Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Island Snowman Within

Gaige yu' ta'lo giya San Diego. Gi este yan i otro na simana para bei in asodda' yan iyo-ku "department" put i dissertation-hu.

Magof-hu na gaige gui' guini, sa' esta kana' maleleffa i "fino' academic" put i gaige-ku giya Guahan.

My department at UCSD, Ethnic Studies is in the midst of rebuilding itself after losing several faculty over the past few years. So last week and this week the department is being visited by several candidates, each of whom is meeting with faculty, students and giving jobs talks. I went to the one this morning, and also got to have lunch with the job candidate with other students. It was a good chance to catch up with other students, find out what is going on with their work, whether it be a thesis, a qualifying exam or a dissertation.

At the lunch, I heard updates from one student whose thesis and soon her dissertation will be on Agent Orange use in the Vietnam War. I'm not sure yet what approach she's going to take, she's interested in legal texts, in scientific texts and is very interested in discussing the racialization of the Vietnamese during the war and in specifically in relation to how the raining of these hazardous disgusting chemicals on them and their lands was justified or became acceptable.

Hearing this student talk about the poison of Agent Orange reminded me about the tinatse that Guam received from its own Geran Vietnam experiences.

One of the main road that I live close to in Guam is Route 10, which was a few years ago renamed as Vietnam Veteran's Highway and even has a mural now to commemorate this renaming. On the mural, you see silhouettes of a group of soldiers, carrying their weapons, and beside them is the phrase "I Lalahita, Ma Sakrifisia i Lina'la'-Niha" This image and the phrase takes up very little of the entire mural, but what does run across its entire length, is small little clusters of text, which are barely readable as you drive be. Each of these blocks of text is the name and date of death of a different Chamorro soldier from Guam during Vietnam. All in all they number more than 75.

Although Guam wasn't a site of mass popular protests against the Vietnam War or against the draft, the war did affect the island and the Chamorro people very profoundly, and helped create the possibility for Chamorros to relate to war, to the US military, to peace in a way which at least publicly was unspeakable before. It is more than likely that the very voice through which I write regularly on this blog, speaking critically about the United States military, American foreign policy, and American history would not have been so easily mine, would not be something that I could invoke or use. At least not without levels of violent reaction higher than just the sesso na hate mail that I get.

For those of you who don't know much about Guam, some background. After World War II, after the "liberation" of Guam by the United States, saving Chamorros from the brutality of Japanese occupation, suddenly Guam had become the most patriotic place in the United States (empire). Chamorros had not been considered Americans just a few years earlier, before World War II, by any measure other than what colonizer claims your land and your destiny. Some Chamorros joined the US Navy (but like other "ti apa'ka na grupu siha," could only serve in menial capacities), Chamorros mouthed the colonialist platitudes that they were forced to learn in schools about America's greatness, but deep down in their hearts Chamorros knew they weren't really Americans, and as a whole, as a people didn't really want to be.

All of that changed after suffering under Japanese oppression during World War II. American colonialism as I've written many times before emerges out of the war smelling fresh, gracious and not really that colonial at all, especially when compared to the Japanese brand.

Chamorros are now ready to be American, want to be American, especially the younger generations. Of course, Guam was still a colony of the United States, even after the war, and even up until today. The transforming of the island into a mentally consistent "Guam USA" requires alot of work, alot of overlooking, an incredible amount of optimism and almost bachet na hinengge in the benevolence and awesomeness of the United States. The most fundamental way in which this image of an equal Guam and the United States, or Chamorros as fully enfranchised American people comes into being is through military service.

This idea was not lost in the immediate post war years on Guam and the idea of the military as i chalan asta i langhet combined with its "liberator" status meant that the US military as an institution was taikachang, it was untouchable, without blemish, clean, pure, and without sin. No words would be allowed against the military, no resistance to its missions or its presence in Guam would be tolerated. This obviously was not the case with all families, all the time, since in fact many families did hold very strong negative feelings towards the US military, in particular for land that was taken during World War II. But in public, Guam it seemed was determined to be the most pro-American place in the universe, a place where the mythological statement by Francisco Baza Leon Guerrero that, "the only ism on Guam is Americanism" wasn't just kissing the daggan of the colonizer, but was like some all-encompassing divine truth.

People talk about the first two decades following World War II, as if the relationship between Chamorros and the US military is either one of incredible excitement of intense sense of adventure and achievement. This was how Chamorros got their pictures in the newspaper, which was at that time focused mainly on the stateside audience on island. This was how Chamorros of all income levels or social statuses could leave the island, become respected. The military was the liberator after all, and publicly it could lay claim and was attributed all things positive, security, stability, improvement, order, discipline.

So naturally when America went to war after World War II, Chamorros were there, and glad to serve, glad to leave island, glad to pay back some of their eternal debt to the United States. In my research, in interviews, people seem to characterize the relationship between Chamorros and military service, Chamorros and the military during this period as almost impossibly loving, devoted and harmonious. There was none of the disrespect or lack of patriotism that we sometimes find today. There was none lack of commitment and understanding amongst Chamorros about the crucial role the military plays in Guam and in the world in keeping us alive and able to move into the middle class. Young Chamorros celebrated with glee the possibility of fighting for the United States and in the small chance that they didn't, their parents were more than willing to toss them into a uniform and force them to fight. Sometimes, local politicians during this period would criticize the military, such as over land, economic, utility or environmental issues, but when word of their resistance would reach "regular people" on island, their would be hell to pay for their blasphemy.

Of course, this portrait of Guam is completely false, it contains some elements of truth, some of the ways in which Chamorros after the war have attempt to make themselves appear as patriotic and American as possible, but it is far from the "reality" of Guam. Chamorros even after the war, thought of Americans, the military as different and felt regular distrust of them, as being outsiders, being people who feel like they own the island, who are often completely ignorant of Guam and who its people are. This continues to this day, but the difference is that the public sphere of life in Guam has shifted, depending on your view of things, drastically or slightly, to include public critiques or negative impressions of the military.

At the "Critique of the Military Buildup" Forum that I spoke at last week, I saw some shades of this. All in all, the speakers from the Civilian Military Task Force who were present, tried to position themselves a neutral, that they are doing their best, that the military buildup will benefit us and we are working on making that possible. One speaker however, who is on the subcommittee for public safety, out of nowhere, flushed with anger, and obviously emotional warned all that the military better be on their best behavior when they come here, that we will not take any disrespect from them especially in terms of sexual misconduct against local women. He built up to this emotional high after prefacing his remarks with the fact that Guam already has quite a bit of sexual misconduct within its existing population and that shouldn't be tolerated or forgotten about just because we're now focusing on the Marines and what they might do.

This was an important "slip" because these are the people who are tasked with making the military buildup "gaisabot" making it palatable, making it possible, making what is fundamentally a truly unfair and unequal action, seem far fairer and far nicer than it really is. These are the people who aren't supposed to make these sorts of statements, they aren't supposed to put out into the public mind that there might be anything wrong with the buildup. They above all people aren't supposed to associate any negativity with the buildup, that they can't prepare for or find Federal funds to mitigate. But no amount of Federal funds can take away that feeling or otherness or outsiderness that the military has on Guam, that feeling that people have that the military is somehow taking advantage of them, laying claim to their lies, laying claim to their island.

The first real crack in this positive public perception of the military on Guam, the first way in which negativity could start to be spoken of actually came from a war, the Vietnam war. The Vietnam War was an experience that could not be contained in all the generic rhetoric of Chamorro patriotism, devotion and debt for liberation. It cost the island more than six dozen lives, and thousands more came back to their families and their villages, with a wide array of visible and invisible wounds.

There were no visible protests on Guam during the war, at least not in the way that period has been remembered in the United States proper. In fact, most of the events organized for the Vietnam War that I found mention of in newspaper research were all pro-war gatherings. But this patriotic veneer could not contain what was happening in the souls of Chamorros, and in the fabric of their lives and their families. Chamorros came back traumatized, in more ways than could be articulated by flag waving or America loving. They came back with ravenous drug addictions. They returned with an excess of emotions, ones which the public sphere in Guam didn't seem to be able to make sense of. There was a new distaste for war and for war making. A distaste for America after fighting and killing for them in a war that made no sense. A re-thinking of the military in general, and a new desire, beyond simple Catholic empty rhetoric for the love and the necessity for peace.

In the Guam history classes that I taught last month at UOG, I gave one lecture which was all on postwar Guam history through songs. The one that I chose to represent this shift in Chamorro consciousness and public life in Guam was "Island Snowman" by Marianas Homegrown. I've pasted the lyrics below. Even though its in English and not necessarily written from a "Chamorro perspective" like some other Vietnam era songs which provide a critique of Chamorro participation in the war effort, it nonetheless speaks to the depth of emotion and trauma that was taking place during that era.

If anything, the whitewashing of the pre-Vietnam era on Guam has much to do with trying to return to an "easier" or "simpler" view of life and the relationship between the United States, its military and Chamorros. This simpler view is of course one which the Chamorro experience in Vietnam and their experience of Vietnam in what was brought to Guam during and after the war makes so much more difficult to believe or perceive. Everyone on Guam has some relative who came out of the war "messed up," whether PTSD, Agent Orange, feelings or racism and anger or drugs addictions. The Chamorros love for the United States and faith in its military, at the structural level (prior to anything we say or think about it) all comes down to the idea that America only fights "good wars." That all American wars are just duplicates of World War II, and all about liberation and the unfolding of American greatness and goodness. Vietnam is a bone in the throat of such fantasizing, and as such it is an event which has helped produce the social space for me today where I can write this blog post and have people openly agree or disagree with me.

I'm pasting the lyrics for "Island Snowman" below. Later this week I'll hopefully post the lyrics for the J.D. Crutch version "Binenu," which while not as explicit as this version, is nonetheless able to strike a very profound chord in me because of it being in Chamorro.

Island Snowman
Marianas Homegrown

Can you recall the day when you came back home to Guam?
You rode the snowman’s horse that you brought from Vietnam
You said the whitey snowman will never strap his saddle upon your back
You said you couldn’t get hooked if you’d only snort its back
He’s gonna bleed you dry he’s your sister’s pimp, he’s the pusher-man
You’ve got to rid the island snowman from you life little brother
What have you gone and done this time?

How did the island snowman make you crawl upon your knees?
How could you let him drain your life that used to burn within your eyes?
Remember all the times when we laughed and we worked at home after sunrise?
But now you always need to lie and you bow your soul in shame
Why can’t you rid the island snowman from your life little brother?
Mom and dad didn’t get much sleep last night little brother
What have you gone and done this time?

Everyone stay tuned for the Cable Six news since the DEA came down hard on your and you were busted
Now you pray so hard for the time machine but the black robed judge holds the only key to your future
He’s gonna put you away in a penitentiary
He’s gonna put you away in a penitentiary
You have a chance to rid the snowman from your life little brother
At the zenith of the third cold turkey night
You’ll finally break the hold the snowman’s had on you all this time
Your mother cried herself to sleep last night again

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