I have often asked people who served in the US military and were stationed overseas or in foreign bases, how much they knew about the places where they were stationed? From Chamorros who were in Vietnam and South Korea decades ago, to Chamorro stationed today in places like Okinawa, Hawai’i and Iraq, the answer is usually, “ti meggai.” Not much.
Bases in general, but in particular bases built in foreign countries tend to have a more depressing and tragic history than others. They could have been started during or right after a war. The land was occupied and so even after the war is over, the base stands as a testament to when terrible violent conflict was there. It also can signify land that was taken in war and then held onto despite countries now being at peace. Bases can signify something stolen from a community in so many ways, whether the literal land itself, or the sovereignty of the people who live around it.
Those bases may have protest communities. They could have a collection of people, some are former landowners, some are overtly nationalist, some are antiwar, some are environmentalists, some are just people who hate traffic or other simple societal problems that bases can create. Most military people either do not know about these protest communities, or only have slivers of information about them, which tend to be inaccurate.
As a result, because these soldiers know very little about the places where they are stationed, when they encounter these protests they cannot understand them. They don’t want to understand them. Protestors who want a restoration of the Hawaiian Kingdom are crazies and radicals. Okinawans who don’t want base expansions or want the US military to leave their island are communists and anti-American radicals. There couldn’t be any real reason for them to be there, except their insanity and mental problems. Mangkaduku ha’ siha.
In an objective sense this is a strange position to take. When you see people standing by the roadside protesting, when you see people spend their time undertaking civil disobedience, should there be something to their protest? Even if you don’t agree, should you be able to assume that there must be something serious about it for people to go out of their way to make a statement or have their voices heard?
You can dismiss them as being old or young, people who have way too much time on their hands. But the simple act of people going beyond the passive and normal should require a little bit of extra ideological manipulation in order to convince yourself that there must be nothing to the protest except for their insanity.
Let’s say that the soldiers that are watching protestors then decide to question themselves. If we leave for a second the question of why the protestors are there, then we have to consider why is the soldier there? Why is there a base there? What is their purpose? What has brought them to this point, to this place?
The short answer for why there are protestors or malcontents around the base is that they are crazy. Most soldiers don’t have long answers, but if they do they usually involve racial stereotypes and other derogatory notions. They have very little truth to them. Do soldiers have short or long answers to explain their own presence on that overseas base?
The answer is yes and no. Most soldiers don’t have a very nuanced explanation for the politics or the history of how a base emerged on this spot. They assume its existence the same children imagine that babies come from storks. They have no idea how it came into being and so they create a lovely fantasy that can cover over the true origin, a fantasy that will hopefully put the issue to rest so no further questions need be asked.
Diego Garcia is the base that exemplifies this the best. I have spoken to many soldiers who were stationed at Diego Garcia Island or were in transit there. Most spoke about beaches, swimming and fishing. None knew anything about the displacement of the native peoples in order to create the base. This displacement didn’t happen 100 years ago, it just happened 50 years ago. Those who were displaced are still trying to fight for their dignity as human beings and regain their land or have the return to at least return. For those in the military who were sent to Diego Garcia there was no briefing to tell this history, and so you might as well assume that island bases just grow naturally out of the coral.
Those stationed in certain bases would have long arguments for why they were there. In certain regions it seemed like soldiers were more adept at making their case. The military talking points were well represented in the mouths and minds of these former soldiers. Soldiers stationed in South Korea seemed to know well that they were there only in a support capacity, to back up the South Koreans and help them in case of an attack from North Korea or China. The same went for soldiers in Afghanistan, they were well versed in the various, always shifting rationale for why they were there. They were supporting the Afghan people. Training them, giving them breathing room until they could take care of their own security. They were taking out the Taliban and so on. The truth of why there are bases in both countries is very different than this, but these soldiers were well trained in terms of justifying their presence.
For those who didn’t know the Pentagon’s talking points, they were able to fall back on very simple imperial platitudes. The bases and the troops are there defending freedom, protecting democracy, saving the world type stuff. They made these statements without any benefit of historical context, or political understanding. The made these statements as if the truth of it depended not on how well it reflected reality, but how much emotion or certitude you could funnel into your voice as you spoke.
This discourse is something you could call an imperial Catch-22. You can’t leave it, because it is meant to justify everything and excuse anything. If you are invading Country X and overthrowing the leader of Country Y and setting up Forward Operating Sites in Country Z, you are doing all of this for democracy. Democracy is awesome, it’s wonderful, no one today is allowed to be against it. Those who complain about this are communists, radicals, activists, and idealists. In order to justify what you are doing, you create an ideological universe where you preclude the possibility of what you are doing being wrong or immoral. Because of this there is no turning back. You simply continue forward on your imperial path, unable to stop because by the conditions of the discursive world you have created, you have an obligation to keep spreading democracy, to keep moving forward, keep keeping the world safe for peace.
The problem is of course that democracy as a thing in the world is almost completely absent from this discourse. It really has no place in what the US wants for the world. Over the past century the US has shown a tender, throbbing soft spot for dictators who are loyal to it or easily bribed. It has overthrown and attempted to overthrow many democratically elected regimes and has chosen dictators and anti-democratic leaders over democratic leaders, because the pro-democracy forces are less likely to do what the US wants. Democracy is only good for the US after all, if the right candidates are elected.
These soldiers that are fighting for democracy are only fighting for that label, that empty shell. They are fighting for a skin that the US places over its foreign policy in order to justify it. They are not fighting for the heart of democracy. We can see this clearly in Okinawa where the people have long expressed concerns, reservations and anger towards the many US bases there. Although obvious there are those who consider the bases essential because of the role they play in the local economy, the security they may provide against Japan’s enemies and the way they give Okinawa some leverage against the Central Government, overall most Okinawans want less US military presence. If they truly were fighting for democracy then the voices of the people would matter. The protests against them would be taken seriously. That is part of what democracy is supposed to be after all.
I spoke to an activist today who had spent time talking to soldiers outside of one of the bases, giving them materials in English to try to help them understand why they are protesting, why people might not want the bases in Okinawa. Most soldiers see the bases through a national perspective and so they don’t really see them at all, they assume them. They assume that their presence must be good and must be right, because if they were to assume otherwise, this might require them to think or implicate them in something that isn’t right. This activist said that it is difficult to break past the psychological barriers the soldiers create in order to not think about the bases or their presence in Okinawa. Most of the soldiers invoke the idea that they are defending Japan or defending democracy as the last resort when they don’t have any other argument. The activist said that since so many soldiers were using democracy and democracy defending to justify themselves, they began to create materials directed towards discussing the concept of democracy and how the bases interfere with it. They were hoping this would lead to soldiers becoming more open in these discussions. The opposite has happened. It actually makes soldiers shut down and walk away even faster. It makes them resist thinking about the issue even more.
As “democracy defending” is the imperialist ideological last stand today, it is something that has to remain untouched and unsavaged. I would assume that you can talk about or debate other things, but you mustn’t touch the democracy-defending. It is the most powerful in terms of rhetoric, but that makes it also the most vulnerable, the most delicate. Once you take away such imperial justifications, other critiques will slowly start to slip in, and it becomes difficult in general not to think about your presence and what you are really doing in the world.