The US forces in our country

On 17 of November Barack Obama touched down in Darwin for a visit that sent Darwin into a tailspin. The visit had been announced weeks earlier, giving Darwin time to spruce up for the visit. This included painting all the public benches on The Esplanade, where Obama was going to pay tribute to the US sailors who were killed when the Japanese bombed the USS Peary in 1942. It also included moving all the ‘Longgrassers’ (itinerant people, mainly Aboriginal, who congregate on the green grass, under shady trees during the day) out of town.

The Esplanade also happens to be above Lamaroo Beach, which is a sacred site for The Larrakia women and one of the few sources of natural fresh water in Darwin. Not that Obama would have been aware of any of this.

The eagerly anticipated visit gave Chief Minister Paul Henderson the chance to give Obama free croc insurance and some art from the Tiwi islands, thus reinforcing the idea that Darwin is still living off the back of Crocodile Dundee and Aboriginal art. No doubt the irony of giving Obama some Aboriginal art, while simultaneously ensuring he didn’t see any Aboriginal people sitting around The Esplanade, was lost on most.

The visit also gave rise to a great level of disinformation, with the announcement that Obama would be at The Esplanade at 2pm being trumpeted for days, only to find he got there sometime after 4. The professionalism of this piece of disinformation was only surpassed by the fact that the real Obama itinerary had been found laying in a gutter earlier that day in Canberra.

His 4pm visit to The Esplanade, being just before knock-off time for most public servants, caused chaos on the roads. All roads anywhere near the vicinity of the airport were closed down, in case some teenager with a laser light managed to bring Airforce One down. Traffic was piled up; cars could be seen doing u-turns to flee the gridlock. They were hoping a glimpse of Airforce One; or possibly even be splattered by a turd from the great man himself, who no doubt would have purged himself before another engagement with the simpering Julia, or moronic chief minister.

The real reason for his visit was not to shake Paul Henderson’s hand, or to give Julia another photo op, or even to mourn the loss of American sailor’s lives in WW2. The real reason was to announce the stationing of 2500 Marines in Darwin. To dispel any fears people may have about an influx of American troops the fact that the initial deployment would only be 250 troops was trumpeted more than any analysis of the reality of what would be the creation of a US base in Darwin.

The troops are to be stationed at Robertson Barracks, the main Australian army base 20ks outside of Darwin. This gives the impression that the Australian and American troops will be bunking down together like some big happy family. I sincerely doubt this will be the case. The marines may occupy the land at the barracks but you can bet they’ll have their own barracks, own protocols and own mess hall.

Initially the Marines are supposed to be on six-month rotations but that’s as likely to last as long as Kevin Rudd was Prime Minister. Once they’re here the policy will change, they always do.

In reality Darwin will have 2500 Marines, possibly more, stationed here for an indefinite time. Paul Henderson waffled on about how it’d be good for the economy, which is the only line he seems to be able to say about anything. Henderson has repeatedly shown that the only thing he sees as important is the economy; social ramifications are meaningless in his world. In fact he often sounds like Margret Thatcher proclaiming there is no such thing as society, only economy.

Most business owners said the same thing, dreaming of tills full of American dollars and some locals were excited that an American supermarket might open up in Darwin, as if Peanut Butter and Jelly, Twinkies and deep fried butter was gourmet cuisine.

The initial reason Obama gave for the deployment of Marines to Darwin was for humanitarian and disaster relief. This line has not been repeated since its initial justification. No doubt the Australian and American governments quickly realised no-one would be stupid enough to believe that, least of all our SE Asian neighbours. Why would you deploy marines, a military service reputed to be one of the toughest and well-trained of all US services, to do disaster relief. Surly UN troops or the peace corp would be more appropriate. Anyway when has anyone ever seen Marines do disaster relief?

Anyway that lie soon went the way of Kim Carr and nothing more was said about anything to do with the 2500 marines soon to be based in Darwin.

There has been no discussion on how these Marine are to be accommodated within Darwin society and what problems they may bring to an already socially toxic environment.

The environment I’m talking about is Mitchell St, Darwin’s only nightclub strip. A place already infamous for its violence, drunken excesses, and vile behaviour. A place the police struggle to have any control over between Thursday and Sunday night, a place where drunken Australian soldiers make up a significant number of patrons, involved in much of the violence and anti-social behaviour. All this in a town that has a higher proportion of men to women, and the women are leaving in droves because they can’t find any good men.

Throw into that volatile mix, say, 500 marines who may be off base at any one time and the battle of Brisbane will look like a schoolyard rumble.

Of course Darwin is no stranger to US military personnel. US ships often dock in Darwin to give sailors R&R, with sometimes tragic results.

Such behaviour was common in Okinawa, where US troops raped women and girls on what seems to be a regular basis, and again the culprits were spirited away by the US military.

In places where there are US bases the US military has jurisdiction over the local law. In effect, American military personnel embody American sovereignty wherever they go. As far as I’m aware there has been no discussion of jurisdiction over marines who break Australian laws, especially laws above misdemeanours. This is a discussion that needs to happen.

This is not to say all American marines will be rapists, most won’t. They will be coming to a place that already has more men than woman, a place where the average age is under 35, a place where alcohol abuse is significantly higher than anywhere else in Australia, where it’s endorsed as a lifestyle choice, and a place that is highly misogynistic. The effect the marines will have on Darwin society has the potential to be damaging and dangerous. They could be the gasoline poured onto the fire of Darwin society, but all the government is doing is counting the dollars and waxing lyrical about alliances.

The basing of marines here is no more than America pissing on what it thinks is its patch of SE Asia, and making sure the arc is big enough for all to see, especially China. Indonesia claims its in contravention of the Lombok Treaty and really makes it clear that Australia is not the deputy sheriff of the region, but the goofy offsider, the Cletus to America’s Boss Hogg. It’s an ill thought-out strategy that will set back Australian SE Asian relations years, and will likely turn Darwin into a lawless R&R camp for American marines.

Rohan Wightman

Rohan Wightman is a Darwin-based writer & teacher. He’s been shortlisted for the NT literary awards four times, including this year. He has been published in Going Down Swinging and has been shortlisted in a few other writing comps and won a few less well-known comps. He started writing when he was young but really hit his stride when writing for Squat It, the magazine of the Squatters Union of Victoria, in the late 80s. He has piles of manuscripts but no publisher. His under construction website is

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  1. I loved your article! It was very spot on. I’m a 26 year old local woman and seen it all (american military in & out our city)

    Ive worked studied lived in the US and Australians and Americans aren’t that distant in terms of western culture

    Darwin is the kind of place where locals wont even make their own party unless there is a great venue to go to.

    The main spotlight on the american marines is their affect on single local ladies.single women from down south are making plans to live in Darwin already.
    judging by the negative comments on local women it goes to show why Darwin girls go for Americans!

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