A Counterfactual Buildup

All historians are haunted.

The responsibility of communicating, as best as possible the depth of the past to those in the present is great, and there is always an invisible weight, as if the ghosts of that past are massing to oversee what is written or taught. But historians are not only haunted by what you can argue did happen, but they are always haunted just as easily by the specters of things which never happened, but could have. Such alternate histories or counterfactuals can actually be important in giving us a more nuanced understanding of how history turned out, by ridding history of any sense of inevitability. Most assume that history took a certain path to reach the present moment, and it really couldn’t have happened any other way. This is almost never true, and in order to portray history accurately, you have to release it from these chains and let its complexity and possibilities shine through.

A case in point is Guam’s relationship to the United States. People feel like the island and Chamorros have been on this destined journey to move closer and closer to the United States, always becoming more and more American. If we look at history however, this isn’t necessarily the case. Although Guam has been a colony for more than a century, the Chamorro experience of colonialism has changed so much. The colonial difference, between Guam and the United States is not as wide or as daunting or as disgusting as it used to be. In Guam in 1898, 1941, 1944 and even 1968 you could see where America ended and Chamorros and Guam began. You could see that America engaged with Chamorros only up to a certain point as human beings or as subjects worth anything, and then after that dismissed them as savage and child-like.

Our history would be very different if World War II had not taken place, or if it had happened even just a little bit differently. In the period between World War I and World War II, the US government knew that Guam was a target and would no doubt be dragged rather violently into any conflict with Japan. Marginal attempts were made to fortify Guam in anticipation of the conflict the War Department knew was coming, but all serious moves to defend Guam or prepare the island were scrapped. As a result Guam was “sacrificed” in the words of historian Don Farrell, to the Japanese. When the Japanese invade, their tactics in dominating Guam are much more brutal and aggressive than those used by the US and so Chamorros pray for the US return and eagerly welcome them when they come back in 1944. Chamorros emerge from the war drastically different than in prior years. In 1944, they cannot imagine a world without the US at the center of it, whereas before, it really didn’t matter to them if the US was at the center or not. There were some Chamorros who loved the US, but as a people they still saw themselves as distinct from it. This was so primarily because the US told them every day in blatantly racist terms that they were not Americans and most likely never would be.

But what if history had happened differently. One of the things that has kept the colonial difference stark and real for some Chamorro families is the illegal land takings in postwar Guam for strategic military purposes. In the generations of Chamorro activists or fierce critics of US policy since World War II, their ranks have been filled primarily with those who lost pieces of land in order to create the many US military facilities that Guam has hosted over the years.

Now, what if, instead of abandoning Guam for the 20 years prior to World War II, what if the US had instead militarized it? And not just a tiny bit, but went full out and transformed Guam into the fortress some analysts imagined it could be? Strategists in the era between world wars claimed that Guam was indefensible and that it would cost far too much to attempt to defend it. What if Congressmen and Senators ignored these recommendations and instead pumped a huge amount of money and effort into Guam? What if the US used the powers they had at that time (and still have today) to take large tracts of land and build their bases, cut down the jungles, dredge the reefs and so on? What if the period of displacement had happened before war took place and thousands of Chamorros lost their land prior to their island being turned into a battlefield for two would-be empires?

It is an interesting thing to consider. Things could have been very different to say the least.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s