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Julian Aguon: U.S. Militarization of Guam Is “Nothing Less Than Cataclysmic”

StorySeptember 13, 2022
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The geopolitical rivalry between the United States and China is reshaping life in the U.S. territory of Guam, where the already-massive military presence is set to expand as the Pentagon builds up its capabilities in the Pacific. “We are directly in the line of fire,” says Julian Aguon, a CHamoru writer and human rights lawyer, who describes the build-up of U.S. troops and military infrastructure on Guam as “nothing less than cataclysmic” for the Indigenous people. Aguon also talks about the ongoing fight for independence in Guam, which he says the U.S. has thwarted for more than a century. “The U.S. is a country that prefers, routinely, power over strength and living over letting live.” Aguon is the author of several acclaimed books, including, “The Fire This Time: Stories of Life Under U.S. Occupation” and “What We Bury at Night: Disposable Humanity.” His most recent book, released Tuesday, is titled “No Country for Eight-Spot Butterflies.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

As tension rises between the United States and China, we look at U.S. militarism in Guam, the westernmost territory of the United States. During World War II, Guam was a key naval and Air Force base for the United States in the Pacific. The U.S. is now expanding its military operations in Guam. The Pentagon’s 2023 budget calls for nearly $900 million to build a new missile defense system on Guam. The U.S. is also moving ahead with plans to relocate 5,000 marines to Guam and build a new machine gun range near a wildlife refuge.

We’re joined now by Julian Aguon, a leading CHamoru writer and human rights lawyer from Guam. He is the founder of the law firm Blue Ocean Law and a 2022 Pulitzer Prize finalist for commentary, author of several books, including his latest, released today — he has now just arrived in New York — No Country for Eight-Spot Butterflies.

Welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us, Julian. We’ve been talking about the British Empire a lot with the death of the queen. But you write about the American empire. It has more than 800 military bases around the world. Guam is a major site. Talk about your — talk about Guam’s significance, your homeland.

JULIAN AGUON: Sure. Guam is the ancestral homeland of my people, the Indigenous CHamoru people, who have been there and have called that land home for over 3,500 years. We are a matrilineal society. We value — we have a set of sort of values that are our constitutive values, chief among them reciprocity.

We are directly in the line of fire. We are definitely a frontline community when it comes to the spreading canopy of U.S. militarization. As I speak, my people are bracing ourselves for a round of militarization that is nothing less than cataclysmic. And I say that in an intentionally existential way. As you know, Guam is in the crosshairs sort of whenever the war games are afoot between the U.S. — the U.S. is greatly expanding its military footprint. This springs from a 2005 agreement with the U.S., between the U.S. government and the government of Japan, to transfer thousands of U.S. marines from Okinawa, which shoulders a disproportionate amount of U.S. military presence in its own right. And those marines are now coming to Guam. And as part of that Marine relocation, the U.S. military is currently expanding its footprint in Guam. It is expanding its base. It has created a brand-new Marine Corps base. And it is also constructing a live-fire training range complex. And that complex consists of five different machine — five different ranges, live-fire training ranges, the largest and most important of which is a 59-acre multi-purpose machine gun range. And that is the range that I talk about in this book, because it directly imperils a host of our other-than-human relatives, including our endemic eight-spot butterfly.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Julian, in terms of this military expansion, clearly, obviously, geared to the rising tensions between China and the United States, all of this is being done, when it comes to Guam, without any involvement of the people of Guam themselves. Your country remains one of only 17 territories that are still considered colonies by the United Nations. And even the level of self-government, let’s say, that some of the other former colonies of the U.S., or the colonies of the U.S. — Puerto Rico, the Federation of Micronesia — have received, Guam still remains in a category by itself. I’m wondering if you could talk about how the people feel of what is going on, how the United States treats Guam.

JULIAN AGUON: Thank you so much for that question, Juan. I think that it’s critical to sort of face that question head on.

Guam is a U.S.-administered, non-self-governing territory whose decolonization process has been thwarted by the U.S. government for 123 years and counting. Guam has had a long history of fighting for the fundamental right of self-determination. I myself was involved in a decades-long battle throughout the federal court system to try to defend the right of the Native inhabitants of Guam to express our desires with regard to our future political status, our future political relationship with the U.S. government, which has failed.

And it’s sort of like — right now what we see happening is the harms of 500 years of colonization sort of being exacerbated by a hyperaggressive, unilateral sort of expansion of the U.S. military. So, this is really — Guam is really — Guam is where sort of like the legacy of colonial violence is now sort of being compounded upon by the sort of the harms of the U.S. government. And I mean that in every sense. For example, in August 2017, North Korea was threatening Guam with weapons, intercontinental ballistic weapons that would — said to reach Guam in 14 minutes. In August 2020, China launched four missiles into the South China Sea, one of which — it’s the DF-26 — is nicknamed “Guam killer.” The U.S. government right now claims that it’s sort of expanding its military footprint in order to sort of bolster up the defense of the nation, but we know better. You know, with the war games already afoot out at sea, several different variations of war games are afoot, including Operation Valiant Shield, which is not unlike RIMPAC, which just concluded in Hawaii. And all of these war games, they sort of increased escalation. I mean, we see this at the congressional level with regard to rhetoric about China emerging as the U.S.’s biggest pacing challenge. And we see this on the ground.

And what this means on the ground to the people is, you know, loss of land, loss of our preciously singular sort of habitat. For example, the firing range being built now in Guam, it entails the destruction of over a thousand acres of pristine limestone forest. These forests took millennia to evolve and are impossibly beautiful. And they are directly sort of — they’re on the chopping block. You know, like, many of those acres have already been cleared. Certain portions of the Ritidian area, which is an area that is sacred to my people, have been already bulldozed. And so I write about that in the book. I write about how it’s bitterly ironic that so many of these sort of machines that are ripping the, like, sort of limestone from the forest floor, these machines bear the name Caterpillar, yet it’s that sort of creature’s preciously singular habitat, these limestone forests, that are being bulldozed. You know, and I sort of land on this insight in the book. I finally get to this, and I realize that this is sort of what’s happening. The U.S. is a country that prefers, routinely, power over strength and living over letting live, and that a country like that perhaps is no country for the eight-spot butterflies.

AMY GOODMAN: I was wondering, Julian, if you could read a poem from your book.

JULIAN AGUON: Sure. I can read a poem that I wrote on climate change, and I wrote this poem shortly after one of the COPs. Let me just find it. Sorry.

AMY GOODMAN: And as you talk, I should say people should tune into our coverage of the U.N. COP, the U.N. climate summit, that will be taking place in November in Sharm el-Sheikh, in Egypt. Julian, go ahead.

JULIAN AGUON: Thank you.

We have no need
for scientists to
tell us things
we already
know
like the
sea is
rising
and the
water is
getting warm.

The inundated need no instruction in inundation.

We have eyes
of our own
and besides
we are busy
scraping
barnacles
off our grandfathers’
graves
and other
headstones
drowned
at high
tide.

We know
how critical
it is our
coral reefs
stay healthy
and our
mangrove
forests
dense.

We will
defend
them
to the
end
not because
some study
shows they
provide
protection
from
erosion
or shelter
from
storms
but because
our reefs
are adoring
aunts
feeding
other
people’s
children
and our
mangroves,
mothers
in their
own right.

AMY GOODMAN: As you come to the mainland United States, your final message, Julian, as your book comes out today, No Country for Eight-Spot Butterflies?

JULIAN AGUON: I think that we have to be really honest about sort of the U.S. war machine, and that — and just like climate change, stop using sort of future tense. The crisis is here. You know, it’s not only at our doorstep, but it’s banging down the door, you know? And it is time to end these endless wars. And we should begin in Guam.

AMY GOODMAN: Julian Aguon, I want to thank you for being with us, CHamoru writer, human rights lawyer from Guam. His new book, out today, No Country for Eight-Spot Butterflies: A Lyric Essay.

And that does it for our broadcast. We want to wish a very happy birthday to our Democracy Now! digital fellow, Zina Precht-Rodriguez! And we want to welcome to the world Noah Gabriel Gottesdiener. Congratulations to our former producer Laura Gottesdiener on the birth of your son! I just call him “Noah Gaby Baby.” That does it for our show. Democracy Now! is produced with Renée Feltz, Mike Burke, Deena Guzder, Messiah Rhodes, Nermeen Shaikh, María Taracena, Charina Nadura, Sam Alcoff, Tey-Marie Astudillo, John Hamilton, Robby Karran, Hany Massoud, Mary Conlon. Our executive director is Julie Crosby. Special thanks to Becca Staley, Jon Randolph, Paul Powell, Mike Di Filippo, Miguel Nogueira, Hugh Gran, Denis Moynihan, David Prude and Dennis McCormick.

Tomorrow on Democracy Now!, we’ll talk about British colonialism and Northern Ireland. The king is in Northern Ireland today. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, for another edition of Democracy Now! Stay safe.

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