Monday, August 16, 2010

Nagasaki Trip, Post #5: A $15 Billion Smokescreen

I was asked by a reporter in Nagasaki, Japan about what my thoughts were on the transfer of US Marines from Okinawa to Guam. This came after we had spoken for more than half an hour already on the issue, with me updating him on the latest protests from activists and responses from the Department of Defense. I think that in my statements I had been to rooted in the events I was describing and didn’t say anything which was useful in terms of summing it all up or being a good quote to use in trying to represent the feelings or the mindset of the people on Guam. So he asked a question which I had already spent quite a while answering again in a more direct way in hopes of getting me to give it that less academic, but more human touch.

I always have problems with media and these sorts of questions. Most reporters already have the story written before they speak to a single person, in their head or in their notebooks, and so your purpose is to confirm, deny or provide some details or soundbytes for what they already know or written. For me, my approach to talking about issues isn’t only historical, but more analytical and so my answers to simple or direct questions can often be a nightmare to try and sohmok hålom in an article you’ve already written and simply want a quote to plug in. For example, I could have simply answered the question of my thoughts on the Okinawa-Guam transfer by saying it “sucked” or that it is an “injustice” to the people of Guam. While I believe both of those things, that’s not the way my brain is hard-wired to answer the question. For me those sorts of answers might be true, but might be pointless, since they don’t really lead us anywhere in reality, especially in terms of gaining a better understanding of it in order to change or challenge something.

So when I answered this reporter’s question I gave into my instincts and hu tufoki gui’ a very nuanced and complex answer which would be impossible to transform into a nice, cute soundbyte, but which might make a good framework for a different, longer article. When you are challenging the prevailing interests or powers, all your actions must be attempts to expand your ideological message, to cast its net wider to bring in more agents, more arguments, and change the color of the world, change the meanings of things which you see as being strategic to your cause in other a supportive or antagonistic way. That is why, for me answering the question in a way in which I simply accept the transfer as a thing in the world which I will name in a negative way, isn’t enough. It is not enough to simply disparage it, you also have to try and get into its guts, to rend them, rip them apart, to try and literally dissect it and re-signify it.

I said that the US Okinawa-Guam transfer was a grand, expensive smokescreen. It was one of those instances where some massive or huge change is planned or proposed precisely to keep something else (hovering above or in the background) in place, untouched or perhaps even invigorated.

I don’t know what would be the best language to describe this phenomena since it is not a fail, a counter, a distraction, and neither is it pointless or meaningless. To say that it is a smokescreen does not mean that it is very real or concrete, it does not mean that it won’t affect things, damage or change things. But despite the massiveness and the ways in which certain places or things seem to be sewn into it, it is not meant to change the thing you are supposed to believe it does.

The US has been planning for decades and implementing for at least 10 years a restructuring of its forces in Asia and the Pacific. Part of that restructuring has been putting into effect The Nixon Doctrine or the Guam Doctrine which means letting US allies take more responsibility for their own defense. We can see this most prominently in South Korea where the US is paradoxically working to reduce and expand its presence there, although it is habitually behind schedule. The US is closing once key bases, such as those in Seoul, while expanding others further South, and even working to construct new ones such as on Jeju. Troops get pulled back and moved to bases further South of the DMZ, but with their movements come in new weapons and ballistic missile systems meant to box in or menace China. So the new facilities which the US builds are joint-facilities which both the US and SK militaries will use. As a result, restructuring, moving, change, but everything remains the same.

You cannot even call it a shell game, because there is no real mis-direction, everything remains pretty much the same, but there are certain large, symbolic shifts, which people take more seriously than they should, which they assume to mean far more than it does.

I am always surprised to hear people in Guam and elsewhere think of the move from Okinawa to Guam as the Marines being “kicked out of Okinawa” and implying that the US military is now gone from the island. The simple idea that US Marines are leaving Okinawa for Guam creates an impression of something larger than that move alone, it provides clues which helps reinforce the smokescreen. Too often these things are believed by those with liberal or antiwar tendencies, who wish for it to be true. Who wish that the idea of the US being moved from Okinawa to Guam, being something forced into reality by a peoples’ movement, by protest and by peace-inspired action. In the desire for it to be true, the rest of the story, the strings which make it a less inspiring, more complicated story are either forgotten or not even investigated. The protests are only part of the equation, and while they are my favorite part, the issue is so complex that it is even ridiclous to say something akin to the US leaving Okinawa, since it is blatantly not true.

One of the most hysterical things about the so-called move of US troops out of Okinawa to Guam, is that even if that move is completed, the troop levels there could remain exactly the same. Futenma might be closed, but the string attached to that closure is that Camp Schwab be expanded.

As I said to the reporter, this move is primarily a political one. And by that I don’t mean political in the philosophical sense, but political in a more de-contextualized sense, as something pathetically about politics and the illusion of action, or the way in which politicians solve problems. You use misdirection, pointless resolutions and sometimes big massive changes which are designed to keep as much the same as possible. The idea of US troops moving is important for both the Japanese and the US governments to keep intact a close militaristic relationship. The Japanese government needs to find a way of defying the wishes of the majority of its people who want less to do with the US military and are less inclined to accept their bases in its country, and the US military wants to find someway of appearing to follow the Guam Doctrine, or appearing to pull back or move back, while remaining in all the current backyards they are camped in. Although this thought probably didn’t translate very easily, I concluded by saying that this move was a $15 billion dollar public relations stunt, and not much else.

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