America Town: Building the Outposts of Empire.

Author:Loftus, Gerald J.
Position::Critical essay
 
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America Town: Building the Outposts of Empire. By Mark L. Gillem (University of Minnesota Press, September 1, 2007, 350 pages, $24.95)

For a unique study of "American empire" from the perspective of an architect with a keen historical sense and a holistic approach to planning, America Town is a worthy addition to the corpus of work on the subject. It's not just the thoughtful prose; there are black & white photos, drawings, and maps aplenty in America Town. Mark Gillem is a professor of architecture at the University of Oregon, and his recent book about the footprint of American military installations around the world is a very interesting take on a subject that has gotten much less dispassionate and erudite focus over the past seven years in the hands of less rigorous authors.

Mark Gillem is an architect with a difference: Lt. Col. Gillem of the Air Force Reserve has spent upwards of twenty years on active duty and the reserves, and knows personally of what he writes. Though he continues to serve his country, he is not uncritical. Gillem is disturbed by the implications of the "empire" as it is seen by the foreign hosts of our numerous bases and forts.

A look at his bibliography shows that Gillem has gone far beyond journeyman architectural or planning tomes: Andrew Bacevich, Niall Ferguson, Chalmers Johnson, and Edward Said, among many others, inform his reading of empire, and his reach is encyclopedic. I found his study of British garrisons in the Indian Raj to be among the best-researched chapters of his book, especially the parallels between such eighteenth and nineteenth century colonial practices as "cantonment" of brothels to service His or Her Majesty's soldiers, and the modern "America Towns" (actually, the name of a South Korean honky-tonk neighborhood adjacent to an air base) that have sprung up in the wake of an expanding modern empire.

There are times when you want Dr. Gillem to use terms like "spatial impacts" and "density patterns" a bit more sparingly, but the book is mercifully free of too much technical jargon. There are some chapters--especially where he drills down into the minutiae of space planning at bases in Italy and East Asia--that bear skimming (unless you're an area specialist), but much of America Town makes fascinating reading.

Dr. Gillem is, I think, too self-deprecating when he says that his "intent is not to analyze grand imperial strategies." Yes, he is essentially embarrassed by what he sees as a massive...

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