Surviving Our Fallen: Chamorros, Militarism, Religiosity, and 9/11 (Part 7)
In 2010, the Konsehilon Tinaotao Guam (Guam Humanities Council) invited me to participate in their project: “‘8,000, How It Change Our Lives?’ Community Conversations on the US Military Buildup in Guam.” This project aimed to provide space for island residents to discuss the military buildup through “humanities-based conversations on related themes of service, leadership, community, identity and power.”
It was an interesting moment in my life because I was set to travel to Guam a few weeks after I celebrated my 30th birthday. I realized: I spent the first fifteen years of my life in Guam, and the last fifteen years of my life in California. After all this time, my body was returning home.
Poetry was a way for me to stay connected to home, but I never thought it would be the thing itself that would bring me back home.
The publication of my second book of poems, from unincorporated territory [saina] (Omnidawn Publishing), coincided with my visit home. Boxes of my book were shipped from California (where my publisher is based) to Guam.
During the week that I worked for the Guam Humanities Council, I engaged in community conversations at all except one of Guam’s public high schools, the island’s only community college, and the University of Guam. Additionally, I performed at a social worker’s conference, a Humanities Council community event at a hotel, and at a local restaurant. All in all, I must have engaged with nearly 500 students and 300 community members during that week. I was also interviewed for two local television news stations and one radio show.
While I write about this trip in more detail in my forthcoming third book of poems, I’d like to touch upon two moments related to militarism for this essay. When I visited one of the public high schools, I walked the halls to pull my thoughts together before meeting with a group of students in the library. As I turned down one hall, I was startled to see a young white man dressed in fatigues carrying a machine gun, standing perfectly still.
My eyes deceived me: it was not a real person, but a life-sized cardboard cut-out. This figure, as opposed to a figure of one of our chiefs or cultural leaders, is what greeted these students as they walked down the hall. I imagined this figure became a talayeru, a throw net fisherman, stalking through the tides for his daily catch of new recruits.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that JROTC instructors on Guam make more money than our public high school teachers. The average pay of a JROTC instructor/director is about 90k, while the average pay of Guam’s public school teachers is about 45k.
Not all, but quite a few of the students I met at the various schools were involved in JROTC. They said they were enlisting after high school because the military promised to pay for college.
As I walked towards the departure gate of Guam International Airport, I was once again stopped in my tracks at the sight of a proud soldier. Then another, and another, and another: “The Fallen Brave of Micronesia.” Twenty-three banners. Each banner features a photo of a soldier from Micronesia who died during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Name, rank, and flag of their home island. Above them and behind them all: an American flag waving.
This pictorial memorial was installed and unveiled in the East Ticket Lobby of the airport to honor the 23 sons of the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas, Federated States of Micronesia, Guam, and the Republic of Palau. A dedication ceremony occurred on July 20, 2007, as an official event of the 63rd Liberation Day festivities.
I look at Jonathan’s picture. If I ever write a novel, I say to him, I will name a character after you.
i lina’la’ tataotao
The U.S. military has cast its nets upon our Chamorro bodies. Uniformed our bodies. Tough bodies. Fallen bodies. Gutted bodies. The fragile box of the Chamorro body. Memories of fallen bodies in our bodies. Bodies in boxes. Bodies in words. Bodies in pictures. Chamorro bodies we can never hold again. Chamorro bodies whose voices are silenced.
Writing this essay to commemorate the ten-year anniversary of 9/11 has not been easy. Oddly, I feel survivor’s guilt. Not the guilt of those who survived 9/11 must feel. Not the guilt of those who have actually fought in and survived America’s wars of terror while their friends died right next to them. I feel guilty for escaping the net of militarism. A net whose pull is strong on Guam and in the psyches of many Chamorros.
Within my guilt, I feel anger. Anger. Because no Chamorro should feel guilty for living a non-militarized life; no Chamorro should feel guilty for being able to hold our mothers and fathers as they grow older and watch us grow. I feel anger because I know some of the students I met on Guam will someday end up fallen and memorialized. They will be survived, as opposed to surviving.
I return to Dante:
Just as a swimmer, who with his last breath
flounders ashore from perilous seas, might turn
to memorize the wide water of his death—
So did I turn, my soul still fugitive
from death’s surviving image, to stare down
that pass that none had ever left alive.
We are not fish. We are Chamorro. We are Guahan. Swimming against the strong currents of militarism. We are strong Chamorro bodies. Swimming Oceania and the diaspora, swimming the veins of
We turn to each other
to memorize our faces.
To say goodbye. Bodies
return home. Tough boxes.
Tough Words. To memorialize.
We return. We stare
at the surviving images of
the dead. Prayers to the patron saints
of war. We stare. Images of
the towers falling.
The surviving images of
the fallen. Will we
Our own passages
Of the wide ocean of our death–
Our own images
Of the tidal fire of our breath–
—The translation of Canto I comes from John Ciardi’s translation in The Divine Comedy: The Inferno, The Purgatorio, and The Paradiso (Penguin, 2003).
—The tourism figures come from the Introduction to the Guam Visitors Bureau Five Year Plan (FY 2007-2011). Accessed 5/30/11 (http://www.visitguam.org/runtime/uploads /Files/5%20Year%20Plan/introduction.pdf).
—“Island Mourns Fallen Soldier” is a partial headline from Guam’s major newspaper, Pacific Daily News (3/28/08). The full title is “Guam Son Killed in Iraq: Island Mourns Fallen Soldier.”
—Tintoretto’s inscription can be found in Tom Nichol’s Tintoretto: Tradition and Identity (Redaktion Books, 1999).
—“The Exceptional Life and Death of a Chamorro Soldier: Tracing the Militarization of Desire in Guam, USA” (2010), by Michael Lujan Bevacqua, can be found in Militarized Currents: Toward a Decolonized Future in Asia and the Pacific (U of Minnesota Press, 2010), edited by Setsu Shigematsu and Keith L. Camacho.
—The names of the fallen soldiers retrieved from a feature in the Pacific Daily News titled “Remembering our Fallen,” posted on May 2, 2011. Accessed on May 5, 2011 (http://www.guampdn.com/article/20110503/NEWS01/105030301/Remembering-our-fallen).
—“Deliberating ‘Liberation Day’: Identity, History, Memory, and War in Guam,” by Vicente Diaz, can be found in Perilous Memories: the Asia-Pacific War(s) (Duke U Press, 2001), edited by T. Fujitani, Geoffrey M. White, and Lisa Yoneyama.
—For a more thorough history of militarism and the current military buildup on Guam, please see Lisa Natividad and Gwen Kirk’s “Fortress Guam: Resistance to U.S. Military Mega-Buildup,” The Asia-Pacific Journal, 19-1-10, May 10, 2010.
—Background information on Jonathan Pangelinan Santos and quote from his diary is from “The Corporal’s Diary’: Fallen soldier’s journal and videotapes inspire documentary,” by Donald Allen, in Stars and Stripes, January 4, 2009. Also, the note about his nickname can be found at the Combat Veterans International memorials online. Accessed on April 31, 2011 (http://www.combatveterans.com/memorials/santos.htm).
—For more information on Eyes Wide Open: An Exhibit on the Human Cost of War visit their website: http://afsc.org/campaign/eyes-wide-open.
—Information on “Operation: Special Intentions” and the quote from Monsignor James L.G. Benavente was retrieved from “Relics of military patron saints tour Guam,” a press release of the Dulce Nombre de Maria Cathedral-Basilica (Hagatna, Guam), March 4, 2009.
—For more information on the projects of the Guam Humanities Council, visit its website: http://www.guamhumanitiescouncil.org/neh_wtp.html
—Thanks to A. Ricardo Aguon Hernandez, Budget Analyst at I Liheslaturan Guahan’s Office of Finance and Budget, for providing a breakdown of the “compensation injustice” between JROTC and Guam’s public school instructors.
—“Hu hongge i lina’la’ tataotao ta’lo åmen” can be translated as “I believe in the resurrection of the body, amen.”