It is clear why the United States of America has been given global recognition as the country with the most powerful military in the world. The U.S. government spends more on its military than the annual budgets of nearly all countries in the world. Aside from having the most weapons, aircraft, and satellites, the United States’ military presence worldwide has expanded so much that it has earned it the status of a modern-day imperialist nation — an imperialist nation that has been able to disguise its methods of expansion through military bases, foreign aid, and even humanitarian work around the world.
History shows us that the U.S. expanded from having 14 military bases abroad in 1938 to 30,000 large and small installations in approximately 100 countries by 1945. Today many of these installations have been closed, but the once-occupied communities have been left to struggle with the aftermath of U.S. military presence. While there is more awareness now of the ramifications of U.S. militarism and its destruction of the environment and livelihoods of local people, one of the less-known issues is how U.S. military expansion contributed to the growth of the international sex industry.
Perhaps one of the most discernible examples of this is the U.S. Subic Bay Naval Base in the Philippines. In the 1980s there were more than 4,000 American officers and their dependents stationed there, following the Vietnam War-era heyday when some four million U.S. sailors passed through Subic every year. The base was described by the Wall Street Journal as the “central hub for U.S. military operations in the Asia-Pacific.”
But Subic Bay Naval Base also has a dark secret. In the 1980s, local brothels and traffickers generated an estimated $500 million from buying and selling women and girls to meet the demands of the servicemen stationed there. A women’s non-profit organization known as the Buklod ng Kababaihan was established in 1987 as a drop-in center for the staggering number of women being exploited through prostitution outside the Subic base.
When the base closed in 1992, the problem did not end. U.S. nationals continued to travel to the region, some to simply take advantage of the commercial sex industry established by what was once the biggest U.S. military base. According to the Buklod ng Kababaihan website, they fight for the approximately 300,000-400,000 women and 100,000 children who are still being exploited.
Following recent agreements made between the Obama administration and President Benigno Aquino III this year, some are eager to reopen the base. With U.S. troops being welcomed back into the Philippines, negative consequences are sure to follow in the already hurting community.
Sadly, Subic is not the only example. The Pentagon is aware of how the international sex industry is being perpetuated by the U.S. military. According to Humantrafficking.org, in December 2002, President Bush “declared zero tolerance for involvement in human trafficking by federal employees and contractors in a National Security Presidential Directive” following media reports detailing “the alleged involvement of DynCorp employees in buying women and girls as sex slaves in Bosnia during the U.S. military’s deployment there in the late 1990s.” However, the actual implementation of such policies has been minimal. This is why in 2011 the ACLU filed a lawsuit tackling the underreported problem of trafficking and abusive treatment of foreign workers on U.S. military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. Middle Eastern firms working under American subcontractors in Iraq were engaging in human trafficking.
The United States military is not expanding its military presence as much for national security or for helping allies as it is expanding its occupation to seek profit and power. In the process it destroys the environment and the livelihoods of the people whose lands are occupied, and it also creates and perpetuates systems of violence against women. Today, the sex industry is one of the largest and most profitable industries in the world (profitable for pimps and traffickers, that is). The U.S. military’s role in supplying the demand for this industry is very clear. Militarism affects everyone. It’s an environmental justice issue, a social justice issue, an anti-imperialist issue, and a feminist issue.