Saturday, February 16, 2013

Adios Dirk

Dirk Ballendorf who taught for many years at UOG, most prominently in the Micronesian Studies program died last week. He was the second local historian, along with Tony Palomo to pass away last week. I knew Dirk Ballendorf while I was a student at UOG and even took one class with him while I was getting my MA in Micronesian Studies.

Dirk was a character, in so many different ways. The class I took with him was Economic Development in Guam and Micronesia and for the Guam sections he actually brought in Tony Palomo to speak to us about economic development on the island. He did know about Guam History but it wasn't his focus or his expertise and so he invited Palomo to come and help him. It was an interesting class. Both Ballendorf loved to make silly jokes and include anecdotes when they talked and so it was like two old warriors trading anecdotes of people long dead and places long gone. The seminar was like a big card game where everyone else played with cards, while these two played with ghosts and jokes.

Ballendorf was an interesting contradiction to me. On the one hand he could be very old school and could sometimes frustrate people because he wasn't up to date on more recent discussions or theories on history. He would sometimes grumble and complain when people would talk about decolonizing history or re-imagining history. He sometimes got uncomfortable when women or Chamorros or Micronesians would talk about taking control over their histories. But on the other hand his class was very informal and hardly the way you would expect an old school history class to be. He told stories. Lots of stories. Some of them were "big history" or "grand narrative" stories, but others were smaller ones. Bits and pieces of Micronesia that he had collected over the years. Even though he could appear to be out of touch he still could find plenty of ways to surprise people.

The Secret Guam Study was one example of this. His uncovering of that document with Howard Willens is a critical moment in recent Guam History. It made a significant local splash several years ago, but has been largely forgotten by people since. The Secret Guam Study is something that says as much about Guam's relationship to the United States as the Organic Act does. I wish that more people would take it seriously since it lays out in very deliberate and organized ways the obscene dimensions of Guam's contemporary colonial status. If you want to feel warm, fuzzy and patriotic than ignoring The Secret Guam Study makes sense. But if you want to understand reality and know the truth, then it is definitely something you should know more about.

In 2004, when there was an island wide debate over the "renaming" of Marine Drive Marine Corps Drive, I wrote a letter to the editor of the PDN. I wasn't the only one to do this. Many many people did. The majority of those who wrote letters were supportive of the renaming, although there were a few voices who questioned this. There were those who argued against it based on the cost and based on how Marine Drive as a name could mean both the bountiful ocean and the Marine Corps. I wrote a letter myself to the PDN which questioned the renaming since the return of US forces was a liberation in a military sense, but didn't lead to a liberation in a political sense. It seemed strange to celebrate such an achievement when Guam's continuing colonial status casually stains it everyday.

The text of my letter is pasted below:

Rename Marine Drive after natural resource

For indirectly saving the lives of my grandparents and relatives, any of the soldiers who fought to retake Guam in 1944 are welcome in my home, and have my sincere gratitude.

But if we can be honest for a moment and think with our heads and hearts, rather then with the flags in our front yards, the Marines who fought and died in the retaking of Guam were not fighting to save the Chamorro people. Why should we rename anything after them?

The military cared nothing for Chamorros when they first came, and little has changed to this day. In both 1898 and 1944, Guam was taken and captured because of military strategy and security. We must remember this just as much as we remember those who sacrificed for liberty.

Why was Guam separated from the other Mariana Islands in 1898? Why were Chamorros denied citizenship until 1950? Why was (so much) of Guam taken/stolen after the war? All of these reasons have to do with military strategy.

Let's celebrate next July 9 as what should have been our 60th Liberation Anniversary and ask this question: "If the U.S. military cared so much for their loyal Chamorros, then why did they `liberate' Saipan first?" After the fall of Saipan, Japanese atrocities increased at a horrifying rate. In the last month of the war, more Chamorros died than in the previous 31 months. If the United States had thought first of saving their suffering subjects rather then some abstract military tactic, then hundreds of Chamorros might still be with us today.

Rethinking our relations and obligations to the military is becoming more and more vital if we are to negotiate with them as partners. The renaming of Marine Drive doesn't instill me with patriotism instead it fills me with sadness, for on Guam we have prized war and militarism for too long.I would rather Marine Drive be renamed after the ocean that surrounds us and has supported us for millennia, long before we ever had commissary privileges and American flags.

San Diego

The road was eventually renamed and today is known as Marine Corps Drive. This issue still persists up until today. Recently Senator Frank Aguon proposed a bill to rename the Back Road to Anderson Air Force Highway. This seems strange considering how much of Guam the Air Force already controls. If you look at a map don't they get enough publicity simply by controlling most of the northern part of the island? What would be the purpose of giving them even more?

Two letters were submitted in response to my letter. The first was from the late John Gerber. I interacted with John Gerber several times over the years and he represented the prototypical Chamorro super patriot. His letter admonished me for daring to question anything. Gerber was the most stalwart defender of the liberation in Liberation Day. He was the one who initially pushed the renaming issue to the front of public discourse by walking from one end of Marine Drive to another in order to build awareness of his cause.

Dirk Ballendorf was the other who responded. He challenged my argument on the basis that even if Liberation Day was not really a liberation, the people of Guam still benefited from it and so there is plenty to celebrate and honor. This is a standard argument that misses the point. A side effect or byproduct of something, even if it is nice or lovely isn't what is supposed to define an object, act or event. In these sorts of commemorations the intention and the details do matter. You could celebrate Liberation Day as "Reoccupation Day" and still have many of the same aspects, but at least it would be closer to the truth.

After critiquing my argument Ballendorf then went on to congratulate me and acknowledge what my letter represented. The letter itself represented a clear maturation of the local population in intellectual terms. The fact that Chamorros were started to question things and speak out was a good indication of how far Chamorros had come and how we were educating ourselves. The voice was somewhat paternalistic, and that was the way he related to most people from the region. But he nonetheless meant well and was sincere in his support for local scholars and voices.

When I was a graduate student MARC was my home away from home. I lived in the library and archives there. I would spend hours and days there. The professors that I worked with were all experts in their field and I enjoyed listening to their stories of the islands, the cultures and the people.

When I look at MARC today things are very different. The library is still there and the archives have grown, but the professors are retiring or passing away. Don Shuster, who I also took classes with and has written on Micronesian affairs for years recently retired.

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