Our Troops’ Global Responsibility

Susan Page
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Wednesday - April 13, 2005
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The other day I read a nice letter to the editor from a woman praising our military service men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan. She closed the letter with “… and I pray for all our troops to come home from overseas.”

No doubt she was just referring to our troops in the war zones. We’ve all said something like that at one time or another, meaning that we don’t want American troops in harm’s way any longer than necessary.

But the word “overseas” struck me. “Overseas” is a big space in a world in which the U.S. is fully and strategically integrated militarily — as in, close to 200,000 forces in 26 countries around the planet (not including Iraq and Afghanistan), according to a 2003 Department of Defense Base Structure Report. This figure is, of course, ever evolving as requirements and commitments change. Even an exhaustive Internet search doesn’t yield an entirely accurate depiction of where we have troops and how many there are, not to mention personnel on ships and subs on and beneath the sea, and U.S. civilians (approximately 18,000) working for the DOD overseas. Add to that number covert forces training foreign military in places like the Philippines and Colombia, as well as in some undisclosed spots.

Certainly, cataclysmic events of history have determined where our defense forces must be positioned around the world, but lately folks question, for example, the need for the 71,000 U.S. military personnel in Germany some 60 years after World War II. Or, the 51,000 in Japan. Or, 12,000 in the U.K. and 15,000 in Italy.

Then, sometimes troop placement becomes critical in unexpected ways.

“We have an extensive presence throughout the globe,” says Maj. Eric Litchfield, USMC, aide-de-camp to Lt. Gen. Chip Gregson, Commander, Marine Forces Pacific. “We have to look at the world in geographic terms. How many people can we fly from place to place when there’s a humanitarian crisis, for example? We need big ships that are in the region to do it.” He noted that some complained that it took too long for U.S. help to reach the tsunami-ravaged areas in the Indian Ocean last December. “If the Third Marine Amphibious Force had not been located in Okinawa, it would have taken two weeks longer,” he said, noting it takes “14 days at a decent speed” to get from the U.S. West Coast to the devastated region.

On the other hand, given the threat North Korea poses to the world, and based on its dangerous and cruel leader, Kim Jong Il’s boast that his country’s nuclear missiles can reach Hawaii, most Americans would deem a healthy military presence (about 36,000 personnel strong) in South Korea vital.

But since 9-11, we’ve come to see our military bases throughout the world as offensive launching points from which to fight terror.

A November 2004 National Geographic article “World of Terror” by Walter Laqueur traces terrorism back in time to the first century. But in the 21st century, it states that the nature of terrorism has changed. “Terrorist attacks have decreased over the past 20 years, but the carnage has increased. The trend, says the U.S., State Department, is “toward more ruthless attacks on mass civilian targets. With mass slaughter and apocalyptic weapons now on the terrorist agenda, the scale of the threat is rising.

“Today, one type of group — related to a movement called Islamism — has earned an especially high profile for its drive to impose theocracy on Muslim lands and excise ‘impure’ Western influences.” The deadliest, of course, is al- Qaeda which, according to the CIA, operates in 68 countries worldwide, including Australia, the U.K., Spain, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, India, the Philippines, Indonesia, all the Middle East (sans Israel), South America (except Chile and Bolivia) and about half the countries in Africa — to name just a few.

Certainly we could thin out and restructure, as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is bent on, but keep troops out there, if not just for the threat of terrorism — which is reason enough — but also to lend a hand to those in need.

So do we really pray for all our troops to come home from overseas? Or, perhaps, instead pray that the world weren’t such a dangerous and vulnerable mess?

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