Military Bases: A Caricature of This American Life

The United States is very proud of its military. They of course boasts the largest and most advanced one in the world, but I feel as though they often misrepresent it to the American people. Being a soldier is oft seen as a glamorous servant lifestyle - one that is elevated to a high level in the public consciousness. Billboards, TV campaigns, and other advertisements that the military creates and targets at young men and women portray the American soldier as selfless, heroic, and unashamedly patriotic. There is nothing wrong with these qualities, of course, but I think that the ads work more towards stroking the egos of American teens than actually being informative about the US military. Practically all of my experience with the military comes from my interactions with military kids through extracurricular school activities such as wrestling, track, soccer. Participating in sports and other activities at an international school in Japan, a country with significant US military presence, gave me the opportunity to not only compete against the high schools on base, but also allowed me to get a glimpse into the lives and lifestyles of those living on a military base.

US Military bases often hosted sporting events, so it was not uncommon for me to visit a base five of more times a year. Japan has several of them, all with their own high schools. Yokota Air Force Base is home to the Yokota High School Panthers, Camp Zama (Army) is home to the Zama Trojans, and Commander Fleet Activities Yokosuka hosts the Nile C. Kinnick Red Devils. These three were the main competitors in the Kanto region, of which my school, CAJ, was a part. There were other base high schools teams, of course - including the Kadena Panthers, Kubasaki Dragons, Edgren Eagles, E.J. King Cobras, and Seoul American HS Falcons, but we usually only saw them at large regional events.

Getting on a base is a chore in itself. A list including the names of athletes, drivers, any parents or fans who are attending, and the license plates of all vehicles wishing to get on must be faxed to the main gate ahead of time. Even with this list, it usually takes about 30 minutes to clear the gate, after which we drive past the guard house patrolled by servicemen with M-16s. Raisable spike strips lie on either side of the gatehouse in conjunction with large concrete barriers. The entire perimeter of the base, often more than ten miles, is lined with razor wire-topped fencing.

The actual base itself is a crude caricature of American suburbia. The streets are wide - a direct contrast to Japan - there is lots of green lawn, and American flags fly from poles in front of houses. Driving down the street feels much like down an American street, only of the wrong side of the road. Almost every car you pass on the street is an old beater - not many soldiers invest in cars when they could be shipped out to anywhere else in the world with two weeks notice. Most bases still boast a small dealership, however, should a few soldiers decide that they want an American car like a Mustang. Every single building on a base is painted the same color, cream. I assume that this is because a) it is easier to order just one color of paint, b)the American taxpayers aren’t paying for different color paint, c) it is somewhat confusing to potential terrorists, and d) it makes it really hard to tell one building from another in an aerial photograph.

Commerce on base is always a big attraction to American visitors. Most shopping on base is done at the commissary, the military (and oddly enough, prison) term for a store equivalent to something like a SuperTarget that stocks everything from American foods to computer systems to clothes and CDs. Military personnel are of course allowed off base, and I’m sure many did grocery shopping off-base as well. The commissary boasts tax-free merchandise and is normally off-limits to civilians. Only if you were very lucky and knew people could you get into the commissary.

For the rest of us, the restaurants were usually good enough. Most bases have a food court that is home to several different American fast food joints like Taco Bell, Burger King, Sbarro, or Popeye’s. The four that I just mentioned have no franchises in Japan, so on base is the only place you can enjoy them. All of these restaurants, and indeed, most base commerce in general, is run by native people, in this case Japanese. I assume this is because the turnover rate is so high that in order to not be constantly retraining people the shops and restaurants hire locally. Ironically, ordering a Whopper from a person who speaks broken English no doubt aids in reminding the service men and women of their American homeland.

When it comes to dining off-base for American servicemen and women, though, there can be some hiccups. Unless they have been stationed there for a long time, most soldiers don’t bother to learn the local language. Bases of course offer Japanese classes that teach you how to interact on a very basic social level, how to order food, and some phrases that are useful should you choose to travel. Despite these allowances and opportunities, there are still some restrictions for soldiers even when they travel off-base. There is a strip of bars, called Bar Row, near Yokota Air Force Base that soldiers are forbidden to frequent between 2 a.m. and 8 a.m. Local customs, language barriers, and base restrictions discourage many soldiers from interacting with the Japanese community around them, leaving them only the entertainment found on base.

Of which there is very little. Most bases do have at least one theater that may show three or four different movies, a community center, an Officers Club, and maybe a bowling alley, but for the most part are devoid of the usual American hotspots that one usually associates with nightlife.

All of this melds to create a singly depressing on-base experience once one gets over the initial excitement. There is really not much to do, and since freedoms are rather restricted on-base (such as a civilian dress-code), unless one learns the local language, activities become severely restricted. I’m sure that this is not the type of lifestyle that the Army recruiters like to highlight.

There are of course perks to military life such as free medical, dental, and almost zero living expenses. But based on the people I have talked to, this does not make up for the strictly regimented lifestyle pervasive on many military bases. Based on the experiences I’ve had, I would not want to join the military, nor would I advise anyone else to. Living abroad in a caricature of the American life is not an experience that I would like to have.


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