Guam: Resisting Empire at the “Tip of the Spear”

Guam: Resisting Empire at the “Tip of the Spear”

Guam: Resisting Empire at the “Tip of the Spear”

The Pentagon is increasing its forces on the US territory, but Indigenous residents are fighting back.


Hagåtña, Guam—To get onto her family’s land, Monaeka Flores drives through a gate guarded by US military security, then continues up to a booth, where an officer scans her special military-issued ID and waves her through. Or at least that’s how it’s supposed to work. Mishaps often snarl the trip. Sometimes security mixes up her personal information with her family’s. Other times she’s barred from the land outright. In July, she missed a family barbecue because her ID, which needs to be renewed annually, had expired, and she hadn’t made it to the security office in time to get a new one. Hosting is a crapshoot, too, since the military requires visitors to get cleared before entering. Flores said a friend had recently been turned away because the background check program was down when they went to the security office.

The land, at the northern end of Guam, a US territory in the western Pacific, has been in Flores’s family for five generations. Her grandfather’s family fished, hunted, and made a living farming coconuts and raising pigs on it. But the military took the farmland in a land grab after World War II and left the rest sandwiched between two federal properties. To the immediate south is Andersen Air Force Base, the only base in the region able to service the United States’ heaviest bombers. To the north is a wildlife refuge—land the Department of Defense handed over to the US Fish and Wildlife Service instead of to the families from whom it was stolen. There is no entrance to Flores’s family’s land on the refuge side, so they must access it through the base.

The arrangement is “cumbersome, dehumanizing, demoralizing,” Flores told me. It’s part of why she and her fellow Indigenous dissenters use a particular word to characterize the US military presence: “occupation.”

Like Flores’s family, many others across the 212-square-mile island had parts of—if not all of—their land fully seized by the Pentagon, never to be returned. The military took homes, farms, and ranches to create the 23-square-mile Air Force base, the 3,000-acre telecommunications site directly south of it, and a 2,000-acre addition to the base. To build a magazine to store heavy naval munitions, the military annexed 28 square miles of Guam’s southern inland, including family properties and what is now the island’s largest reservoir. And to construct a sprawling shipyard and the main facilities for a US naval base, the military uprooted an entire village that had been bombed during World War II and moved its residents to the muddy inland hills.

Since World War II, the US military has occupied between a third and a half of Guam’s land. Construction and training have destroyed ancestral sites of its Indigenous people, the CHamorus, and damaged much of the island’s aquatic and wooded ecosystems. Decades of military dumping, spills, and herbicide use have left Guam riddled with toxic sites, many of which have yet to be cleaned.

The Pentagon’s interest in Guam stems from its strategic location: Less than 2,000 miles from Tokyo, Seoul, Shanghai, and Manila, Guam and the nearby Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands are by a wide margin the US territories closest to East and Southeast Asia. For much of the past century, the military has used Guam as a hub for its operations in the region, earning it the moniker “the tip of the spear.

Now, with US foreign policy posturing more aggressively toward China, the Department of Defense is sharpening its spear and massively increasing its forces and facilities on Guam.

The buildup, mostly in its construction phase after more than a decade of contentious planning, will relocate about 5,000 Marines to Guam. To accommodate them, the military is razing thousands of acres of Guam’s northern forests—home to unique and fragile ecosystems, the island’s main source of drinking water, and countless CHamoru burial and cultural sites—to build housing, a live-fire training range complex, a hand grenade range, and other training facilities. The military is also constructing an Army missile defense system and an aircraft carrier berthing station, which will destroy dozens of acres of coral reef. On the Northern Mariana Islands, it hopes to build an airfield, training sites, and a bombing range.

I recently traveled to Guam to spend time with some of the grassroots activists who are resisting the military buildup. While they’ve had significant wins over the years, they’re limited by their status as colonial subjects, and so far their advocacy has mostly been steamrolled by military bureaucracy. They fear that the growing militarization will further devastate the island’s environment and their ancestral sites and practices and may even, someday, make their home unlivable.

“There’s so much at stake,” Flores said. “It’s our water, it’s our basic human rights, it’s our medicines and our food and our ways of life.”

“We’re the collateral damage of empire,” she added. “And empire is betting on us being exhausted.”

Before it was the tip of the spear, Guam was the “USS Guam.” The nickname, used by the Navy, describes the period of naval governorship on the island, which began in 1898 when the United States acquired Guam, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War. “The Navy commander is the captain of the ship of Guam; he basically has control over the entire island the way he has control over a ship,” explained Michael Bevacqua, a CHamoru activist and professor and the curator of the Guam Museum.

In 1901, the US Supreme Court legalized the Navy’s authority over Guam. In decisions known as the Insular Cases, the court ruled that the US Constitution isn’t fully applicable on “unincorporated territories” like Guam, allowing naval governors to implement a harsh colonial program. Among other abuses, naval administrations codified racial segregation, forced CHamorus to speak English instead of their native language, and imposed heavy taxes that often resulted in the military seizing family lands.

The naval administrations continued until December 1941, when the Japanese military attacked Hawaii, Guam, and half a dozen other US and British colonies. US forces stood little chance on Guam, and its island chain, known as the Marianas, became Japanese outposts, ushering in one of the darkest times in CHamoru history. The Japanese military marched thousands of residents to forced labor camps and tortured thousands more. It implemented an assimilation program, forcing the CHamorus to adopt the culture of their third occupier in less than half a century. As the US regrouped its Pacific forces and began encroaching on the islands, executions of CHamorus, including beheadings, became common.

The US military took the Marianas in 1944, with a bloody invasion that killed an estimated 70,000 people. Almost immediately, the United States made Guam a naval and logistics hub.

In 1950, in response to mounting pressure from CHamoru groups, Congress passed the Organic Act of Guam, which removed the naval governorship, granted residents US citizenship, and redesignated the island as an unincorporated territory of the US. Guam would go on to serve as a crucial logistics center for US wars in Korea and Southeast Asia, earning it new nicknames: “the supermarket of the Pacific” and “the world’s largest gas station.”

Despite the territory’s usefulness to various war efforts, it was not a desirable deployment for military personnel. “Guam is valuable, but it’s not diplomatically important,” so ambitious officers saw it as a nothing assignment, Bevacqua explained. For enlisted men, “it’s not American enough…but it also never had that exotic dimension that other overseas bases had, so coming to Guam sucked.” With the dreary reputation came another nickname: “the trailer park of the Pacific.”

It took the end of the Cold War for the military to speak of Guam in favorable terms again. A federal Base Realignment and Closure initiative in the 1990s called for a drawdown of US military facilities abroad; at the same time, US allies that host bases, particularly in Asia, began demanding troop reductions. But hawks like then–Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney had plans to replace one cold war with another. They started looking for ways to keep enough firepower in the region to confront China.

Over the next decade, the Defense Department’s posturing in Asia was torn between the “realignment” mandate and the hawks’ unwillingness to demilitarize. And in Guam, the Pentagon found its solution. It was as if the military rediscovered why it had conquered the island in the first place: “Looking for a Friendly Overseas Base, Pentagon Finds It Already Has One,” stated a 2004 New York Times headline. The island became the Pacific obsession of Cheney’s mentor and eventual successor, Donald Rumsfeld.

The military eventually decided to use Guam to relocate Marines from Okinawa, a colonized Japanese prefecture that hosts more than 30 US military sites despite being only double the size of Guam. For years, Okinawans had been building a resistance movement to protest the accidents, environmental destruction, and harassment they routinely endured at the hands of the US military.

From 2005 to 2009, the Bush and Obama administrations signed a series of agreements with the Japanese government, setting in motion the buildup on Guam. But the CHamorus had a resistance movement of their own.

Angela Santos sat in her jeep, stopped in the turning lane of a highway in northern Guam. From the driver’s side, she looked through a barbed-wire-topped fence into an opening in a tree line—as close as she could comfortably get to her family land, which had been seized by the military before she was born and is now slated to become part of a sprawling urban combat training facility. The last person from her family to enter the land was her late brother, Angel—widely considered a father of CHamoru resistance—when he occupied it in protest nearly 30 years ago.

In 1990, while working as a clerk at Andersen Air Force Base, Angel Santos came across a confidential report that detailed how, from 1978 to 1986, the Department of Defense had tested the drinking water at the base and found dangerously elevated levels of trichloroethylene, a cleaning and degreasing solvent. Prolonged exposure to TCE can cause kidney cancer and is linked to a host of other diseases, including liver cancer.

Three years earlier, Santos’s 2-year-old daughter, Francine, had died after doctors found a baseball-size tumor between her kidney and liver. There was no way to prove that TCE exposure had caused her death, but after reading the report, Santos found it hard to avoid connecting the dots: He and his family had been living on the base during Francine’s short life.

The military hadn’t released any information about the TCE in the water. And it wasn’t just military personnel who could be affected by it. The northern half of the island, where the base is located, is covered in porous limestone, and under that is the Northern Lens Aquifer, which supplies some 80 percent of Guam’s drinking water. Whatever was contaminating the base’s water was likely also running out of the taps in people’s homes.

TCE wasn’t the only toxin the military had introduced to Guam. During and shortly after World War II, troops disposed of old equipment, used chemical drums, and even unexploded bombs by tossing them over cliffs, covering them with dirt, or burning them with napalm; the refuse leached heavy metals and other contaminants that remained detectable at noxious levels for decades.

Later, in the 1960s and ’70s, the military sprayed the same chemicals used to make Agent Orange—the herbicide with which US forces poisoned generations in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos—to clear fence lines and a pipeline.

In the 1980s, a federal agency inspected how Andersen and the Navy base were storing roughly 160 tons of annual toxic waste and found “repetitive” violations “of a serious nature.” Chemicals had likely seeped into the aquifer. Andersen was later declared a Superfund site.

A decade later, the Navy found that one of its power plants had been leaking polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, into a swamp and a river. Residents of the area have since reported high cancer rates.

There is remarkably little information on how military pollution has affected public health on Guam—though anecdotes and available numbers provide cause for alarm. Data from the Cancer Research Center at the University of Guam show cancer rates increasing approximately 20 percent over every five-year period between 1998 and 2012. And a University of Guam study shows that the rate of deaths from cancer on the island more than doubled between the 1970s and 2000s. In one village, PCB contamination from a disaster at a nearby Coast Guard facility corresponded to a spike in cancer deaths over the next three decades.

For Angel Santos, the revelation that the military had been silently contaminating Guam’s aquifer was a defining moment. Until that point, he’d been a patriotic military man: He’d joined the Air Force at 18 and served for 13 years. But he quickly became Guam’s anti-occupation leader. With other activists, he founded Nasion Chamoru—CHamoru Nation—which staged direct action protests throughout the 1990s. His speeches on the relationship between colonialism, militarism, capitalism, and racism, as well as stories and videos of Nasion Chamoru members hopping base fences and getting violently arrested, sparked conversations among residents. Santos also served three terms in the Guam legislature before his death in 2003 at the age of 44. (The official cause was Parkinson’s disease, but given the enemies he made, rumors of foul play circulate to this day.)

Naturally, Santos’s antagonism didn’t sit well with everyone on Guam. He angered those in the halls of power. In 2000, he spent six months in federal prison—the maximum sentence—for defying a court order to stay off federal land. But he also upset many ordinary CHamorus, for whom his activism was an unwelcome disruption in the island’s complex politics of deference to the military.

Activists on Guam describe this politics in largely the same way: CHamorus are pulled in two directions—and they are distributed fairly evenly across the resulting spectrum.

On the one hand, many CHamorus see their relationship with the United States as an abusive one. As Bevacqua explained, even CHamorus in the military experience the grievances of colonialism. Whether it’s their inability to speak their native language, their lack of ancestral land, the simple fact that they have no voting representation in Congress, or something else that brings it to the fore, “every CHamoru has an activist inside of them,” Bevacqua said.

On the other hand, CHamorus feel the still-palpable trauma passed down from the era of Japanese occupation. The United States’ retaking of Guam during World War II is the focal point in the contemporary telling of the island’s history: Every July, there are large festivities to celebrate Liberation Day (which activists have attempted to recast as Reoccupation Day). “The type of patriotism that many CHamorus feel today is born in these seeds,” Bevacqua noted. That patriotism, plus the promise of economic stability, leads Guam to have a higher rate of military enlistment than any US state.

“In terms of their understanding of their relationship to the United States, it’s stuck there,” Bevacqua said. “It’s why some people say, ‘We have to support the military’—because of what they did in World War II.”

When I asked Catherine Castro and Phillip Santos about the military buildup, they spoke at length about the Japanese occupation. Most people living on Guam today “don’t know what it smells like to be ruled by someone else,” said Santos (no relation to Angel Santos; many people on Guam have the same surnames).

I sat down with them at one end of a long boardroom table in the clean, carpeted offices of the Guam Chamber of Commerce. As the chamber’s president and the armed forces committee chair, respectively, Castro (who is not CHamoru) and Santos (who is) are two of the most prominent local voices in favor of the buildup. During the Base Realignment and Closure initiative in the 1990s, the chamber welcomed the Pentagon’s renewed interest in Guam. And as activists have grilled the military on its plans and portrayed the Department of Defense as an occupying power, the chamber has urged unity and preached the benefits of further militarization—particularly the economic benefits.

“We want to have good-paying jobs for our people, and having an expanded military presence on Guam would support that,” Castro said.

When I pressed them for specifics about the economic benefits, Castro and Santos pointed me to a Guam Department of Labor economist, who estimated that roughly 1,500 permanent Guam residents are currently working on military construction projects and that the buildup has so far brought in about $200 million in additional tax revenue. The economist also sent a spreadsheet indicating that, since 2015, the year the plans for the buildup were mostly finalized, the Defense Department has awarded $740 million in contracts to Guam firms and $790 million to off-island companies for work on Guam. It’s hard to determine how much of that money will go to Guam residents; Castro and Santos mentioned that they had been lobbying Washington to grant more temporary laborer visas because Guam doesn’t have nearly enough “skilled” workers. Contractors have said that the buildup could require 4,000 to 6,000 additional workers from abroad by 2023.

I asked Castro and Santos for their impression of the activists’ concerns—specifically the environmental ones. “The military has done a really, really good job of being economic… I’m sorry, environmental stewards of the area,” Castro replied. “I’m really sad to say that our own local population, we need to do a better job,” she added, going on to complain about litter and abandoned vehicles along the sides of village roads. She asserted that the activists who routinely raise environmental concerns are likely acting on “hearsay,” “not maybe having read” the documents the military published to justify its projects.

“If you look at the environmental impact studies that have been conducted in these areas, you will find what you are looking for,” Castro said.

It was like a 10,000-page document, and they gave us 90 days to read it,” said Melvin Won Pat-Borja, describing the first draft of the environmental impact statement, or EIS, on the buildup that the military published in 2009.

Environmental impact statements are heavily researched documents mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act for certain construction projects. They’re meant to compel agencies to consider environmental health before embarking on large developments. EIS law also mandates a comment process through which the public can request information or bring up issues that may otherwise be overlooked. For many projects, including the military buildup, government agencies treat the EIS process as the main or even sole avenue of public consultation.

When the Pentagon published the draft EIS, it was immediately clear to many on Guam that the military was trying to slip one past their community. It was filled with jargon and technical studies, and the military initially gave them only 45 days—the minimum required—to comment on it. “Let’s put together this massive document that these illiterate CHamorus won’t read, let’s give them a small window to respond, and when they don’t respond, we’re going to turn around and say, ‘Well, we consulted you, and nobody had anything to say,’” said Won Pat-Borja, who was a public school teacher and poetry instructor at the time.

To many, the way the military handled the EIS process echoed the prevailing dynamic between the United States and Guam: “We exist in a relationship that’s based on consultation and not consent,” Won Pat-Borja said.

Determined to protect their island from unchecked militarism, Won Pat-Borja and a group of activist-minded CHamorus succeeded in winning an extension on the public comment period, then divvied up the draft EIS and got to work. “We didn’t have a name; we were just people kind of meeting and reading,” said Leevin Camacho, then a lawyer in private practice. They read about how the military planned to bring in 8,600 Marines and build an aircraft carrier berthing station, a Marine base, and training facilities. They read about how, at their peak, construction activities would add 79,000 residents to an island of roughly 160,000 people and how the increased military presence would suck nearly 6 million additional gallons of water out of the aquifer every day.

While digging into the document, the activists decided to mobilize. They adopted a name, We Are Guåhan, using the CHamoru word for Guam, and launched a campaign that called on the community to submit comments. When the public comment period was over, residents had submitted over 10,000, from deeply researched technical questions to general statements of disapproval—each of which the military was required to address.

Of particular concern to We Are Guåhan and Guam residents was the military’s plan to construct live-fire training ranges. The military indicated that it planned to build the ranges near the remains of an ancient CHamoru village known as Pågat. The image of .50-caliber machine guns firing over a sacred site spurred people to protest. Riding that energy, We Are Guåhan and others sued the military, alleging that it didn’t properly consider alternatives for the live-fire ranges.

In 2012, the US government announced plans for a more modest buildup. It would reduce the number of Marines relocating to Guam to 5,000 and go through a new “supplemental” EIS process that would detail slightly trimmed projects and put forth a longer time line for implementing them. The following year, the military said Pågat was no longer its top choice for the live-fire training range complex. The State Department cited an “increasingly uncertain security environment” and the need to “maximize the operational capacity” of Pacific forces. But many Guam residents believe their activism played a large role in the changes. Given the power differentials, activists considered it a huge win—but they knew the victory was only partial.

The Pentagon’s new plan comes with a fresh set of threats. In addition to reducing the scope of the buildup, the military decided to relocate the live-fire training range complex to the northern tip of the island, near the wildlife refuge in an area known as Ritidian.

For construction of the Ritidian complex and the Marine base, the military has begun bulldozing around 1,000 acres of Guam’s northern limestone forest. For millennia, CHamorus have used the plant species that live in the targeted forest tracts for food, medicine, and spiritual practices. The military has committed to replanting certain species in an attempt to preserve the horticulture of the destroyed forest areas, but according to Frances Meno, a third-generation CHamoru healer, it’s nearly impossible to keep many of those plants alive outside of their wild habitat. She has tried to cultivate herbs for her work, but they rarely live for more than a few years in a garden environment, she said. Recent biological work backs up her experience: A University of Guam study found that an endangered cycad species planted in its natural environment had a 70 to 100 percent survival rate after 15 years, compared with 10 percent when planted in restoration sites with disturbed soil—the approach the military has taken with many of what it calls its “mitigation” efforts.

With the construction underway, Meno has already had confrontations with military security while trying to collect her herbs. “If the military keeps clearing our jungle,” she told me, “there is no point for us to be healers.”

To account for stray rounds, the military must establish a “danger zone” for the Ritidian complex—that is, an area outside of the ranges in the direction of fire that is clear of people when they’re in use. And to limit its land use, the military positioned the complex so that much of its danger zone is offshore. That particular section of ocean, however, is one of Guam’s most popular fishing areas. When the ranges are complete, those waters will be closed for as much as 75 percent of the year.

“I grew up here, and I’ve been fishing here since I was 6 years old,” fisherman Mike James said. “The military is important, but also, we’re important.”

As the threats to Guam multiply, resistance has ramped up. Members of We Are Guåhan and other dissidents have begun infiltrating the island’s halls of power and culture. Won Pat-Borja, the schoolteacher, is now head of Guam’s Commission on Decolonization, a government agency that’s pushing to change Guam’s political relationship with the United States. Bevacqua was also part of We Are Guåhan; in addition to his work as a historian and an educator, he has become a leader in the CHamoru language revitalization movement. Others became the heads of publishing houses, prominent social workers, high-profile lawyers, and writers.

Camacho, the private practice lawyer, was elected attorney general of Guam in 2018. His office is suing the military to force it to help pay for the cleanup of an old Navy-built landfill that has been leaching toxic runoff. He told me he hopes to establish an environmental litigation section in the attorney general’s office to file more such cases.

A new wave of activists has taken We Are Guåhan’s place at the grassroots—one of the most active of these groups is Prutehi Litekyan, CHamoru for “Save Ritidian.” In the spirit of We Are Guåhan, Prutehi Litekyan has adopted some research-heavy tactics, confronting the military on its own highly technical turf. One of the group’s current campaigns invokes a 2012 Environmental Protection Agency study that showed that firing range trainings frequently result in toxic heavy metal residue, which can seep into groundwater. The military didn’t include the study in any of its EISs.

“There are still remnants of war here, still contamination,” said Jessica Nangauta, a Prutehi Litekyan organizer. “Why would we want to accept more?”

Prutehi Litekyan has also taken its fight international. With the help of a Guam-based law firm (headed by Julian Aguon, another We Are Guåhan organizer), it filed a complaint to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples; in response, three UN special rapporteurs sent a letter earlier this year to the US government expressing concerns about human and civil rights violations against CHamorus, opening the door for further action on the international stage.

Locally, Prutehi Litekyan has organized protests, disrupted meetings between military officials and local leaders, and even got two of its members elected to the Guam legislature in 2019. The group has also taken to grilling other public officials it sees as too deferential to the military—like Patrick Lujan, head of Guam’s State Historic Preservation Office, the agency responsible for coordinating with the military to safeguard the human remains and archaeological sites it uncovers during construction. The activists have charged that Lujan doesn’t inform the public quickly enough about finds and that he allows the military to decide how CHamoru ancestors and artifacts are respected. They surmise that this partly stems from a conflict of interest, as Lujan is in the military himself; he had to miss recent negotiations over the military’s historic preservation procedures because he was out on active duty with the Air Force Reserve.

As a territorial official, however, Lujan has no control over the military, which strong-arms his oversight in many of the same ways it does resident activism. In an August memo I obtained via a public records request, an Air Force engineer reminded Lujan several times that, though the military must consult him on certain matters, he has no power to dictate military activity. “There is no requirement that the agency receive [historic preservation officers’] ‘concurrence’ or ‘approval,’” the engineer wrote.

When I visited Lujan in his one-story cubicled office building, he was surprisingly candid about this dynamic. For much of the interview, he spoke about how his office is doing the best it can with an undersize staff. Then, as I got up to leave, he began to articulate Guam’s lack of power in the face of the US military. “They’ve done their EISs,” he said. “Unless you have some strong pull in Congress to change their mind, it’s happening.”

Lujan then marveled at the scope of the buildup—how it will bring an influx of people to tiny Guam. “Tell me how that’s going to affect a place,” he said. “Normally, for the worse.”

For many CHamorus, hiking Pågat, the area they saved from the live-fire ranges, is a spiritual experience. Climbing down jagged limestone cliffs canopied by dense jungle, hikers come to a set of caves in which they can wade into the Northern Lens Aquifer in one of the few places it surfaces. Past the caves, they can walk among shards of pottery, grinding mortars carved in rock, and the stone stilts on which CHamorus built their homes, all dating from around AD 900 to 1700. The forest’s silence is punctured only by the sounds of footsteps and lizards scurrying out of their way—that is, until a military airplane or helicopter roars by, breaking the serenity with deafening force. It’s a reminder that even having preserved this place, CHamoru resistance hasn’t changed who’s ultimately in charge.

“You can’t really impact what’s happening here on a local level,” admitted Cara Flores, a We Are Guåhan organizer and founder of a CHamoru production house. “At the end of the day, it’s really Congress that decides what happens.”

And right now Congress is choosing to further militarize the Pacific. In addition to Guam and the rest of the Marianas, it is exploring plans to build new bases in the nearby Republic of Palau and Federated States of Micronesia, island nations to which the US has exclusive military access. For the most part, Washington seems keener on staring down China than listening to the Indigenous communities that would be caught in the crossfire.

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