Escalating tensions between the United States and North Korea culminated recently in increasingly specific threats to the island and people of Guam. North Korea announced that Guam was within striking range and that it was “seriously examining” a plan to launch four intermediate-range ballistic rockets toward the island. One headline read, “14 Minutes,” which is the amount of time Guam Homeland Security says it will take for a missile to reach us.
Fourteen minutes. To run for cover. Round up our children. Reach Deep. Steel ourselves for the possibility of oblivion.
We need not worry, our leaders tell us. We are a resilient people. We need only summon that strength now. Will someone please tell them that resilience is not a thing to be trotted out in trying times like a kind of prize pony? As the Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat put it, “Haitian people are very resilient, but it doesn’t mean they can suffer more than other people.” The same applies to the people of Guam.
President Trump even phoned the governor of Guam, telling him that he, that the United States, was “with [us] a thousand percent.” The conversation devolved from there, with our Governor saying, “Mr. President … I have never felt more safe or so confident [than] with you at the helm … We need a President like you.” The call lasted all of three minutes, with Trump telling Governor Calvo he’d become “extremely famous” and the pair going on to talk about the local hotel occupancy rate and the prospect of tourism going up “tenfold.”
Mortifying though it be, it was also oddly intimate. Pillow Talkish.
For its part, Guam Homeland Security released a fact sheet of suggestions for how to prepare for an imminent missile threat. “Take cover behind anything that might offer protection,” it advises. “Lie flat on the ground and cover your head.” And this one, for those of us unfortunate enough to find ourselves outside during the blast: “Wash your hair with shampoo, or soap and water. Do not use conditioner … because it will bind radioactive material to your hair.”
What are we to do with these spectacularly useless suggestions? How can we not be defeated by this kind of extreme stupidity? Why is no one talking about the fact that nuclear war is unlike any other kind of war?
Last Wednesday, GOP Senator Lindsey Graham, in an interview with CBS This Morning, assured the American people that, even if the Trump administration elects to go to war with North Korea, they should fret not. “If there’s going to be a war, it’s going to be in the region, not here in America,” he said.
And there it is. The Kiss of Kissinger.
During the Cold War, the United States conducted a nuclear testing program from 1946 to 1958 just 1,300 miles from Guam — in the Marshall Islands, where it detonated 67 atomic and thermonuclear weapons. The combined yield of that detonation was 108 megatons, roughly equivalent to 7,200 Hiroshima bombs, or about 1.6 Hiroshima bombs every day for 12 years. Of those, a device known as “Bravo,” with explosive power of 15 megatons, was the worst. Detonated on March 1, 1954, it deposited life-threatening quantities of radioactive fallout on the Marshallese. According to anthropologist Holly Barker, radioactive iodine was released into the atmosphere in an amount “150 times greater than the estimated 40 million curies released as a result of the Chernobyl nuclear accident.”
They say the radioactive fallout was so thick that many Marshallese, having never seen snow, thought it was snowing. Children played in it.
It goes without saying that the nuclear testing program visited unspeakable violence on the Marshallese. The rate of miscarriages in the wake of these tests, for instance, is without parallel. One woman, a dear friend who has long since passed, suffered seven miscarriages in her lifetime. And this is to say nothing of the birth abnormalities that forced Marshallese women to have to devise an entirely new language to describe the things they’ve seen and the babies they’ve birthed — for example, jellyfish babies, or babies born without bones and translucent skin. Beautiful babies buried before their time.
Former Interior Secretary Walter Hickel claimed that Henry Kissinger once said this of forcibly removing the Marshallese people: “There are only 90,000 people out there. Who gives a damn?” Even those Marshallese who never went to college can quote this without blinking.
If U.S.-North Korea relations be complex, this be simple: When you live in a colony, you’re easy meat. That was Senator Graham’s entire — and utterly unoriginal — point.
But alas, the dogs have been called off — for now.
The other day, the Wall Street Journal broke the story that the threat to Guam is gone. Jonathan Cheng, writing for the Journal, assured us that North Korea has “decided not to launch a threatened missile attack on Guam.” But, Kim Jong-un warned, North Korea would still consider a strike if “the Yankees persist in their extremely dangerous reckless actions.”
The other news outlets quickly followed suit, and in the span of a few short hours, the weather had changed and the world had moved on. Reporters returned to their hotel rooms, sorted their suitcases, and booked their respective flights home.
They may have made their flights, but they missed the boat.
The truth is this: Nuclear weapons do not have to be used to be deadly. As the Indian writer Arundhati Roy writes in her book, The Cost of Living, it would be “supreme folly” to think so. “Nuclear weapons pervade our thinking,” Roy argues. “They bury themselves like meat hooks deep in the base of our brains … They are the ultimate colonizer.”
Truer words were never written.
It was my partner’s birthday on Sunday. It was midafternoon. I was headed to the nearby bakery to pick up a birthday cake. I was frustrated because I couldn’t figure out where to put the cake once I picked it up, as my car was already full from shopping I had done earlier that day. I had decided the day before that it was better to be safe than sorry, and so that morning I went out and bought two weeks’ worth of supplies – canned food, powdered milk, a battery-powered radio. You know — just in case.
I was fussing with the bags in the backseat when it hit: Birthday cakes mean birthdays. Another year in the life of a loved one.
Guam may have to bear the burden of being a colony in a world suffering from decolonization fatigue, but — to be clear — her people mean to live.