On Thursday, January 22nd, at 6 pm, the exhibit “Sindålu: Chamorro Journey Stories in the US Military” will be returning to the Second Floor Gallery Space in the Agana Shopping Center. The exhibit is organized by the Guam Humanities Council as a companion to a Smithsonian Exhibit titled “Journey Stories” that was brought to Guam last year. In June 2014 the exhibit first premiered in the Agana Shopping Center and then traveled to other locations. I worked on this exhibit as a researcher and writer, and it was quite an experience gathering stories of Chamorros who have served in the US military over the past 100 years. I definitely invite anyone interested in this part of Guam/Chamorro history to attend the reception or visit the exhibit over the next few months.
The relationship between Chamorros and the United States has always been stimulated and frustrated by the United States military. When Chamorros were initially promised the greatness of the United States in terms of democracy, freedom and liberty in 1899, they instead met with the US Navy who governed by island for half of a century by not allowing any of those three things to exist in any formal sense on the island. That period of Guam History is known as the “USS Guam” period where Naval Governors ruled the island and without any democratic consent of the people over the lives and laws of Chamorros. When Chamorros began to join the US military as a way of improving their lives and learning the importance of service and patriotism and how the greatest of any community are those who take on the sacrifice of sacrificing for all others, instead they were met with racism that relegated them to only serving in the lowest ranks of the US Navy, being just mess attendants. Even when Chamorros finally felt and learned first hand the liberating potential of the US military when it expelled the Japanese during World War II, they also learned that the US military has a tendency to liberate people from its resources when it wants them and is not above doing it illegally or immorally.
But as Chamorros have become more intimately connected to the US military they have also become more intimately connect to the United States as a nation. They take on more of the patriotism of being a part of the country, even if Guam remains a colony. They use the language of shared community, sacrifice for home territory and defense of democracy and freedom even if as Guam remains a colony each of those things should be ridiculously covered in asterisks.
For many the military offers chances for education, socio-economic improvement, travel and a chance to feel like you are an active contributing member of society. But for others, they military takes just as much, if not more than it gives. In a general way the armed forces of the United States soak up an incredible amount of resources, the largest chunk of the federal budget pie. All told the US spends more in its military than the next 13 countries combined. In Guam, many people feel this problem in terms of the large amount of land and natural resources they occupy here.
The voices of veterans have their own critical complexity. Chamorros serving in Vietnam for example often experienced a crisis of colonial identity, when they could call into question why they were in a jungle fighting and killing people who looked more like them than most of their commanding officers. Chamorros in several wars have made connections between the imposition of “freedom” elsewhere and the colonial lack of freedom in Guam. The late Angel Santos, Maga’lahi of the group Nasion Chamoru for instance was a model soldier in the US Air Force. But because of his experiences of racism and the secrecy of the military, later dedicated his life to getting the US military to return Chamorro lands and seeking Guam’s decolonization.