Mike Davis on the empire that came in from the cold

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I flew over Greenland once — or so the pilot announced on the plane’s loudspeaker system — and looked down to glimpse what seemed like a giant sheet of white edged by green, the white of icy dreams. Dreams are about as close as most of us are likely to get to Greenland, without at least the help of Mike Davis. The following piece by Davis, author most recently of Dead Cities as well as Ecology of Fear and City of Quartz among other works, takes us about as far from Iraq as you can get without, in a sense, going anywhere. We Americans so easily forget that we’ve garrisoned the earth, north to south, east to west. There’s nowhere that, it seems, hasn’t been deemed crucial for some set of bases needed for some critical “defensive” task — in the case of Greenland, bizarre as it might seem, the task of militarizing the skies. Tom

Bush’s Ultimate Thule
By Mike Davis

In the early summer of 1951, a group of Inuit hunters, guiding a French anthropologist, returned to their homes at Thule in the northwest of Greenland after a daring expedition to Canada’s Ellesmere Island. When they had left the year before, Thule was one of the most remote communities on earth: twenty igloos and a trading post established in 1910 by Greenland’s national hero, Knud Rasmussen, to provide a base for his famed ethnographic explorations.

As they crossed the still frozen sea they were stunned by an extraordinary “mirage.” “A city of hangers and tents, of sheet metal and aluminum, glittering in the sun amid smoke and dust, rose up in front of us on a plain that only yesterday had been deserted.” In their absence, an American armada of 120 ships and 12,000 men — the biggest amphibious operation since D-Day — had taken possession of North Star Bay. Without any consultation with Thule’s residents, the Pentagon was transforming their fox hunting grounds into a bomber base for the nuclear war that seemed imminent as U.S. and Chinese armies clashed head-on in Korea.

In 1953, in order to make room for a new Nike missile battery, the American commander gave the Inuit but four days to evacuate their homes. They were forcibly exiled to a new village — “instant slum” in the opinion of some — 125 miles away. Danish and American officials lied to the world that the move had been “voluntary.” Now, half a century later, their grandchildren, many of them members of the socialist Inuit Ataqatigiit Party (IA), have become arguably the biggest roadblock to Washington’s “Star Wars” fantasy of global omnipotence.

As in the early Cold War, Thule’s top-of-the-world location, peeking over the pole at Central Asia and the Middle East, is again deemed one of the Pentagon’s most important geopolitical assets. The Bush administration argues that the National Missile Defense (NDM) initiative urgently demands the upgrading of the huge BMEWS radar installations at Thule and Fylingdale in England.

London’s subservience, of course, was immediately forthcoming; while Copenhagen, although more discreet, also signaled its willingness to barter Thule, as in the past, in return for some small gratuities. But Nuuk, the tiny Home Rule capital of Kalaaallit Nunaat (as its people call Greenland), has so far refused to be conscripted into “this insane project.”

Indeed, in a historic election last December, a majority of Greenlanders voted for an anti-NMD coalition of the social-democratic Siumut and radical IA parties, whose representatives are pledged to oppose any unilateral Danish deal over Thule and to accelerate progress toward complete independence. This shift to the left, in defiance of both Copenhagen and Washington, is a remarkable development, rooted in a bitter and little understood colonial experience.

The Pentagon Colony

Although the Danes established a theocratic colonialism in southwestern Greenland in the early eighteenth century, the east coast Inuit were not “discovered” until the 1880s and the Thule region remained self-governing (even with its own postage stamps) until the 1930s. In the same decade, general diplomatic recognition of the Danish claim to the whole island, long contested by Norway, coincided with reconnaissance of Greenland’s air routes by German, British and American military planners. (One German “explorer” of the period was an assassin of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebnecht.)

In spring 1941, President Roosevelt, worried as much by a proposed Canadian landing as any German invasion, extended the Monroe Doctrine to Greenland, which soon became the largest span in the famous air bridge used to ferry B-17s and B-24s to England. A country that the Danes had kept as isolated from the outside world as Tibet was overwhelmed in a few months by thousands of GIs in seventeen bases along both southern coasts. With Denmark a German satellite, Greenland became an American military colony.

After the war, the Pentagon was keen to retain control over the “world’s biggest aircraft carrier” and pressed the Truman administration to buy Greenland from Denmark. Eventually, Washington settled for the next best thing: a 1951 treaty that gave the U.S. Strategic Air Command (SAC) free reign to use Thule as a launching pad for Armageddon. In the fall of 1956, Thule-based B-47s made repeated deep incursions into Soviet airspace (Operation Home Run) that were designed to push Kremlin nerves to the limit. Later Curtis Le May, the singularly sinister commander of SAC, wistfully recollected that “with a bit of luck we could have gotten World War Three started back then.”

In 1961 SAC commanders almost ordered a nuclear strike after they lost contact with Thule due to a technical glitch that they misinterpreted as a Soviet attack. Seven years later, a B-52B armored with four hydrogen bombs caught fire and crashed offshore of Thule. Although the Air Force insisted that it eventually recovered all the bombs, local salvage workers have always claimed that one bomb was never found. In 2001, the Independent corroborated their account (missing bomb serial number 78252) and estimated that 12 kilograms of plutonium had escaped into the ecosystem. According to the Thule Workers Association, representing Greenlanders who worked on the salvage effort, that would explain high local incidences of cancer as well as bizarre phenomena like seals without hair and musk oxen with deformed hooves.

Although the B-52s were finally withdrawn from Thule during the Vietnam War and the big US bases at Narsarsuaq and Kangerlusuaq were closed down, the Pentagon never cleaned up its mess. Nor, for that matter, has the complicit colonial landlord, Denmark, bothered to protest. Yet, as Greenpeace has documented, there is massive toxicity and environmental blight in the archipelago of abandoned US airbases and radar stations.

The Danish Slum

In the 1951 Treaty for the Protection of Greenland, the quid pro quo for the Pentagon’s militarization of the high Arctic was a strict prohibition on contact between Americans and Greenlanders. To ensure permanent Danish hegemony over the indigenous population, Greenland became part of the metropolis in 1953: a status, as in “French” Algeria, which aggravated rather than ameliorated civic inequalities.

Over the next generation, Greenlanders — including the exiled hunters of Thule — were subjected to a coercive and paternalistic “modernization” which radically dislocated their culture. The Danish strategy was to concentrate the populations of scores of outlying fishing villages and hunting camps into a few “efficient” centers around large canneries and administrative complexes.

Ruggedly independent Arctic hunters — now unemployed — were rehoused in multi-story concrete tenements while their kids studied Danish and their wives worked as cleaners or on fish-processing lines. Skilled and professional work was generally reserved for highly paid strata of imported contract workers — the true beneficiaries of the soaring subsidies that the Danish Right loves to complain about.

Copenhagen’s policies acted in tandem with the political economy of the American bases (with their demand for service labor, their prodigious waste, and their celebration of consumerism) to catastrophically urbanize Inuit culture. One state-sanctioned result has been a plague of addictions. In contemporary Greenland, 56,000 people smoke 120 million cigarettes and drink 40 million cans of beer per year. Likewise, with only 15,000 residents, modern Nuuk manages to emulate southcentral L.A.: with angry graffiti on slab apartment walls, gang fights in the alleys, and hash dealers prowling in custom snowmobiles.

Greenlanders, highly conscious of their communitarian past and heroic way of life, have fought back hard against both American and Danish colonialism. Home Rule in 1979 was both a concession to Greenlandic nationalism and an attempt to neo-colonialize Danish domination through new Copenhagen-educated Inuit elites. The spanner in the works was the IA: a political formation created by an Inuit New Left inspired by Vietnam and the anti-colonial revolutions of the 1970s.

The IA (the party to which Smila belongs in the famous novel) is sometimes described as the Greenlandic counterpart to Denmark’s centrist Socialist Peoples’ Party, but its program is highly original: traditionalist, pan-Inuit, Green and Red at the same time. IA played a leading role in the creation of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, an activist NGO that acts as a shadow government for 152,000 Inuit people in four countries and anticipates the IA’s dream of a peoples’ Arctic without atomic bombs, addiction, or pollution.

Last December it was widely expected that the IA would surpass social-democratic Siumut as Greenland’s largest party. It narrowly failed to do so only because Siumut’s leadership was captured by Hanns Enoksen, an independence advocate who deposed longtime party leader and prime minister Johanthan Motzfeldt after the latter attended the NATO summit in Prague.

But the new Siumut-IA coalition government headed by Enoksen self-destructed in January only weeks after its formation. Foreign papers caricatured the crisis as the result of a Siumut official’s employment of a traditional “sorcerer” to exorcise government buildings of evil spirits. In fact, the IA walked out – as it had several years earlier – over growing corruption and favoritism in the government. Siumut promptly formed a new government with the neo-colonial Atassut Party which shares Copenhagen’s willingness to deal with Washington over Star Wars.

But the IA’s break with Enoksen only strengthens its claim to be the sole genuine voice of Greenlandic self-determination. Moreover it continues to fiercely oppose Washington’s plans for the re-militarization of the Arctic. As Johan Olsen, one of the IA leaders, told the European Parliament last year: “Greenland must not participate in any horse-trading deal with the USA with reference to furthering the American wish to upgrade the Thule radar It is our opinion that is necessary to declare the Arctic as a demilitarized, weapons free zone.”

Mike Davis is the author of City of Quartz, Ecology of Fear, and most recently, Dead Cities, among other works. He now lives in San Diego but has recently visited Greenland.

Copyright Mike Davis