Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Colony of Warriors

PBS recently did a short documentary about Guam and veterans here as part of their program America by the Numbers. It was a pretty good piece. I was interviewed for the program at the WWII Memorial Asan Overlook as seen in the picture for this post. The interview was pretty long covering a whole range of topics. As usually happens with these sorts of things, very little of it was used in the actual interview. I still think it was a good piece even if I was barely in it, although there was a glaring, but expected lack of discourse around Guam's political status.

The issue of Guam's colonial status is always something that mainstream media in the states have difficulty with. You can describe it in a hundred different ways, talk about it from this angle, that angle, give a wide range of options for how to approach it, but ultimately it is for your average media person, something they can't engage with. It would require too much discursive muster, it would consume any piece and the piece would end up having to be solely about Guam the colony. This is always the limitation with media. If something doesn't lie within the accepted frame of reference, frame of discourse, then it either has to be ignored or be neutralized since there isn't enough space or time to deal with it. This isn't only a problem with those who produce the media but also those who ingest and consume it. People watch the news expecting learn new things that follow a familiar structure. They don't want a new structure to their lives, to the way they see or feel or experience things. They just want new data to fill the slots. They want to know the latest corrupt politician. The latest tech trend. The latest feel good story. The latest can't miss court case. If anything challenges the foundation people tend to tune it out. It bounces off of them. They end up blaming the messengers for giving them things they didn't have the easy frame to understand. It sometimes leads to a sparking of curiosity, but generally, the fact that they don't know it becomes a reason to resist it.

When media tangles or bumps up against colonialism, they also water it down and weaken it down to become mere "discrimination" or "lack of fair treatment" or "disrespect." These become things which you can easily just ascribe to someone feeling like they are being mistreated rather than there being a system of inequality and marginalization in place. Even if people are discussing potential evils or sins or wrongs that the United States, its citizens, its government, its military is committing, they tend to pull back from actually engaging in what colonialism is and means, and instead reduce things to misunderstandings, where a slight shift in perspective or a quick fix can solve all problems. In the case of the discussion of "colonialism" in this documentary, the problem is that you can watch it and assume that if only the US gave more money to veterans on Guam than everything would be ok. This is how most people assume you can fix problems like this, if only the US would do more, give more, but all of this obscures the fact that inclusion/exclusion is the problem. What good does it do to constantly demand inclusion and respect when you exist as part of a system in which your island is not including and not supposed to be respected? Everything is fine until you realize that everything that you are basing your demands or your political argument upon is based on a fiction. Guam is a colony. Whether or not it is the best treated colony in the world is irrelevant, it is still a colony.

This is the problem with so much discourse around war reparations, the military buildup and even the way most people conceive of decolonization. There is a fundamental misunderstanding about the relationship between Guam and the United States. The difficulty of the media in the states in addressing the fact that the US has been a colonizer for a long time and even prior to that participated in genocide and the wholesale displacement of millions of indigenous people, means that they aren't much help either.

This documentary does better than most media coverage about Guam, but it remains problematic in the same way. Here's some coverage from the Washington Post of it below.

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Guam: A High Concentration of Veterans but Rock Bottom in VA Funding
Josh Hicks
Washington Post
October 29, 2014

Guam has a small population of about 200,000 residents, but it’s home to one of the highest concentrations of military veterans among U.S. states and territories. One in eight adults on the Pacific island have served in the armed forces.

Despite those numbers, the island ranked last in the country for per capita medical spending by the Department of Veterans Affairs in 2012, with an average of $822 for each former service member. Virginia had the next lowest rate with a much greater $1,275 per veteran.

PBS recently explored whether Guam veterans are receiving the care they deserve in a documentary called “Island of Warriors,” part of an “America by the Numbers” series that examines shifting U.S. demographics and the significance to the nation.

Journalist Maria Hinojosa talked with Guam veterans about why they serve in the military and the level of treatment they receive when they return home.

The VA opened a new outpatient clinic for Guam veterans in 2011, but the island still lacks the kind of specialized treatment facilities available in other locations. The nearest intensive program for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is located more than 3,000 miles away in Hawaii.

“For me, that’s why I just stay home,” said Roland Ada, a Guamanian who was diagnosed with PTSD after serving two tours in Iraq as a combat medic. The veteran said he rarely socializes any more and thinks about ending his life several times a day.

The documentary also looked at U.S. Census data, which shows that about 8,000 former troops live in Guam. Many politicians and veterans advocates on the island suspect that the numbers are inaccurate and causing a lack of VA funding for the territory.

Hinojosa asked the VA’s Guam facility planner, Craig Oswald, whether the clinic’s two certified psychiatrists are enough to serve the territory’s veteran population.

“I think right now we’re doing quite well,” he said, adding that the clinic recently added more mental-health staff, including social workers and nurses.

Oswald agreed that Guamanians should have access to the specialized care they need, but he rejected the notion that the VA has overlooked the island.

“I think Guam is very well-known to ‘Big VA,’ to Washington, D.C.,” he said. “Our particular health-care system has actually received several million dollars … that’s being spent directly on veterans in the Pacific.”

But Guam Gov. Eddie Calvo disagreed, saying the Senate cut mental-health funding for the territory two years in a row.

“The federal government has not done their part to assist the very patriotic group of American citizens fighting in so many distant lands, in areas that have never tasted democracy,” Calvo said. “Yet these American citizens of Guam really have not felt what true democracy is all about.”
At the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan last decade, four of the Army’s top recruiters were from Guam, and enlistment on the island doubled while it was falling almost everywhere else in the nation, according to the documentary.


"It’s a family tradition to do it,” said Sfc. Gonzalo Fernandez, a recruiter for the Army National Guard who won recruiter of the year awards three times in a row during that span.
Fernandez also attributed the high numbers to a sense of patriotism among Guam residents. But University of Guam history professor Michael Bevacqua said recruits may be attracted to the “shininess and the niceness” of the military, which offers economic opportunities they may not otherwise find outside the armed services.

Guam’s unemployment rate is 13.3 percent, whereas the the national average is 7.5 percent; and nearly 23 percent of residents there live in poverty, compared to about 15 percent of Americans overall, according to the documentary.

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