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“Realistic” Island Environments

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FROM THE SERIES: Ecologies of War

“white mesa burden” by Teresa Montoya, 2021.

A young boy plays by the shore on the island of Saipan while United States military cargo ships dot the horizon. Maritime Prepositioning Ships Squadron Three (MPSRON 3) is a constant presence in the waters and anchors four to five ships off the island of Saipan to provide equipment and supplies for U.S. Marine Corps, U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force personnel currently operating in the Pacific. During natural disasters, such as Typhoon Soudelor in 2015, MPSRON 3 provided supplies like water and ice to the local community on Saipan.
Photo courtesy of the author.

Since WWII, the Mariana Islands in the western Pacific have borne the brunt of US imperial and militaristic interests in the region and continue to remain a key site of a massive contemporary military buildup. The archipelago has garnered various militarised catch phrases throughout its imperial history that highlight its role in strategic military planning including being at the “front lines” of the United States security apparatus and comprising the “tip of America’s spear”—phrases that have long been critiqued by Indigenous Chamorros, who wish to call attention to the violence that such framing makes possible over our homelands (Aguon 2006; Bevacqua 2017; Na’puti and Bevacqua 2015; Perez 2019). Both Guåhan (Guam) and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) possess separate political statuses, but together remain unincorporated territories of the United States that provide critical air, land, and water resources for US military training and weapons testing. For this reason, the islands are commonly referred to as “American soil” in closest proximity to Asia and are framed by the Department of Defense (DOD) as live and realistic environments necessary for military training and testing on land, deep seas, and skies. Through the construction of the islands’ “liveness,” militarism systematically erases what is alive in the archipelago and its waters by producing spaces of violence that both obscure the lived experiences and deep histories of the Indigenous Chamorro and Refaluwasch (Carolinian) peoples’ relations to land and evoke ecological dimensions of the islands themselves as justification for continued destructive practices. This reality leaves our people more vulnerable than ever to increasingly violent military practices in the midst of geopolitical competition by larger nations such as the United States and China and climate-related natural disasters, neither of which we have the power to control.

Within the almost one million sq. nautical miles that comprise the Marianas Islands Training and Testing (MITT) Study Area, the Department of the Navy (DON) often refers to the use of realistic training and testing as critical to military readiness, personnel safety, and national defense. The Study Area is said to possess “unique attributes, including location, proximity to concentrations of US forces, environment, and size, which make it an ideal venue for training military personnel and testing equipment and systems.” The islands’ use value is further justified by providing a “strategic and valuable environment for conducting military readiness activities” and are considered an “ideal setting because of their location in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region.” Realistic training is often juxtaposed against simulation which is not viewed as an adequate technology for the DON to complete its training requirements. On the DON’s MITT Study Area website, for example, one frequently asked question reads, “Can’t you use simulators for training and testing?” A response states the following: “Simulation . . . can only work at the basic operator level and cannot completely replace training and testing in a live environment. . . . Simulation cannot replicate dynamic environments involving numerous military forces and cannot accurately model sound in complex training environments.”

Thus, despite major advances in Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality, the islands continue to play an integral role in the militarized construction of environments as uniquely destroyable due to their biophysical and topographical features that provide dynamic training opportunities. According to the DON, these features also lend themselves well to joint training between different branches of the armed forces that cannot otherwise be simulated anywhere else in the world. In this regard, island ecologies themselves become a driving factor behind bombing, live-fire training, and active sonar usage through the incorporation of ecological narratives into security discourses.

While the immediate violence of war in the Pacific is not present, the threat of island annihilation by United States adversaries and increasing military maritime competition between larger nations like the United States and China comingles with the “slow violence” (Nixon 2006) of the DOD’s history of environmental contamination and toxicity in the Marianas and the region more broadly. The contemporary threat discourse, including North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s threat to send four Hwasong-12 missiles barreling toward Guåhan in 2017, call attention to the assumptions made about the political and environmental disposability of these long-colonized spaces of Oceania. As relatively small islands far from the continental United States viewed by the DOD as “open” spaces where militarism can flourish in plain sight, they remain critical contingency locations from which to launch military operations in supposedly neutral American territorial waters. The alarmist language employed by international and local media to highlight looming Chinese or North Korean attacks accelerates militarism’s appetite for resources within these island environments in order to meet the growing demand for resources in the name of troop “readiness.” This military logic continues to frame these colonized spaces as simply American territory, strangulating possibilities for Indigenous imaginings of these sovereign homelands.

A number of natural disasters in the CNMI—including two record-breaking super typhoons (Soudelor and Yutu) and ensuing economic crises—have made “states of emergency” the norm.[1] In the Pacific, where islands remain highly aid-dependent and reliant on boom-and-bust economic industries such as tourism and militarism, disasters and security crises propel the public into a further state of reliance on United States aid and military assistance in the form of economic support. As the preponderance of super typhoons has increased, so too has the CNMI’s social and economic reliance on the US military’s post disaster assistance and federal aid. In the CNMI—as is also the case in Puerto Rico—our commonwealth political status allows us to apply for and receive federal aid, including disaster assistance and military humanitarian relief. This includes public assistance and hazard mitigation in the time of disaster declarations, all of which were forms of aid extended to the CNMI in the aftermath of Super Typhoon Soudelor and Super Typhoon Yutu. These catastrophic weather events, while dire, detract from the systemic issues shaping these very emergencies, such as the militarized policies that continue to endanger the environment and exacerbate the precarious political and economic position we inhabit as unincorporated territories. As both natural and man-made disasters continue to permeate our daily lives, critiquing US government and US military policies becomes a politically riskier endeavor amid real and perceived threats.

Contemporary policy debates over the legitimacy of both political and climatic threats throughout the region—including considerations of the best military response—only work to obscure environmental imperialism throughout Oceania. The construction of “realistic environments” has disastrous consequences when militarism converges with climate-related natural disasters, leaving the most vulnerable populations to deal with the brunt of the environmental consequences that ensue while the long-term, cumulative impacts of militarization are ignored amid ever-increasing crises. This framing is a simulacrum, a militarized representation of the archipelago that buries alternate visions for Indigenous sovereignty in ways that are not premised on possession and destruction.

Notes

[1] In 2015 and 2018, CNMI Governor Ralph DLG Torres issued emergency declarations for both Super Typhoon Soudelor and Super Typhoon Yutu. Similarly, states of emergency in the CNMI have been declared since the early months of 2020 during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and have remained in effect into 2021.

References

Aguon, Julian. 2006. The Fire This Time: Essays on Life Under Us Occupation. Fort Lauderdale, FL: Blue Ocean Press.

Bevacqua, Michael Lujan. 2017. “Guam: Protests at the Tip of America’s Spear.South Atlantic Quarterly 116 (1): 174–83.

Na’puti, Tiara R., and Michael Lujan Bevacqua. 2015. “Militarization and Resistance from Guåhan: Protecting and Defending Pågat.American Quarterly 67 (3): 837–58.

Nixon, Rob. 2006. “Slow Violence, Gender, and the Environmentalism of the Poor.Journal of Commonwealth and Postcolonial Studies 13 (2): 14–37.

Perez, Craig Santos. 2019. “Juan Malo & The Tip of America’s Spear.” In Indigenous Literatures from Micronesia, 91. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

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