Bombs away ... from my backyard

Pullback from Vieques island signals new level of civilian opposition to US military.

At island after island in the Pacific during World War II, US ground forces famously stormed ashore under cover of booming guns from warships offshore. They did the same at Inchon, South Korea, during the early 1950s. And at Grenada during the 1980s - this time running into TV correspondents, not enemy fire, on the beaches.

But 2001, a different sort of beachhead conflict, the "Battle of Vieques," involved training exercises - and ended in defeat.

Civilian protests prompted a government pullout from the Puerto Rican island that, for 50 years, has provided the ideal place to shell, invade, and bomb in dress rehearsals.

The setback not only leaves the Navy scrambling to find a new training site, but highlights growing public pressures to reduce US military presence at sites around the world. From Okinawa to Korea, from Hawaii to Japan, protests are rising against several other US bases, not only those used for training but also for other purposes. And the Bush administration's decision to halt Vieques exercises in 2003 may embolden protesters elsewhere.

"The military worries about [the] building momentum for these protests," says military analyst Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution.

Lurking in the background of some protests is a rising sense of nationalism, says military analyst Ivan Eland of the CATO Institute.

But for the most part, the problems are local.

Okinawa controversy

"Okinawa is the flash point at present," Mr. Eland notes, with recent accusation of rape against an American serviceman. Residents of both Okinawa and Japan oppose the base. The US wants to retain it, to project a strong Far East military presence.

The military faces more-modest problems in Hawaii, where residents want to permanently close a training range that was used from the 1920s until three years ago, where infantry fired live ammunition. The concerns are the danger associated with live ammunition, and threats to fragile ecology and cultural sites.

Other sites offer different issues. In Korea, there are rumblings that the American military occupies too large an area in expanding Seoul. In Japan, complaints have caused the military to restrict flights from Air Force and Navy bases.

In Germany, where the Army has two large training bases, citizens similarly fret about low-level and late-night flights. But in recent years, the American military has reduced its forces on German soil by three-quarters, Mr. O'Hanlon notes, which has lessened pressure for base closings.

Important as all those sites are to the US military, for the Navy and Marines, no training site can equal Vieques.

The island boasts three desirable conditions for training. The topography permits challenging landings. The deep water offshore, outside commercial sea lanes, allows large ships to maneuver close by to fire big guns shoreward. And the skies overhead are similarly away from commercial flying routes, enabling planes to bomb and strafe as they would during an actual invasion.

"In a realistic combat scenario, you would be doing all these things at once," says Lt. Commander Dawn Cutler, a Navy spokesperson. "We like to train like we would fight."

Until two years ago, the armed forces used live ammunition there. But after the accidental killing of a security guard in 1999, and the accidental release of shells containing depleted uranium, citizen protests mounted. Earlier this year, the Bush administration announced it will look for a new place to train, and pull out of Vieques by May 2003.

The challenge of relocating

A Navy commission will soon be formed to find an existing base on the East Coast where the Navy and Marines can practice. Past studies have found no other current or potential base that would allow all the invasion elements to be practiced simultaneously.

"They will not be able to find a place as good," O'Hanlon says, "but they will be able to find a place that's good enough."

Good enough, he says, means the armed forces will probably need to conduct separate exercises for landing, warship support fire, and aircraft bombing.

The civilian perspective may be another matter, as recent experience in Texas has shown. A proposal was briefly floated by a local chamber of commerce to recommend that the Navy move from Vieques to an area of the southern Texas coast between Corpus Christi and Brownsville. The site would have taken up a quarter of Kenedy County, some 225,000 acres along the Padre Island National Seashore.

But environmentalists and several prominent Republican officeholders, including both US senators, objected. Tobin Armstrong, a World War II veteran and Kenedy County Commissioner, whose family has ranched the area since 1852, said the mostly undeveloped land will simply not be able to withstand the constant bombing, shelling and strafing.

The area is home to much wildlife, including the endangered species Kemp's ridley sea turtle and migratory birds. "You couldn't pick a more delicate environment to conduct those kinds of activities," says Mr. Armstrong.

That site scratched, the Navy must hope to find one with a more welcoming attitude.

Kris Axtman in Houston contributed to this report.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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