Sunday, November 21, 2010


On Thursday night I was on a panel for a film screening at UOG. After the film we had a short discussion about the film and took some questions from the audience. The question I received from the audience was about how the people of Guam, Chamorros and non-Chamorros can speak out with one voice with regards to the buildup and thus take control of it. I thought about that questions for the moment, and couldn't really come up with a decent or hopeful answer. That surprised me, but I guess given how things have played out in terms of the US military buildup to Guam since 2005 I shouldn't be.

I have been asked that same question in so many forms in these past five years, more frequently in the past year, but my answer has constantly changed, depending on how the island has changed or has not changed. Early on, I was fighting against the inevitability that people were infusing into the buildup despite not knowing anything about it. My answers were long and rambling, always hopeful and always punctuated with statements such as "of course the buildup can be stopped! It would be silly to think it couldn't. How many movies have we seen where asteroids about to destroy the earth or other massive catastrophes are barreling towards us, and humans find someway to stop them. You would think that with all that money and creative energy invested in making us imagine that humans are capable of larger than life things, we wouldn't see ourselves capable of stopping or stalling a mere troop buildup to Guam! Global warming is hard to stop, the buildup is easy in comparison!"

My answers in this vein would always come with examples of what could be done, and they always contained obvious answers which for some reason people had decided to ignore or just not even recognize.

One of the principles of asymmetrical warfare is that the largeness of massiveness of an opponent gives him a clear advantage, the most public and obvious advantage, but it always increases his weaknesses. This is one of the principles of guerrilla warfare which Mao Tse-Tung discusses and also one of the least favorite things which the Department of Defense enjoys about their reign over the world. The larger the opponent the more unwieldy it is, the less capable of moving and responding it is. The awesomeness and overwhelmingness of it depends on it remaining fairly stable and steady, the more it lumbers, the more it seems to careen, the less secure and safe it seems, its size which was once a marker of stability and groundness can now appear to be deadly, or out of control. Furthermore, the larger something is, the more points of vulnerability it has to assume.

This is the obvious, but less comprehended dimension to history. That large and small are not absolutely hierarchical, the large generally does vanquish or obliterate the small (and right the history of such a victory), but not always. History is replete with examples of small, agile forces, dominating or taking part larger ones. Hannibal in his initial push into the Italian peninsula, where his rag-tag multi-cultural force chewed to bits Roman armies twice or thrice his size, or Nobunaga Oda's first victory of Yoshimoto Imagawa's massive force at Okehazama. The pragmatics of size tend to dominate how we evaluate things in the world. If something is spoken of as huge and overpowering then we tend to impute in it a number of other things which don't truly belong. We ascribe to it invincibility, inevitability, power, order and so many other things which actually help to sustain it and reproduce it, or as they say in academia, perform the thing which it is supposed to be but never actually is. The buildup for instance was never inevitable, never a done deal, but it gained that force through the belief, the faith, the paralysis that people engineered as part of their way of comprehending it.

As I've written about before, most of our leaders during the first few years of the buildup were content to enthusiastically support the buildup, and their critique of the buildup was mere words or letters expressing their consternation or their disapproval. There was unfortunately very little action, so pathetically little which you could call tangible or even concrete.

People found so many ways of saying that nothing could be done, saying that we don't have a voice, we can't do anything about something huge about to happen to our island, it was literally mindboggling. Statements about how nothing could be done about the buildup have been more plentiful than the phrase "hafa adai" these past five years. It makes you wonder at what point does the island reach critical mass? Where is the tipping point of this paralysis and disempowerment? When does this idea that something so bad which we can do nothing about then lead to the slow evaporation of patriotism? When does it lead people who speak it with more fervor and resolve then the rosary to direct some of that energy towards understanding that powerlessness, or countering it, instead of petting it like it is some snooty pet from a James Bond villain in their laps?

The problem was, that there was always things which could be done There was always very serious, small and large things which could be done, but given the massiveness of the buildup, the diminutive and dependent relationship that we have with the US, and the propensity of people to want to go with the flow and let things sort themselves out rather then get involved, the powerlessness argument became a cover for self-paralyzing. You use the excuse of Guam not having any power in this situation in order to do nothing yourself. This goes against most ways in which people would perceive the situation or analyze it and act upon it abstractly, but concretely this is the way most people would respond.

Things have changed in the past year or two and so my answers have changed to. For one, when people ask what can be done, I have one new group that emerged in the last year We Are Guahan, that I can refer them to. There are also regular activities which people can participate in, much of them I help organize in some way or another. The inevitability of the buildup used to shine like a fresh coat of paint on a car, but slowly over time the seamlessness or the perfection of that coat has started to fade, to chip away and flake off. The buildup isn't that golden paint job anymore, it looks much shabby than it did before and there have been so many things which have happened or been revealed over the past year which have helped make it that way.

But things have definitely changed. The DEIS period was one full of activity, and so much of it critical of the buildup. But that ended months ago, the final version was released, the ROD was signed. Although the buildup is now more open than ever as a topic of discussion, people are at this point ready to imagine it differently, the process itself, everything. But now when I am asked the question of how people can unite over the buildup my answer becomes, even without me realizing it, very bitter. And this is how I answered the question at the film screening on Thursday night. I ranted about how opportunities had been missed, how so much time had been wasted, how the people who were supposed to lead on this issue instead put their faith in the DOD and the US and led us totally astray. So many different "somethings" could have been done

The process becomes far more difficult now since the openness of it from a procedural stand point is supposed to be over. The ROD was supposed to seal the deal, they got their buildup, and so now everything is in their hands, and the hands of those who will fund the projects. So while people are more than willing to complain about it now, there is always the wonderful feeling that nothing can be done now, but in a totally different way. The paralysis has now shifted from something of inevitability, to something which is now arriving too late for it to be of any use. I almost wonder if the change in attitude about the buildup happened because of the fact that it as a thing was on the verge of a metamorphosis. That it was about to transform from a corpulent caterpillar into the beautiful buildup butterfly and so in that the past few months, that ambiguity over its future lead to the opening up of the discursive space to allow it to be spoken up in unheard of ways by previously uncritical (at least publicly) segments of Guam's population. Perhaps this is one of those cases where people are critical now because of a feeling that it is safe to be critical now because things have been signed and even more formal language has been heaped onto the buildup, and so if it was inevitable back then, it must be tattooed onto the forehead of God by now.

I think that one reason why I couldn't bring myself to answer this question in a more hopeful way last Thursday because of the emphasis on people coming together and uniting, which is a totally different equation than stalling or stopping the buildup. Bringing large groups of people together and getting them on the same page may be nice, but that does not mean it is actually the best way to handle the buildup issue. For example, things could be been strategically achieved for years with just small groups, with no larger community support. The buildup could have literally been stalled or stopped just at that level, without any "unity" of the community. This brings us right back to the issue of size, where people feel that since the buildup is so large it must be stopped and met with an equally large force. Or that something can or only should happen if the majority of the people want it or approve of it. The idea that the community needs to unite is nice and comforting, but not realistic and not really necessary. This things about unity is one of the not-so-hidden pratfalls of democracy, the feeling or need for a mob in order to move. It is a safety mechanism to keep things from changing too quickly, too fast, but it is also frustrating since no community ever fully unites, or ever even comes close.

The other reason is because of that feeling that I shared earlier where so much could have been done but close to nothing was. The activists did great important work and did shift the discussion, help inform the public, help change the way the whole buildup issue was perceived or spoken of, but so many other ways to do something just weren't.

One thing which I should have shared in my comments at the film screening was something that had happened earlier in the day, which we should be excited about, and that is the lawsuit which has been filed over the DOD's acquisition of Pagat. We Are Guahan, the Guam Historic Preservation Trust and the National Trust for Historic Preservation are some of the organizations which have filed the lawsuit, which argues that the DOD violated NEPA rules when they chose Pagat, since they did not adequately address other options. It is, as was stated in the press conference Thursday, not a lawsuit about the buildup, but only questions one component of it, the selection of Pagat.

Part of the reason why this line of challenge was chosen was because of the feeling that most of Guam has unified around the Pagat issue, that the majority of people it would seem, don't want it to be taken. One of the attorneys who is leading the case was part of the group who wrote the NEPA laws and he says that they have a very strong case against the DOD. As someone who read several hundred pages out of the original DEIS, I can attest to it hardly being an open discussion but rather a long, meandering document meant to justify the things the DOD wanted. There wasn't any room in that for other people's criticism or alternatives and so we saw that very clearly in how the DOD responded to the lack of substantive changes from the DEIS to Final EIS. Instead of changing anything, they simply said they wouldn't make any decisions now, but would most likely pick the same choices again later.

I agree that the case for Pagat being taken off the table is strong. It seems that the only rationale that the military has for taking new lands and for closing off that area is the convenience of having five firing ranges next to each other, instead of four in one place and another nearby.

I am so excited at the prospect of this lawsuit, just because for five years so many people missed the point of how to stop or stall this buildup. People invoked those metaphors of inevitability and impossibility and then they further sabotaged things by wanting to wait until everyone was united or that the power of opposition was just as large as the buildup itself. All of this amounted to a Mount Lamlam load of nothing happening and nothing being done, when a small list of somethings would have been so crucial. This lawsuit against the DOD represents something very concrete and very crucial. Even if it doesn't challenge the buildup as a whole, or appears to be narrow by only focusing on Pagat, it is one of those things which can easily become a symbol, in the same way that Pagat itself became a symbol. That is why something like this, especially in a wasteland of powerlessness is so critical. It can easily become far more, but in the moment it shows to all that combination that something both can be done and should be done.

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