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Monday, October 30, 2006

Controversial American base at Dal Molin (Vicenza, Italy)

I’m probably going to drive you all bloggy-eyed by my lengthy postings on this topic, but damn the torpedoes since this blog appears to be one of the few friggin’ sources in English, according to Google and Technorati searches, to report on the recent deliberations of an Italian city debating whether or not to expand an American military base in its back yard. Why is this story important? In the short term it provides a snap-shot of the current sentiment towards the American military amongst the population of one of our more important and reliable allies, while demonstrating how the American press and public ignore what seem to us the mundane and quotidian ways our military expands or loses its influence around the globe and what impact our military has on other countries’ local populations and landscapes. O yes, did I fail to mention that should this base expansion be approved it will become the largest American military base outside of the US? So, this is no small potatoes.

The base expansion, as reported earlier here and here, involves the Italian city of Vicenza, which tends to be a less known destination amongst Americans because it is overshadowed by its more well-known neighbors of Padua and Venice. American democratic iconography is, however, infused with an architectural renaissance born in Vicenza. As any Art Historian or architecture buff worth his or her salt can tell you, Vicenza was the home of Palladio, whose resuscitation of the dome from the more famous Pantheon in Rome for his Rotonda impressed Jefferson so much that he once called Palladio his “bible” and he incorporated Palladian techniques for Monticello and the Rotunda at the University of Virginia. The rest is Art History; now most state capitals in the US incorporate a dome, and thus pay homage to Jefferson’s admiration of Vicenza’s most famous son. Although these days I’d like to forget about the White House, the building itself was also influenced by Palladian design. Also found at Vicenza is Palladio’s Teatro Olimpico, the first indoor theater ever, and home to the first modern production of the most famous tragedy of all time, Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus. Had it not been for Palladio, who knows, maybe theater productions, like baseball games, would still be experiencing rainouts today. While on the subject of great literature and plays, another famous Vicentino was the poet Luigi Da Porto, who in 1524 penned the original love story of Romeo e Giulietta. Today one can still visit the opposing castles of Montecchio in the hills near Vicenza that gave rise to this story – a romance that now is arguably the basis of the most famous love story of all time because it was ripped off by Shakespeare. The Nazis held the town during WWII until the Americans bombed the city and the Germans had to retreat. The effects of that bombing are visible everywhere on the city’s walls and houses – at least the ones that are still standing, since many buildings weren’t so lucky (the city’s main theater, for instance, was destroyed and they have only just recently got around to starting a new one). This is not to say that most Vicentini do not reluctantly approve our bombarding of their city as a necessary evil to get rid of the Nazis, but we must remember that hundreds of civilians died in the bombing – their names inscribed on columns around Vicenza and every nearby village. The short of it is that this is a town with a long and illustrious history.

In more recent times, Vicenza has prospered and is one of the major players in the international gold and jewelry market. It also is situated within one the most heavily industrialized zones in the world, sitting as it does along the economic corridor running between Venice and Milan. It is, therefore, a highly populated region with all the attending problems that development and population bring, especially scarcity of land and pollution. Despite the pollution (which Vicenza is combating by shutting off the historic center of the town to automobiles) and crowded area, the center of Vicenza is probably more beautiful than any American city. Expanding the airport here, then, would be worse than building a major airbase 2 miles from, say, St. Augustine in Florida (only imagine St. Augustine a few hundred years from now with more beautiful buildings, crowding and air pollution). It should also be mentioned that Vicenza also has several Italian military bases that dot the stately surrounding hills known as the Colli Berici. There are persistent rumors that some of these bases, especially the ones located under the hills, even house nuclear weapons. So, this base expansion would increase what already seems to the locals as a heavy military footprint and become an even greater military target than it already is. Keep in mind, too, that these bases in Europe are often the first stop for American soldiers’ returning from war theaters. The Vicentini are thus some of the first to experience all the problems these soldiers experience when returning to civilian areas. Often there are scuffles in local bars. One soldier who returned from Iraq (or maybe it was Afghanistan) had hallucinations that he was still at war and went out into a busy street brandishing his gun at the passing cars. Can you imagine what the US public and press would say were a foreign soldier to do the same in one of our cities? Fortunately no one was hurt, but such was not the case in another episode, where an American soldier tortured a prostitute for several hours and then killed her. Then there are accidents, such a few summers ago when an American soldier in his car hit and killed a girl on her bicycle.

Given all that is at stake, the city council of Vicenza held a public town meeting on Thursday, 10-27-2006 to vote on two issues: 1) whether to approve/reject the creation of a popular, democratic referendum on the project, or 2) just have the council approve or disapprove the project. Said project consists in converting the small airport of Dal Molin (located at the suburb of Caldogno) into an air base that will also service the American military’s 173rd Airborne – whose personnel is currently housed at the more famous air base at Aviano, at the current base in Vicenza Caserma Ederle, and also at a couple of bases in Germany. The idea is to consolidate them at Vicenza. O yes, the US military did not bother to tell the local population that this was the plan until this October. Ooops! I’m sure it was just a simple oversight. O well, oversights happen, so never mind, move along. As I said, should it come to fruition it will become the biggest American military base outside the US and is no small tactical piece of America’s future plans to base and project American power around the globe. Now that word has slipped out that the 173rd is planning to move to Vicenza, the local politicians and Americans are promising that no bombing raids will leave from there and they’re saying things like it won’t house “multiple missile launchers” (so I guess single are OK?) or “spy planes” and that all the fighter aircraft will stay at Aviano, but it’s just so hard to believe that in the long run after most of the personnel are concentrated in one place with an airstrip sitting nearby that some new group of military men and politicians won’t try to change the rules and move some of their heavier and more deadly equipment there too. As any northern Italian can tell you, is it realistic to think that they’ll shuttle everyone up to Aviano on the vast parking lot in Northern Italy also known as the Autostrada, which is now overrun by all the traffic and shipping coming in from Eastern Europe? Newspaper polls report that 61 percent of Vicentini are against the expansion, while 65% of those who live in Caldogno – a heavily populated suburb where Dal Molin is located (the word “suburb” is a bit misleading; Dal Molin is only 2 miles from the town center) -- are against it. The US strategy is, therefore, to circumvent the local population and put pressure on the city’s magistrates by saying if the air base project is not approved, then they may pull out the army base, Caserma Ederle, which provides about 700 jobs and 67 million Euros to the local economy (those figures come from a Stars and Stripes article). Historically, this is a fairly typical situation that an external power finds itself in; a majority of the local population is against their designs, but fortunately one need only persuade a small political class with economic incentives or threats.

The town meeting came off peacefully without any reported fights, so the unprecedented security they put in place either worked or more probably was really not necessary. According to an eye-witness with whom I spoke there were, however, a lot of boisterous demonstrations with a lot of noise making and shouting. The picture to the left, which was taken at the town meeting, provides a good flavor of the atmosphere and reads “USA fatal bases. Your house.” 20 representatives spoke for the “yeas” and 20 speakers spoke for the “nays”, and the city council of 41 members voted strictly along party lines first to reject the idea of a referendum and then to approve the expansion. The final tally for the project-vote was close, with 21 “yeas” (right coalition), 17 “nays” (left coalition), 2 abstentions, and 1 missing in action. The resolution was also signed by the town’s center-right mayor, Enrico Hüllweck (many northern Italians have German names and part of northern Italy is even still German-speaking). But, this was a non-binding resolution that included certain stipulations concerning civilian use, taxes, no spy planes... At any rate, this vote, I think it fair to say, gave the matter an appearance of “local approval”, but only in name given that they refused to let the matter go to a popular referendum where it would almost assuredly fail. The ultimate, final decision, however, is being drop-kicked off to Rome and is to be made by the center-left government of Romano Prodi, who has promised that the entire matter, which had previously been approved by his center-right predecessor Silvio Berlusconi, would be thoroughly reviewed. Prodi narrowly defeated Berlusconi this past Spring, largely on one of his promises to pull Italian troops out of Iraq, which he did this summer. But Prodi is in a delicate position on this, because several parties within his slim center-left coalition are staunchly against increasing ties with the US and in fact, want to lessen them, in no small part because of the current Bush administration’s handling of the war on Terror and Iraq. In addition, they are just in the process of shuttering the naval/nuclear US military base at the beautiful island just north of Sardegna called Maddalena (I love that name for some reason), and Dal Molin would just represent a re-expansion. Naturally, a solid block of Italians, including members of the center-left, don’t want to damage the relationship, not because they care about the military or are worried about safety (fact is, most Italians feel less safe around the bases), but just because of the economic benefits the American bases bring. So, the trick for Prodi is to express some disapproval, but not so much as to sour and spoil the entire historic relationship and its attending economic benefits. In addition, the previous mayor of Vicenza for 15 years, Achille Variati, is reported to have said about the council’s decisions after the vote, “No, they cannot decide the future of Vicenza themselves. I will work to bring about the referendum.” So the fat lady hasn’t sung on this one yet.

At any rate, I think it fair to say had we not been in Iraq the opposition would not have been so strong. The entire affair is thus tangible evidence that Bush’s handling of the Iraq War has created a headwind of support amongst our allies. To overcome it, undoubtedly the US will have to meet extra demands and pony up more cash and support to make the seemingly “finalized” deal final again. My advice to America and Americans would be this. There’s a very good chance Americans would not accept such an American project in our own back yard, so why would we think that the Italians should accept an American one in theirs? A popular, democratic referendum on this matter is the only fair and sure way to bring it to a satisfactory conclusion. Are the strong-arm tactics really a good idea? Does America really think it smart to build this base when about 2/3 of the population is against it? Does this not really give the locals the impression that Vicenza is, as the poster in the picture says, America’s house and not their own? Isn’t there a chance we’ll just have to spend more money to move it in the not-so-distant future?

One last thing. I think it useful to publish in English some sentiments of local Vicentini. These are quotes of citizens at the town meeting lifted from the local, middle-of-the-road rag, Il Giornale di Vicenza:

-A group of protesters kept shouting to the council “Vergogna. Siete quattro gatti” (literally, “Shame on you, you are [only] 4 cats”), which means “Shame on you, you are only a small group of people deciding.”

-Omero Cecchi, 44 years of age says, “Dal Molin is a good project, a good opportunity.”

-Giorgio Benedetti, who was accompanied by his daughter of 3 years said: “Look, I’m here as a free citizen, I am not with any party. But I say ‘no’ to the American base because I wish my city well and I ask for a better future for my daughter. Not a Vicenza tied to a military image, but to its own artistic and local beauty. And to a smiling person.”

-Elvi Golin, with her two children of 6 and 10 years, said “I support the Americans because they have always helped and brought benefits to us – I think of the families that work at Ederle and of those who are soldiers, I think of my children and their protection.” When Lia Sacchetto from Laghetto, a grandmother of two children, heard this, she turned around and said, “No base, no pollution, no airplanes, armies, traffic. Yes to life.”

-Leila Albert, 20 years old who works at Ederle said, “Here there are anti-Americans because of a pre-conceived position. They are just a political instrument. If the Americans leave, we not only lose a place of work, but for this city there will enormous repercussions on the economy, counting all the income the base affects.” Massimillian Bozalon, 29 years old and son of a construction company at Ederle underlined this, saying “Do you know how many firms will go out of business without the base?”

-Lorenzo S, 17 years old said, “The Americans? They come here to occupy a sovereign country for 50 years after the War. No, we don’t want them.”

-Maria Luisa Andrightto, 72 years of age, with a photo in her hand said, “I was 10 years old, it was November 18, 1944, when the Americans bombed Vicenza. My mother died in front of my eyes, I have four wounds from the shrapnel. Don’t speak to me of the Americans.”

A Technorati search on blogs brings up a lot of discussion by Italians. Here’s an illuminating extract from a Vicentino Blogger:

We live in a city of shit
In a state even more shitty,
in a world even more shitty than the state.
They have not accepted the referendum.
The “yeas” to the Dal Molin military project have won.
And I no longer know what to think.

Now, let everyone fight against this decision taken by the powerful, fight against this decision that is contrary to the majority of people with a minimum of intelligence in our city


At 6:29 AM, Blogger Number Three said...

This is a great post. Chalmers Johnson makes the point that few Americans realize both that the United States military has bases all over the world and that no other nation today has similar bases overseas. This is just another one of the things that Americans take for granted, and an issue on which the chattering classes are all in agreement. These bases then exercise a strong effect on local attitudes toward the United States, to a degree that Americans fail to understand. Because Americans take for granted the "special role" of the U.S., and assume the legitimacy of the projection of our military might, they think everyone else does, too.

It's interesting that the local elites, or at least some of them, and a sizeable group of the national elites, support U.S. expansion, based on purely economic motives. National sovereignty has a price, I guess.

Snark: But I thought the administration had promised no permanent bases in Italy?


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