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The Greatest Story Never Told: Finally, the U.S. Mega-Bases in Iraq Make the News

June 17, 2008

Tom Engelhardt

It’s just a $5,812,353 contract — chump change for the Pentagon — and not even one of those notorious “no-bid” contracts either. Ninety-eight bids were solicited by the Army Corps of Engineers and 12 were received before the contract was awarded this May 28th to Wintara, Inc. of Fort Washington, Maryland, for “replacement facilities for Forward Operating Base Speicher, Iraq.” According to a Department of Defense press release, the work on those “facilities” to be replaced at the base near Saddam Hussein’s hometown, Tikrit, is expected to be completed by January 31, 2009, a mere 11 days after a new president enters the Oval Office. It is but one modest reminder that, when the next administration hits Washington, American bases in Iraq, large and small, will still be undergoing the sort of repair and upgrading that has been ongoing for years.

In fact, in the last five-plus years, untold billions of taxpayer dollars have been spent on the construction and upgrading of those bases. When asked back in the fall of 2003, only months after Baghdad fell to U.S. troops, Lt. Col. David Holt, the Army engineer then “tasked with facilities development” in Iraq, proudly indicated that “several billion dollars” had already been invested in those fast-rising bases. Even then, he was suitably amazed, commenting that “the numbers are staggering.” Imagine what he might have said, barely two and a half years later, when the U.S. reportedly had 106 bases, mega to micro, all across the country.

It is but one modest reminder that, when the next administration hits Washington, American bases in Iraq, large and small, will still be undergoing the sort of repair and upgrading that has been ongoing for years.

By now, billions have evidently gone into single massive mega-bases like the U.S. air base at Balad, about 60 miles north of Baghdad. It’s a “16-square-mile fortress,” housing perhaps 40,000 U.S. troops, contractors, special ops types, and Defense Department employees. As the Washington Post‘s Tom Ricks, who visited Balad back in 2006, pointed out — in a rare piece on one of our mega-bases — it’s essentially “a small American town smack in the middle of the most hostile part of Iraq.” Back then, air traffic at the base was already being compared to Chicago’s O’Hare International or London’s Heathrow — and keep in mind that Balad has been steadily upgraded ever since to support an “air surge” that, unlike the President’s 2007 “surge” of 30,000 ground troops, has yet to end.

Building Ziggurats

While American reporters seldom think these bases — the most essential U.S. facts on the ground in Iraq — are important to report on, the military press regularly writes about them with pride. Such pieces offer a tiny window into just how busily the Pentagon is working to upgrade and improve what are already state-of-the-art garrisons. Here’s just a taste of what’s been going on recently at Balad, one of the largest bases on foreign soil on the planet, and but one of perhaps five mega-bases in that country:

Consider, for instance, this description of an air-field upgrade from official U.S. Air Force news coverage, headlined: “‘Dirt Boyz’ pave way for aircraft, Airmen”:

“In less than four months, Balad Air Base Dirt Boyz have placed and finished more than 12,460 feet of concrete and added approximately 90,000 square feet of pavement to the airfield… Without the extra pavement courtesy of the Dirt Boyz, fewer aircraft would be able to be positioned and maintained at Balad AB. Having fewer aircraft at the base would directly affect the Air Force’s ability to place surveillance assets in the air and to drop munitions on targets… The ongoing flightline projects at Balad AB consist of concrete pad extensions that will provide occupation surfaces for multiple aircraft of various types.”

Or here’s a proud description of what Detachment 6 of the 732nd Expeditionary Civil Engineer Squadron did on its recent tour in Balad:

“‘We constructed more than 25,000 square feet of living, dining and operations buildings from the ground up,’ said Staff Sgt. John Wernegreen… ‘This project gave the [U.S.] Army’s [3rd Squadron, 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment] and Iraqi army [soldiers] a place to carry out their mission of controlling the battlespace around the Eastern Diyala Province.’”

And here’s a caption, accompanying an Air Force photo of work at Balad: “Airmen of the 407th Expeditionary Civil Engineer Squadron pavement and equipment team repair utility cuts here June 11. The team replaced approximately 30 cubic meters of concrete over newly installed power line cables.” And another: “Expeditionary Civil Engineer Squadron heavy equipment operator, contours a new sidewalk here, June 10. Sidewalk repair is being accomplished throughout the base housing area to eliminate tripping hazards.” (The sidewalks on such bases go with bus routes, traffic lights, and speeding tickets — in a country parts of which the U.S. has helped turn into little more than a giant pothole.)

Or how about this caption for a photo of military men on upgrade duty working on copper cable as “part of the new tents to trailers project.” It’s little wonder that, in another rare piece, NPR’s defense correspondent Guy Raz reported, in October 2007, that Balad was “one giant construction project, with new roads, sidewalks, and structures going up… all with an eye toward the next few decades.”

Think of this as the greatest American story of these years never told — or more accurately, since there have been a few reports on a couple of these mega-bases — never shown

READ MORE AT TOMDISPATCH.COM

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. The World According to TomDispatch: America in the New Age of Empire (Verso, 2008), a collection of some of the best pieces from his site, has just been published. Focusing on what the mainstream media didn’t cover, it is functionally an alternative history of the mad Bush years. A brief video in which Engelhardt discusses the book and the American mega-bases in Iraq can be viewed by clicking here.

Copyright 2008 Tom Engelhardt

To read more blog entries from Tom Engelhardt and others at GUERNICA click HERE .

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