Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Act of Decolonization #17: Self Determination and the Dead

Thankfully, it has been a while now since a soldier from Guam was killed in the current slate of US Wars on Terror. But as the US prepares to increase its presence in Afghanistan, I cannot help but think back to several years ago, when the wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq were in full force and it seemed like someone from Guam or from Micronesia were dying every month. I remember writing several emotional and sometimes angry posts about the way these precious lives were being wasted on imperial ventures.

For obvious reasons, these sorts of posts are very difficult and sensitive, for so many reasons. Malingu un lina'la'. A life is lost. A Chamorro life is lost. A Chamorro life is lost fighting for the United States, which has been and continues to be his or her colonizer. A brown body is lost fighting other brown bodies, usually for the sake and interest of rich white people, or at least rich people. Lastly though we reach the most difficult point, which I articulated several years ago following the death of Kasper Allen Camacho Dudkiewicz in my post Tragedy of Tragedy. The tragic fact that these tragedies, these losses of life are felt primarily and sometimes only through the United States and the Americaness of Chamorros. As if we can and should only understand the meaning of their lives and deaths as un nina'Amerikanu, or through a process of Americanization.

In my article The Unexceptional Life and Death of a Chamorro Soldier: Tracing the Militarization of Desire in Guam USA, which was recently published in the anthology Militarized Currents: Towards a Decolonized Future in Asia and the Pacific, I discussed how this tragedy operates in creating often times very tangible silences and palpable gaps around the deaths of Chamorro servicemen:

One can see this clearly in the deaths of the three Chamorro soldiers in Iraq. In newspapers and television reports on the deaths, no mention is made whatsoever about Guam’s colonial status. Family members interviewed made no public or spoken connection to the fact that their child, nephew or cousin was sent to war without people on Guam having any representation in the political bodies that sent him there. Instead, thick juicy platitudes about defense of freedom, defense of the democracy and thus defense of the Guam homefront against terrorists were invoked.

As any regular reader of this blog knows, I am constantly talking about theorizing decolonization here. I wrote an entire master's thesis on it while I was at Ethnic Studies at UCSD. In that thesis and on this blog I have asked and continue to ask: What is preventing it from being discussed, preventing it from taking place, what prevents it from being understood in productive ways and instead insists it be chained to markers of impossibility and hellish dangers. What are the ways that it can be furthermore re-imagined constructive to be a part of everyday life, as opposed to an abstract process involving political status votes?

So every once in a while on this blog I write up different Acts of Decolonization, which are all different ideas about how we can make decolonization possible in our lives.

Decolonization is all about acts, most notably in determining one's relation to something, usually a loss such as language, sovereignty, memory, because such a shift will dictate, stimulate or mutilate the possibility from then on. Will my act in this moment break conventions, defy what is for the moment commonesense or obvious? Will it break the current deadlock which mires me in colonizing desires, discourses or dreams and allow me to see the world differently?

My act of decolonization today deals with the deaths of these Chamorros that have died in war, and how we are supposed to relate to them.

If you read my first post ever on the deaths of Chamorros in Iraq War II, you can see an almost desperate plea to think differently about what the deaths of these Chamorros must mean. The desperation naturally derives from my belief that what I believe is far from what most everyone on Guam believes. For most on Guam the death of these Chamorros in war, is a tragic loss, but one which is necessary or worthwhile because this death symbolizes the patriotic and devotional debt Chamorros have to the United States for liberating us in 1944 and continuing to liberate us up until today. This sort of sacrifice is the way we can unquestionably be Americans. These deaths will get us included, even if superficially in the United States, its rhetoric, its spaces and places of mourning.

For those of who you don't like the "Chamorros as patriotic dupes" thesis, these deaths even have power in terms of finding ways to negotiate or demand things from the United States. The patriotism implicit in these deaths can be used to bargain with the Federal Government, as Governors and delegates have done since World War II and Vietnam.

But naturally a colonial difference will always rears its ugly head, forcing an uncomfortable recognition of difference between Guam and the United States, a biting truth that Guam is not really part of America and that Chamorros, regardless of how they feel gi i mas tahdong na patten i korason-niha aren't really Americans.

I collect the ways in which this difference is felt and appears in books, in the law, in popular culture, in the emotionational yearnings of Chamorros to finally be Americans, and use them in my work both academic as well as everyday in just speaking or emailing to Chamorros about political status issues. In searching online for more information for this post, I found a tragically appropriate site of feeling this colonial difference. If you go onto the Department of Interior Office of Insular Affairs website you will find a page in which beyond all the flowery rhetoric, cheap American flags and bumper stickers you will see the place of Chamorros and so many others in relation to the United States. On the page Fallen Heroes of the OIA's Insular Areas you will find a collection of the most banal pieces of American empire, its offshore colonies and neocolonies. On this page you will find the names of more than 100 soldiers and private contractors who have been killed in the Iraq War who come from the island territories of the United States such as The Virgin Islands, Guam, Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas, Samoa and American Samoa, Federated States of Micronesia and Palau.

Despite the wreath of "fallen hero" that is draped over this shrine recognizing the valor and Americaness of these troops, their belonging is clearly questioned just by the site of their commemoration. Although this banner floats above this page, asserting an American claim to these bodies, the constitution of these page, the distances, peoples and histories that are collected together here are not just any region, they represent much of the territories of the United States which would most appropriately be referred to as discontents, or pieces which do not fit, and clearly, for reasons both obvious or not should not belong.

Looking at this page, I could perceive a delicate way in which it was so teeming with colonial hopes, dreams and still that undeniable difference. There was something in the way it represented both the ultimate recognition of being American and yet also signified that clear difference which is necessary for that very recognition. I saw it as being both representative of the powerlessness of these communities, the feeble ways they depend on the US, but also the way in which they power the US. This was one of the first steps I took towards seeing my dissertation.

I received numerous responses to my posts, from all different political sides, some supportive, others critical or even angry.

For example, when the body of Richard DeGracia Na'puti Jr. was brought back to Guam, I was there, and was working at the time on a documentary with one of his cousins. It was a very frustrating time because I hadn't been on Guam in more than a year and suddenly I was being bombarded with a truckload of patriotic excuses as to why the war is good, why it is okay that this Chamorro died, and ridiculous arguments that the war in the Iraq constitutes protecting and defending Guam.

I received two responses that have stayed with me. The first was from a young Chamorro girl who I believe was serving in Iraq in the Air Force when she messaged me on myspace. She thanked me for my crazy post, because of the things it made her think about, and how it sort of touched on the strange position that all Chamorros in the military seem to feel, not coming from a foreign country, not coming from a state, but rather from a colony/territory. How does one represent that existence in the most patriotic place in the universe? Is it something you can express at all or something you just have to desperately hide? She ended her post saying that like most Chamorros, she wasn't sure about it all, but just felt like serving was the thing she had to do.

It was truly an interesting email since most messages I get from Chamorros or non-Chamorros currently serving in the military are nowhere near as nice or open to these sorts of discussions. They tend to be like the second email I'm going to discuss, which came from a retired Chamorro serviceman who stumbled across my blog and didn't like what he found.

This Chamorro's email was extremely angry and visceral, attacking the parenting of my parents and the quality of my thoughts. In attacking me, this poor soul sounded like he was literally sucking his rhetoric from the tongue of Bill O'Reilly, trying to call into question my non-existent patriotism to the United States, and making it clear that unless I was a patriotic American loving Fox News cheerleader, I had no right to speak about anything. We might have found right here the fundamental problem with United States foreign policy, namely that if you don't love the United States, you don't have a right to exist. This might cause problems however when interacting with both colonies and other freakin countries.

I often laugh at these emails, because it truly shows a weird correspondence between lack of history and stupid opinion certainty. When this Chamorro attempted to attack me on my Guam history he would lose his Fox News certainty and start to wander aimlessly around Carano and Sanchez's A Complete History of Guam, often times just saying impossible or insane things precisely because he didn't know anything about Guam's history. For instance, according to this Chamorro, Guam was liberated from the Spanish in 1898. According to him it is only the fault of Chamorros that we don't speak Chamorro anymore. Furthermore, I can't say that Guam's political status is the United States' problem or fault, since no one on Guam has ever even told the United States that there was a problem with Guam's political status.

After reading this lengthy email which included one of the worst Guam history lectures I've ever read, I became even more convinced that Guam history and political status issues must be taught to people of all ages and in very deep and critical ways. The most obvious reason here being that if you at least know some history or have some knowledge about what has happened in the last century on Guam, then you cannot completely give in to the colonizing impulse of absolving the United States of any negative things. If you know that the United States took more than 2/3 of the island from 1944-1950 in a series of land grabs which were admitted in the US Congress to be "illegal" then it becomes just didide' ha' mas mappot, for claims that the United States is a colonizer to be dismissed.

The one thing that sort of stuck out for me in this email, which I couldn't simply laugh off, was when I was told that because I "obviously" did not love the United States, I could not write about the death of one of its soldiers. I have no right to claim the life of this Chamorro because he was first and foremost a United States Army Specialist.

Naturally, este muna'bubu yu' mas ki todu i otro sinangan-na.

Here was a Chamorro, who loved the United States, had served in its military and could not conceive of there being anything wrong with that country, its conduct or its leaders, telling me what the order of the universe was. To him, the concept of the Chamorro was a secondary thing, something which followed meekly, shadowing the largest concept and identification of American or solider. In my post I reached and felt the death of this Chamorro, first and foremost at the level of us both being Chamorro and having similar histories in relation to the United States, and the patriotic response was that my feeling was wrong, inauthentic, should not exist and should be colonized and obliterated by the fact that Chamorros should love and revere the United States in all its forms.

If we put this in religious cultural terms, then we would find a form of the infamous military line, "your soul belongs to God, but your ass belongs to the Corps!"

As I attempted to claim the meaning of the death of this Chamorro I was rebuked as not knowing or understanding the nature of the world, in that ultimately the soul of this Chamorro belongs not to Guam, but to the United States, to the military. If we think about daily existence in Guam, and how the United States is defended regularly in all spaces as being the means of life in Guam, the means of progress, the means of education or order, of prosperity, of happiness, then we can see clearly that it is not just the souls of Chamorro soldiers that belong to the United States, but rather the souls of all Chamorros.

If we think about Guam and the military buildup in this way, Felix Camacho's general inaction and lack of leadership on the buildup makes perfect sense. In 2006, when then Senator Jesse Anderson Lujan had a column in the Marianas Variety, he became one of the first forceful critiques of Camacho's handling of the buildup. He basically admonished Camacho for engaging in a bold strategy of doing and asking nothing when it came to the massive planned military increases for Guam. If the commonsense argument that JAL put forth is true, namely that Camacho is Guam's Governor and therefore supposed to represent the interests of Guam, then he was clearly poorly performing said duty in his regular offerings of back and foot massages to whatever vague and useless military official comes through Guam next. But, if we follow the thinking of the majority of the people on Guam, where our lives and souls belong to the United States and its interests and its desires for Guam, then Camacho's lack of aggression early on was absolutely acceptable, in fact it was precisely what he was supposed to do.

I always find it very intriguing how the meaning of someone's death works in any society. There are always natural, expected ways in which a death is supposed to mean something, the way in which that slice of the void, that brushing up against eternity is supposed to be translating into something which is not the sheer trauma and hysteria that each and every death holds the potential to unleash. When someone dies, there are a wide array of narratives, ideas, sayings, general ways in which we try to transform that cold, life-defying touch of nothingness into something through which we can still try to feel the warm, nurturing delusions of life. In the case of soldiers, when they die there is an infamous altar which awaits them. Surrounding that altar like flowers and koronas are ideas that he or she died defending their island, their family, their home. Or they died defending freedom, democracy, liberty. These things all try to give a living meaning to that death.

These infusions are normal, we all do them. That is after all, what the symbolic network of our lives is for. A way to give us a sense of order and meaning which can float above the chaos and nothingness beneath it, to give our lives a greater sense of coherency and permanence. But not all claims to what life or death mean are the same. Any community will have hierarchies as to what is appropriate, what is correct, what is acceptable about the loss of a life, for instance the loss of a solider. Offering his life up to the nation, or in the case of Guam, to the colonizer, is the way we are supposed to commemorate this death, the way we are supposed to use it. To authorize the foreign policy or military policy of the United States. We are supposed to use it to enhance and make awesome the United States, by using this death to argue the greatness of the US, as something which people can and should die for. In the case of those who come from the colonies, the death is exceptional and potentially even more important. The reason being, that those who aren't even really American, yet are willing to live and die for it, are the ultimate testament to its glory.

If we do any of these things, you are using the dead, you are speaking for the dead. You are putting words in their mouths, or more accurately in their coffins, on their graves and in their funeral announcements. But you are using their death in a way in which society accepts and so therefore this use is simply natural. This use is just the way you are supposed to react.

But for those who are interested in decolonization and Guam's self-determination, this impulse should be resisted. As a colony, the deaths of people from here, should not be given up so easily. They should not be so eagerly handed over and laid upon that altar of American awesomeness, which ends up being the source of power for American exceptionalism and apologists. As a colony, Guam should not be so eager to do away with the evidence of its colonization, but should rather seek out ways to improve itself and its status, rather than deny its position.

This is not to say that we should transform the life of those who die in war, by portraying them as people who didn't really love the US, or were deep down crazy activists who hate the US. This is not about talking away the patriotism of soldiers who choose to serve or changing what they said or felt in life. But this is about whether or not Guam is a community which is willing to see itself as it is, or see the world around it with eyes unclouded by the interests of another, or shaped by a willingness to be dominated by another. As I've written about before on this blog, these deaths are pieces of that infamous colonial difference. They are potential moments where harsh truths about Guam's relationship to the United States emerge. Where we can argue that these deaths provide the blood to make Chamorros and Guam American, but we also have to confront the fact that the equations that say that Guam is part of the US and that those who come from there are simply "dying for their country" are far from complete. They are rife with errors, gaps, mistakes, they simply do not add up.

Decolonization in this instance does not mean speaking for those dead as in, re-writing their diaries or re-writing their motives for serving in the military, but it means claiming the meaning of their deaths. It means not letting their death be snatched up as fodder to be used for building up the greatness of the United States at the cost of Guam's sovereignty or us understanding its political status.

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