To get onto her family’s land, Monaeka Flores drives through a gate guarded by US military security, then continues up to a booth, where an officer scans her special military-issued ID and waves her through. Or at least that’s how it’s supposed to work. Mishaps often snarl the trip. Sometimes security mixes up her personal information with her family’s. Other times she’s barred from the land outright. In July, she missed a family barbecue because her ID, which needs to be renewed annually, had expired, and she hadn’t made it to the security office in time to get a new one. Hosting is a crapshoot, too, since the military requires visitors to get cleared before entering. Flores said a friend had recently been turned away because the background check program was down when they went to the security office.
This article was published with support from Columbia University’s Ira A. Lipman Center for Journalism and Civil and Human Rights and the Gumshoe Group.
The land, at the northern end of Guam, a US territory in the western Pacific, has been in Flores’s family for five generations. Her grandfather’s family fished, hunted, and made a living farming coconuts and raising pigs on it. But the military took the farmland in a land grab after World War II and left the rest sandwiched between two federal properties. To the immediate south is Andersen Air Force Base, the only base in the region able to service the United States’ heaviest bombers. To the north is a wildlife refuge—land the Department of Defense handed over to the US Fish and Wildlife Service instead of to the families from whom it was stolen. There is no entrance to Flores’s family’s land on the refuge side, so they must access it through the base.
Unlike Flores’s family, others across the 212-square-mile island had their land fully seized by the Pentagon, never to be returned. The military took homes, farms, and ranches to create the 23-square-mile Air Force base, the 3,000-acre telecommunications site directly south of it, and a 2,000-acre addition to the base. To build a magazine to store heavy naval munitions, the military annexed 28 square miles of Guam’s southern inland, including family properties and what is now the island’s largest reservoir. And to construct a sprawling shipyard and the main facilities for a US naval base, the military uprooted an entire village that had been bombed during World War II and moved its residents to the muddy inland hills.
Since World War II, the US military has occupied between a third and a half of Guam’s land. Construction and training have destroyed ancestral sites of its Indigenous people, the CHamorus, and damaged much of the island’s aquatic and wooded ecosystems. Decades of military dumping, spills, and herbicide use have left Guam riddled with toxic sites, many of which have yet to be cleaned.
The Pentagon’s interest in Guam stems from its strategic location: Less than 2,000 miles from Tokyo, Seoul, Shanghai, and Manila, Guam and the nearby Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands are by a wide margin the US territories closest to East and Southeast Asia. For much of the past century, the military has used Guam as a hub for its operations in the region, earning it the moniker “the tip of the spear.”
Now, with US foreign policy posturing more aggressively toward China, the Department of Defense is sharpening its spear and massively increasing its forces and facilities on Guam.
The buildup, mostly in its construction phase after more than a decade of contentious planning, will relocate about 5,000 Marines to Guam. To accommodate them, the military is razing thousands of acres of Guam’s northern forests—home to unique and fragile ecosystems, the island’s main source of drinking water, and countless CHamoru burial and cultural sites—to build housing, a live-fire training range complex, a hand grenade range, and other training facilities. The military is also constructing an Army missile defense system and an aircraft carrier berthing station, which will destroy dozens of acres of coral reef. On the Northern Mariana Islands, it hopes to build an airfield, training sites, and a bombing range.
I recently traveled to Guam to spend time with some of the grassroots activists who are resisting the military buildup. While they’ve had significant wins over the years, they’re limited by their status as colonial subjects, and so far their advocacy has mostly been steamrolled by military bureaucracy. They fear that the growing militarization will further devastate the island’s environment and their ancestral sites and practices and may even, someday, make their home unlivable.
“There’s so much at stake,” Flores said. “It’s our water, it’s our basic human rights, it’s our medicines and our food and our ways of life.”
“We’re the collateral damage of empire,” she added. “And empire is betting on us being exhausted.”