As part of our special investigation “Mission Creep: US Military Presence Worldwide,” we asked a host of military thinkers to contribute their two cents on topics relating to global Pentagon strategy. (You can access the archive here.)
The following dispatch comes from Catherine Lutz, anthropologist at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies, author of Homefront: A Military City and the American Twentieth Century, and editor of the upcoming book The Bases of Empire: The Global Struggle Against US Military Posts.
Welcome to Guam, USA
“Guam, USA” is the tagline on the western Pacific island’s license plates. It resonates with the fact that fully one-third of Guam’s territory is occupied by US military installations, from the giant Anderson Air Force Base in the north, to the Naval Magazine, where deadly ordnance is stored, in the south. For there is nothing more American, in many ways, unfortunately, than a place bristling with weapons and soldiers.
Despite being 12 hours by plane from California (and just 3 from the Philippines), Guam has been under the control of the United States since 1898, with the exception of a few years of Japanese control in the 1940s. The US declared Guam’s residents citizens of the United States in the wake of World War II, as it recognized that the accelerating global push for decolonization would make continued colonial occupation untenable. But this legal fig leaf did not fully cover: Guam remains on the UN’s list of the world’s few remaining colonial states.
Guam’s license-plate slogan also highlights the irony that the islanders are treated as second-class citizens—they cannot vote for President, migrants from the US mainland and elsewhere have undue influence and control over their land and politics, and for years they were paid far less than American expatriates for the same work. The Chamoru people, Guam’s original inhabitants, are now outnumbered by the families of expatriates and others brought in by the Pentagon to build its bases.
Guam illustrates what the US empire of bases is all about. The Pentagon’s rationale for posting soldiers, airmen, sailors, and marines overseas is that they provide security to the places where they are located. The joke around Guam is that few, save employees in the Kremlin’s nuclear targeting offices, even know where they are located. Meanwhile, toxic pollutants from the bases, and other dumping by the military, have left the island with the most basic insecurity—living with the biological time bomb these things represent. Just 30 miles long, the island has 19 Superfund sites, and high cancer rates.
Another common argument is that American bases serve as the vanguard of freedom and civilization. While locals were grateful when the US retook the island from the horrific Japanese occupation in 1944, the US immediately drew up plans to relocate all of Guam’s people to a reservation in one small corner of the island and turn the rest into a bounty of military installations. The Pentagon ultimately settled for taking just one-third of the island’s 212 square miles from the people who owned and farmed it.
US bases are often portrayed as purely defensive in orientation, but those in Guam have been used to wage wars thousands of miles away in Vietnam and the Middle East, wars that have had nothing to do with the security of either the US or the Pacific islands; every day for years tons of bombs were unloaded at the Naval Station, hauled across local roads and loaded onto B-52s at Anderson Air Force Base to be used for bombing runs over North and South Vietnam.
Finally, it is often argued that US bases provide economic advantages to locals. While US corporations and land speculators have benefited mightily from Guam’s bases, the costs in social disruption and personal tragedies have been immense. Like bases elsewhere, those in Guam have brought higher rates of violence against women, auto crashes, and environmental and health damage, none of which the Pentagon includes in its accounting. In contrast to other US base sites, however, the neighborhoods around Guam’s military facilities have provided fertile recruiting grounds: 70 of Guam’s small population died in Vietnam, a rate three times the US average, and 11 have already died in Iraq.
The rhetoric from Washington and the punditry tell us that our bases are a gift to the world’s people, and to US security. The reality on the ground, from Guam, to South Korea, to Iraq, to Vieques, tells a very different story.
A massive new military buildup is underway on Guam today as the US begins relocating 8,000 Marines from Okinawa and adding 40,000 more base-related civilians to the island’s population of 170,000. A women’s group there, Fuetsan Famalao’an has led the way in drawing attention to the fallacy of each of these arguments for US basing, and the hypocrisy of imposing citizenship on a people while denying them the most fundamental human rights.