Proposed US military buildup on Guam angers locals who liken it to colonization
Proposal to bring an additional 5,000 marines to territory already 28% occupied by US military stirs frustrations – but many support the idea in a ‘fragile’ economy
Jon Letman in Hagåtña
Monday 1 August 2016 14.43 BST
Tourists pose for selfies on a white-sand beach, or splash in the aquamarine waters off Ritidian Point, the northernmost tip of Guam, the Pacific island territory “where America’s day begins”.
It’s an idyllic scene, but just out of sight, hidden behind high limestone cliffs, the US military is poised for war.
If tensions between the US and China or North Korea ever boiled over into a military confrontation, American forces here would likely be among the first to know: Guam is roughly the same distance from both the South China Sea and the Korean Peninsula.
The island is a non-self-governing territory – or as some put it, a colony – whose strategic importance is underscored by the degree to which it is militarized.
Roughly 28% of the island is occupied by the military, and many of the 165,000 inhabitants fear that Guam’s infrastructure will be overwhelmed if plans go ahead to nearly double the US military presence.
Six thousand US military personnel are currently stationed on the island, but a long-delayed expansion plan would involve an additional 5,000 marines (two-thirds on a rotational basis) and 1,300 dependents beginning in 2022.
“The story of militarization on Guam is inseparable from the story of colonization,” said the human rights attorney Julian Aguon in his office in Hagåtña, the island’s capital.
“Honestly, it’s hard to respond to the question of how the military impacts people on Guam because it’s way too big. The military-industrial complex is in full swing here.”
The planned marine redeployment is in part an effort to reduce tensions on the Japanese island of Okinawa, where there is fierce opposition to the US military presence. In June, some 65,000 protesters called for the closure of US bases on the Japanese island.
But while a troop reduction may be welcome on Okinawa, not everyone on Guam is eager to see a buildup.
“The thing is, it’s not reducing the burden, it’s simply shifting it somewhere else – in this case to Guam,” said Dr Vivian Dames, host of Beyond the Fence, a Guam Public Radio program that examines the impacts of the US military.
“We’re not Okinawa, we’re not a foreign country, we’re not a state. We’ve been a US colony since 1898 and US citizens since 1950. Thus, the relationship between the civilian community with the military is very complex and very entangled and contradictory,” Dames said.
“It’s not simply a matter of being for or against the buildup,” she said.
After the United States forced Japan from Guam in the summer of 1944, the US assumed the role of liberator, earning both admiration and anger that is evident today: Guam’s military enlistment rate remains among the highest in the nation.
The US also seized land for its own use. In the south, Naval Base Guam is home port to four fast-attack nuclear submarines and an expeditionary helicopter squadron. Nearby, the Naval Ordnance Annex covers 18,000 acres. The island is also home to a Naval Computer and Telecommunications Station and Joint Region Marianas headquarters, which oversees a 984,000-square-mile testing and live-fire training area.
In the north, Andersen air force base houses a continuous bomber presence and bomber assurance and deterrence missions, including six B-52s which the air force says provide “strategic global strike capability [to] deter potential adversaries and provide reassurance to allies”.
A short drive past a fenced-off wilderness of invasive tangan-tangan trees, a terminal high-altitude area defense (THAAD) missile defense battery was deployed in 2013. Recently, North Korea claimed it could strike US Pacific bases and China has developed a missile called “Guam Killer”.
For some Guam residents, the miles of razor-wire fences surrounding bases are a source of esentment – and a constant reminder of the US military’s dominance. “You have to understand the psychology of the fences,” says Hope Cristobal, a former senator in the Guam legislature. “There’s a barricade telling you, on the outside, are not welcome to come in.”
Other points of discontent include the segregated education system (children from military families go to separate Department of Defense-run schools), decades old land seizures, military housing allowances that opponents say unfairly skew real estate and housing costs, discounted prices for food, gasoline and other goods (limited to military personnel), environmental contamination and restricted access to private, public and ancestral lands.
But while some residents resent the military presence, many in Guam’s business community say it is essential for the island’s future.
“It’s important to understand that as an island economy, Guam’s is very fragile. We really only have tourism and the military – and we need both,” says Jeff Jones, chairman of Guam Chamber of Commerce’s armed forces committee.
Like other supporters, Jones says Guam’s military presence not only provides security and stability, it brings direct financial benefits in the form of employment and Section 30 funds (over $100m annually), which are military-generated tax revenues diverted to Guam.
In an email, Jones pointed to almost $250m in pending military projects such as munitions storage igloos, surveillance drone hangars, satellite communications facilities and personnel housing (the marine buildup calls for the construction of 535 single-family homes and up to ten new barracks).
According to Jones, Guam’s most important issues include employment, education, the economy, healthcare, crime and infrastructure. “The buildup wasn’t even in the top of voter’s concerns,” Jones said.
But critics describe Guam’s relationship with the military as a lopsided dependency, arguing the military is an intrusive force that runs roughshod over political sovereignty and cultural identity.
Nonetheless, military service is frequently a multi-generation, multi-branch tradition for many of Guam’s families.
Each year on 21 July, throngs of Guam residents gather along Hagatna’s Marine Corps Drive (renamed from Marine Drive in 2004) for a parade to celebrate Guam’s annual Liberation Day and honor the military.
“We’ve always had a military presence,” said the Guam legislature’s speaker, Judith Won Pat, who has relatives serving in every branch of the armed services. “[The military] is so ingrained into our communities, into our lives. It’s like second nature to everyone.”
On Guam, representatives from the army, navy, and air force all declined requests to be interviewed, but in an email, the US Pacific command public affairs spokesman Cmdr Dave Benham said, “We are operationalizing and cementing the rebalance to the Asia-Pacific. The military’s forward presence and engagement play an essential role in strengthening the capabilities of Pacific nations and partners to defend and secure themselves.”
Even as Guam mulls the future of its political status and relationship with the United States, many mainland Americans remain unaware of the island’s central role in US defense posture.
Dr Robert Underwood, University of Guam president and former delegate to Congress, addressed the lack of appreciation for Guam’s sacrifices. “For those people who care, [Guam] is a military stronghold and allows the United States to project its power in this part of the world. For people who don’t know much about Guam, it’s a throwaway line for someplace distant or remote: ‘You’re going where?’”
He continued, “The concern is not American public perception. The concern really is: does Guam have a coherent policy about its future and its relationship to the military. And if you’re going to have a continuing relationship with the military, how do you use it to your advantage? Because the whole nature of the relationship is based on the assumption that Guam has a military role.”