Marshalls remain hampered and co-opted by US, says Pilger
A filmmaker says the Marshall Islands remains a key installation for American military interests despite their toxic legacy in the country.
The experience of Marshall Islanders due to US nuclear testing is featured in award-winning journalist John Pilger's film The Coming War On China, which examines the US military's positioning around China
Mr Pilger says US compensation to the Marshalls for devastation of their islands, and the inter-generational health problems, due to the testing has been woefully lacking.
The Runit Dome was constructed on Marshall Islands Enewetak Atoll in 1979 to temporarily store radioactive waste produced from nuclear testing by the US military during the 1950s and 1960s. Photo: Supplied
JOHN PILGER: So the Marshall Islands where, really, the nuclear age got underway after the Second World War, is again the scene of the testing of weapons of mass destruction with the real possibility of another war, but this time on the other side of the Pacific with China. It seems extraordinary to me, having flown over so much of the Pacific as I'm sure your listeners know and to look down on that extraordinary vastness that, in strategic and power play terms, the greatest ocean has been shrunk to be part of a possible coming war.
JOHNNY BLADES: You describe what you saw with that vastness when you flew overhead in the chartered flight in terms of the nuclear test site in the Marshall Islands, you described it in almost haunting terms and I'm wondering is there any sense that the Marshall Islanders have been able to move on at all from the legacy of the testing and whether they've been compensated enough?
JP: Well no they haven't been compensated enough. That is, the Marshall Islanders have been appealing to the world for a long time, a claims tribunal was set up and quickly ran out of money, the Marshall Islanders were so desperate - I think about 11 or 12 years ago - that they wrote to the US Congress, and as I was told, they haven't had a reply. I met people - and they appear in the film - who are the survivors of the tests on the islands of Rongelap and Bikini and other parts of the archipelago who are impoverished, who don't have basic services, who don't have access to a doctor, who don't have water and power, and these are people who, having been moved away from islands that are now contaminated really had to abandon the rather modest prosperity they had in their homeland - and a bit of prosperity it was. They often owned their own homes, there wasn't necessarily a landlord system. So they lived not a bad life at all, but having been dispossessed - as so often happens with dispossessed people - they were plunged into poverty. I mean the people of Bikini Atoll have been especially mistreated. As you mentioned, I chartered a small aircraft to go to Bikini. Bikini is still unsafe for a population, there are still high levels of radiation; we took several geiger counters and they all quickly registered unsafe, especially ironically as we were filming in the old cemetery as radiation is attracted to granite and stone the geiger counters told us that this was a very contaminated part of the world. But yes, when I flew into Bikini, I don't think I've seen anything quite like it. It had a very considerable impact on all of us, there is this vast black hole which is this crater left by the hydrogen bomb known as Bravo, which was exploded in 1954, and it's right in the middle of this beautiful reef and green lagoon. It's a mile in diameter and it looks very menacing and very sinister.
JB: And do you think that the US response to the Marshallese complaints has been any worse than say the French with what they did over in French Polynesia?
JP: I'm not sure it's comparing like with like. There are certain comparisons, there are similarities, I suppose there is a responsibility. Polynesia, a French colony, and the Marshall Islands, an American trusteeship, both ruling powers treated the people appallingly. So, I mean it's a pretty endless list if you I suppose want to go on comparing how certain powers treated people. I accept the seriousness of your question, there was a disregard by both for the people and for the environment. I had quite a lot to do with Polynesia and reporting the French testing in the 1970s. I remember interviewing - I think was the then-governor in Papeete, I remember he had great pictures of Napoleon and de Gaulle in his office. Interestingly, he was not French, he was a mixed race French and Polynesian governor. In answer to my question, 'why don't you explode your nuclear bombs in France?,' he said 'well this is France.' [laughs]. I only mention that because that stuck in my mind as an apotheosis of a sort of colonial view of the world. Something very similar in the Marshall Islands, the US just regarded the Marshall Islands as its possession, therefore it could do what it wished.
JB: And of course the co-opting of pacific Islanders and islanders by the bigger powers, that goes on, doesn't it? And Guam of course is another key part in the US campaign, isn't it?
JP: Yes well Guam is, as James Bradley says in my film, Guam is almost sinking under the weight of the armaments on it. It's a great battleship and the rights of the indigenous people have been really relegated in a very familiar pattern to those who live outside the great base that their homeland has become. just a few years ago, I think it was 2014, President Obama got a lot of publicity when he said the United States was declaring something like 9-million square miles of the Pacific - it actually wasn't the territory of the US to do anything with - but it was declaring this vast area of the Pacific ocean as a marine reserve and that there wouldn't be any really commercial exploitation. In fact the truth of this was that it was going to be a sort of underwater shooting gallery. The Pentagon was going to use vast tracts of the underwater marine world near Hawaii as the practice for various kinds of advanced weapons. That's the kind of abuse of the grea Pacific ocean that passes by without many of us noticing. We're not allowed to notice because it's usually dressed up in that case as a positive development.
JB: So really, not much has changed?
JP: I think some things have changed. I think the Marshallese are not having nuclear weapons exploded in their midsts. But they are having rockets fired at them from Vandenberg Air Force base in California into the lagoon at Kwajalein Island as a test. So in other words, they're a sort of target of the testing of these rockets that in time of a war would carry a nuclear warhead. Each firing of these rockets, according to the Pentagon, the Pentagon reported some years ago, costs a 100-million dollars. The Marshallese were given 150-million dollars as a final compensation. I think that's quite an interesting comparison. But in answer to your question: no... you can fly to the Marshall Islands and there you will find that people there are unfortunately suffering from the blight that many people in the Pacific suffer from. That is, the lack of employment, local industries for their young people, the demise of traditional resources and fishing for example. Much of the Marshallese is contaminated by toxics, so fishing in certain areas is banned. And you go into these gloomy supermarkets and you see people buying cans of processed foods, and as a result - and I think this is true of many people in the Pacific - the incidence of diabetes is extremely high. So that impoverishment is there. Now that impoverishment has many complex roots, but one of them is that the resources from great powers that have exploited them in the past have simply been withheld. Infrastructure is really very poor in the Marshall Islands. The United States could have rebuilt, if you like, those parts of the islands that would have helped the people. But it chose not to. Instead, in the middle of Majuro, the capital, you can go in and have yourself tested for the level of plutonium in your body. It's very bizarre.