JUDY HEMMING. The US Marines in Darwin according to precedent: neither in the national, nor the local interest.

Aug 6, 2018

Australian Defence Policy, in lockstep with the US as regards “managing” the rise of China, embraces the deployment of US Marine to Darwin as being consistent with the national interest. Where the social fabric of the Northern Territory is concerned, however, the potential for Darwin to be just another locale to be trashed by the US military has not been sufficiently investigated.

In a relatively unobtrusive way (for most of the population anyway) Australia has provided another chapter in the history US colonialisation. On 24 July last, by way of a DFAT Joint Statement, it was announced that that number of US Marines rotating to Darwin will be raised to its full complement of 2,500 as quickly as possible. Both sides of politics welcome and applaud this in the context of the national need for a “great and powerful friend.”

Interestingly, it was direct repudiation of the timely advice proffered by the former Foreign Minister and now Chancellor of the Australian National University, Professor Gareth Evans, who, in his Inaugural Australia and the World Lecture just two weeks earlier, counselled the need for Australia to manage all of its foreign relationships, including those with the US, by being hard-nosed when it comes to the pursuit of the national interest. Though late, it is advice never more timely.

Lewis Lapham, one of the most astute, educated and insightful observers of US politics reminds us that, “[t]he American premise is an existential one, and our moral code is political, its object being to allow for the widest horizons of sight and the broadest range of expression.” 

Translation: In other words, protecting Australia only occurs in the context of US interests alone. This should be a commandment of Australian alliance policy – but history suggests that it is too easily forgotten.

Brushed over as well is the confusion as to China’s status: for the US it at the very least an adversary, and quite often, depending on the text or statement in question, an enemy. For Australia China is the source of a bipolar condition – the need to not significantly disagree with the US on matters strategic, alternating with the need to acknowledge China as the country’s premier market. They cannot be reconciled in the same body politic without eventually giving rise to a breakdown. 

In the interim the potential for other damage to Australia attracts almost no attention despite the fact that, with over 800 US bases and military installations in 70 countries, there is a growing body of disconcerting evidence. Arising from it is the question: what might be the deleterious social impact of having 2,500 on Australian soil given the extensive history of other such deployments? Sadly, it appears that this question was never seriously considered.

Under the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFAs) between host countries and the US, US defence personnel are protected from being subject to unfair prosecution brought by criminal/civil justice systems in the host country. While this seems fair and reasonable, the 1963 SOFA allows for offending US personnel to be charged under Australian law. At the same time, however, the presence of an option which provides for such personnel to be charged under US military law is the more likely to be operational. 

This becomes acutely relevant in light of the essential template for US military-related prostitution: the US-Philippines War (1899-1902) that assured the US military certified sexual access to the local women. 

Some would argue, however, that this no longer stands. In 2005 an Executive Order signed by President George W. Bush legislated against military personnel patronising prostitutes (sex workers). Under the same President there was an attempt to outlaw the term sex work[er] based on moral and ideological reasoning. The operating premise for these proscriptions was situated in the omnipresent violence of prostitution, and thus, the oppression of women – even when and where women consent to the occupation. 

Despite the EO, the empirical evidence is that the US military has allowed and even encouraged the development of a sex industry for the Rest & Recreation (R&R, aka by GIs as Intoxication and Intercourse) of troops. The Philippines, South Korea, Japan and Thailand are stark examples, but many others exist. 

A few examples might suffice – especially in a context which sees the intersection of poverty, human rights violations, and foreign militarism intersect: 


ï During the Vietnam War R&R was set up by Robert McNamara Department of Defense in an effort to maintain the morale of troops. By war’s end in 1975 an estimated 200,000 prostitutes had served them.

ï After the conflict in Bosnia clear evidence came to hand that UN peacekeepers and US military contractors were directly engaged in trafficking women and girls for sex. 

ï In Japan, in December 1995, three servicemen stationed on Okinawa were tried for the rape of a twelve-year-old Japanese girl. 

ï In 2003 the US military paid homage to the community in Pattaya because of the havoc created by the uniformed personnel during a fleet stayover. 

ï In June 2014, a group of women in South Korea sued their own government because their claim was they were trained as ‘patriots’ by it whereas in actual fact they were sex workers near US military bases. If they became infected with sexually-transmitted diseases, they were then incarcerated. Some of these women were also trafficked. 

ï Moreover, the sexual abuse within the US military itself, cannot be disregarded when considering the appropriateness of inviting US military personnel onto our soil. In 2017 sexual assault reports increased in the US military by nearly 10 percent. There were 6,769 reports in 2017 compared to 6,172 made in the year-before period. There was nearly 15 percent increase from 870 to 998 from 2016 to 2017 among the US Marine Corps.

An invariable rule emerges: wherever the U.S. military is, so too is a thriving sex industry and the incidence of sexual assault. The latter was acknowledged early on in the Deloitte Access Economics Report of 10 April 2013; as well, US Marine Colonel Daniel Hunter Wilson was removed from his Darwin liaison position in 2016 because of inappropriate behaviour toward a female Australian officer. 

For those saying that, overall, the economic benefits to the Northern Territory outweigh the so-called “frictional costs” or “externalities” just outlined might care to contemplate whether the increased infrastructure costs the US Marines require, and the real and potential social costs to the population in general, and women in particular, can be reconciled with the national interest. 

Tags: Australian Defence Policy, US Marines Darwin, Prostitution, Sex Work

 Judy Hemming is a Canberra-based independent scholar who has previously taught across the range of the Social and Policy Sciences; she has done extensive international field work on, and published in the areas of sex trafficking and military-related sex work.

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