While it still stood, the presence of the U.S. run NATO base at Keflavík was hotly debated in Icelandic society. But when the troops finally evacuated in September 2006, the political implications of the decision were far from my mind.
At the time I was primarily concerned with the inevitable end to Wendy’s runs with my grandfather, and wondering what he would do, now that his job (only ever explained to me as “lightbulb purchaser for the U.S. Army”) was gone.
The departure of the troops marked a milestone in Iceland’s political history, and unbeknownst to middle-school me, one intimately bound up in international politics.
Following the World War II occupation of Iceland in 1940 by British and American forces (Iceland was bound to strict wartime neutrality since the 1918 Danish-Icelandic Act of Union), Iceland entered into a tripartite treaty with the invading nations.
Then in 1944, the Icelandic government seceded from Denmark, established its own diplomatic relations with other countries, and in 1949, became a founding member of NATO.
As Iceland did not have, and has never had, a standing army—at the urgence of NATO leaders, and with the Cold War looming—the Icelandic government entered into a defense agreement with the United States. U.S. military presence was thus reestablished in 1951.
Not everyone was happy with these developments, and the still active Samtök Hernaðarandstæðinga (Organization of Conscientious Military Objectors) continues to object to Icelandic participation in NATO as well as the government’s explicit or tacit approval of its allies’ military actions.
The organization—and its direct predecessors dating back to 1949 when Iceland first joined NATO—organized the so-called Keflavíkurgöngur, or Keflavik Marches, a series of 50 km (31 m) walks between Keflavík and Reykjavík from 1960 to 1991, to protest continued American military presence in Iceland.
These walks feature quite prominently in 2009 Icelandic blockbuster Bjarnfreðarsson (and can be glimpsed in the trailer).
Notable Icelanders outspoken in the movement include former president Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, MP and poet Jóhannes úr Kötlum, sibling songwriter duo Jónas Árnason and Jón Múli Árnason, musician Bubbi Morthens and former Reykjavík mayor Jón Gnarr.
The segregation of the base’s inhabitants from the surrounding community was tangible—not in the least due to the barbed-wire fence separating the two.
While some Icelanders worked for the army as non-military personnel—such as my grandfather—and were thus somewhat incorporated into daily life on the base, the perception that this little piece of land on the Reykjanes peninsula wasn’t truly a part of Iceland, continued to dominate.
Vague memories I have from visiting the base as a small child in the nineties and early naughts, are shrouded in mystery and intrigue, and feel more at home with my recollections of Saturday morning cartoon favorites, like Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland, Spirited Away and Alfred J. Kwak.
Unintelligible writing on roadsigns, foreign voices everywhere, and Wendy’s Frostys—paired with the threat that I better behave impeccably because Americans were not to be messed with and wouldn’t see my young age as any excuse (and I’d seen enough episodes of Law and Order at Grandma’s house to believe it)—made each trip feel like an adventure as scary and exhilarating as any rollercoaster.
Especially interesting were the children I’d sometimes see; on playgrounds by the very Icelandic-looking apartment complexes, eating out at Wendy’s with their military parents, kicking a soccer ball around a school yard—so similar to my friends and neighbors, but yet somehow so different.
So seeing the below informational video, distributed to members of the U.S. Navy about to be stationed in Iceland, was absolutely fascinating—being able to get even just a quick peek at how the people I found so entrancing and fantastical, saw me and my side of the barbed-wire fence.