Commentary: The Human Price of U.S. Military Strategy

The drone of helicopters and aircraft blare above the island of Okinawa, Japan at all hours of the day. As American military planes whir over schools and homes, the fear of falling debris looms over the local people.

The United States military presence in Okinawa continually and unnecessarily endangers the lives of civilians. Military crashes are routine: last winter, debris fell from an American military aircraft onto Midorigaoka Nursery School while 60 children were on campus, according to, a nonprofit that serves as an independent news source. Although no one was hurt, six days later, a 17-pound door fell off of a passing CH-53E aircraft and came down on the playground of Futenma Daini Elementary School, injuring a student.

Americans need to know about the effect that our military has on Okinawans, as well as the countless other native groups across the globe. With 3.2 million people working between the various branches of the military, the United States Department of Defense is the world’s largest employer, according to Forbes Magazine.

Okinawa is especially impacted by the magnitude of our military: The Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, which is located only 300 yards from Midorigaoka Nursery School, is the most dangerous base in the world, according to former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. There are no clear zones at the ends of the runway, which violates the Federal Aviation Administration standards. Homes, schools, and parks are directly next to the active military airstrip, putting these places at risk for accidents and crashes.

Not only are Okinawans physically endangered, but the American presence also contributes to Westernization and the destruction of the diverse ecosystem on the island. My grandfather is a native Okinawan; I have been to the beautiful beaches that are now at risk and have heard the language that is nearly extinct due to Westernization of their culture. 

The islanders, who were once known for their longevity, are now inundated with McDonald’s and other American fast food restaurants. It is lowering the life expectancy, according to the academic paper “Comments on Dietary Restriction, Okinawa Diet and Longevity.” The Westernization, combined with the Japanese government’s possession of Okinawa, means that the unique Okinawan culture, language, and ecosystem are slipping away.

It is possible for the United States to maintain its military presence in Japan and the Pacific without exploiting the Okinawan people. Rather than centering the American bases on Okinawa, which is not only the poorest, but one of the smallest prefectures in the country, the American government should redistribute some of the military installments to mainland Japan, which has more money and resources.

There is a plan to move the Futenma Base to Henoko, a less populated area of Okinawa. Although both the U.S. and Japanese governments insist that it is the only solution to solving the issues around Futenma, the new base will be built offshore in Oura Bay, harming a diverse marine ecosystem that has been described as one of the healthiest in East Asia. Endangered species such as sea turtles and dugongs, which are similar to manatees, live in the bay where the base is being constructed. The white sand beaches and diverse marine life are some of the greatest parts about Okinawa, and they are being destroyed by the land reclamation necessary to maintain. Land reclamation is not only being used to build the new base in Henoko, but it has been occurring across the island. The school where my aunt Niya Gima worked used to be on the beach; now, it is surrounded by land.

I understand the strategic importance of Okinawa — the increasing threat of North Korea makes the Okinawan bases vital to the American military. U.S. military activity, however,  is endangering civilians, destroying the natural beauty of the island, and the American presence is pushing out the rich culture.

Both conservative and liberal Okinawans oppose the American bases on the island. Conservative Okinawans believe that the base restricts the island’s economy, since it causes congestion, traffic, and air-restriction. Liberal islanders fear over-militarization and threats to the environment. Okinawans in general do not benefit from the bases, regardless of their political affiliation. 

The American military has an immense impact on the world because of its sheer magnitude. One of my aunt’s close friends visited Midorigaoka Nursery School after it had been hit by the debris. When he saw the children playing, he broke down in tears. He felt that the Japanese and American governments were willing to sacrifice the lives of Okinawan children in order to protect the lives of Japanese and American children. I believe that it is possible for the military to protect all three: our government just has to be willing to compromise.

Alexandra LeBaron is a three-year Upper from New Canaan, Conn., and an Associate News Editor for The Phillipian. Contact the author at