In Guam, the Gravest Threat Isn’t North Korea — It’s the United States
This past Fourth of July, while I listened to the fireworks outside the Capitol building, my phone started buzzing with news alerts. North Korea, they said, had tested an intercontinental ballistic missile. Headlines emphasized that it could supposedly reach Alaska.
But much closer than Alaska is the tiny island of Guam — a U.S. colonial possession in the Pacific long exploited as a military base. My grandmother was born there, and much of my family remains. At just 30 miles long and 8 miles wide, Guam is often called “the unsinkable aircraft carrier,” as a third of the island is covered in military bases.
That’s long made it a strategic target for enemies of the United States. In fact, during the Cold War, it was said that the Soviets were the only ones who could point out Guam on a map. For as long as the West has been aware of Guam’s existence, it’s been a target.
During World War II, while my grandmother still lived there, the Japanese occupied Guam and terrorized the indigenous Chamoru population, rounding them up and herding them into concentration camps. In the Manenggon camp, 18,000 Chamorus were interned and surrounded by machine guns set up by the Japanese soldiers for a planned massacre.
Today, with the Japanese long gone and the Soviet Union dissolved, the island still faces a battery of live-fire military ammunition with no foreseeable end. But the immediate danger doesn’t come from North Korean missiles. It comes from the United States military, which freely uses the Pacific territory as its own private firing rage.
While tourist ads depict the South Pacific as a tranquil safe haven, that tranquility is pierced by the roars of B-52 bombers and submarine water-to-shore artillery blasts. For as long as the United States has maintained Guam as a colony, it has been a simulated warzone.
It’s not simply the military firing weapons that can make life difficult for locals, however. The issue is often the presence of the military itself.
With military bases come extreme pollution, the occupation of sacred lands, and what some scholars describe as an invisible public health crisis. While the primary argument for these bases is national security, there are countless examples of these bases damaging the health and security of the local population.
Over the years Guam has been home to nuclear weapons, mustard gas, and countless other carcinogens. In the 1980s, the Navy discharged radioactive water into a harbor my family has used for fishing. This increased exposure to radioactivity is linked to toxic goiters, a major contributor to thyroid issues which are now abundant in the local population. Multiple wells accessing the island’s one aquifer have had to be shut down due to chemical contamination from areas under or adjacent to these military bases.
Indigenous groups have largely led the fight against military pollution. The largely Chamoru-led We Are Guahån — Guahån is the indigenous name for the island — has worked for years to engage and mobilize the local community to prevent further military buildup. Their efforts are fundamental to the mission of a sustainable Guam.
In this, they’re drawing inspiration from activists on Puerto Rico — which, like Guam, is a U.S. imperial acquisition from the Spanish-American war whose strategic location has subjected it to exploitation from the U.S. military. There, residents of Vieques led protests in 1999 that ultimately resulted in the shutdown of the Navy’s base on the small island, which lies off the coast of Puerto Rico proper. Unfortunately, the lasting consequences of these bases, active or abandoned, are faced by locals daily.
Vieques was a live fire training site for the Navy for over 60 years and has since become one of the single sickest populations in the Caribbean. Along with skyrocketing rates of cancer, the people living on Vieques have a seven times higher risk of diabetes and eight times higher risk of cardiovascular disease than the rest of Puerto Rico.
The Navy has since admitted to the use of heavy metals and chemical agents on Vieques, including depleted uranium and Agent Orange, but denies any link between their use and the health of the residents. But Arturo Massol Deyá , a professor of microbiology and ecology at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüe — and the only independent scientist allowed to conduct research on Vieques — continues to find high concentrations of heavy metals in his samples of vegetation, crabs, lagoons, and other local food sources.
In both Guam and Puerto Rico, such pollution is devastating to the ecology of the local areas — and to any argument that the bases encourage economic growth for the impoverished local populations. In fact, they restrict the indigenous populations’ ability to engage in traditional means of subsistence and poison the resources locals rely on for self-sustainability.
In places like these, plans to expand U.S. military facilities — which could soon cover 40 percent of Guam, if plans initiated during the Obama administration go through — are a far greater threat than any missiles from Korea.
These bases of empire are an affront to self-determination and a reminder of our families caught in the crossfire of Western wars for “rights” and “freedom” that my grandmother and my family should have, too.
Leilani Ganser is an indigenous rights organizer and political science major at Reed College. She’s a Next Leader at the Institute for Policy Studies.
An Open Letter from Guam to America
Boston Review, August 11, 2017
I am glad that you are finally paying attention to what is happening in Guam. Many of you, as I am reading online, are asking for the first time, “What is Guam?” Every day growing up here, we have been told all about you. I am sorry that it is only when we are the subject of bombs that you even attempt to say the word Guam; there are so many more interesting things I wish you would want to know about us. We, on the other hand, are not as surprised by the latest bomb threat. We are quite used to hearing Guam and bomb in the same sentence. Every month or so, when another missile is tested, or rhetoric fired, we hear how North Korea, or China, or Russia could bomb Guam. I have even saved pictures of China's infamous “Guam Killer” bombs on my computer so our Independence group can use it in Independence 101 presentations as an example of why we need to get free NOW. Yes, there are people in Guam who want independence from you. But there are also people in Guam who hear these threats of bombs and cower to the hype. They start to believe that we need your mighty military bases and beg for more, because then we would not be bombed, right? But you have been the source of all our bomb problems.
The worst bombs that have ever been dropped on Guam were yours near the end of World War II. At the beginning of the war, you left us defenseless to the Japanese, knowing full well that they were planning to invade Guam all along. You safely boarded your white military wives on ships and sent them home months before the attack, but did nothing to protect us. That's right, the last time an invading nation that you said you would protect us from attacked, you surrendered in 2 days and left 20,000 people to suffer, many falling victim to the most atrocious of war crimes. But we are strong and we survived not just that ugly war but also the losses that came after. When you returned in 1944, you leveled our island with your bombs, leaving most families without a home to return to. We were scattered and displaced so you could build your enormous bases. And we were so grateful to you that our people served and continue to serve your military and die for your freedom in higher numbers per capita than you.
The worst bombs that have ever been dropped on Guam were yours.
Today you occupy nearly one-third of our island, and station bombers and nuclear powered submarines here to flex your might to our neighbors. You play endless war games emitting fumes and dumping waste into our air, water, soil, bodies. We breathe in the fallout when you test your bombs on our sister islands upwind—those clouds make their way down here. We eat fish from the waters you bomb around us. Grieve the beached whales who rot at the shore, led astray by your sonar testing. We are being made to sacrifice—with no consent (and for many of us, against our will)—access to sacred ancient villages and a thousand acres of a lush limestone forest habitat that you want to destroy to build a firing range for your Marines. You fly bombers over my home at ungodly hours. Come on, America, I am raising babies here. Little ones, who notice when your flag is flown above theirs, and don't like it. Who hide under the slide at their playground and tell their friends to duck when your blaring B-1s, B-2s, be everything in their safe zone. There is a sign on the road that reads, “Slow down, children at play.”
Will you please slow down and allow my children to play? I want them to grow up here. This is their/my/my mama's mama's mama's homeland. There is no other place in the world I want them to be. I understand that for many “Americans,” you had to flee your homeland. That America became your better life, or at least the promise of it. That many of you long for your homeland and can't return. And sadly, many of you don't think enough about the indigenous Americans whose lands and lives were stolen to manifest this destiny. But this land, this beautiful island everyone wants to bomb because of you, is my land, not yours. And I don't want to flee. I left my land once for your college education. But I ached for home the entire time. As soon as I got my degrees, I came back to use them here. My home is my better life. I am nourished by my land, where my family grows our own food. I am raising bright babies, with the jungle as their backyard, and this is the life my ancestors wanted for me and for them. I want to go to sleep peacefully knowing that my family is safe in our home. So please, stop all this bomb talk. And instead, ask yourself why Guam is still your colony in 2017.
Good night and good morning,
Victoria-Lola Leon Guerrero
1:40 a.m. August 10, 2017