At the Empire’s Doorstep: Guam and the Struggle against Imperialism

By Kyle Galindez

$6 trillion—that’s how much the War on Terror has cost the US since 9/11. At the same time that there seems to be no end in sight to US military spending, we’re told that there’s no money to spend on issues that Americans actually care about, like education, housing, and healthcare—and that the Green New Deal would be impossible to fund.

Yet in the summer of 2017 when I was conducting research on Guam, I witnessed the construction of another military base that will end up costing billions. While so many of us struggle because our taxes are squandered on military spending, residents of Guam are forced to bear the brunt of US imperialism through the continued dispossession of their land, the environmental degradation of their island, and the loss of indigenous Chamorro culture. As socialists, it’s vital that we do not simply shrug off US imperialism and its victims at the frontiers of Empire, but that we foreground our shared struggles.

My research trip to Guam in August 2017 was the first time I had been back to the island since I was born there during the Gulf War. One hot, summer night, I sat on a porch with my uncle in the village of Dededo, drinking beers and catching up on twenty-seven missed years of family history. Then, a loud rumble interrupted us. It was so loud we had to stop talking. A giant plane roared through the clouds, bright flames shooting out its back. Another B-1B Lancer was leaving Andersen Air Force Base for North Korea carrying out the US policy of “continuous bomber presence” in the region.

A B-1B Lancer takes off from Andersen Air Force base on Guam. Credit: US Air Force

I was stunned, but my uncle was not. People living on Guam, especially the indigenous Chamorro people, have endured life at the crossroads of Empire for centuries. In 1521, Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan accidentally landed on Guam on the way to the Philippines, establishing the first connection between Pacific Island peoples and Europeans. The Spanish later secured a colony on Guam after subduing Chamorro resistance. The US seized Guam in 1898 after the end of the Spanish American War. And after a brief period of brutal Japanese occupation during World War II, control of the island passed back to the US.

It should have come as no surprise that Guam was once again at the center of geopolitical conflict after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un threatened a nuclear strike on the island. Far from inciting mass panic or reaching the degree of crisis depicted in the US media, the threat induced yawns and eye-rolls from people I knew. “He’s not serious,” they told me. I went back to work in the archives. I swam at the beach. I ate finadene, a tangy sauce served with every meal made of vinegar, soy sauce, onions and peppers. “Relax and enjoy paradise,” said George Charfauros, the island’s homeland security adviser.

Tumon Bay, center of Guam’s tourist industry. Credit: The Guam Guide

How did Guam, sometimes called “the tip of America’s spear,” become legible, intelligible, and governable to imperial machinations for centuries? Historians have long noted the ways that Pacific islands have been depicted by imperial powers. Whereas Europe was imagined to be modern, rational, and masculine, Pacific islands were imagined to be primitive, natural, and feminine. Such “fantasy work” was crucial to facilitating colonialism. As Stuart Hall noted in The West and the Rest: Discourse and Power, Western conquerors imagined Pacific peoples in highly racialized and gendered terms. Explorers like James Cook imagined Tahiti to be a sexual paradise. Pacific islands were understood to be places inhabited by uncivilized, feminized, brown savages in need of a white, civilizing father. They became otherworldly Edens, timeless places that escaped the inevitable march of modernity. Such fantasies were also critical to the imperial project of US militarization on Guam since 1898. As Guam scholar and decolonial activist Michael Bevacqua notes in his chapter on Guam in Militarized Currents: Towards a Decolonized Future in Asia and the Pacific, Guam was depicted in the early twentieth century by the US as backward and infantile.

American colonial propaganda. July, 1912. Credit: Guampedia

While the Spanish had built a naval base at Apra Harbor in the island’s south, the US built Andersen Air Force Base after World War II in the island’s north. During this time, known as the period of “Naval Dictatorship,” Guam’s residents and indigenous Chamorros were stripped of sovereignty. US Naval commanders ran Guam as an extension of their military authority, securing US interests in Asia on its “unsinkable carrier ship.” The island’s capital, Hagåtña, was destroyed during WWII, and the US military undertook massive projects to rebuild the city. To facilitate the island’s “modernization,” the US destroyed traditional forms of Chamorro landownership by commodifying it. They displaced families from ancestral lands to make room for bases. The “modernization” of the island was carried out not in the interest of improving life on Guam but securing US interests during the Cold War.

Hagåtña after World War II. Credit:Guampedia

The loss of sovereignty did not go uncontested. As far back as 1901, a delegation of Chamorros petitioned the US to end the Navy’s rule of the island. The US ignored their claims. Despite the passage of the 1950 Organic Act, which granted Guam a civilian government and US citizenship to all residents, citizens have no meaningful representation in the US Congress, and they cannot vote for president.

All this made possible Guam’s development into a key US military installation. Foreign Affairs reported in 2006 that the US bases on Guam make the island one of the US military’s top six most important strategic sites. Today, the US military controls about one-third of all land on Guam and is constructing a third military base for the US Marines. First announced in 2005, the plan to develop another base on Guam is one of the US military’s most ambitious construction projects ever. Some 5,000 Marines and their families will be relocated from Okinawa to Guam, although the final number is still unknown. Thousands of temporary workers will move to Guam for construction, overwhelming the island’s 164,000 people and its already-insufficient infrastructure. I witnessed in Dededo a field of rubble, the remains of brand-new houses torn down to make room for “America’s Pacific Century,” as then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described it.

Despite a warm welcome from the island’s tourist industry, activists on Guam challenge the base’s construction. Activists in We are Guåhan, the movement for independence, insist that constructing a third military base on the island furthers the erosion of sovereignty and loss of Chamorro control of the island. Environmental activists draw attention to the impact the new base will have on the natural world. Guam suffers from a range of ecological problems, such as habitat loss, species extinction, toxic pollution, and coral reef bleaching. The most serious problem is that of the Brown Tree Snake. Accidentally introduced by the US military in the 1950’s, the Brown Tree Snake is an invasive species that has caused the extirpation or extinction of thirteen of Guam’s native birds, such as the Guam Rail (or ko’ko in Chamorro) and several species of native lizards and bats. I often went on hikes through Guam’s forests, which used to be filled with lively birdsong. It is impossible to describe how eerie it feels to stand in the heart of a forest that is utterly mute, the silence punctuated by the occasional screeching of jets or helicopters.

The Guam Rail (ko’ko in Chamorro), extinct in the wild. Credit: Guampedia

Of particular concern is the military’s plan to demolish a portion of a wildlife refuge called Ritidian Point to make room for a Live Fire Training Range Complex (LFTRC), a space to shoot machine guns. Ritidian Point has long been considered a sacred Chamorro site and is depicted in the background of the official seal of Guam. It is home to Guam’s last remaining populations of the Mariana Fruit Bat, the Guam Kingfisher, the Mariana Crow, and the Mariana Common Moorhen. To halt the destruction of Ritidian Point, activists in the organization Prutehi Litekyan/Save Ritidian (Chamorro and English) have employed direct action tactics, created a petition, stalled construction through the byzantine Environmental Impact Assessment process, and more. The LFTRC would not only threaten locals with bullets and noise, it would be dangerously close to Guam’s last, mature Serianthes Nelsonii tree, a critically endangered species that activists refer to as a “Mother Tree.” It is the last one left on Guam that produces seedlings.

Prutehi Litekyan/Save Ritidian protest, August 29th, 2017. Credit: author’s photo

The US military has an abysmal record on environmental protection. With an estimated 800-1000 bases spread around the world, the Department of Defense is the largest landowner in the world. It accounts for 80-90% of all energy consumed by the US Federal government (DoD Annual Energy Management Report FY 2013). And they leave a toxic record wherever they go: the Pentagon manages 39,000 contaminated sites, and about 900 of 1200 Superfund sites in the US are military sites.

When I stood on Guam’s eastern shore and gazed at the sapphire waters of the Mariana Trench, the deepest point on Earth, I remembered that scientists were stunned to discover that one of the most remote places on Earth was also one of its most polluted. When confronted with such hidden instances of ecological crisis, it is useful to keep in mind Slavoj Zizek’s distinction between “subjective” and “objective” forms of violence. Not only does capitalism produce its “subjective” moments of ecological crisis, with clearly identifiable agents of disaster and rupture —an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico or pipeline ruptures across the Midwest— but there is also its background, normalized, “objective” violence inherent in the smooth functioning of the system, a violence that seeps all the way down to the contaminated depths of the darkest corner of the planet. Indeed, what is the violence of an oil spill without the decades of regulation-slashing and profit-seeking that make such moments not only possible, but inevitable?

A forested path at Ritidian Point. Credit: The Guam Guide

In 1850, Marx and Engels foresaw that “the Pacific Ocean will have the same role as the Atlantic has now and the Mediterranean had in Antiquity and in the Middle Ages – that of the great water highway of world commerce.” With the rise of China, is it any surprise that American foreign policy now aims to shift its long-term focus to the Pacific? How should we, as socialists, grapple with the threat posed by US imperialism and its impact on colonized peoples living at the borders of Empire? We can begin by keeping alive the critique of imperialism, building on David Harvey’s insistence in The New Imperialism that capitalism operates through two spatial logics: a logic of territory and a logic of capital. There is the spatial logic of capital, through which capital scours the world in search of profits. The spatial logic of territory, or the actions of states, typically facilitates the logic of capital, for example, by using military might to break open new markets. But it may at times frustrate it, for example, when the state imposes sanctions or signs trade-deals which benefit some industries to the detriment of others. As Rosa Luxemburg noted in The Accumulation of Capital, the ceaseless expansion of capital requires the ceaseless expansion of force: the invisible hand of the market is nothing if not backed by an invisible fist.

We are much more familiar with the logic of capital in the US, but it is easy to forget about capitalism’s dependence on imperialism when you are not routinely woken up by bombers in the middle of the night.

What can we as socialists do? First, we must relentlessly point out the hypocrisy of political elites who tell us that there are trillions of dollars to spend on militarism but none to spend on projects like the Green New Deal. Surely, if we can afford to pay young Americans to be soldiers, we can pay them to be civil workers doing things like repairing our broken infrastructure, weatherizing our homes, and rapidly converting to 100% renewable energy. Second, we must insist on the universal dimensions of our shared struggles around the planet: we should invite our comrades resisting militarism and colonialism overseas to organize with us, to share their stories, and to collectively strategize ways to make a more equitable and sustainable planet for the future no matter where you live. Last, we must never forget that struggles against imperialism and struggles for economic justice are inextricably linked. Recently, an internal survey of DSA members found that imperialism ranked almost last on their issues of concern. Given that war with Iran is realistically on the horizon, we as socialists must be vigilant not to repeat the same mistakes that allowed the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

A recent Pentagon report found that sea-level rise will make nearly all Pacific islands uninhabitable by 2050. The Pacific is a harbinger of a fate that comes for us all, a region where the world’s elites are more interested in gearing up for an end-of-the-world battle royale than listening to the warnings of those on the front lines like Guam’s activists. Can the left confront truly global crises absent a renewed, internationalist, working-class spirit? It remains an open question.

Kyle Galindez is a graduate student in sociology at UC Santa Cruz, co-chair of DSA Santa Cruz, organizer with the UAW-2865 and fantasy author. His first novel, The Spirit of a Rising Sun, will be published by Authors 4 Authors Publishing in Spring 2020.