I spent the morning of August 9, 2017, like most people here, and probably quite a good number elsewhere in the world: talking about the North Korean threat to our island of Guam. I woke that morning to a barrage of messages on Facebook and WhatsApp. In a couple cases, the senders didn’t send much in the way of words, but simply a photo of their televisions set to CNN where the word “Guam” appeared prominently in the chyron. Sometimes, anxious or frightened emojis would be the accompanying message.
In the days since, the initial shock has gone, but the anxiety persists. In Guam, we are accustomed to aggressive, vainglorious rhetoric, detached from reality, coming from certain lands to the northwest of us. Over the past few years, Guam has been mentioned in the saber-rattling of both North Korea and China. Last year China named a missile after Guam, dubbing it a “Guamkiller.” Recently, Russian military pilots even buzzed by their US counterparts near Guam. But this time it is different, primarily because the president of the United States is so different.
When confronted with the typically hyperbolic rhetoric from North Korea, US President Donald Trump decided to respond not with measured firmness or maturity, but rather as if he saw it as a cock-fighting challenge. Trump matched the rhetoric with some of his own, promising “fire and fury like the world has never seen.” This is what made the recent threats so much more frightening.
In the past, the recklessness and the aggression seemed to emanate only from one side of our island home in the western Pacific. But now, it comes at us from both sides.
Talking to my kids Sumåhi (10) and Akli’e’ (8) about this threat turned out to be difficult on many levels. Part of the reason was the fact that I only speak to my children in the Chamorro language, which is the native tongue of the indigenous people of Guam and the other Marianas Islands. As such, translations of “nuclear miniaturization” or “missile deterrence” were very tough to come up with on the fly. But what made it even more difficult was that the usual way my children see the world, as if it followed the same structures as Hollywood movies, wasn’t as tenable in this context. To my son, for example, the world breaks down into those who are good and those who are bad. Good guys should be cheered on; bad guys should be booed.
The changes in American presidential rhetoric made it difficult, because now, not only did Trump and Kim Jong-un seem to be speaking the same aggressive language, but, when I tried to explain the situation in Chamorro, there would be a great deal of overlap in the terms I would use to describe them. This often left the kids puzzled when I was trying to clarify the difference between the two leaders.
Akli’e’ in particular was confused as to why one country might be better than another if both their leaders are, as I put it, “atmariao,” meaning crazy or insane. In order to make my point, I ended up trying to explain the differences in the governments involved. Although both leaders may act in petulant, impulsive and selfish ways, I explained that one government is totally controlled by their leader (“mantaidirecho i taotao put håyi i ma’gas”), but, in another, people still have certain democratic power to choose their leaders (“manggaidirecho didide’ put håyi i ma’gas i gubetnamento”).
Then it was my daughter Sumåhi’s turn to be confused. She wanted to know why, if North Korea was a long-standing enemy of the US, the people of the United States would choose a leader who was so similar to someone they considered so bad?
Thankfully, before I had to try to explain about the Electoral College or the US electoral calamity in general, Akli’e’ intervened to ask another question. He was confident now that we had established that one side of the conflict was a democracy (better), while the other was a dictatorship (worse). Now that Akli’e’ had an idea of who was bad, he started to lambast North Korea for their terrible deeds, since he naturally assumed they must be out bombing everyone left and right.
This led to even more confusion as I tried to explain, in the simplest terms possible, the history of US intervention into foreign countries (and also its colonization of places like Guam, including a bombing campaign in the Marianas during World War Two that was unprecedented in its destructiveness). This then led to Akli’e’ again being confused as to why we would want US bombs here on Guam when the US has such a long history of bombing other countries, including sending the atomic bombs to Hiroshima and Nagasaki from our nearby Chamorro island of Tinian.
It is at this point that I warmed up the Xbox to distract my kids, while I slipped out of the room, temporarily safe from their innocent, merciless logic.
I tell this story of my children trying to understand international relations because it touches on a number of truths, some of which are easier for us adults to address than others as well.
Sometimes, a child struggling with the way of the world, incessantly asking “why?” isn’t so much about a child’s incomprehension but the world’s incomprehensibility.
The child is encountering something which is clearly incongruent, crooked, or broken, which all around them have come to agreed is clear, straight, and not broken at all. The eyes of a child can be helpful in the ways they can guide us to see things that we have learned not to notice or to deny outright.
When trying to understanding the feelings of those of us in Guam in response to the North Korea threat, it is difficult to do so without first understanding Guam’s history and current political status in the world. The confusion that I experienced discussing the risks and threats around our island with my children is mirrored at multiple levels, and knowing more about this can help you understand the anxiety and ambivalence that people on Guam are currently feeling.
Learn more about Chamorro history and culture in the Guam film, “American Soil, Chamorro Soul.” Watch now.
For example, if we look at Guam, there might seem little to worry anyone on the surface. Although Trump has shifted global political rhetoric into new and potentially dangerous directions, it is obvious to anyone with a map or access to Wikipedia that the tweet of the day from the President, doesn’t change the fact that Guam is the home to about six thousand US military troops, plus bombers, fighters, nuclear submarines, and also the infamous THAAD. Many assume Guam will surely be fine, the people there well defended and taken care of, because of that significant US military presence.
But, even in the very media coverage that purports to introduce Guam to the rest of the world, we see that this military presence is also a problem. If you reduce Guam to its military value or use, or even if you simply reduce it to a territory of the United States, you are exposing, most likely unintentionally, the very things that make people in Guam so anxious and uncertain.
Guam is an unincorporated US territory, which means it is not a state, nor a foreign country, but rather a possession, owned by the United States. The American flag that flies over Guam has the usual fifty stars, one for each state. But what on the flag represents Guam and other US territories? When one waves a flag high in a patriotic display, is Guam represented by that flag?
When Donald Trump proclaims that he will “make America great again,” is Guam included?
When the United States draws up plans or lays out policies to defend itself and engage with potential threats such as North Korea, the same questions persist. Do those plans include Guam? And, if they do, how is Guam included? Is it included as a part of the US or rather as a strategically important asset that can be used to club America’s enemies into submission?
This is why the uncertainty about Guam’s situation isn’t just about what Kim Jong-un will do or what Trump might do. Even without the North Korean threat, Guam’s status remains undefined, unjust, and, frankly, colonial.
As we have been placed in the crosshairs of yet another enemy of the US, it is imperative that we use this moment to truly take stock of our place in the world and, therefore, of our status as “The Tip of America’s Spear.” When I think of the future that awaits my children, I hope that Guam could one day cease to be the tip of a spear used by one nation to threaten another, and instead become a bridge, which could connect countries across continents and oceans in peace.
Pås para i isla. Minaguem para i tano’-ta. (Peace for the island. Peace for our land.)
Dr. Michael Lujan Bevacqua, PhD is passionate about reviving the Chamorro language on Guam and changing the political status of his homeland of Guam. He is the Assistant Professor of Chamorro Studies at the University of Guam and a member of the Guam Commission on Decolonization. Michael is a father, filmmaker, and Manga comic lover.