This story was originally published at Prism.
By Frances Nguyen
Guam is losing to the U.S. military. More than 1,000 acres of native limestone forests, which have been part of the island landscape for millennia, will soon be cleared to construct a massive firing range complex as part of a planned U.S. military buildup—an operation more than a decade in the making that will relocate some 5,000 Marines (and 1,500 of their family members) to the island from Okinawa and elsewhere beginning in 2025.
The site for the firing range complex sits next to Guam’s National Wildlife Refuge. Not only do these forests provide critical habitat to endangered endemic species of plants and animals, but it also hosts several thousand-year-old historically and culturally significant sites to Chamorros, the Indigenous people for whom the island is their ancient homeland.
In these same forests, yo’åmte (healers) harvest medicinal plants to treat a range of ailments, from anxiety to bronchitis. Julian Aguon, a Chamorro human rights lawyer, activist, and scholar, knows many yo’åmte, including his Auntie Frances Arriola Cabrera Meno, who—as he writes in the opening essay of his hybrid memoir The Properties of Perpetual Light—converses with the plants in a secret language as part of the healing process.
“But such things are inevitably lost in translation,” he writes. “No military on earth is sensitive enough to perceive something as soft as the whisper of another worldview.”
While Aguon and an Indigenous-led resistance movement have fought for over a decade to halt the buildup of U.S. armed forces on Guam, they’ve only succeeded in reducing the number of troops and shifting the location of certain military installations from other ancient Chamorro villages. Now, Aguon writes, “the bulldozers are back with a vengeance.”
The U.S. military owns about 49,000 acres of land on Guam, roughly a third of the island. Anderson Air Force Base and Naval Base Guam are already installed there and the military buildup will add a third: Marine Corps Base Camp Blaz. Access to much of these forests, including sites significant to Chamorro cultural identity, will likely be cut off once it becomes a “surface danger zone” for the new base, threatening to sever a millennia-old cultural practice, among other things.
After decades of protests against the U.S. presence on Okinawa (with several incidents across the years of servicemen raping local women and girls), the U.S. and Japan signed a bilateral agreement in 2006 to relocate more than 8,600 Marines from Japan to Guam, which was determined to be a more preferable lilypad for U.S. interests. A three-hour flight from Tokyo and Manila, Guam’s bases position U.S. soldiers within striking distance should a rising China, the U.S.’ main rival in the region, get confrontational.
No representatives from Guam were present during those negotiations, and neither was their permission needed. As a U.S. territory, Guam’s land is considered U.S. soil, the westernmost point of the country.
Not only does the U.S. military buildup pose an environmental threat to their homeland, it also directly threatens Guam’s residents: The base’s new location along the northern coastline sits dangerously close to the Northern Guam Lens Aquifer, the island’s sole source of drinking water. Further restricted access to the land and surrounding water would strangle Chamorro lifeways, such as fishing, foraging for medicinal plants, and visiting ancestral sites.
“I’m outraged and overcome,” Aguon said. “Not just because of what the militarization of this island means for us but what it means for everyone else, too.”
The buildup on Guam means increased militarization across the Mariana Islands, the Western Pacific archipelago that includes Guam. Neighboring islands Pagan and Tinian, part of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI), are particularly targeted: coral reefs around Tinian would be utilized as practice grounds for amphibious vehicles and Pagan would be used for bombing.
It could be one of the largest peacetime military buildups in U.S. history, making it a hypervisible target for the U.S.’ rivals in the region. The Defense Department reported in September that Beijing was undergoing its own military buildup as part of its plans to “revise the international order.”
The engine-revving in this region, while nothing new, has been escalating in recent years. In the summer of 2017, President Donald Trump’s war of bravado with Kim Jong Un led to the North Korean leader loudly boasting about firing four Hwasong-12 ballistic missiles near Guam, after Trump threatened (from his Bedminster, New Jersey, golf course) to unleash “fire and fury the world has never seen” against Kim. Guam is three times closer to Pyongyang than it is to the U.S. mainland. Those missiles would’ve taken only 14 minutes to reach the island.
Aguon notes in his memoir that in Guam, residents were given “spectacularly useless suggestions” like, “Wash your hair with shampoo, or soap and water. Do not use conditioner … because it will bind radioactive material to your hair.”
“There is no real way to steel oneself for oblivion,” Aguon said.
‘Separate but unequal’
As an unincorporated territory, Guam is a colonial possession of the United States, a literal U.S. colony recognized by the United Nations. While the people of Guam are U.S. citizens, they don’t have full voting power: Residents cannot vote in presidential elections and have only a non-voting delegate in the House of Representatives. Congress can overturn any law passed by Guam’s legislature and can freely decide which parts of the Constitution apply to the territory.
This “separate but unequal” treatment was dictated by the Insular Cases, a series of Supreme Court decisions from 1901 that has allowed the United States to deny access to federal programs, voting rights, and equal rights to people living in the territories it acquired in the 1898 Treaty of Paris, which formalized the handover of Guam from Spain to the U.S. at the outset of the Spanish-American War.
The Insular Cases argued that those living in the territories were “alien races” who didn’t understand the concept of freedom and couldn’t be trusted to govern themselves, an argument Aguon says served “to provide constitutional cover to the imperial project.”
“Not once since 1898—America’s imperial meridian—has this country been able to come up with a satisfactory legal justification for maintaining its constellation of overseas colonial possessions,” he said
On May 13, a resolution was heard before Congress to reject the application of the Insular Cases to any current or future cases involving the territories, citing the racist doctrine upon which they are premised. But the resolution, as some have pointed out, won’t actually address the colonial relationship between Guam and its administering authority—which Guam can’t challenge without permission from the U.S.
The federal court case of Davis v. Guam, for which Aguon argued on behalf of the Government of Guam before a Ninth Circuit Court, effectively denied Guam’s government from making even a symbolic move to allow native inhabitants to express what they wanted their future political relationship with the U.S. to be. The suit, filed by Arnold Davis, a white American and resident of Guam, claimed that Davis’ ineligibility to vote in a non-binding plebiscite violated his 14th and 15th Amendment rights as it discriminated against him based on his race.
“It’s not only counter-historical, it’s absurd,” Aguon said. “Decolonization is a remedy for the colonized, not those who hail squarely from the colonizer.”
Guam is likewise unable to address the existential climate crisis before it and its Pacific Island neighbors in the center of climate change’s premier arena. Marine life and coral in the region are already dying off without the military’s help. At one point, the military’s plans for Guam included the dredging and expansion of Apra Harbor, the island’s main port and the largest deep-water port in the Western Pacific, to accommodate nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines, which would have resulted in the destruction of more than 70 acres of coral reef. This is part of a longer history of the military remaking the topography as well as the biodiversity of the island.
“Climate change is not just on our doorstep; it’s banging down the door,” Aguon said. But Guam can’t answer on its own, not least of all because a third of the island is under occupation by one of the largest polluters on the planet.
But while Guam appears to be losing from every angle, centuries of dispossession have taught the Chamorro people to look at winning differently. Even with the unsuccessful legal outcome of Davis, Aguon noted that “it opened up a space not only for conversations about whose ancestors experienced the harm of colonization (and whose did not) but also for a wide range of critical legal interventions at the international level.”
The UN Human Rights Council recently intervened, sending a joint allegation letter to the U.S. government in support of both the Chamorro people’s opposition to the buildup and their right to self-determination. Aguon’s firm, Blue Ocean Law, was one of the agents that prompted the Council’s investigation. The government may ignore the letter entirely, but Aguon said that it’s more helpful to think of it as a powerful reminder that “might does not make right, and that the world is watching.” With an energized American public, which is reckoning with long-standing social and political issues that have challenged the country’s identity and role on the global stage, Aguon hopes that Guam and Chamorro traditions might yet survive.
“Part of our work as people who dare to believe that anything we love can be saved is to prepare our wills to withstand some losing, so that we may lose and still set out again, anyhow,” he said.
Frances Nguyen is a freelance writer, editor of the Women Under Siege section (which reports on gender-based and sexualized violence in conflict and other settings) at the Women’s Media Center, and a member of the editorial team for Interruptr, an online space for women experts to disrupt discourse in traditionally male-dominated focus areas. She is currently working on a creative nonfiction portfolio on race, identity, and the American Dream.