The New York Times last Thursday reported on the closure of Bagram Airbase, the center of the U.S. military’s operations in Afghanistan; and similar to base closures in Vietnam, they did it quickly and without consultation. Even the Afghan military forces guarding the base had no idea until the perimeter lighting went dark, a few hours after the last American personnel left under cover of night. Aside from some eyewitness reports, we may not know much about the process for twenty or thirty years before the U.S. government makes military records available.
The best historical sources we have to study the impacts of base closures are in Vietnam where there are copious records and we have almost fifty years of post-war peace in Vietnam to study the legacies of the conflict. I recently wrote a piece for the Vietnam Veterans of America’s magazine, VVA Veteran, titled “After the Bases Closed” that draws on these declassified documents and field studies to consider the afterlives of old bases. Briefly here are some lessons learned:
Always a Messy Divorce – The Army’s Real Estate Lawyers
In 1972 when the U.S. Army closed one of its largest bases near Huế called Camp Eagle, it evacuated 15,000 troops, all of their gear, and basically anything not bolted down in about three weeks. The Army’s estate lawyers, the Real Property Division of the Inspector General’s office, itemized every plywood hut, flamethrower and truck that was either to be carted off or left behind. It estimated approximate values for everything left behind as an “improvement” to the land. Military contractors, companies like AECOM and KBR that operated power plants, water treatment centers and other services on the bases removed their privately owned centers with no obligations to keep these “guts” of the base working post-handover.
So what happened? Publicly in 1972, a brief (daylight) ceremony with military bands playing songs was followed by generals exchanging handshakes and the South Vietnamese flag raising up over the base. Privately, South Vietnam’s military commanders were hopping mad! They were given a base without electricity, water, or perimeter lighting. Instead of supporting local operations, it was a tactical liability, a giant footprint of indefensible hills ten kilometers south of Huế. And fitting for a messy divorce, there was a huge bill to be settled. Those U.S. Army lawyers itemized the real estate on the base in order to charge the Saigon regime a bill for these “improvements” to the land. The bill for Camp Eagle topped 4 million dollars! South Vietnam’s generals got so mad they held a press conference to publicize it.
Of course we don’t know the still-classified events surrounding the closure of bases like Bagram AFB in Afghanistan, but news of the lights going out, looting and talk of foreign loans to cover “improvements” suggest some striking parallels. As with South Vietnam, the U.S. relationship to the government in Kabul is a highly unequal one; so at least for the Afghan allies we might expect they’ll see the closures as a messy divorce.
Toxic Waste – No Charge…Yet
Against the balance sheet of improvements, one might expect the U.S. military’s lawyers to also itemize liabilities or damages to the land, things like landfills leaching toxic waste or buried caches of unexploded ordnance. In Vietnam, any volatile materials that could not be repurposed were pushed into ravines and covered with dirt. This included lead-based paints, solvents and caches of 55-gallon drums containing CS (2-chlorobenzylidene malononitrile), the highly caustic powder base used to produce tear gas. Granted there were far fewer U.S. military regulations then for disposal of these materials. The EPA was formed in 1970 and remediation of toxic waste sites did not figure in to estimates of land value. However, one has to hope that today at least the U.S. military has managed to at least estimate the costs for cleaning up burn pits, spent uranium and fire retardants and other chemicals. In Vietnam, local governments must contend with multi-million dollar bills to clean up such hazards; and in many cases cash-strapped districts must opt for a more affordable option. Leaving toxics in the ground and capping sites with asphalt.
A Possible Bright Side – Footprints for an Industrial Future
Generally, the postwar cleanup of American bases in Vietnam was an extremely painful and expensive undertaking. Vietnamese sources are still silent on the numbers of youth volunteers who lost limbs or lives salvaging metal from unexploded bombs and abandoned vehicles. In the short term, for roughly twenty years after the war’s end, most old bases were eyesores, and air bases like Danang Tan Son Nhat carried on as airports but running a tiny fraction of traffic and the former U.S. military cantonment surviving on as a concrete ghost town of revetments and hangars. Until very recent airport expansions demolished these structures, passengers on taxiing aircraft glimpsed the airport’s wartime history as a center for U.S. operations.
Now more than forty years later, Vietnam has emerged as an industrial powerhouse in Southeast Asia. The legacy of closed bases, even Camp Eagle, is changing rapidly. Since the ruling Communist Party reconfirmed it’s commitment to “market-oriented Socialism” in 2000, local leaders have quietly turned the closed bases into centers for industrial parks, air cargo terminals and new urban quarters. Former American bases are the backbone of southern Vietnam’s booming manufacturing industry. After the last fifty years of military and state ownership, the base footprints are free of contesting land claims, and long-abandoned base street grids come complete with utility easements. In some cases, American contractors that initially installed equipment submitted bids for new jobs since they possessed unique expertise. I once met a veteran on a flight into Saigon who worked on airport beacons during the war and in 2000 represented Motorola in that company’s bid to outfit Saigon’s new airport with radio equipment.
If Vietnam is any gauge for Afghanistan and if Kabul falls like Saigon, admittedly two big if’s, we should expect a long period of radio silence as a new regime takes hold and seeks to erase any vestige of American presence. We might expect the messiest of divorces with Afghanistan’s government and long-simmering claims coming from the postwar government if Kabul falls. It might take a decade or more before we know the extent of toxic and other wastes left behind as well as their long-term effects on Afghan and American veterans.
But perhaps, if we take a longer view, the experience in Vietnam suggests a possibility for postwar development, especially around the larger American bases. Despite deeply opposed ideologies between the United States and Vietnam, communist leaders did their homework on the infrastructure they were to inherit after capturing Saigon. Pham Xuan An, a communist super spy who famously worked at the Time magazine bureau and reported up to the day of Saigon’s fall, once told me years later that just before Saigon’s imminent collapse, he learned that the US Agency for International Development sent a truckload of plans and documents outlining future projects like hydropower dams and land reclamation schemes to the Presidential Palace so that conquering troops could preserve this work. Today, many of these plans, for better or worse, have been realized.
If the American experience with postwar Vietnam has taught us anything, it is to expect the unexpected and that with time and reconciliation, hopefully years but probably decades, even the worst of enemies can become friends or, at least, partners in peace.