Guam and the Military: A Complicated Environmental Relationship

by Dan Killam

Discussing the role of the military in Guam requires an open mind, using practical reasoning instead of adhering to preconceived beliefs. Over the course of our time in Micronesia, we’ve been exposed to many different views of the issues. There are more variables at play than the simple natives versus colonizers cliché that many associate with this part of the globe. On Guam, there are old-school environmentalists of both indigenous and foreign origin fighting to restrict any form of development. At the opposite side, the United States Navy is planning a massive buildup on Guam, with significant local support from some Chamorros who foresee the economic benefit that will come with the influx of American troops. Between the two extremes, there are many shades of gray. After hearing from congressional officials and Department of Agriculture employees, it was time to hear the military describe its own history. This was particularly interesting for me, coming from a military family with two Air Force veterans for parents. I’ve been on bases in California before, but Guam’s position on World War II’s front lines provided a much different angle.

Visiting the U.S. Naval Base on Guam, our goal was to learn about the historical impact of the Navy on the Chamorro culture and on the island’s environment as a whole. Throughout our history on the island, the U.S. has liberated Guam from two empires (Spain and Japan) and lost it once (during WWII). Guam’s valuable strategic position has made it a battleground for control of military dominance in the Pacific, and this conflict-filled history is evident in many sites that we visited on the base.

Agana Harbor is one of the broadest and most accessible in the world, and World War II was a powerful engine leading to its development as a modern harbor. Thousands of acres of corals and mangrove forest were dredged to enlarge and deepen the harbor, creating a berth for the great aircraft carriers of the war. Comparing that transformation to the present-day fight to preserve meager coral stocks that have recovered since then puts the issues in perspective.

We saw the immense human cost of the war as well. Reminders of the massive scale of the Battle of Guam are everywhere, particularly of the bombardment that occurred preceding the American assault. Much of the island was reduced to splinters and rubble by the barrage. We visited the site of the village of Sumay, formerly the second largest on the island but completely destroyed by shelling. A cemetery is all that remains of the village’s ancient heritage.

The remains of the original WWII buildup on Guam cover the base, standing alongside modern buildings. Most of the structures have been lost to the ravages of decades of typhoons, including the temporary, mass-produced Quonset huts. Interestingly, some of the best-preserved structures were stoneworks built by Japanese prisoners of war, including a large amphitheater and a stone stairway. These are some of the only remaining examples of a style of Japanese architecture from the early 20th century, lost following the Allied bombing of Japan. Few war films linger to show the immense loss that follows a coordinated bombardment, but even decades later, the effects are evident. On the other hand, we also saw that many of our impacts are often mere blips on the planet’s radar. A few strong typhoons were enough to wipe away almost every trace of the original Guam naval base. Facing the Pacific, we’re like ants trying to stand up to a fire hose. Regardless of the outcome of the debate surrounding the military buildup, the costs of the resulting environmental damage will be borne by us and our descendants alone, because Earth will wipe the slate clean once we’re gone. Even the world’s greatest Navy is no match for the fury of nature.

We would like to thank Public Affairs Officer Annette Donner for guiding us through the base and for giving us a view of the island that we otherwise never would have seen.

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