Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un’s war of words is threatening to become a real nuclear war as North Korea has announced that it is seriously considering attacking Guam. This reckless escalation of tension is profoundly frightening to everyone. But one group who will suffer from this potential attack has not gotten enough attention: Indigenous Chamorro people who have had little choice but to live with the US’s massive military buildup on their island, and its consequences.
Anyone familiar with Guam’s history knows that it has had a tough go — centuries of punishing Spanish rule followed by a takeover by the United States in 1898, the same wave of expansion that added Hawai‘i and Puerto Rico to the US’s portfolio of territories. This was the beginning of the US’s militarization of the Pacific, which has been described in classic works like Cynthia Enloe’s Bananas, Beaches, and Bases as well as more recent publications like Militarized Currents. The Center for Pacific Island Studies at UH Mānoa even has a class-room ready textbook on militarization and nuclear testing in the Pacific which I’d highly recommend you read or teach.
In the case of Guam, there is a large literature on resistance to military buildup, the impact of the 2009 decision to increase military presence on the island(including the fencing off of parts of the island) and how the rhetoric of liberation legitimates the military presence on Guam. Just google “Guam militarization pacific studies” and you’ll find plenty to read.
As someone who shares an island with the command center for the U.S. Pacific Fleet, I have many vets in my classes, and know friends who have served in the military. As a result I’ve come to appreciate how our troops suffer when our civilian leaders make terrible decisions — as they have for as long as I’ve been alive. It’s a tragedy that members of our volunteer army are in harm’s way because we have a president who can’t tell nuclear war from defending the wall from white walkers.
But it’s even more of a tragedy that people born and raised in Micronesia may have their lives, land, culture, and history obliterated in an instant because they had the bad luck of being strategically positioned. A strike on Guam would be genocide, culturecide, landicide — the literal erasure of a way of life that has survived for thousands of years. Even the Guam diaspora, as strong as it is, could never recover from that. This simply can’t be allowed to happen. And screaming at North Korea will make it more likely to happen, not less.
I had a chance to visit Guam recently for the biannual meeting of the Pacific History Association. I was overwhelmed by the hospitality of the conference organizers. Undergraduate volunteers staffed the airport lobby twenty four hours a day to make sure conference goers got to their hotel after a long flight. When I say twenty four hours a day, I mean it. I got off my flight at 1:30 in the morning and was greeted by a smiling college student who game me a lei, a bottle of water, my conference package, and arranged travel to my hotel. It was an amazing show of aloha. Real aloha. That smiling young student had her whole life ahead of her. Next month she may be vaporized, along with everyone else at her university.
I personally still feel that Kim and Trump are not stupid enough to do more than make threats. I believe that both leaders recognize that actual war is not in their best interests. I hope that a nuclear strike on Guam is still a rhetorical threat, not a real one. But every time this tension is ratcheted up, we move closer to a future where we will all have to live in a world polluted with radiation. Except for Chamorro people, who will not be living at all.