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From Draft NOtices, January—March 2008

Guam: Where USA’s Empire Begins

— Michael Lujan Bevacqua

A part of the U.S., yet apart from it; a colony in a world where colonialism supposedly no longer exists; the “tip of America’s spear” in Asia — welcome to Guam, USA. This is a place where the residents, including its indigenous population, the Chamorros, are U.S. citizens, yet cannot vote for president and have no voting delegate in Congress. And notwithstanding the promise of American democracy, all federal laws apply to Guam and supercede all local laws.

Despite this colonial relationship, or perhaps because of it, most U.S. Americans know nothing about Guam – not only that it is a colony, but that it is their colony. The place of Guam in the U.S. American consciousness is constituted through a paradox of everyday popular ambiguity and ignorance along with an almost solid military certainty. Because of this, in U.S. popular culture (such as blogs, movies, newspapers, magazines, and novels), Guam has been represented as literally anything – a foreign country, a tropical paradise, an island full of cannibals or exiled homosexuals, and Guatemala.

If the average U.S. American is unaware of or unclear about Guam, this perspective is not shared by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), for whom Guam is one thing only: a military installation. From the moment it was first taken during the Spanish American War in 1898, in order to provide a transit point for U.S. military and economic interests into Asia, this mindset has governed U.S. policy and control over the island.

In the century since it was taken, Guam has played a critical role in every U.S. conflict in the Asia-Pacific region, including as a forward base; a site for the transportation of U.S. troops and bombs into Japan, Korea, Vietnam and the Middle East; and a transit site for the evacuation of refugees from Vietnam, Iraq or Burma. This role continues today, evidenced most recently in the magazine Foreign Policy, which listed Guam as one of the six most important U.S. bases in the world.

In both of these mindsets, the will and presence of the island’s indigenous people, who have long endured the poisons and disruptions of U.S. colonialism and militarization, are largely absent. This is most troublesome in terms of the DoD’s control over Guam, which has consistently dismissed or rejected the interests and demands of the Chamorros in order to capitalize on the strategic nature of their island.

The importance of Guam can be expressed in a number of ways. The first, according to former U.S. Pacific Command Leader Admiral William Fallon, can be found by simply looking at a map. In terms of targets in Asia, which is where the Pentagon sees most of its future threats, Guam provides a secure base for land, naval and air forces, and it is much closer than the continental U.S. or Hawai’i.

The second way we can see this strategic importance is one that Guam shares with places like Diego Garcia Island and Guantanamo Bay – political ambiguity, the fact that Guam is neither a U.S. state nor a foreign country. Returning to Admiral Fallon, the advantage of having bases in Guam is that it is an “American territory” and that “the island does not have the political restrictions, such as those in South Korea, that could impede U.S. military moves in an emergency.” In other words, the U.S. military can do things here it can’t do elsewhere, and as a bonus, those who call it home have no say in any military decisions.

From the perspective of the DoD, Guam appears to be an ideal example of a patriotic, militarized society. Despite the fact that (a) 30% of the island’s 210 square miles are covered by Navy and Air Force bases, (b) the entire island has been severely contaminated by military dumping and use, and (c) federal policies have kept the island economically dependent to keep it from seeking independence, most on Guam don’t consider the U.S. to be a malevolent, militaristic colonizer, but rather a benevolent liberator. The most common reason for this is the U.S. role in expelling the Japanese who brutally occupied the island for 32 months during World War II.

On the surface, the Chamorros and other residents of Guam seem to overwhelmingly support the U.S. military and its missions. This is manifest most prominently through “Liberation Day,” the island’s largest annual celebration that brings together massive parades, parties, carnivals and beauty pageants every July 21 in celebration of the U.S. return to Guam in 1944.

To the Pentagon, Guam appears to be an oasis in a world where the tide of sentiment against U.S. bases is rising. In contrast to populations in the Philippines, Japan, South Korea and Iraq, who have protested U.S. presence on their lands, Guam appears to understand the role of the U.S. military in the world today. Hence, rather than resist the militarization of their lives or challenge the role of Guam as “the tip of the spear” of the U.S. war machine, the island seems to enthusiastically welcome military presence and actively participate in it.

Thus, while military recruiters in the U.S. are finding it increasingly difficult to convince people to join America’s “War on Terror,” they find no such problems in Guam. The combination of feelings about the U.S. role in World War II with the poor economy in Guam has created, in the words of many military officials, a “recruiter’s paradise.” In 2005 for example, four of the Army’s 12 highest enlistment “producers” could be found in Guam.

The DoD is capitalizing on all of this. In October 2005, the Pentagon first announced its intention to relocate 7,000 Marines from Okinawa to Guam. The following year, this number increased to 8,000, plus as many as 9,000 of their dependents, who would also be joined by an undisclosed number of Army battalions from South Korea. These transfers, which should be complete by 2014, will be added to an island that already hosts several thousand military personnel, and which since 9/11 maintains at least four dozen fighter planes, a half dozen bombers, the next generation of Predator spydrones, and an unknown number of attack submarines and cruise missiles.

For the past few decades, a small but increasingly active movement among Chamorros has focused on stalling the militarization of their island by pushing for its decolonization. These efforts are often invisible to people in the United States and elsewhere across the globe. Guam is nothing to most Americans, and to those who maintain its military power, it is nothing more than a military installation. To the rest of the world, Guam simply belongs to the United States.

So long as this veneer of power, ignorance and indifference surrounds Guam, the prospects are slim for Guam’s decolonization and the aspirations of its people for a life not governed by the national insecurities of the United States. This is perhaps the most valuable lesson that we can learn from the militarization of Guam. Those invested in the machinery of death and war will always seek out places like Guam that are distant from the mainstream. Out of the sight and mind of the majority of the population, it is in these places where they can set up shop and recruit, poison, and project their power and authority without protest or limits.

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This article is from Draft NOtices, the newsletter of the Committee Opposed to Militarism and the Draft (


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