Lessons of Okinawa


Published By

The New York Times

30 July, 2003

fsi logo vertical rgb

As the American military extends its stay in postwar Iraq, the risks of political and social friction will rise. Inevitably, there will be clashes; protests erupted in May, for example, when soldiers searching for troublemakers in one town intruded on unveiled women. To keep the occupation of Iraq from ending in bitterness, American officials will have to reach out to residents both economically and politically.

To that end, they might want to consider the long-term occupation of another place where Americans haven't been universally welcomed: Okinawa. This island witnessed the bloodiest battle of World War II, losing a third of its population. The American military administered the island until 1972, when it reverted to Japanese rule. Today, 24,000 American troops are stationed there, and the military occupies one-fifth of the land.

There is a tradition of antimilitarism on the island, fed in part by the horrors of the Battle of Okinawa, and there is an active movement to evict the American troops. Yet most islanders get along well with the service members, and anti-American violence is rare. Three important lessons can be drawn from Okinawa for the American presence in postwar Iraq.

First and most obvious, commanders must do everything possible to stop criminal or just plain disorderly conduct by American personnel. Military officials on Okinawa realized the importance of this when protests arose in 1995 after three servicemen raped a 12-year-old Okinawan girl. The officials responded by establishing intensive educational campaigns that instilled the importance of good community relations in service members and their families. Personnel are now checked for drunkenness as they enter and leave the bases, and unarmed patrols in areas where G.I.'s socialize discourage bad behavior.

These measures appear to be helping: the military says American personnel and their families commit 1 percent of the crimes on the island, even though they are 4 percent of the population. And while protests against the bases continue, tensions have eased considerably since 1995.

While it's vital to discourage crime, it's also important to be seen as an actively beneficial presence. The second lesson of Okinawa is that the United States should try to contribute to the local economy, and to spread its largess.

American bases in Okinawa provide thousands of jobs to locals. The Americans are consumers too, keeping small businesses afloat. The islanders who lease the land for the bases collect above-market rents, and local governments get public works money from Tokyo as a side payment for bearing the "basing burden." That means a critical mass of Okinawans is reluctant to see the American bases disappear. To build goodwill in Iraq, officials should ensure that many different local interests profit from the American presence.

The third lesson is that American officials should establish strong lines of communication with the local authorities, not just with national officials - especially if, as on Okinawa, they represent a distinct ethnic group. To give islanders more of a voice, there is a tripartite committee for Okinawan, American and Japanese officials to discuss base-related matters. In Iraq, community representatives must likewise be included in base negotiations, especially in the Kurdish north and Shiite south.

As part of these efforts, a vigorous volunteer program like the one on Okinawa - involving everything from teaching in local schools to assisting the disabled - can help convince residents that American troops are on their side. Rebuilding security will be the greatest long-term challenge in postwar Iraq. Learning from the United States experience on Okinawa can help ensure the success of the Iraqi occupation, enabling the troops to come home all the more quickly.

Share This Publication