All your bases belong to US

A new history of Diego Garcia and reveals a sordid tale of colonial deceit behind the transformation of a remote island into a vital component of America's globe-straddling empire of bases

Island of Shame: The Secret History of the U.S. Military Base on Diego Garcia

David Vine Princeton University Press


In September 2007, George W Bush made one of the "surprise visits" to Iraq that his administration occasionally staged to persuade Americans that the war was turning a corner. At a heavily fortified US airbase in Anbar province, Bush conferred with top military brass and diplomats and then met with a handful of Iraqi leaders. "When you stand on the ground here in Anbar and hear from the people who live here, you can see what the future of Iraq can look like," the president told reporters, with evident pride. It was a curious statement, because whatever Bush saw of the "future of Iraq" didn't involve setting foot outside the walls of the airbase, where the messy reality of war-torn Iraq threatened to ruin the president's fantasies of progress.

After seven hours of success-proclaiming, troop-thanking and picture-posing, Bush got back on Air Force One to head to Australia - a long flight that forced the plane to stop and refuel. It did so on Diego Garcia, a remote island in the Indian Ocean where the United States operates a massive, highly-secretive military installation on what is technically British territory. There was a certain symmetry to Bush's itinerary. It was the base at Diego Garcia, after all, that housed many of the bombers, tanks and heavy weaponry deployed to bring "shock and awe" to Iraq. Even more than the airbase in Anbar, which so lifted Bush's spirits, Diego Garcia offered various familiar tokens of home: a nine-hole golf course, a bowling alley, a movie theatre, a fitness centre, an internet cafe and plenty of shopping options. In Iraq the tranquillity of the base was threatened by the chaos outside - but in Diego Garcia there is no "outside". Here the unruly "natives" cannot complicate matters, since there are no natives - at least not anymore.

Diego Garcia is the largest of the 64 coral islands that comprise the isolated Chagos Archipelago, located 1600 kilometres south of India, the closest continental land mass. The majority of Americans have surely never heard of it, but the island is a crucial outpost in the vast "empire of bases" that both ensures and defines America's global hegemony. The rapid transformation of Diego Garcia from postcolonial backwater to strategic asset - which forced every single one of its indigenous inhabitants into exile - is the subject of David Vine's Island of Shame, a devastating account of the human costs of empire-building. The story begins in 1960, when Stuart Barber, a civilian working at the Pentagon in the Navy's long-range planning office, devised what he called the "Strategic Island Concept". Barber was a "defence intellectual", one of a cadre of academics and experts who, in the early years of the Cold War, helped expand the notion of national security into a far-reaching vision of American power and influence. Like others in Washington, he feared that as former European colonies achieved independence, they would become inhospitable sites for military outposts, limiting America's ability to project power into regions - like the Middle East - critical to the struggle against the Soviet Union. The United States, Barber argued, needed to build bases in remote locations, close to hot spots but at a safe remove from local troublemakers- the only places, Barber wrote in a memo to his superiors in the John F Kennedy administration, that "could be safely held under full control of the West". Islands were the natural solution, but it would be necessary to select those whose indigenous populations would not cause what Barber delicately referred to as "political complications".

Diego Garcia fit the bill. By 1963, when American planners resolved to build a base in the Chagos Archipelago, the islands were home to roughly 1000 people, British subjects employed on the island's coconut plantations. The Chagossians - also known as the Ilois - comprised a genuine indigenous community, descended from the African slaves and Indian indentured servants brought to the islands by 18th- and 19th-century French and British colonists. As Vine relates, the United States had dealt swiftly and mercilessly with other inconveniently-placed native populations: in the 1940s and 1950s, indigenous communities in Puerto Rico, Okinawa, the Marshall Islands and elsewhere had been "relocated" in order to make way for American military installations or nuclear test sites, often with disastrous results. This time around, the Americans found a willing partner in Britain, a declining power eager to free itself of the burdens of empire without renouncing its presence in the Indian Ocean. The Americans told the British that they wanted "exclusive control" of the islands - delivered "without local inhabitants". In exchange, the United States forgave a $14 million bill for assistance it had provided to the British nuclear missile programme. To meet their obligations to the United States, the British needed to remove the natives without appearing to violate the rights of colonised people enshrined in international law.

The solution was a breathtakingly cynical act of bad faith. As a UK Foreign Office legal adviser described in an internal memo, all the British had to do was "maintain the fiction that the inhabitants of Chagos are not a permanent or semi-permanent population". Thus, the Chagossians - a community whose roots on Diego Garcia stretched back for generations - were transformed into mere "transient workers". Vine reveals that this bit of semantic dispossession was an explicit part of the secret agreements between the two allies regarding the fate of the islanders. The US embassy in London was instructed in a memo from Secretary of State Dean Rusk to use the term "migrant labourers" when discussing the Chagossians with the British, since "withdrawal of 'inhabitants' obviously would be more difficult to justify". Once the justification was in place, the depopulation could begin. In 1971, the United States began construction of the base on Diego Garcia. The British authorities announced to the stunned Chagossians that they would have to leave, and issued an ordinance making it a crime to be on the island without a permit. The plantations were shuttered, food deliveries ended, and transportation to and from the island eliminated. The Chagossians were shipped to Mauritius and the Seychelles, making the four-day journey exposed to the elements on the decks of overcrowded boats. A US Navy official in Washington worried in an internal memo about the potential for bad press. But Admiral Elmo Zumwalt - the highest-ranking officer in the Navy and the person charged with overseeing the plan - succinctly expressed US policy regarding the Chagossians in a three-word response attached to the memo: "Absolutely must go." Having left most of their possessions behind, the Chagossians arrived homeless, landless, jobless and mostly penniless. (Upon arrival in Mauritius, they were housed in a prison.) One alarmed American official there cabled Washington to report that "there exists no operative plan and no firm allocation of funds to compensate them for the hardship of the transfer from their former home and their loss of livelihood." The British had given newly independent Mauritius a £650,000 payment to formally resettle the Chagossians, but the Mauritians did nothing - and the Chagossians received no financial compensation at all for more than five years.

Vine, an anthropologist at American University in Washington, DC, became an expert on this sad tale after he was hired by a team of high-profile American lawyers suing the United States in federal court on behalf of the Chagossians. The suit was ultimately dismissed, but not before Vine had learnt to speak the Chagossians' Kreol dialect and spent seven months living among them in the slums of Mauritius and the Seychelles. His book provides a grim portrait of their existence. In these highly-stratified postcolonial societies, the mostly unskilled and uneducated Chagossians occupy "the bottom of the bottom". Discriminated against and preyed upon, their communities are wracked by the full array of poverty's ills: high unemployment, drug abuse, poor health, indebtedness. Despite all the apparent rigour of Vine's anthropological approach, the Chagossians in Island of Shame rarely emerge as fully-drawn characters, remaining boxed into the rather one-dimensional victimhood in which he casts them. But the book turns out to provide a fascinating ethnography of another community: the tribe of myopic US officials involved in the plan. "Almost all remembered spending little time thinking about the islanders," he reports.

James Noyes, who served as a deputy assistant secretary of defence from 1970 to 1976, told Vine that "the ethical question of the workers" simply wasn't "in the spectrum". After all, "it was taken as a given" that the US was a force for good in the world. For him and his colleagues, Noyes said, doubting the wisdom of removing the Chagossians would have been "like questioning apple pie". Though the eviction of the Chagossians transpired during Richard Nixon's presidency - and seems consonant with the cold realpolitik of Nixon's vizier Henry Kissinger, the plans were hatched by the liberal idealists who worked under Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Searching for moral consistency in a great power's foreign policy is a fool's errand, to be sure. But it is hard to ignore the massive gap between Kennedy's public embrace of "self-determination" in former colonies and the secret policies that preserved British and American power at the direct, uncompensated expense of an indigenous people. Perhaps the best way to reconcile this striking contradiction is to understand the seizure of Diego Garcia in the context of "manifest destiny", that constant theme in American history - the belief, not unique to any single ideology or political party, in the providential chosenness of the United States and its duty "to show the way for the historically retrograde", as the historian Anders Stephanson describes it. In the minds of the men who made these fateful decisions, the essential rightness of America's mission in the world mitigated and justified the costs. Even the hard-nosed realists of the Nixon administration who inherited the plans for depopulating Diego Garcia, Stephanson notes, "still imagined the US as the specially anointed leader of something called the free world".

With the Chagossians out of the picture, the base at Diego Garcia grew rapidly into a vital node in America's empire of bases - the estimated 1000 military installations the United States operates on the putatively sovereign territory of other countries. It proved its strategic value beyond a doubt during the build-up to the first Gulf War in 1990, when cargo ships "prepositioned" at Diego Garcia delivered tanks, heavy weapons, jets and helicopters to Marines stationed in Saudi Arabia - which arrived almost a month before similar shipments sent from bases in the United States. Bombers flying from the island were critical to the invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. In 2002, the island entered the lexicon of the "war on terror" when it was named in news reports as the site of a secret CIA detention facility - claims the United States continues to deny. Of course, for the Chagossians, such intrigues are wholly beside the point. From their exile, they have formed a number of organisations to seek legal redress and compensation, with little to show for their quixotic efforts. Their goals are quite modest. They would like to be permitted to return to Diego Garcia and live on the two-thirds of the island that the base does not occupy. (Incredibly, some of their old houses are now used by base personnel for "off-duty recreation".) They do not oppose the presence of the base -indeed many of them would like to work there. But last fall, their legal options were more or less exhausted, when Britain's House of Lords overturned lower court rulings in their favour.

The only legal avenue that now remains is a case filed with the European Court of Human Rights, which has requested a British response by June 12. The injustice visited upon the Chagossians is not unprecedented in the annals of American empire: North Vietnamese or Iraqis might even consider the exiled islanders fortunate by comparison. But Island of Shame is clearly intended to draw attention to their plight, perhaps in the hope that the administration of Barack Obama - well-stocked, at least by American standards, with champions of the vulnerable and dispossessed - might reconsider America's policy of denying any moral, legal or financial obligation to the islanders. Unfortunately for the Chagossians, it's not likely to happen. But the sordid history of deliberate dispossession Vine recounts should be a reminder of the moral rot that results when bad faith combines with imperial ambitions - a lesson worth keeping in mind as another idealist assumes the burden of maintaining America's unrivalled power.

Justin Vogt is on the editorial staff of the New Yorker.