Where in the world is our military?
Our nation recently suffered a severe, heart-wrenching tragedy in the heart of Africa. Four young American troops were killed in an ambush attack, and several others were wounded. I recently met with one of the wounded warriors of the Special Forces team caught in that Niger firefight. He was fortunate to return home, and I was privileged to speak with him. As he told me about his military experience, I could not help but be inspired by his dedication, pride and firm belief in the United States’ mission to deter war and protect the security of our nation.
If asked, most of us tend to think of U.S. troops abroad as primarily engaged in Afghanistan and Iraq, with certain traditional forward bases in South Korea, Japan and Germany. In reality, American soldiers are positioned all over the world — from Thailand to Burkina Faso, Honduras to the Philippines, Kosovo to Singapore — committed to a vast number of operations in often far-flung and unknown outposts. Dedicated men and women serve on land, in the air and hundreds of feet below the surface of the sea in submarines.
The pain of any harm inflicted on our soldiers, like the soldier I met from Niger, calls us to better understand the extent and nature of how our armed forces serve across the globe. Per the Pentagon’s Base Structure Report and other sources, our soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen are serving in 182 of the world’s 195 countries, on over 800 military bases, at various radar facilities and in small cooperative security locations (or “lily pads”), both confirmed and unconfirmed. The U.S. Army alone has 111,000 soldiers serving in 134 nations. Our Navy has 47,000 sailors deployed to every ocean and 98 countries, while 41,000 Marines serve at sea and ashore in 120 countries. The U.S. Air Force has 79,000 personnel in 133 countries. And our National Guard and reserves contribute an additional 42,000 citizen soldiers from almost every community in America. Stories of sacrifice occur 365 days a year.
Reasonable questions arise about the size, necessity and cost of such an extensive military footprint. In Washington, movements of political elites have long sought to use our military to further realize certain views about expanding economic domain and projecting power. Others believe isolationism to be the right response. Both perspectives are incomplete and potentially dangerous.
The proper model of engagement requires strong defense capacity, smart leadership and a disposition to authentic friendship. America should not be the world’s policeman, and indeed few want America to be the world’s policeman. Yet immense security and stabilization problems around the world compel us to engage, sometimes forcefully. A new way forward in foreign affairs, which I call foreign policy realism, combines military, diplomatic and economic regeneration in partnership with willing nations that are positioning to develop their own capacity for sustaining their own security and well-being.
Our military’s supporting work abroad can create the conditions for the continued flourishing of societies, and that is the basis for security. The world needs us — it’s a heavy reality. We just ask: Don’t bite the hand of friendship.
In one potent example, a Yazidi man from northern Iraq lamented, “My people can’t go home.” He went on to say, “If just one American soldier were there to help us, we would have hope for a safe return.”
For all the stresses at home, and the sometimes fickle embrace of our nation abroad, it is still an undeniable fact: For those facing annihilation, deprivation, starvation or the destruction of civil society, the arrival of the American soldier is often the most welcome sight in the world. What a world of difference one American soldier can make.
Jeff Fortenberry, a Republican, represents Nebraska’s 1st Congressional District in the House of Representatives.