WWII Turkey and Germany. For the Turks, legitimate protection did not last long, only from 1949 to 1964. Pernicious protection extended from 1965 to 1990, and the protection racket since 1990. For the Germans, the relevant stages were 1949-79, 1980-90, and since 1990, with a fourth preliminary stage of “precautionary protection,” from 1945 to 1949, when the external threat was low, but collateral harm from the small American presence (only seventy-nine thousand troops in 1950) was also low. In both cases, of course, the external threat, real or fancied, emanated from the Soviet Union.
Resistance to the American presence took four forms, though the sequence was different in each country: parliamentary opposition, civil disobedience, labor unrest on the bases themselves, and armed struggle. As we see in chapter 2, opposition in Turkey began in parliament with the Turkish Labor Party (TIP) demanding an American withdrawal and graduated to mass student demonstrations against port calls by the US 6th Fleet. Turkish workers on US bases struck for more control over hiring and firing, and eventually two terrorist groups, the Turkish People’s Liberation Army (THKO) and the Turkish People’s Liberation Army/Front (THKP-C), kidnapped US service personnel. In West Germany, the process ran the other way, as Holmes describes in chapter 3. Before significant unrest appeared among the general population, the terrorist Red Army Fraction (RAF) and Revolutionary Cells (RZ) planted bombs in American military installations and recreational clubs. Mass opposition began only in 1979 with the government’s agreement to the placement of 108 US Pershing II missiles and 96 cruise missiles in West Germany, which provoked huge demonstrations and civil disobedience campaigns to stop it. Even after the Bundestag approved deployment, blockades continued at a missile facility in Mutlangen. During the remainder of the decade, the new Green Party began campaigning against the US presence, partly because of its environmental impact, and disgruntlement set in across the political spectrum over the noise pollution and danger from low-level jet flights and property damage from Return of Forces to Germany (REFORGER) maneuvers.
This opposition was surprisingly effective. As Holmes points out, US bases are vulnerable to popular direct action, because they require access to air space, roads, and port facilities to draw supplies or to move personnel, and they depend on native civilians for labor. In Turkey, the 6th fleet stopped making port calls, the United States pulled out most of its more than twenty thousand personnel, and the Turkish government evaded a US request to restrict labor organization on US bases. In both countries, the threat of terrorist attacks prompted American personnel to segregate themselves from the general population. In Germany, outrage from five civilian deaths during annual maneuvers in 1988 forced their cancellation in 1989 and their reduction in 1990. The Pershing II and cruise missiles remained only a few years until the United States pulled them out again under the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with the USSR. “By the end of the 1980s, instead of appearing self-confident about emerging as the victor of the Cold War, the U.S. military felt that it had been placed in a straightjacket” (p. 152).
As Holmes discusses in chapter 4, the populations of both countries opposed the impending American invasion of Iraq in 2002-2003, and an antiwar demonstration in Berlin drew half a million participants, but only Turkey actually denied the United States access to its bases. With Iraq next door, Turkey would have run a real risk of collateral harm that Germany did not.
The book is well researched and significant. It rests on several types of evidence: declassified data from official US archives; documents from political parties and social groups; newspaper archives in Germany, Turkey, and the United States; and nearly one hundred in-person interviews, including thirty in Germany and forty-four in Turkey. Holmes has positioned her book to fill an important gap between macro-level analyses dealing with international relations and micro-level socio-anthropological studies. The latter have focused on Americans’ impact on people around a given base, but not the people’s impact on the base.
Holmes’s life cycle of fading legitimacy might be highly useful in analyzing local reaction to many present and past overseas American bases. South Korea (with North Korea as the external threat) and Saudi Arabia (versus the 1990-2003 Iraqi threat) come immediately to mind. It might be less useful, however, where the host country never faced a credible external threat, such as Guantanamo Bay in Cuba or the British-owned island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, so the US presence was a “protection racket” from the start. In those cases, perhaps, overwhelming might substituted for legitimacy. For future research, it would be interesting to examine whether the United States has tried to reduce resentment of its military presence by collateral means, such as creating cultural ties or supplying development aid.
. Charles Tilly, “War Making and State Making as Organized Crime,” in Bringing the State Back In, ed. Peter Evans, Dietrich Rueschemeyer, and Theda Skocpol (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 169-187.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-war.
John Weigel. Review of Holmes, Amy Austin, Social Unrest and American Military Bases in Turkey and Germany since 1945.
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