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A Black and Disgraceful Site

1.

In the very lowest reaches of organized English soccer, in the bottom division of the amateur Crawley and District Football League, there is a team whose name sets it apart from its rivals. They are identified with their home villages in Sussex in southeast England: Ifield, Maidenbower, Worth. But this team has a name replete with an altogether different history. It is Chagos Island.

The soccer club is one of the few visible signs of a community of former subjects of the British Empire who now live in what they rarely thought of as “the mother country”—clustered, to be precise, in the unlovely exurbs around Gatwick airport. They, or their forebears, lived once in the Chagos archipelago, a string of more than sixty white-sanded, palm-fringed coral islands that are tiny dots on a map of the Indian Ocean, halfway between Africa and Indonesia. Many of these Chagossians trace their roots back to the archipelago’s largest and best-known island: Diego Garcia.

To explain how they come to be living in Crawley, many of them working menial janitorial jobs in and around the airport, is to tell one of the more shocking tales of modern-day imperialism. It is a story of an old empire passing the torch to the new, Britain handing over one of its furthest-flung territories to the United States and expelling the native inhabitants to make way for the construction of a military base that has since become central to US control of the Indian Ocean and domination of the Persian Gulf. It is the tale of how a remote island idyll was simply emptied of its people, allowing for the creation of a place so secret that no journalist has been allowed to visit,1 a key staging post in George W. Bush’s war on terror, both the launch pad for the B-1s, B-2 “stealth” bombers, and B-52s that pounded Afghanistan and Iraq and a crucial node in the CIA’s rendition system, a “black site” through which at least two high-value suspected terrorists were spirited, far from the prying eyes of international law.

This is the story laid bare in Island of Shame, a meticulously researched, coldly furious book that details precisely how London and Washington colluded in a scheme of population removal more redolent of the eighteenth or nineteenth century than the closing decades of the twentieth. It reconstructs, memo by memo, how the deed was plotted, how it was done, and how it was denied through lies told to both politicians and public. Above all, it serves as a case study for the way contemporary empire operates, exploding the myth that the United States differs from its British, Spanish, and Roman predecessors by eschewing both the brute conquest of land and the dispossession of those unfortunate enough to get in the way.

2.

David Vine is an anthropologist by training, hired by lawyers for the Chagossian people to set down, for the first time, a detailed account of their fate. He has not let them down. He has raked through the archives in the United Kingdom and the United States, reading diplomatic cables and internal Defense Department memoranda. But he has also embedded himself in the slums of Mauritius where many of the islanders were first dumped and where most now live—only a small minority went to England—and mastered the distinct Chagos Kreol dialect in which the older survivors of the expulsion still recall their lives.

They remember a paradise island. That their ancestors were either enslaved Africans or indentured south Indians—the victims of an earlier empire and its desire to control the Indian Ocean—did not prevent them from developing a deep attachment to the islands they called home. Even discounting for the rose-colored vision of exile, they recall a place of lush plenty, easy kinship, and relative freedom. They were the employees of a conglomerate that ran the islands as an extended coconut plantation, but they were also the subjects of British imperial power, via the colonial administration of Mauritius, who, though they elsewhere exercised a tight grip, ruled Chagos with a looser rein. That was thanks in part to the islands’ remoteness from anywhere else: “neighboring” Mauritius is 1,200 miles away.

Throughout the book, Vine quotes Rita Bancoult, who was born in 1928 and whose son, Olivier Bancoult, leads the Chagos Refugees Group. “You had your house—you didn’t have rent to pay,” she tells Vine, recalling how, when the sea was at low tide, her dog would catch fish in his mouth and bring them back to her. The men would harvest the coconuts; the women would shell them, usually completing their task by midday. Then they would either tend their gardens, growing squash, chili peppers, and eggplant, or “hunt for other seafood, including…lobster, octopus, sea cucumber, and turtles.” Saturday night was sega night, when the villagers would gather around a bonfire:

Under the moon and stars, drummers on the goat hide–covered ravanne would start tapping out a slow, rhythmic beat. Others would begin singing, dancing, and joining in….

As Rita recalls, “Life there paid little money, a very little…but it was the sweet life.”

The islands’ rulers shared that view. “Funny little places!” wrote Sir Hilary Blood, former colonial governor of Mauritius, “But how lovely!” The landscape turned him lyrical: “Coconut palms against the bluest of skies, their foliage blown by the wind into a perfect circle…. Its beauty is infinite.”

Trouble came to this paradise in the late 1950s, when Stu Barber, a bright American naval analyst, dreamed up what would become known as the Strategic Island Concept. Barber understood that in the era of decolonization, retaining US bases on other nations’ soil would work in places where the host governments were pliant: Britain, Germany, Japan. But in geopolitical hotspots, local populations were bound to chafe against an armed US presence. They had already done so in Trinidad and Tobago, which celebrated independence by getting rid of US bases. Yet the US could not simply retreat from tricky parts of the world. To do so would invite the Communist enemy, whether Chinese or Soviet, to fill the vacuum. Barber hit on a solution that would allow the US to continue projecting its power across the globe without the complicating presence of other people: islands, especially those with next to no inhabitants.

Barber and his colleagues had only to look at a map to see that Diego Garcia was perfect. Its location was “within striking distance of potential conflict zones,” enabling the US to reach both Asia and the Persian Gulf. In focusing on the Indian Ocean, Barber showed more foresight than even he probably realized. In an article in the March–April 2009 issue of Foreign Affairs, the military analyst Robert D. Kaplan wrote that “the Indian Ocean is where global struggles will play out in the twenty-first century.” Citing both the surge in piracy off the coast of Somalia and last year’s terror attacks in Mumbai, as well as the strategic value of the ocean to the rising powers India and China, Kaplan argued that “the world’s third-largest body of water” has now replaced both the Atlantic and Pacific as “center stage” in international relations.2

Not only was Diego Garcia in a vital place, the V-shaped atoll formed a natural harbor and there was room for a large airstrip, too—all under the control of America’s most loyal ally. Best of all, the population was such that it could be written off, in CIA-speak, as NEGL: “negligible.” Barber urged the Navy to snap the place up before it, and other conveniently placed islands, were lost to decolonization forever.

So began a fifteen-year effort that would pursue two goals: winning the support of the US government and securing the permission of Chagos’s imperial ruler, the United Kingdom. Vine’s account makes clear that the latter quest was much the easier of the two. The British simply rolled over, gladly agreeing to “lend” the islands to the US to be used however the Americans saw fit, with the UK retaining only the most nominal sovereignty. (The Union flag still flies and apparently a red telephone box is on show, but functionally this is US soil: cars drive on the right-hand side of the road.)

London’s motive was clear enough. Drained by World War II and rapidly retreating from empire, it could no longer afford to police the Indian Ocean the way it had since the Napoleonic Wars. Better to hand the island over to its richer, stronger ally and retain at least some involvement than to pull out altogether and watch the Communist enemy step in. To sweeten the pill still further, Washington took $14 million off the bill Britain owed the US for its supposedly independent nuclear weapon, the Polaris missile. For that money, Britain was expected to leave the islands in the condition the US wanted to find them: pristinely empty of human habitation.

On this point Washington could not have been more explicit: a British official note of talks with US counterparts stated that the United States wanted the islands under its “exclusive control (without local inhabitants).” Later, in 1971, the US chief of naval operations, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, responded to a memo on the people of Diego Garcia with three clear words: “Absolutely must go.” The British were told that they were to be responsible for the expulsion—thereby handing Washington an albeit thin form of deniability and the chance to avoid any unpleasant questions from the United Nations, then animated by postcolonial notions of the rights of indigenous peoples to self-determination.

The executive and legislative branches of the US government posed much stiffer resistance to the dreams of Stu Barber and his Long-Range Objectives Group. By charting the bureaucratic battles involved, Vine provides an anatomy of bureaucratic decision-making in the US, a guide whose instructive value is not confined to the specific case of the Chagos Islands.

What becomes clear is that doggedness is the primary quality of any Beltway warrior. The Strategic Island Concept found its champion in Paul Nitze, who, even when rebuffed by his boss at the Department of Defense, Robert McNamara, would not let the idea drop. He simply presented the scheme in new language, with new budgets or a new rationale. Once offered as a communications facility, Diego Garcia was reproposed as a refueling station for ships. Sheer persistence eventually wore down the resistance of the Pentagon, the executive branch, and Congress.

In Vine’s persuasive telling, it is from the expansionist instincts of the military services, rather than the conscious decisions of civilian policymakers, that the imperialist project draws much of its energy. It is the military brass’s reflexive empire-building that builds an empire.

If the Diego Garcia case is typical, then deception is a central part of the imperial modus operandi. The advocates of the Chagos scheme never came clean. They promised it would be “austere,” conjuring images of an isolated listening post, when in fact even the first budget request sought funds for an eight-thousand-foot airstrip, seventeen-mile road network, movie theater, gym, and small nightclub.

  1. 1

    Save for one fleeting exception in 2007, when reporters traveling with George W. Bush stopped on Diego Garcia for ninety minutes as Air Force One, en route from Iraq to Australia, refueled: the traveling press were confined to an auditorium, lest they glimpse what no journalist has been allowed to see.

  2. 2

    See Robert D Kaplan, “Center Stage for the Twenty-first Century: Power Plays in the Indian Ocean,” Foreign Affairs, March/April 2009. In explaining the importance of the Indian Ocean, Kaplan notes that its western reaches “include the tinderboxes of Somalia, Yemen, Iran, and Pakistan—constituting a network of dynamic trade as well as a network of global terrorism, piracy, and drug smuggling. Hundreds of millions of Muslims…live along the Indian Ocean’s eastern edges, in India and Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia.” He adds that 90 percent of global commerce still travels by sea, with fully half of the world’s container traffic—and 70 percent of the total trade in petroleum products—passing through the Indian Ocean.

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