The place they call "Britain's own Guantanamo" is a horseshoe-shaped atoll in the central Indian Ocean. One side of its teal lagoon is pockmarked with military outbuildings, and an airstrip scores through the jungle like a cable redaction. With a 12-mile exclusion zone, it has earned a reputation as one of the most secretive military bases in existence.
Leased to the US by the UK for 50 years in 1966, Diego Garcia has been a key US outpost ever since, serving as a launch pad in the recent Iraq and Afghanistan wars. This is the place that two CIA torture flights landed to refuel in 2002, the place that allegedly concealed an illegal US detention center, and the place that ultimately hides the truth about Britain's complicity in the CIA's torture and renditions program. Over the next few weeks, the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee "torture" report is expected to confirm that the US operated a black site on Diego Garcia in the early-2000s with the "full co-operation" of the British government. If it isn't redacted out, that is.
Catch this hollowed-out tropical island on a warm day with a stiff breeze, though, and you might see a different side of it. The flicker of a mainsail within the exclusion zone. Sunbeds peppering the beach. Squint through your binoculars and you could swear you glimpsed a banana boat skimming the waters. Maybe it's all part of a bigger conspiracy, or maybe Diego Garcia just loosened up. But today there is no frenzied military operation. Today, the only waterboarding that takes place is a drenching in the drunk tank.
"I think the saying is you become a hunk, a chunk or a drunk in your time there," says Pete Carr.
A banana boat off a beach on Diego Garcia. Images via Facebook
The former sergeant major is sat in a pub in Covent Garden. He left the marines in 2012 after five years as executive officer on Diego Garcia. In that time the flights fell from one every two minutes to one or two a week, and the 3,000-strong military shrank to 300. And as the military operation wound down, the partying picked up.
"The Brits binge," he says. "Marines train five days a week and drink for the other two. Brits are notorious for partying hard wherever they are. Marines are at the cutting edge of the hard drinking corps of the Brits, I would guess."
British military personnel, given the opportunity, love to trash talk their allies' ability to hold a drink. Carr contends that the US military are feeble drinkers compared to the British, who patriotically regard the intemperate consumption of alcohol as a point of honor. The navy, meanwhile, are wild cards in the wino chain of command.
"The mariners are different. Esoteric lunatics," says Carr. "Mariners - I mean that sums it up. They don't play games so much; they just drink hard. They plough in from the boats."
A party at the Brit Club
Women make up about a tenth of the military operation, although there is "a shedload of transvestites," he says, adding: "Not in the military, though." A 3,000-strong Filipino population on the island manage the infrastructure and run everything from administration to port operations to waste facilities to street sweeping. They're employed by G4S-Parsons, who took over management of the island last year. This is an offshoot of G4S, the controversial private security firm currently under investigation in the UK by the Serious Fraud Office. It has just renewed its contract for providing infrastructure services to the island at a cost of $282m to the US government over the next four years.
This means the military are free to do other things. Postings to Diego Garcia are generally for six months, or sometimes a year, and Carr agrees that there is a perception that "they don't work too hard."
"For the marines, the royal marines, who have been over the last years doing some gnarly jobs in places, going to Diego Garcia is some wonderful down time, for sure," he says.
And of course that means drinking. A former policeman, who spoke to VICE News on condition of anonymity, said that in his time on the island in the late-2000s, "most of the arrests were alcohol related."
"Everyone stops work for the weekend, apart from the British party who police the island. It's party time from four o'clock on a Friday till Monday morning," he said.
The games room at the Brit Club.
At the center of it all is the Brit Club, a 38-year-old institution whose theme parties and barbecues have achieved a legendary status among the former servicemen and women lucky enough to get a posting on the atoll. In recent months there has been a poker night, a UV party, a Hawaiian night, Masquerade Ball party, a St George's Day party, a toga party, a Christmas party. It even sells its own t-shirts.
"If you want a raucous night out where the unexpected may happen, the Brit Club is the place to go," says Carr.
A Brit Club t-shirt
But there are other places, too. A club 500 meters south of the Brit Club called Jake's Place; Bar One, which is where the mariners drink; and the Turner Club - "essentially the lads' club," he explains.
In total there are four or five bars on the atoll, as well as a ship's store that sells "Beer, liquor, alcohol."
"Most of the people that have been on the island a long time have progressed from beer onto other stuff," says Carr. "Gin is five dollars. A beer is about a dollar, two dollars maybe for a tin."
Female personnel at the Brit Club
Carr's days in the marines may be over, but he still works on the 55-island Chagos archipelago as a conservationist, a role that largely involves the destruction of invasive species. His approach is characteristically military. He bombs the islands with rat bait from helicopters, or wades to the shore with chainsaws, slashing his way through the jungle to drop the poisoned meat - "fun, in a slightly masochistic way," he says.
Conservation started as a way of passing time on the atoll. There are no children, no pets, no schools and only three places to eat. Get married here, and one of you has to leave. Life in paradise can quickly become monotonous.
There are three restaurants, although the food is generally "tedious" with "lots of burgers and fries." There is a nine-hole golf course. Lots of the residents take up cycling to while away the days. There is also windsurfing, sailing, fishing and banana boating. VICE News contacted more than a dozen military personnel serving on the atoll, but they were reluctant to talk about the R&R. All are bound by the Official Secrets Act 1989 and the Naval Discipline Act 1957.
"If there's a visiting professor, such as Charles Sheppard, to give a talk on the algal distribution of corals," says Carr, "you'll get 100 people turning up to watch it, just to break the monotony. Not that Charles's lectures are boring."
Carr has found other ways to stay occupied, though. He is currently attempting to raise more than $1 million to take his rat extermination plan to every island in the archipelago.
"Can you imagine removing rats from 55 islands in the central Indian ocean?," he says. "It will turn the place into something like nowhere else on earth. That's the beauty of doing work out there. You haven't got the problems of working in the Caribbean where islands are inhabited, where there's native animals that would interact with the rat poison."
Carr's conservation effort is one of a few constructive projects the military is involved in, and he often recruits volunteers from the personnel to help. But he is also a keen ornithologist, writing a book cataloguing the birds of Diego Garcia after an encounter with a "charming lady" from the RSPB.
A man with his eyes glued to the skies of Diego Garcia, Carr's visits to the island in the early-2000s were fleeting, however, and as such he is unlikely to have been present when the CIA landed two extraordinary rendition flights on the airstrip, reportedly to refuel. Whether others landed in those crucial years post-9/11 will be a matter of furious debate at least until flight logs for the atoll are published. Even so, he vigorously denies the claim that the CIA could have concealed a secret black site for renditions from the British.
"There's absolutely no chance we wouldn't know about it," he says. "After six months I knew absolutely everyone on the island. And if somebody new arrived, I'd say, 'Who's that?' With my burning activities you just couldn't have missed it. It's absolutely impossible you could have missed it."
Carr will tell you that the only exotic flights Diego Garcia HAS seen in recent years are catalogued in his book. But there's another good reason the place is kept out of sight and under wraps. Because for the bros of Diego Garcia, the biggest secret of this tropical atoll is that it's a paradise.