In Guam, the Gravest Threat Isn’t North Korea—It’s the United States

The United States is using this Pacific colony as its own private firing range.

Leilani Ganser July 31, 2017

Members of Japan's Ground Self-Defense Force and the U.S. Marine Corps land on the northern shore of the island of Guam during a joint drill on Sept. 22, 2012. (Photo by Kyodo News via Getty Images)

This arti­cle was pro­duced in part­ner­ship with For­eign Pol­i­cy in Focus.

Indigenous groups have largely led the fight against military pollution.

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 GuahånGuahån 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.
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