Tuesday, August 22, 2017

America's Afterthought

Guam gets its 15 mins of national or international media fame refreshed every few years, sometimes because of a typhoon or earthquake. Sometimes because of snake epidemics. Over the past few years, North Korea has had alot to do with Guam getting a little extra attention. Usually these periods are frustrating to analyze in media terms because Guam, even if it is mentioned as the focus of a story, still remains at the periphery of it. But this most recent North Korea scare led to a series of well-written and insightful articles that didn't shy away from Guam's colonial status, but engaged with it. Here below is probably my favorite piece to come out from all the drama.

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"Guam: A colonized island nation where 160,000 American lives are not only at risk but often forgotten"
by Gene Park
Washington Post
August 11, 2017

“Total Americans affected: 3,831.”

Fox News ran a video explainer this week on the affect of North Korea’s missiles on Guam. There are more than 160,000 American-born citizens in the U.S. territory of Guam, but the network initially counted only 3,881 lives on the two military bases there.

The video was later updated, labeling them as active-duty U.S. troops. The other lives? Ignored. But at least the video is a bit more honest about the focus.

It’s not just Fox News. The Associated Press had a story from its Pyongyang reporter with an alarming headline: “Should U.S. shoot Kim’s missiles down?” It weighed the pros and cons of defending against a North Korean missile test from Guam. Again, it initially only counted the “7,000 U.S. troops” who would be affected, until the story was later amended to include the total population.
Lots of people are asking “What is Guam?” My colleague and fellow Guamanian Michelle Ye Hee Lee wrote an explainer that should cover most of your questions.


But nobody is asking, “Who is Guam?” Guam is a nation of Chamorros, indigenous people whose culture has been ravaged and lost through almost 400 years of colonization, from Spain to the U.S. to Japan and back to the U.S.

“We inhabited the land for thousands of years before any new country came along … the land was central to most indigenous cultures, an important aspect often deemed insignificant by colonialists,” said Toni Marie Brooks, a biracial Chamorro native and Air Force veteran. “Even without thinking about it, biases have been revealed by overlooking the local population, focusing just on service members.”

I am also from Guam. I am not native, but like Brooks told me, growing up on Guam means hearing threats from North Korea since you were young. That guidance about “Do not look at the flash or fireball, it can blind you”? It’s scary stuff. Children of Guam know. We were taught in school that we are at perpetual risk of war. And considering our home town was a World War II battlefield, this fear is generational.

“While I don’t fear anything from North Korea, my family who lived as prisoners to Japanese occupying forces during World War II are fearful,” said Zachary Taimanglo, a Chamorro native and attorney, father of two and descendant of captives of the Japanese. “I know I’d appreciate it if all those who can affect the outcome of this latest threat remember that we are fellow citizens and should be factored into the equation.”

That Japanese occupation lasted for three years, starting when U.S. forces surrendered in 1941 after two days of battle. Many elders are still alive, and still remember the rape and pillaging that occurred.
The U.S. retook Guam in 1944, and its bases now occupy almost a third of the tiny island. In the 1980s growing up, us nonmilitary children thought going “on base” was like going to Disneyland. It felt like a privilege knowing a military family who would invite us in. It was clean. They even had a Popeye’s there.

Military spending makes up a full third of Guam’s economy, the rest being tourism. Many on Guam love America. Many Chamorros are Christian (more than 85 percent of the island is Catholic), flag-waving patriots who love guns and pickup trucks (“Guam bombs,” as we always referred to them, in a knowing reference to ever-present danger). They sign up for military service in droves, and they lose their lives in battle at a higher rate per capita than residents of most states, as John Oliver famously noted last year.

For decades, there has been talk about the decolonization of Guam. That talk has only grown louder in recent years, with the government-created Commission on Decolonization. Republican Gov. Eddie Calvo favors statehood, but there has been no huge consensus. That lack of consensus speaks to the identity lost throughout centuries, a people struggling to define their sovereignty.

“Yes, there are people in Guam who want independence from (America). But there are also people in Guam who hear these threats of bombs and cower to the hype, start to believe that we need your mighty military bases and beg for more, because then we wouldn’t be bombed right?” asked Chamorro activist Victoria-Lola Leon Guerrero in a viral Facebook post penned as an open letter to America. “But you have been the source of all our bomb problems.”

The people of Guam have done nothing to attract the attention of North Korea. They have been victims throughout history, a culture and language lost through time.

So who is Guam? This week, the media has been sketching a caricature of sorts describing the people of Guam. They’re “keeping their cool,” says an NPR story. “Island cool,” writes the Los Angeles Times.

It’s a fair portrait. After all, they are powerless. Their voices are only heard whenever North Korea rattles its sword. What else could they do but embrace their current fate as a hot spot military destination, America’s “tip of the spear” in the Asia Pacific? They even had a multimillion-dollar tourism campaign with the famous slogan, “Where America’s Day Begins.” It was an international campaign that spanned Asia and even the West Coast. There was so much money and time spent for attention, for validation. I grew up around T-shirts, commercials, ads and bumper stickers. For me, it said, “We are Americans not just by force, but by choice. We are proud Americans.”

This week, there was a huge spike in U.S. Google searches for “What is Guam?” The top results are from news organizations with that exact phrasing, with many reports forgetting the number of American lives affected.

Who is Guam? America’s afterthought.

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