Sunday, February 26, 2006

The Scene of Liberation or "Ma Satba Hit"

Just wanted to share with everyone my talk from the Oberlin Asian Pacific American Conference I attended last week. All in all it was a great experience, young students so energetic I seriously felt like a cranky old man to be around them. This feeling was very new to me, as usually in conferences I feel like some new kid on the block, or some young punk who isn't really familiar with the lingo or the literature. This of course making me for the first time in a while feel very mature and also indicating to me that my window of possibility for dating undergrads passed several years ago.

Bente singko anos yu', kao esta bihu yu'? Achokka' sigun i calendario ahe' siempre, i siniente-ku na sina.

"The Scene of Liberation"
Michael Lujan Bevacqua
Refocusing Our Lenses Conference
Oberlin University, February 18, 2006

Much of my work during the past few years has revolved around a complex yet sometimes traumatically simple question: Why have Chamorros from Guam become so patriotic and loving of the United States in such a short time? How did a people barely imagined as being part of the United States and as Chamorro historian Robert Underwood has noted “who had no interest in being American” suddenly become what a 1944 news article called natives whose “patriotism would put many a US citizens to shame?” Why do Chamorros serve in the US military in such high numbers? Five Chamorros have died in the Iraq War so far, and in Guam, the dreams of military recruiters literally come true. According to the Army, 4 of its highest 12 recruitment producers are found in Guam.

Although answers to this question may take many forms and attempt to move in different directions they will always share common point of reference, from which none dare escape, World War II. The traumatically simple explanation often leaves me reeling as invisible waves of colonizing common sense wash over me. They can be best summed up, as one Chamorro survivor of World War II told me, “Ma satba hit.” Translated, it means, “they (the Americans) saved us (from the Japanese).” The saving of this statement refers to the American invasion of Guam during World War II and the “liberation” of Chamorros from brutal Japanese occupation. Many Chamorros today cite this “liberation” as one of the reasons they are willing to fight for the United States, despite the fact that Guam remains a colony and although Chamorros there are American citizens, they are second class in that they rights are not full or guaranteed by virtue of their residence in Guam. (this means, they can’t vote for president, have no representation in Congress, despite the fact that all Federal laws supersede all Guam laws). But this statement of “ma satba hit” actually reveals more than it seems, and hints at a much more complex answer. In Chamorro the “us” pronoun is either inclusive and exclusive. For example, in the sentence “they saved us,” the “us” can be either exclusive ham, which means “us, but not you,” or the inclusive hit, “both of us.” The fact that this war survivor used the inclusive pronoun, saying that America saved both him and me, reveals something about the way that history, or rather particular moments or scenes from history, do not remain so, but in fact structure, or hegemonize, the possibilities of the present. That the present must in some way return to that moment to find meaning.

Returning to my initial question, why do indigenous bodies in Guam stand at attention, ready and willing to die for their colonial master and enthusiastically wave its flag? My answer today is the scene of liberation.

The scene itself is one of Chamorros, starving and dying after being herded by the thousands into concentration camps around Guam, are rescued by invading American servicemen, who provide them with Spam, powdered milk as well as freedom. After the war ends, this image becomes the fundamental scene in Guam upon which political articulations either find consistency and meaning or flounder in rancid unreadability. What this means is that all identities and identifications in Guam will be made to mean based on where they fit within this image. The different positions within the image itself, thus have material effects on how Chamorros understand themselves and the potential relationships they have to themselves and to the United States.

It is my opinion that the discourses on Chamorro/Guam dependency upon the United States for economic sustainability, for improvement, for life itself all derive from the reinforcing of the subject positions within this scene. Questions of who has agency, who is the victim, who has sovereignty, who has power, who is alive, who is dead are all answered through the visual cues provided in this image.

It is this image that I am interested in replacing or at least irritating. So long as it remains hegemonic in Guam, expressions of identity, or culture, or possibility which reinforce the relationships found in the image, such as military as savior, America as the provider of life, the Chamorro as the eternal dependent will reign supreme, and critiques and counter-hegemonic interventions will consistently be judged in relation to where they fit within the image as well.

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To give some background on this image. It is the “liberation” of Guam in 1944. After 32 months of brutal occupation by the Japanese, the majority of the Chamorros on Guam had been forced marched into a valley in the island’s center, where they were kept without shelter, water or food for weeks. On July 21st, 1944 the Americans began their re-invasion of Guam, and within a few days scattered patrols of Marines stumble across these Chamorros, thus saving them from death. For more than 60 years, that day is celebrated annually on Guam as “Liberation Day,” which is the island’s largest celebration and combines carnivals, parades, beauty pageants, as well as tearful reunions with Chamorros and some of the Marines who took part of that invasion, and memorials for the number of massacres that took place on Guam during the war.

Now, the two basic subject positions within this image are obvious. There is the Chamorro, the passive victim of war. The destitute barely subject who can do nothing else but wait for sustenance, wait for salvation. Towering above this Chamorro is the United States Marine, the soldier. He beams with power, with prowess, with authority and agency. His uniform is covered not just in sand, mud and blood, but also stained with glorious ideals like freedom, democracy. He brings to Guam so much which is not just appreciated, but by the rules of the event itself is necessary. He does not just bring with him, the tools which make life possible, as the soldier, the military is survival, he brings with him life. There is no life without him.

This image now becomes the scene of liberation, a privileged scene upon which political articulations are either perceived to be consistent or rejected as inconsistent in Guam. With this privileging, World War II itself becomes an obtrusive presence, it becomes, even as I so innocently refer to it as “the war.” Chamorros on Guam all become drawn to this event, as the scars it left on Guam can be found in the landscape (why are there so many military bases on Guam?), the choices for public monuments (why is there a monument for war dogs on Guam?), and on bodies and gaps in speech and narrative from our elders (why does Tata hate the Japanese tourists so much?) We are always in some way or another forced to return there, and therefore we are not just drawn to it, but also drawn into it. We are in a sense either forced to, or forced to choose to occupy the position of those Chamorros always in need of rescuing and in need for salvation.

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A serious analysis would of course require I look carefully at both of these positions, the first, the Chamorro as the eternal dependent, without agency or sovereignty, the second, the American soldier, as the subject of agency. But given the time limits, I’ll focus only on the second position because of the way it more concretely relates to the focus of this panel.

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Attempts to escape this position by Chamorros are too often judged by the virtue of this scene and therefore rejected or mocked as being ungrateful. Those who seek to leave behind this dependency, implying seeking something outside of the United States and its offerings are often shot down as being unrealistically and more importantly ungrateful. Chamorros who attempt to reject this image are accused of instead refusing the Spam. Or as Chamorro scholar Laura Souder puts it in her article Psyche under siege: Uncle Sam, Look What You’ve Done to US, the autocritique that lies waiting for this attempt is, “Naughty, naughty, you should not bite the hand that feeds you. Remember, life boils down to this, he who holds the purse strings rules the roost.” Those who seek something other than what this image implies are refusing the benevolence of America. Refusing its kindness and generosity. They are refusing the ability to survive, life itself.

Given this limit that stalks all attempted movements away from this image, one might assume that agency isn’t possible for Chamorros, that they are forever condemned to lie barely alive, waiting for their liberators to come and save them. While I would argue that agency is extremely possible, what makes it frustratingly difficult to conceive is that the image itself implies it own means of securing agency. An escape from this eternal victimhood and position of hopeless passivity seems to lie in occupying the position of the soldier, by joining the military, either in spirit or in body. Meaning physically joining and serving or handing their hearts and therefore also their lives to the United States military and its interests.

In order to discuss the terrifying consequences of occupying this position, I’ll describe two articles about Guam “liberators.” The first was published in 2005 in The Pacific Daily News, Guam’s largest newspaper, the other came in 2004 in the Liberation Day issue of Guahan Magazine, a local lifestyle magazine.

The first article titled is “7,000 Marines, Pentagon announces shift to Guam,” describes the most recent intended troop increase to the island, which will over the next few years transfer several thousands Marines from Okinawa to Guam. Articles like this are common, and usually read like bored bureaucratic ramblings, “More military to Guam, uh duh, that’s what its there for.” What makes this specific troop movement interesting is what its history is in relation to Guam. These Marines belong to the infamous 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force, the original and very legendary liberators of Guam. Guam’s non-delegate to the United States Congress, Madeleine Bordallo sums up the kismet well with her remark that “We will now celebrate many Liberation Days in the future beside the men and women that carry on the tradition of those that freed our people. It will be a wonderful reunion.”

Other than the possibility of more military in an island already inundated with militarization, what makes this article particular frightening is the fact that the language used to describe this new increase is hardly new. Although it took more than 60 years for this particular battalion, Guam’s initial liberators to return, the rhetoric used to describe their glorious arrival has been used over and over throughout the years, to describe, explain and justify any number of military increases and expansions in Guam.

At least one reason for why such an uncritical relationship exists between Chamorros on Guam and the United States military has to do with the fact that due to the hegemonic status of this scene of liberation, all military coming into Guam potentially stands in for those original liberators. Whether it be a new aircraft carrier, new surveillance drones or a new squadron of Stealth Fighters every new arrival can be made to fit the silhouettes of those liberators and therefore be made to feel necessary and intimate in a similar way.

The second article is ominously titled “The Next Generation of Liberators.” In it the tales of Chamorro soldiers stationed in Iraq are told “in their own words.” They recount fights with insurgents as well as the glorious giving of freedom, education and infrastructure to the Iraqi people. The connection between the generations of liberators (those of 1944 and those of 2004) are made crystal clear both in the article’s title and its introductory image which connects the arrival of Guam’s “aging liberators” for Liberation Day celebrations with the liberating young Chamorros in the United States military are doing in Iraq.

For these young men and women, agency has been achieved. They have escaped the local destitution of Guam and its passive particularity and become “heroes of which our island and our country can be proud.” They now appear to be able to speak on behalf of all Chamorros, all Americans and even Iraqis. They have escaped the riddling dependency Chamorros are cursed with, by standing beside the liberating soldier. By sharing his position and his name.

The result of this new occupation however is that the image appears to be closed. The United States military has become transformed, no longer is it some Other whose arrival I need to survive, but now I can only find myself through them. I am them, but they are not me. The military is no longer something which can be critiqued from any distance, because I will always see myself, as exemplified by those in uniform, in them. To critique them, to resist, to oppose them, means to oppose not just those close and dear to me, but potentially to resist and divide myself.

The concept of “the military” thus becomes naturalized as a local and yet not local. It can easily be viewed locally, as many would describe a member of Guam’s family, partially for the simple reason that so many family members serve in it. However its interests resist localization and are inevitably linked to larger and absolutely non-local concerns. This split invariably works against Guam and the possibility of a critical relationship with the United States military both in Guam and in its interventions elsewhere.

Take for example the most recent planned military increase in Guam, which eventually amount to 7,000 new Marines in Guam. The interest that brings about this influx will most likely remain unscathed in Guam, unquestioned (national/local American interests with global action and effect), and it will be so precisely because the face through which those on Guam receive and perceive this will almost always be one of familiarity, a local one, a Chamorro one. The liberating Marines need not be identified anymore as tall, white, American soldiers. Wearing the uniform of Americaness, American power and military might, these liberators are now my children, my cousins, my relatives, my neighbors. The military’s interests anywhere, not just in Guam, must now be my interest, because as so many who leave home to go to war, or to serve in the military say, they are only fighting to defend their homes, their families. As they leave to defend me, while I remain on Guam, they, entangled with the interests of the military, will be defended as well.

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