They Look Like the Enemy

Last night while I listened to the fireworks at the capitol my phone started buzzing with news alerts. The first alert was that North Korea had launched an intercontinental ballistic missile. The second was that the United States and South Korea had begun military exercises as a response to the launch.

When I was in high school in suburban Atlanta my school, for whatever reason, still practiced duck-and-cover drills. Every once in a while, we would gather in the hallways while our vice principal / baseball coach gave instructions for how to brace while holding a textbook over our heads. These drills always happened between my first and second block (AP Language and United States Government) so I would usually carry a tattered, old civics textbook with me to these hallways. On the cover was a map of the continental United States and during these duck and cover drills I used to look at the map and think about the Cold War era phrase, “The Soviets are the only ones who can point out Guam on a map.”

My family is from Agaña, Guam. It’s a township on the US territory nestled somewhere between the countless military bases on the island. Today 1/3 of the island’s land is home to military bases with proposals for further military buildup. The military bases have countlesses burdens that come with them. The naval base in Apra Harbor has confirmed the discharge of radioactive water in the 80s. Culturally significant areas have been coopted by the military and access to them by indigenous Chamorus has been limited to about seven weeks a year. Chemical contamination of Guam’s only aquifer has repeatedly occurred under or adjacent to military bases. The U.S. also conducts live fire ammunition training in areas close to the former Japanese concentration camp Manenggon, where my grandmother was interned.

Many argue that for national security reasons the pollution and costs of military bases on territories and abroad is justified. They argue that these bases abroad are critical in protection from global threats. In Guam, specifically, it is argued that these bases are critical in defense from Russia, China, and a nuclear North Korea. But, like the old Cold War adage suggests, the abundance of military bases on Guam makes it a prime target for missles. And mobilization of U.S. forces to North Korea would occur from Guam and Hawai’i putting an even bigger bullseye on these island populations.

This is terrifying to me for one major reason. My family lives there.

Outside of a larger national security threat, though, there is a more personal threat to security that comes with these bases.

My grandfather was young and living on the big island of Hawai’i when the Pearl Harbor attack occured. He grew up with the cost of freedom ringing in his ears and, like many American Polynesians, went on the join the military. He flew planes in the Air Force throughout the Korean War.

The title of this post, “They Look Like the Enemy”, comes from a line in the television series Mad Men. The main character, Don Draper, is speaking to a private active in the Vietnam war at a bar in Hawai’i. The private drunkenly says that he can’t trust the Hawaiians because “they look like the enemy.”

My cultural heritage and tradition from both Hawai’i and Guam have been bastardized, commercialized, and disparaged by American forces for decades. A naval officer is noted as referring to Guam as “the trailer park of the Pacific.” Military personnel call the indigenous, original inhabitants of these islands savages. There is a latent animosity present where often times soldiers begrudgingly accept the presence of the people of Guam and Hawai’i as a cost of operating out of these bases. They discount base resistance movements as “the natives getting restless” all the while misunderstanding how certain American traditions may offend traditional ways of living and decorum.

A prime example of this is an old rumor among soldiers based in Hawai’i that a Hawaiian woman wearing a flower tucked behind her left ear was in a relationship but if it was tucked behind her right ear she was single. This rumor came because soldiers at local bars and restaurants would hit on Hawaiian women and often face altercations with their local spouses. It has no basis in reality and lead to a lasting tension between, especially, ethnic Hawaiians and usually white visitors. Today that struggle manifests in different ways. Here is a screenshot of a post found in the Honolulu Craigslist.

Indigenous women near these bases face a particular difficult struggle. Many groups including Equality Now have begun campaigns to address and end sexual trafficking around these bases. Numerous studies have been conducted and media outlets like the Washington Post have called attention to the epidemic.

There is a generational pattern in many indigenous communities of rape and domestic abuse perpetuated by temporary residents in or around these communities — especially military bases. This is painfully evident in the stories of the Filipino wives of military officers (for more information on this look up the term “War Brides”)

Each base built comes with an added threat to national security and a tangible negative effect in the communities these bases are built in. With these cons in mind as well as the sheer economic cost of these bases, the question becomes one of purpose. What purpose do these bases serve? Can we live without them?

Image from We Are Guahan