By Benjamin Stumpf
Do the National Guard deserve a forest? This question is asked by activists in the Stop Camp Grayling movement, an effort to stop the expansion of the Camp Grayling Joint Maneuver Training Center in Michigan, already the largest training facility for the National Guard in the United States. Camp Grayling is a massive military training compound that occupies 148,000 acres (230 square miles) of the Northern Michigan Forest, land stolen from the Ojibwa and the Odawa at the headwaters of the Au Sable River. A proposed expansion announced in January 2022 would have more than doubled the size of the facility, which already provides “premier facilities” for the National Guard and the Army, as well as police departments and foreign military partners, to train in a wide variety of war and weapons scenarios.
In April 2023, due, in some part, to activist pressure and public concern, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) rejected the initial proposal to expand Camp Grayling by 162,000 acres. This was a victory for activists in the Stop Camp Grayling movement who had been organizing against the proposed expansion for about a year. Despite this, Stop Camp Grayling activists insist the fight is not over: other expansion plans are in the works. According to movement activists, the National Guard can “still apply to the DNR for restricted land use permits to conduct military exercises on a case-by-case basis, on up to 52,000 additional acres of land.” For many in the movement, the massive acreage Camp Grayling already occupies in the Northern Michigan forests is the primary issue; it is only on the basis of colonial occupation and Indigenous dispossession that the Michigan DNR can reject or approve Camp Grayling’s use of more land. Thus, on news of the DNR’s rejection of the initial lease, the Stop Camp Grayling twitter wrote that: “We may have defeated this expansion proposal, but the fight to stop Camp Grayling (and its world) continues. Camp Grayling still occupies and harms 148,000 acres. The DNR remains an illegitimate colonial body. We will continue to fight for #LandBack.” The question stands: do the National Guard deserve a forest?
While the project to expand Camp Grayling brings together private defense contractors and the state, the Stop Camp Grayling movement brings together activists opposed to the destructive ecological impacts of further deforestation in Northern Michigan and the dangerous pollution endemic to military bases with activists opposed to US militarism and the war machine. Stop Camp Grayling is one front in the struggle of the Anishinaabe to defend land, water, and life against the depravations of the US and Canadian settler states, especially considering the National Guard’s historic role in Indigenous dispossession and the repression of protest and progressive social movements through US history.
The current camp has already had a dangerous impact on the local environment. In 2022, journalist Rachel Frazin reported that “high levels of toxic perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in drinking water” were found by the Department of Defense in proximity to Camp Grayling as well as similar bases in Washington State, Pennsylvania, and Florida. These chemicals are known as “forever chemicals”: pollutants which, rather than breaking down, build up in the environment over time. Such forever chemicals can be incredibly harmful to the ecologies they accumulate in and are associated with “health issues such as kidney and testicular cancer and liver damage” in humans. Forever chemicals are directly related to the military training that occurs at the camp and are found in routine products such as firefighting foam. According to Jared Hayes at the Environmental Working Group, the levels of forever chemicals already found near Camp Grayling are “extremely high.” Forever chemicals are only one of many dangerous ecological impacts of US military bases. Movement activists write that, “the environmental effects of US military activities worldwide include chemical contamination of social and ground water, dramatic habitat alteration, population declines, and biodiversity losses.” Due to the function of training facilities, where ecologically destructive military activities are routinely performed in the same place, ecological impacts are particularly acute in places like Camp Grayling.
Still, defense contractors are licking their lips at the prospect of expansion. According to Stop Camp Grayling activists in the movement vine “The Base Among the Jack Pine,” Camp Grayling facilities already provide an “extremely cheap option for weapons manufacturers” to test their deadly products, and the military’s growing interest in “all-domain warfare” provides an expanding market for new war technologies such as “space systems, fifth-generation aircraft, offensive and defensive cyber operations, electronic warfare, artificial intelligence, hypersonic technologies, and unmanned platforms […] which are [all] being tested and trained for at Camp Grayling.” Camp Grayling’s expansion would be a massive boon to Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, and other corporate “merchants of death” in the military-industrial complex. Activists also note that “tech companies such as Anduril, Palantir, DeDrone, and Fog Data Science” also develop the war and weapons technologies that Camp Grayling provides a testing and training ground for, “further blur[ring] the line and deepen[ing] the partnerships between the defense industry and its state and corporate customers.”
But understanding Camp Grayling and the plans to expand it requires going beyond the particular profit motives of the military-industrial complex and examining the roles that the camp and the National Guard play in the dispossession of Indigenous peoples and the protection of US settler rule. The land claimed by the US state of Michigan is part of Anishinabewaki, the traditional lands of the Anishinaabe, and the camp specifically occupies Ojibwa and Odawa land. Settlers, backed by the power of the US government and the American Fur Company began to displace people from the region in the early 1800s. The land where the camp now sits was acquired by the Michigan National Guard in 1913 from a wealthy colonial lumber baron. A massive military base within what scholar Manu Karaka refers to as the United States’ “continental empire,” Camp Grayling was steadily grown by the state and private capital throughout the 20th century into the colossus it is today: an institution for the repressive violence of US settler colonialism and imperialism.
The National Guard have played a specific role in the colonization of Native people and land. It originated in 1636 as a militia of colonial settlers in Massachusetts meant to protect English settlers from Indigenous resistance to displacement, dispossession, and genocide. The force grew across the settlements and was eventually developed by the state into the “domestic” military force of US settler colonialism, an arm of the imperial war power operating within the borders of the settler colony. Into the 21st century, the National Guard continues its deployment against Native peoples. In recent years, the National Guard participated in the violent February 2017 eviction of the Oceti Sakowin protest camp at Standing Rock during the No Dakota Access Pipeline movement. The National Guard has also been consistently deployed against other progressive social movements and protests from the antiwar movement to contemporary protests in the aftermath of police killing of Black Americans. The National Guard is an armed wing of the settler state aimed at maintaining internal (“national”) order amid colonial occupation. Today, Camp Grayling continues to serve as an institution of settler colonialism’s repressive apparatus, a guarantor of the lethal force needed to maintain US state power over Native people and land.
The plans to expand Camp Grayling must also be understood in the context of the global politics of imperialism, especially in an era defined by a decline in US hegemony and the return of a multipolar world-system. The proposed expansion is an attempt to expand US military capacity and strengthen US military power around the world. Camp Grayling, alongside the nearby Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center, compose Michigan’s National All Domain Warfighting Center (NADWC) a “joint command readiness” operation that “offers training for entities across the Department of Defense to prepare for the battlefield of the future. The training provides units with training capabilities across all five warfighting domains”: Land, Air, Maritime, Cyber, and Space. According to Stop Camp Grayling activists, the state and private defense contractors backing the expansion project “see this system of training areas as a premier location to replicate the future war-fighting environment.” Indeed, the Northern Michigan forests’ “similarity in climate and natural features to eastern and central Europe” means “technologies can be tested in an environment that resembles the terrain of near-future wars.” Thus, “[m]ilitary allies from all over travel to so-called Michigan to train alongside US empire forces.” The further expansion of US war power threatens to deepen imperial oppression in territories brutally occupied by the United States and its allies around the world, from Anishinabewaki to Palestine.
We should also note the similarities between the project to expand Camp Grayling and the project to build “Cop City,” a proposed 85-acre police militarization and urban warfare training compound, in Atlanta, Georgia. Both projects involve the destruction of ecologically important forests with predictions of disastrous environmental impacts. Both are driven by public and private interests, dually supported by capital and state. Both would strengthen US state institutions of force and repression. And both are located in sites deemed crucial to maintaining the power of the settler state and ensuring continued accumulation by the ruling classes in the coming crises of capitalism and climate change. Cop City would bolster the power of police to control Atlanta and other urban centers that are increasingly beset by protests challenging the social, political, and economic status quo. Expanding Camp Grayling would strengthen the power of the settler state over the Great Lakes region – a critical site as climate change threatens the future of the world’s water – as well as US imperialism’s grip on natural resources around the world.
Here is what is key: both the proposed construction of Cop City and the expansion of Camp Grayling signal capital and the state strategies for dealing with the burgeoning crisis of capitalism and the exhaustion of consent to the status quo: an intensification of coercion and force through military and police power, what Stuart Hall (in a different context) referred to as an “authoritarian consensus” on crisis management. For us today, preeminent among these crises is climate change. As I wrote on Cop City: “as climate change sharpens the lethality of social inequality, there will be more social unrest; rather than make the changes that social and ecological sustainability would require, the state seems to be preparing for militarized force and violence.” The tragic irony is that it is settler colonial capitalism’s relentless need to exploit the natural world that is the driving force behind climate change, which is now threatening the social and political order capitalism relies on. We ought to understand the settler state’s commitment to building Cop City and expanding Camp Grayling in this context, as evidence that imperial capital is attempting to build up military and police power to secure its future through increased force and violence. From this perspective, the potential environmental impacts of Camp Grayling are twofold: 1) the immediate ecological destruction that further construction and military training would bring forth and 2) the future general ecological destruction that the continued existence of settler colonial capitalism, which an expanded Camp Grayling would aim to ensure, would enforce.
Do the National Guard deserve a forest? Activists pose this question to spark a critique of the militaristic common sense that links safety to repressive state power at the expense of the planet and the life it supports. In this way, the question evokes a broader question, perhaps one of the most important political questions of our time: does settler colonial capitalism deserve the earth? The answer provided by the movements to Stop Camp Grayling and Stop Cop City—movements which continue to learn from each other’s developing analyses and strategies and build important structures of solidarity—is a resounding no. The ongoing question demanding collective attention, then, is: how should those committed to the earth over capitalism build the power to enforce that “no” over capital and the state? And what is the “yes” we ought to build instead?