Call In The Marines


A vast emptiness is present in Robertson Barracks and one wonders if everyone’s hiding from the hot midday sun. Captain Kris Gardiner explains that most soldiers — both marines and Australians — are out in the training areas. The area under military command is the size of Connecticut so there are plenty of chances to escape the barracks.

But there is as yet no space for the more than 200 marines, who live in temporary accommodation raised on a football field. Their actual residences are under construction. And if the force grows up to 2500 soldiers as preliminary plans predict, there will be need for more expansion.

"The only thing certain about that is that it’s going to take place within existing areas, and that there will be no US base", says Lieutenant Colonel Paul Duncan, who represents the Australian forces.

Australian and US forces mingle with each other on a daily basis through training as well as during meals, gym exercising and the use of shared facilities. The newly arrived Marine Rotational Force is practically embedded into Australia’s First Brigade, whose soldiers have been excited for their arrival, according to Duncan.

The marines aren’t quite like they are in the movies, he says, "just as Australian soldiers aren’t as we are portrayed in our movies. We are similar as soldiers, except that our haircuts are smarter", Duncan told New Matilda.

On the political side, both Australian and American politicians are correcting journalists every time the word "base" pops up. Texas-born Lieutenant Colonel Androy Senegar from the Marine Corps is especially careful about the word.

"A base is where Marines go to live. They spend a couple of years there and take their families with them. A base is also sovereign US territory. Now Australia hosts us," he told NM.

The reasons for the US presence in Darwin haven’t been clearly defined for the greater public. Besides catching up on a 60 year-old partnership, temporarily forgotten during the last decade of turmoil in Iraq and Afghanistan, the objectives of the Marines are very vague at the moment.

"We’re now planning what exercises will be done in the upcoming months. It’s also to be assessed to what extent the defence forces can host us in the future regarding equipment," Senegar said.

The discussions are about "what’s in the realm of possible". The Marines’ focus is on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, as well as traditional military training, but other possibilities are being explored, such as whether there’s any room for an air force deployment.

Besides that, there has been no statement regarding the combat readiness of the troops — in practice, the question whether the US Marines from Darwin could be sent out on a combat operation.

"That would in any case not be possible in the near future. Combat would require more than 200 soldiers and their boots. If there would be a need to engage in combat in the future, I’m sure our governments would put their heads together and come up with a plan," Senegar says.

The current planning includes talks about having exercises in Thailand and Indonesia. Until things clear up, the Marines will keep on training — a lot, according to Senegar. Usually starting at 4.30am, the Marines have a longer day than the average worker. At the end of the day, they will have what they call "liberty".

"When we’re not training, we go out. Walking in malls, going to movies and whatever regular people do," Senegar says.

In general, the city of Darwin welcomes the Marines as tourists.

"I had the commander and a group of senior staff members visiting over a cup of coffee. We were discussing about their possibilities to get around and experience Darwin", says Katrina Fong Lim, who entered office as the Lord Mayor of Darwin just as the soldiers arrived.

The City Councli hopes that the soldiers will be good for business. Approximately 10 per cent of Darwin’s 80,000-odd inhabitants are already military personnel.

The possible addition of 2500 cashed-up Americans is an exciting prospect for some. Chris Young from Darwin’s Chamber of Commerce is particularly enthusiastic about the influx.

"Especially the hospitality, tourism and entertainment sector of our clients are fairly positive," Young says.

The sex industry is one of many businesses that hope to have their share of the benefits. Michelle Love, owner of the Blondies excort service, says that American soldiers have been good customers, ordering up to half a dozen girls for a night on their short visits in town.

Blondies is a full sex service, sending girls to wherever the clients are. A continuous presence wouldn’t mean that they get busy every night, but Love says that 2500 soldiers would have a great impact on her business.

"The girls love the Americans because they treat them like ladies. There hasn’t been a single case of violence during the 12 years I’ve worked here," Love said.

Darwin has previously seen Marines visiting in small bursts, for instance when a vessel stays in port for 2-3 days and the soldiers hit the town. But a permanent deployment Hundreds of Marines brings the usual issues that come with large military presences.

"We’ve had situations when more than a thousand marines leave their vessels in the harbour and go out to drink hard, play hard, eat and buy digeridoos or whatever. No doubt the same thing is going to happen, but I believe that through a permanent presence it will branch out a bit to other towns like for instance Palmerston," Young says.

Businesses in town have in general had good experiences with the Marines. In the pub Shenannigans on Mitchell street, the heart of Darwin’s nightlife, bartender Ruth Dargan can barely tell the Marines from regular Americans because they don’t wear uniforms when off duty. Some soldiers have already visited the main tourist attraction Crocosaurus Cove — Bec Tilbrook from the souvenir shop describes them as "loud".

Business expectations aside, Darwin locals have had their concerns. Robbie Lloyd, an active participant in community work, thinks it would have been fair to consult with the locals and Australians in general before making decisions about hosting American troops.

"Australia is again acting like a sycophantic ally instead of an independently thinking nation. Now they just come and to their thing, which we know nothing about", he says.

Lloyd also thinks that the bad reputation of US bases — he doesn’t care that politicians don’t want to use the word—  already should mean that the locals would be consulted — especially if the force is going to mount up to 2500 soldiers.

In Darwin, the few people with strong concerns have formed an organisation called Basewatch. The group’s lawyer, Diana Rickard, thinks that if there was to be a foreign force in Darwin, it should be UN soldiers.

"The government says that this is ‘good for the economy’. But no social impact study has been made about the possible problems we might face and that have occured in for instance Okinawa and Guam," she said. "Who knows what can happen when a soldier suffering from a post traumatic stress disorder gets drunk?"

"The Americans say we share the same culture, but we don’t. The Australian constitution doesn’t give people a right to bear arms. We’re also not a very religious country, and our history is very different."

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Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.