Published April 7, 2006
I have only been on one military base in my life, and when I tell my war-protesting friends about that experience, I feel I have to give an aside. Visiting Keflavík’s NATO base, even when America was at war, wasn’t a very militaristic experience.
As Paul Nikolov writes in this issue’s feature, the vibe in Keflavík is decidedly laid back. In fact, when I visited, two years ago, the base felt like a community college. Most of the soldiers I talked to were open about having political views that were to the left of the current administration, and it was the norm to hear people describe their stay in Iceland according to how many college credits they could earn while here.
The most amusing documentation of the surreal effect the base had on Icelandic life that I have come across was the recent documentary Bítlabærinn Keflavík. In the movie, we see how Keflavík, which had exposure to soldiers and soldiers’ record collections, brought rock music to Iceland. In a particularly amusing turn of the film, a soldier explains how he also undertook to bring LSD to Iceland, but decided against it, having seen how fearless the locals were with substances.
One consistently gets the impression that the Keflavík NATO base was essentially the predecessor to the Internet—the place the world came into Iceland. On its departure, one is tempted to look back wistfully.
In fact, coupled with the massive loss of jobs, and the immense new economic responsibilities Iceland has to undertake in the base’s absence, I have been silly enough to state, out loud, that allowing the base to leave is not a good thing for Iceland.
For a few days after I made such a comment, I was called everything short of Imperialist American Pig Dog… actually, I was called an Imperialist American Pig Dog. The only person who heard my viewpoint and took it easy on me was someone who lived in Keflavík, and who had a keen awareness of how many jobs were going to be lost.
Trying to understand how I came into such a conflict, I thumbed my way through the back issues of the Grapevine, back to the bone of contention I have always had with this paper: issue one. Issue one of the Grapevine presented a feature on the base written by the first editor, an intelligent and amusing novelist, journalist and musician named Valur Gunnarsson. Mr. Gunnarsson went to the Keflavík NATO base, and described it as the home of “Jackboots on Ice,” or, essentially, home to the modern day Nazis.
Since I took over the Grapevine, I have apologised for the comment a number of times. Yes, I feel President Bush and his administration have committed war crimes and their actions are inexcusable. In fact, I feel the current war is the blackest mark on the difficult history of American international policy, an action that it will take probably a century to attempt to rectify if and when the most powerful country in the world gets a leader with an IQ above room temperature, and a personality set to thoughtful, not rabid.
However, the soldiers I met at the Keflavík base have not been hateful people, nor have I heard or read inflammatory, dehumanising rhetoric from American sources, outside of one American television channel, Fox News, which is watched by a tiny percentage of Americans and a seemingly larger percentage of aghast Europeans.
I have always felt Mr. Gunnarsson’s comments were inexcusable. Until it came to putting out this issue.
The March 18th protests are covered in detail in this paper, and you can read about the films that were screened, and get some idea of how many members of the intelligentsia spoke up against Icelandic involvement in Iraq. If you are like me, when you read about Ari Alexander’s short film, you will wince and maybe even stop reading. Personally, I got a bit angry to see that Hallgrímur Helgason and Halla Gunnarsdóttir among others were putting their reputations behind a meeting that would show a film that was so propagandist—a film that focused on beheadings, rape and the other horrible faces of war. A short speech that followed the film stated the following: look what Iceland has contributed to.
The typical reaction to a film of beheadings and brutality of war shots is to say “Are your hands really so clean?” You can say any number of things about Icelandic policy in the last thousand years: there has been a tendency towards corruption, and those with power have tended to oppress the masses, there have been hundreds of years of starvation despite rich natural resources. But, for the last thousand years, Iceland did avoid doing any other nation any harm.
Then, in 1941, Iceland started housing the most powerful military in the world. And finally, in 2003, the most powerful military in the world coerced Iceland into signing on to an inexcusable war.
While I believe that the Keflavík base had a number of positive effects on Iceland, and while I believe the soldiers were, for the most part, good people, they were soldiers. Iceland wasn’t forced to house the Keflavík Diplomacy Centre, or Keflavík International University, but an installation with the specific job of making war, something Iceland has been opposed to for a thousand years.
In this light, extremist comments from locals and the refusal to shed a tear over the loss of long-time neighbours and employers might be more understandable.