Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Okinawa Dreams #9: Understanding Militarization

I have been writing all week about how we can see similarities or connections between Guam and Okinawa, some of which have nothing to do with the transfer of US Marines from one island to the other. While visiting the protest camp for those opposing the construction of new US helipad facilities in Takae Forest in Northern Okinawa, I found yet another connection.


The image above comes from a protest painting that was at the campsite in Takae. Even prior to visiting this area, I had seen this bird all over the place. It was featured in tourist literature, in advertising, and in posters for activist material or protests. For those on Guam, this bird should look somewhat familiar. On Guam we call this type of bird ko'ko, which in English is known as a rail. Ti gekpu este na klasin paluma, ya achokka' estaba meggai na paluma giya Guahan, i trahi-na uniku. Manggekpu i meggaina na klasin paluma guini, lao i ke'ko yan i sasangat i dos mas annok na ti gekpu.

In Okinawa they refer to this bird as Yambaru Kuina or the Okinawa Rail.

The rails have a very intriguing history across the Asia-Pacific region. In one sense, their flightlessness is part of their evolution in response to the fact that by living on islands they had very few natural predators and could sometimes run low on food. Although a bird with flight can move around faster and easier, it also requires more energy. Living on islands meant that while your ecosystem was familiar and pretty stable, in times when there was some natural catastrophe like a typhoon or a drought, resources could become very limited and finding new ones very difficult. Some birds evolved into flightlessness since they did not need to be able to fly since there were very few predators, and not flying made them leaner and more easily adaptable when food became scarce.

At the same time, the rails have a very sad history because of their flightlessness. Whereas other birds had natural abilities to escape animal predators and human hunters, the rails suffered. Their only ability to resist is to run fast and hide well. Hundreds of species of rail have gone extinct in the past few centuries. For example, the Wake Island Rail, went extinct during World War II, when Japanese soldiers stranded there turned to hunting the bird for food, eventually hunting it into oblivion. The ko'ko' faced a similar fate. Introduction of new predators such as humans or snakes made it difficult for the rails to survive.

Spending some time in Okinawa and learning about their endemic species of rail was interesting because of the way it contrasted with how the rail is understood on Guam. In one place, the US military is seen as a destroyer of nature, as something that will cause irreparable harm and damage. While in the other, the same possibility is there, but the US military is instead seen as something that protects and nurtures life and protects delicate species such as the ko'ko.

From Henoko to Takae in Okinawa, the US military was seen as something which damages things. In Henoko, the expansion of Camp Schwab will destroy the reef, the habitat for the dugong and the precious coral in the bay. In Takae the forest will be damaged with the training and the construction of these helipads, and so naturally the habitat for the Okinawan rail will suffer. As a result, so many of the protests and the rallying cry from local residents deal with how much of their natural beauty will be sacrificed on the altar of militarization and Japan-US relations appeasement.

This is of course contrary to the way the US military portrays itself in Okinawa. They do not create posters that argue that the US military defends peace and justice and has to sacrifice birds and sea mammals in order to do so. They do not have ads on the radio or TV that say that in order for us to do our job we have to take away your environment and poison and destroy it. The US military, in Okinawa and around the world argues the exact opposite. They argue that they are fantastic stewards of the environment. In Okinawa however, a large number of people don't really believe them.

In Guam, it is the other way around. In Guam, the US military is seen as being clean, being a great caretaker for the environment. The US military is seen as being ahead in all of these things, and much better at them than local people. The ko'ko' plays a huge role in making this feel consistent. The Navy is seen as protecting the ko’ko’ and also protecting the environment. They are fighting against the brown tree snakes, and helping keep the habitat safe and secure for endangered native species to be repopulated.

People contrast the trash you can sometimes find at public beaches and the trash you find less frequently at beaches on base and assume that there must be something wrong with people who live outside the fence and something right with those who live inside. This requires forgetting for a moment that beaches on base get much much less traffic, and thus the military unfairly receives a reputation for being clearer and greener than everyone else. People do not see that while the military brings certain benefits and provides some important services, also poisons, destroys and sucks away resources.

A case in point is the struggle over the past few years to get indigenous fishing rights for Chamorros. I have written about this before on my blog, and so I won’t get into the particulars here, but so much of the resistance to this idea deals with #1 it being perceived as racist, and #2 it being perceived as possibly leading to the overfishing and destruction of our aquatic life. I won’t deal with the first point here, but I always found it interesting the ways in which individual fisherman on Guam can somehow take the blame for destroying all of our fish, when in the truth of things, they are only one potential strain on the environment. Fisherman naturally do contribute to the depletion of fish stocks, but so do so many other factors, and some of those other obvious but unseen factors are far more damaging. Simple runoff from roadways or the heavy use of waterways by civilian or military craft can be just as, if not more damaging, but you do not see people wanting to boil in oil or tar and feather drivers or the military.

If you told people on Guam that some of the most toxic places in the world are current or former military bases, they probably wouldn’t believe you. They see the military as being green and good for the planet in the most superficial way possible, because of the betde or green of the grass in their lawns. The base has such nice green grass, it must be that fabled grass, that meggai maimahina na cha’guan, that everyone is always talking about. It looks so nice, it cannot be bad, and so it must be great for the planet.

So in an intriguing way the people of Okinawa have a much deeper understanding of the US military in their island, than the people on Guam do. The people on Guam may have a more intimate relationship with it, but that does not mean they have one built upon understanding. Nangga un ratu, hu gof attende taimanu hu ayek i fino’-hu gi i otro na sinangån-hu. I chose my words very carefully. I said that the people of Okinawa have a much deeper “understanding.”

This does not mean that they love the military. This does not mean that they agree with the military and what it is doing. It means that they have a deeper understanding of what the military can and can’t do, what it does and doesn’t do, and how that may positively or negatively affect their island. While Guam is mired in mythology as to what the military is and what it does, Okinawa has less illusions. It is important to note that understanding can come from all possible sectors, and even from those who seem to be your enemies or seem to oppose you so much. Your friends often times have trouble seeing your flaws, and so while they may be eager to please you or help you, they may not really understand you. They don’t necessarily understand you, since they only accept or allow themselves to see part of you. That is why the strongest friends of course accept “all of you” in the most cliché way possible. Because they don’t rely on an idealized image of you in order to take your phone calls or help you move, but they accept that you are both good and bad, great and sucky, yet still accept you as important in their lives.

This understanding that the Okinawans have isn’t part of some great community educational program. Much of it stems from simple nationalism. They feel the US military as Other, and so they feel like what it does in their land is more vile and more traumatic than if they felt like Japan was doing it to them or they were doing it to themselves. So that leads them to have such an ambivalent relationship to the US. They can see the bases as providing economic stimulus, in both polite and more lurid forms. They can see them as providing some defense and being important. But at the same time, they can see how the bases poison the land. They can see how it might make them a target for more war, but helping the US dominate others and creating more tension. They can also see that economy based on sympathy from the central government and military bases only goes so far, as Okinawa is still the poorest prefecture in Japan. The US military is already vile in a foreign sense before it is even thought of, and as such it becomes far easier to see potential flaws, as well as possible positives.

Guam is the opposite. Guam, becauses it belongs to the United States in an emotionational sense more than a political sense, is flooded with American nationalism, that helps it see the military in the reverse way. Although you could argue the mission in Guam is similar and the way the US acts in Guam is similar, the reaction to the military in specific instances and in totality is drastically different. Despite the way public opinion has soured on the military buildup, the military is for the most part viewed positively, and the things that it does for the community, the ways it affects Guam are primarily positive as well. But the reason why support for the buildup was at such phenomenal levels in a few years back, was because of this perception. People did not actually understand what the buildup would entail or how a massive increase in either civilian or military populations might negatively affect the island. People did not think that the presence of more military might cause prices to increases. They did not think of how more military facilities and training might cause more damage to the environment. Instead they viewed the proposition of more military, as meaning more great and wonderful things.

Part of the reason this is so is because of the craving of people on Guam, and not just Chamorros, to be Americans, and to at some point be real, full-fledged Americans. Since there is little chance of actually achieving that desire in practical terms, what happens instead is a sort of patriotic underground economy. Instead of being able to call themselves real Americans or Americans just like everyone else, they become sometimes obscenely American. American in ways which are more American than real Americans. They serve in high numbers in the military, despite their colonial history and the damage that wars in the past have caused to Chamorro culture and the Mariana Islands. They accept the idea that close to 30% of their island should be military bases, something most people American or not would have some problems with. Because their Americaness is always in question, people on Guam find ways to overcompensate for the gap in their belonging, which usually manifests as them heroically accepting inequality or coloniazation in order to prove that they are more American than regular Americans. In a sense, the dreamy, idealized and clueless lack of understanding that people on Guam have about the military and what it represents is part of this equation. This is how they show their patriotism, but not thinking for themselves, by not questioning things and by just hoping that whatever happens is for the best, since that is their more American than American loyalty. It is the sad way in which they can hope to belong.

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