Hafa na Liberasion? #16: Equal in War, Not in Peace

In his book Bisita Guam: A Special Place in the Sun, former Guam Non-Voting Delegate Ben Garrido Blaz, recounts a very telling anecdote about Guam's relationship to the United States. And which goes right to the heart of whether or not Guam has been "liberated."

It begins with Blaz as a young man on island after World War II, who is preparing to leave for his first assignment in the US Marine Corps. The Organic Act had been signed recently, basically giving all Chamorros on Guam US citizenship and setting the political precedent whereby the island would become Guam USA in the time since, no longer the USS Guam or the colony of Guam. The Organic Act took Guam from the dead-end path that it had been on prior to the war, a nascent, ignored colonial possession, where Chamorros were explicitly treated as sub-humans by the US Navy, to a territory which now always appears to be moving closer to the United States, always appears to be getting new rights, new freedoms, new ways that the island and its people are treated as Americans, and new ways and moments in which Guam counts as a piece of America.

Despite these appearances, fundamentally the colonial relationship between Guam and the US was not ended by the Organic Act, but rather perpetuated, and formalized through the aura of inclusion. The possibility of Guam being decolonized or Chamorros regaining sovereignty or political control over their island was made even less likely by this act. Guam, regardless of what is best for it, or what it and its people want, is now entangled within American law and imagination and this means, as news reports, military officers and conservative/patriotic Chamorros are always eager to assert is that it belongs to the US. The fact that Guam belongs to the US means that although it may often feel what in Congress they call "state-like treatment," and so it may seem like it is an equal partner with the US, there still persist a number of ways which it is not equal, and ways which will most likely never be resolved.

In Blaz's anecdote, he is confronted by one such persisting division and inequality by his father:

“Not everyone was happy with the Organic Act. While most of the people on Guam were jubilant with its passing, some felt it did not go far enough. My father was one of those. He railed against it, saying it did nothing more than to make us second class citizens. He took me aside one day as I was about to leave for my first assignment in the Marine Corps and asked a question that has haunted me since. We were in the air terminal on Guam, in those days a mere Quonset hut. Looking at me directly he said “Tell me, why are we equal in war, but not in peace?” I could not answer him then, and now having served 30 years in the US Marine Corps and eight years in the US Congress I still cannot.”

A very important moment, and an inkling of truth in the situation of Guam that Blaz also builds upon in his article "Chamorros Yearn for Freedom." An interesting piece which was published in the 1994 Guam Liberation Day booklet. This piece is insightful, but has a particular uncertain quality to it. Blaz is not an activist in the term that I have been labeled or that I proudly embody on Guam. He has done many things for Guam, especially in Congress during his tenure and even afterwards. But he is not one of the maladjusted of Guam who are pushing actively and passionately for a change in the island's political status and its relationship to the United States. He wrote this article as someone who had a responsibility to ask certain questions, to take up a nagging and obvious questions in terms of the political reality and present of Guam, namely was the island liberated? Is Guam, given its continuing colonial status, really free?

In the final few paragraphs of this article, he acknowledges the sacrifices of the liberators of Guam in World War II, but in a rare moment of clarity that eludes almost all on Guam every July, he acknowledges that, "true self-determination and equality still evade our people. Thus, the quest (for self-determination) endures."

This is not the Ben Blaz that most people would probably expect, and this is very true. Blaz is usually thought of in a much more traditional, patriotic/conservative Chamorro framework, because of his work in Congress and his distinguished service in the US Marine Corps. In his book, Blaz does reinforce this version of himself, by later in his text, dismissing through the usual power of military service and Chamorro patriotism, the critique he had introduced as to Guam and its relationship to the US.

“Since sons and daughters of Guam have served in every major conflict the United States has fought in this century. I expect to see that those from Guam who preceded me will…be at the main gate [in heaven] with this question: “Was dying in defense of America worth it, even though we never enjoyed a status other than “associate Americans” in our own country?”… For our part, we have never questioned or had any misgivings about fighting for the United States when our country needed our service. We are proud to be equal in war. Perhaps someday we could say the same thing about our status in peace.”

Blaz's ideas are very common on Guam. They are based on the assumption that if Chamorros remain hyper-patriotic, that they continue to serve and die, continue to worship the United States, then the inequalities, the sins of the past will all just fade away, dissipate and disappear. That even though we may acknolwedge that our position is not just, is not right, is not fair, that it is not freedom, liberation or anything else that we call it or we see on bumper sticker, our only tactic here is to endure it. Is to keep the status quo and wait for that "liberating" moment of recognition. To just keep fighting and killing for your colonizer, until such day that he deems you worthy of equality, worthy of freedom. Implicit in all of this is that notoriously evil colonial idea that you (as the colonized) simply have nothing to fight for, nothing worth resisting because of, and therefore even if you are perceiving your situation as unfair or wrong, change will only come from the top, only come from the colonizer, and never you.

The problem of course, is that such a moment will never come through devotion. Self-determination for Guam, decolonization (in terms of moving closer or further away from the US) will never happen except through demands and confrontation. Any ideas to the contrary have been drenched into silly notions of American benevolence and propensity for liberation. If Chamorros want to be "liberated," if they want to be equal through integration or equal through independence, then all of that depends not on waiting for the recognition of the United States, but recognizing the power within themselves, their own rights as a people to be treated with dignity and not be subjected to this sort of relationship.

Colonialism is a cycle, and it is maintained by this need for recognition from the colonizer. So long as the colonized needs the colonizer to give it life, to give it permission to exist, give it persmission even to be liberated or be free, then colonialism persists, regardless of whatever cosmetic changes take place, and whatever Organic Acts, bills or treaties get passed. It is, and this is what always makes it the most difficult, the job of the colonized to break the cycle.


Alexandria said…
Hey Michael,

I've had this question for a while, and I'm sure you get it asked of you a lot: What is your position on which direction Guam should move, towards or away from the US? I can see how conceptually either direction could end up in equality/self-determination, but in effect aren't they fundamentally different?

I think I might have even asked you this and I might have even read a post on this...but I think I need a little refresher...=]

Anyway, excellent post. I particularly liked your closing words on colonialism & self-determination. It seems like you've said it many times on this blog, but I never get tired of reading it.

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