Tuesday, May 11, 2010

A Dispatch from the Nation of Maladjusted Guam People

Tomorrow my Guam History classes will be conducting their political status forums. For this exercise, which is their last big group project, I divide them into three groups, one for each of the potential future political statues of Guam, and they have to debate which is the best for Guam. I'll write more about this project later, but it is usually the most fun part of my entire semester, since its high energy, usually gof na'chalek, and I'm always happy when students find small and large ways to surprise me with their arguments.

One of the highlights of tomorrow will be when some producers who work for the show Dan Rather Reports will be filming one of my classes when they are debating political status, and then interviewing me afterwards about Guam's history. They are on island doing a story about the infamous military buildup which is always looming in a menacing ambigous form on Guam's horizon. They spent a week last month following Congresswoman Bordallo around, and so now they are on island to get more video and do some interviews with business leaders, activists and academics.

For the past few months, Guam has received far more national and international attention than usual. As I've written about before, the DEIS comment period created a very simple framework through which people on Guam became more easily activated or animted. Whatever term you'd like to use to describe it, what it ultimately did was make Guam a more fertile ground for certain types of political speech or actions. These actions or forms of political discourse already exist, but the conditions which the period created made them more likely to be enacted, embodied, more acceptable to be publicly articulated. One way of conceiving of what the DEIS comment period enabled is, that it remapped and extended the borders of the imagined community of maladjusted folks on Guam. That angry irrational mass of people who are critical of the United States or the US military is always argued to be really small, minute and pointless. As such, the majority of people on Guam do not imagine themselves as belonging to that group, but define themselves against it, as belonging to a more reasonable, more patriotic American community. The imagined community grew for about 90 days, to the point where it appeared to gain the residency of thousands more than usual. And as a result the sort of political speech and actions associated with that maladjusted nation could no longer be dismissed as the kinachang in the consciousness of crazy people. And so as a result, policies shifted, attitudes shifted, perceptions shifted, and so much of what people took for granted a year ago, now seems more uncertain.

The DEIS comment period had a similar effect on making Guam a target for media. A regular series of articles have been written about Guam since 2005, all with the buildup and its impacts as their core subject. Every few months, some major American paper or magazine would come up with some barely balanced piece about the buildup and how it would benefit Guam, but could Guam handle the changes that need to be made to benefit from the buildup. Since the start of this year however, the coverage has been much more persistent, and at times even critical of the buildup. I won't go through the breadth of this coverage since I'm saving that for another post, but the DEIS period helped increase the coverage by providing a narrative lens through which Guam’s story was told in an easier and more compelling way.

On the one hand, as more and more revelations about the military’s plans and the savage negative impacts they would entail were revealed, it was far easier to not only create a sense of urgency or direness, but it was also a way of creating more balance. In previous articles, the balance was always lacking because of the lack of “credible” voices who could be counted on to give the other side. Instead, these articles rambled on without that side, since the only people who could be counted as having their beliefs, were that tiny group from the nation of maladjusted Guam people. With the DEIS document and the public comment period created the way in which that other side to the issues wasn’t only something that an activist would comment on, but made it possible that the military itself, their plans and their 87 million dollar words, could be used to bolster the opposition. Ironically, the credibility of the military (even against themselves) could then help give credibility to the grassroots or the mantenhos na taotao siha, who would be written off and out otherwise. After all, the angry words they are hurling aren’t really their own, but actually those of whoever wrote and approved the DEIS!

The use of the DEIS as the focus and the forms through which critical words are cited is also what allows these news pieces to be somewhat critical of the military, and still be considered polite journalism and not anti-American screeds. The critical words come from the policies, the reports, the studies. They don’t stem from ideology, and they aren’t driven by the crazy ramblings of some activist who wants to go back to living in huts. To attack the military before the release of the DEIS, was to wade into dangerous, uncharted waters. It would have meant attacking things which the friendly American media isn’t supposed to attack. It would have meant addressing the issues of why America is in Guam anyways. It would have meant criticizing the American presence there, in colonial terms, rather than the policy-focused ways which appeared during the DEIS period. It would have also meant questioning the nature of American militarization, and its rights to certain things, and the way it extends its power and projects force. Through the DEIS, those larger, gof mappot na finasien siha, can remained unaddressed. So even if the piece which emerges is scathing, it is about military policy, not the military itself. It is not about fundamental questions of territoriality and the US and its rights to Guam, but about the military being fair and a nice neighbor. If you read carefully the critical pieces which are written from mainstream sources, they sometimes appear radical when you compare similar pieces from years past. But in truth, they can still be tied together by a narrative knot where if the military simply did a better study or paid more money, then everything would be fine.

Over the past few months I’ve been interviewed for literally dozens of international and national media outlets. Some of them in person, some over the phone, some over email. I’m always happy to share with these journalists, especially in hope that some of the critical or radical ideas or interpretations that I have or believe, might be taken as normal or commonsensical for that journalist. I do this, despite the fact that I know that most of what I say won’t ever make it anywhere near a blog post or a printed newspaper page. That most of what I will tell them, they won’t have the background to understand, or it won’t fit in the piece they are already writing and so on. But, itself still important to challenge things and work to shape things. The perceptions of Guam went unchallenged for so long, because even though people on Guam may have hated the way they were being talked about, those writing about Guam in the states rarely cared to contact anyone from Guam. Now that this has changed and so gestures are at least being made to reach out to talk to people from or on Guam, we need to make the best use of it.

I wanted to share a piece on Guam which appeared on the website Slate a few months back. I was contacted by the author of the piece Jessica Dweck, who framed the narrative of her intended short piece, as providing an answer to clueless or just ignorant Americans, as to why there are military bases in Guam and why the US will be spending billions of dollars building more there very soon. When she mentioned that her intent was to answer this question I was immediately interested, and hoped that she would write a piece which was, maybe not in-depth, but at least was a bit more insightful about issues of why America “owns” Guam, and not only what this meant 100 years ago, but what it means today. I wrote up about two pages of answers to her questions.

I'm pasting those two pages below, and you can click the link above to see how it matches up with her article.



The US took Guam from Spain during the Spanish American War. It was a bloodless occupation since at the time, communication with Guam was so poor that the Spanish officials on Guam didn't even know there was a war going on. The indigenous people of Guam, the Chamorros have been handed back and forth between three different colonizers since 1668, Spanish, US, Japanese (during World War II) and finally back to the US, where we are still today.

Guam was taken in 1898, because at that time coaling stations were needed across the Pacific in order to get US economic and military forces to Asia, which was seen as the next big market for the US. It was a sleepy Naval base for about forty years until it was attacked and occupied by the Japanese in 1941 at the start of World War II. When the US first took over, Chamorros were somewhat excited about the change of regime, since America had a reputation for being a democratic and progressive nation, but this was not the case. The US Navy set up an autocratic regime in which the lives of Chamorros were determined completely by a Naval Governor stationed on the island. Chamorros had no rights save for what the Naval Governor gave them and so at different points, freedom of speech was banned, whistling in public was banned, books written in the Chamorro language were burned by the Naval government and the Chamorro language was prohibited in schools.

Some Chamorros grew attached to the US during this period, although most do not because of the paternalistic treatment. Chamorros regularly petitioned the US Congress for more rights but each time were denied on the basis that if Chamorros were given more rights, it would interfere with "national security" or the ability of the US Navy to conduct its affairs or missions in the Pacific.

When the Japanese invaded, Chamorros got a taste of a different colonizer, a more violent and brutal one and so when the US re-invaded Guam in 1944, Chamorros then greet Uncle Sam's return as a liberation. The contrast between colonizers helps Chamorros forget the racist ways they had been treated before the war and helps instill in them a desire to be more American. In the immediate years after World War II, the US Navy starts the plans for the military facilities that Guam hosts today. They illegally take close to 2/3 of the island to build various military bases, displacing the majority of Guam's 22,000 Chamorros. These takings are illegal since Chamorros were not citizens of the US and therefore the taking of their land could not count as imminent domain. In order to legitimize these takings, and in response to Chamorro protests as to the lack of their political rights, an Organic Act is passed in 1950 creating limited self-government for Chamorros and also making them US Citizens.

Whereas Guam was a sleepy base before World War II, this was not the case after the war. Determined to never allowed another Pearl Harbor to take place and also seeking to protect itself from the emerging powers in Asia, the Pacific was to be transformed into an American Lake, a huge buffer zone of which Guam, on the very edge of Asia was a key part. This buffer zone would not only for defensive protection however, but also for the projection of power, as it would give the US the ability to strike easier its potential enemies in Asia.

Today, Guam is an unincorporated territory of the United States, which means that its place in the US union is never certain but always changing and always subject to whether Congress, the White House or some part of the Federal Government decides to include them. Guam doesn't have voting representation in the US Congress and no Electoral College votes for President. In the years since World War II, much of the land that was taken has slowly been returned as excess lands, although the Department of Defense still controls almost 1/3 of Guam, with an Air Force base in the Northern part of the island, and a Navy base in the Southern. Right now the US is in the midst of transferring roughly 8-9,000 Marines and their dependents from Okinawa to Guam, to establish a Marine Corps base on Guam.

Guam's value is part geographic and part colonial. It is American in the sense that it "belongs" to the United States but is not a full part of it. It is an ideal site for American militarization since it is closer to hot spots in Asia than any "real" American communities, and its lack of sovereignty means that there is no foreign government to negotiate with, if the US military wants to do something on Guam, it can just do it. This is crucial as current and former allies of the US begin to resent the sea of bases American established immediately after World War II in their countries. Guam is a place where no matter how the military behaves, the people there cannot kick the US out, cannot demand anything, since as a territory there is no framework for them to have any power to make demands to negotiate (such as a VFA or a SOFA).

Under Rumsfeld there was a lot of (at least rhetorical) movement towards reconfiguring American forces across the globe. He advocated and helped develop smaller, less visible bases in younger American allies, which were to be called facilities and not bases. Rumsfeld had an intriguing vision which I think most people would find paradoxical. He wanted to on the one hand extend the grasp of American power, make it so that American forces could reach targets faster and with less interference, but he also wanted to decrease the visibility of America's forces by proposing that they be redeployed from their traditional bases to other sites such as Guam.


Guam's relationship to its bases and to the US military is a complex one, full of plenty of patriotism, but also lots of feelings of being mistreated or disrespected. Since World War II, Chamorros have become a minority on Guam due to the influx of peoples from Asia and the Pacific seeking to take advantage of it being a US territory, and so from this point on I am not just speaking about Chamorros, but generically the people of Guam. In Guam today, the bases are seen as places of economic and educational advancement, military recruitment on Guam is astronomical and regularly the highest of any market in the US and its territories. The US is still celebrated each year in July as a liberator during the island's largest holiday called "Liberation Day."

But at the same time, so much of the military's presence on Guam is predicated on the US owning Guam, and thinking of it first and foremost as a military base, or a piece of strategically important land and so the people who live there are an afterthought. For instance when Dick Cheney visited Guam in 2007 he didn't even leave the military base but just spoke to the troops on base and then left. When Obama first made plans this year to visit Guam this week (the trip has been delayed until June), the plan was pretty much the same, speak to the men and women serving overseas and maybe some local leaders who come on base, but not much more. For many Chamorros their feelings of anger towards to the US come from the fact that the island is still a colony and hasn't been allowed to decolonize or change its political status to something more equitable (such as free association, statehood or independence). Also, the illegal land takings immediately after World War II are still the source of some serious resentment amongst Chamorro families who lost land or had land forcibly taken from them to make the bases of today

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