Fresh voices ring out from the Asia-Pacific “terra nullius”
The Properties of Perpetual Light, an exquisite collection of memoirs by Micronesian prophet-attorney Julian Aguon, arrives in complementary tandem with Christine Hong’s extraordinary reproof of Pax Americana. Her shattering, academic analysis, A Violent Peace: Race, U.S. Militarism, and Cultures of Democratization in Cold War Asia and the Pacific, provides a people’s perspective on the traumas wrought by the U.S. geosecurity structure that has lorded over the region since World War II.
The two books play off one another in provocative synergies that summon woke insight into this malcomprehended part of the world. The freshness of their visions inspire action for the next century. Hong’s analysis frames Aguon’s moving reminiscences, driving common points home. Both authors explode with moral energy, both richly informed by black liberation theology. Most importantly, their robust voices render needed dimension to the flat telling of Asia-Pacific U.S. policy. Personal and political are one.
Aguon describes Properties of Perpetual Light as a love letter to youth, especially those whose identities have been hobbled by colonization, as his had been, growing up on the U.S. colony of Guam. As a native Chamoru, he has borne witness to acts of violence, both political and personal, that are the warp and weft of colonization’s cloth. His book strings together many of these moments—and times of transcendence, too—like the sparsely precise notes of a Miles Davis ballad, bringing uplift to all who pause to listen. It may be a slender tome, but its spiritual heft fills you to repletion. You find yourself going back to it, again and again, for the consistency of its healing beauty, like a favorite song, or a prayer.
If Aguon expresses from the heart, Hong works strictly out of her brain, and wields her scholarly prowess like a flashing sword. Citing James Baldwin, W.E.B. DuBois, Frederick Douglass and Oe Kenzaburo, she compares Jim Crow to Cold War orthodoxy, which she shreds with purpose and exacting precision. A chapter entitled “The Enemy at Home” examines James Baldwin’s request to withdraw from Bertrand Russell’s Vietnam War people’s tribunal unless it were held in Harlem (it was not). She dives deep into Ralph Ellison, sharing insights from published and unpublished work as it relates to his phrase “democracy in the teeth of fascism.” (This was his description of feeling safer overseas during WWII than as an African-American at home during peace time.)
Stylistically, the two authors live in separate universes. Aguon communicates with all five senses, often in a whisper. You want to lean in. His words roll off the page like teardrops, lamenting the ravages levied by the war machine on his ancestral home. (“On Guam, even the dead are dying.”). He salves the humiliations of five centuries, ever since Magellan, in 1521, dubbed the archipelago with the insulting moniker, “Las Islas Ladrones” (Thieves Islands). Aguon feeds the reader with descriptions of Guam’s enchantments, and in doing so, nourishes an identity for which its colonized Chamoru people have been starved for half a millennium.
Aguon is a force of nature that cannot be confined, even by the page. Once, while giving a commencement speech, he instructed the graduating class to reach down for a seashell he had earlier placed under each chair. He asked the grads to hold the shell to an ear. Such an odd request defied the airless colony box that had reared these youths to question nothing, not even their own breath. After they had put shell to ear, Aguon implored them, “If you can learn to be quiet, if you can become good listeners to your own ocean, you—and Guam—will be better for it.”
Each of the short pieces sketches a personal milestone, from unadulterated childhood joy, to the untimely death of his father, to awkward teen voicelessness, to a disillusioning foray with Mother Teresa, to his final farewell to the late, great Marshallese leader Tony deBrum, and beyond. Throughout these life passages, the insidious Pentagon can be sensed, like a carbon monoxide leak threatening to suffocate everyone in the room.
Such is coming of age on Guam. “Where America’s Day Begins”—and democracy ends. Guam’s only value to the U.S. is as its “unsinkable aircraft carrier.” To wit, “No Country for Eight-Spot Butterflies” describes how the Pentagon roundly ignored (and continues to ignore) thousands of islanders who dynamically oppose a plan to morph over a million square miles of biodiverse ecosystems into the largest complex of bombing and firing ranges ever. This is going on right now. Guam’s area is only half that of Los Angeles; yet its precious ancient forests have been scraped away to build a series of live-fire shooting ranges. “Military readiness” not only on Guam, but throughout the archipelago, will also sacrifice mangrove swamps, coral reefs, birthing areas for 26 species of whales and dolphins, sea tortoise nesting habitats, migratory bird routes for over a dozen species, watersheds, fragile coastlines, freshwater aquifers, a live volcano, archeological sites, ancient villages, burials, and residential communities. Countless rare and endemic species will perish.
The area to be impacted would subsume the Mariana archipelago, in particular the islands of Guam, Saipan, Pagan and Tinian, where firing ranges would be placed cheek by jowl with towns and neighborhoods. The ocean area of the doomed swath of planet would be larger than the states of Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, Nevada, Arizona, Montana and New Mexico combined. This, in the most cetacean-diverse spot in the Pacific. The navy projects it will maim or kill over 81,000 whales and dolphins per year.
This plan for a full-blown environmental holocaust confirms Hong’s theory that Pacific islands are valued only insofar as they can be devalued, laid to waste, and serve as bully’s proof of U.S. necro-hegemony. Any question about the number of slings and arrows that Earth can sustain before all systems of life unravel, has never been part of the equation. All that matters is brute force. As Obama remarked at the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Korean War Armistice Agreement, “Our allies and adversaries must know… the United States of America will maintain the strongest military the world has ever known, bar none, always.”
No surprise that the people of Guam and the Marianas feel as if war is being waged upon them. At the same time, they are being told that their sacrifice will ensure security. For whom?
Hong points out how one of the features of the Cold War is that the boundaries are blurred, between peace and war, to Orwellian effect. Remember when the Bikini islanders were assured that dropping atomic bombs on their home would be “for the good of mankind”? Hong contends that “the distinctions of civilians and combatants, home front and battle front, as well as peace and war, are superfluous.” War is peace. Freedom is slavery.
However, the edifices of Cold War doublespeak come crashing down in the face of Aguon’s clarion call. His writings insist on life, “no matter the hour, even at the hour of death.” He helps the heartbroken find their way.
The fact that the Asia-Pacific military ecocide is widely unknown is a testament to one of Hong’s dominant themes—the relegation of certain geographies to terra nullius status. They are erased. The U.S. dictates which parts of the world shall live and which shall die, and is entitled to annihilate with impunity. The necropolitics are enforced by sheer firepower, and justified by “American exceptionalism” (a euphemism for racism). The game is zero-sum and the rules are determined by who can drop the biggest bombs. Just as Kissinger remarked about the Marshallese people before lofting a series of atomic bombs on their islands, “There are only 90,000 of them out there. Who gives a damn?”
Only within the skewed logic of a terra nullius hierarchy could the unending Korean War ever be dubbed “the Forgotten War.” A peace treaty was never signed to end the war, and the U.S. has never shown interest. Yes, that’s right, the U.S. has technically been at war in Korea for 70 years.
The Americans may have “forgotten” this war, but the Koreans have not. They are reminded every day by a peninsula riven in two. The signing of a peace treaty would be the first step to normalize relations between north and south. Toward this goal, a global coalition of women’s peace organizations released a superb roadmap that seems to be gaining traction in Congress.
Meanwhile, the war machine bulldozes forward. South Korean forests have been razed, water supplies contaminated, fine agricultural lands have been paved over, and tens of thousands of South Korean villagers have been displaced. There has been ferocious opposition, similar to that in Okinawa. But the protestors have been powerless to stop construction of new bases and missile installations—just like in Okinawa, just like in Guam. Nonetheless, the people of the terra nullius keep on keepin’ on, year after year, generation after generation.
WE REACH FOR YOU*
We reach for you today as you gather in memory of this bloodiest of battles.
As you stand against our increasingly militarized world, demand justice, and shame the powerful with the depth of your courage and your love, know we are with you.
You who know that death is only one kind of dying.
You who light candles and line roadways and block trucks and boats with your bodies. You who hold up more than your fair share of the sky. We reach for you.
We hold your faces in our hands.
* Statement of solidarity delivered by Julian Aguon in June 2007 at the 62nd anniversary of the Battle of Okinawa.
Pax Americana is a sham
A Violent Peace upends a slew of tenets of the liberal canon. The overarching premise of the book is that Pax Americana, the attendant world-order to the Cold War, has been an abject sham. Rather than accept the unquestioned contention that the Cold War brought democracy and a “long peace,” Hong demonstrates that this narrative is a fanciful one that has actually served as a bald-faced cover for American racism, as expressed via a litany of injustices.
The author uncovers the machinations that led to the current geopolitical malaise. She chronicles cynical tactics, during the U.S. “liberation” of Japan’s former colonies—Korea, the Philippines, Burma, Indonesia and others—to create today’s security complex of client states. Douglas MacArthur placed collaborators, including war criminals, in positions of power to lead their postwar nations. As a result, allegiances transferred handily from one master to the next, and the empire remained intact.
The provocative last chapter, “Militarized Queerness: Racial War Masking and the Korean War Mascot,” deconstructs how Lt. Dan Choi, who gained notoriety as the gay, Asian-American opponent of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” went “from would-be military insider to forcibly ejected outsider.” Hong examines the ambiguous signifying role of his military uniform. Did Choi wear it so proudly as “proof” of loyalty to his country? Or was it really just masking his “otherness,” as either “homosexual” or “oriental”? But perhaps “otherness” is too facile an explanation for why the military violently denied him reenlistment, even after DADT was abolished. Hong raises the possibility that Choi’s blacklisting was actually rooted in his loud support for Chelsea Manning. To defend Manning was the equivalent of condemning the war in Iraq, and by extension, the sacrosanct war machine.
Hong then extrapolates on the theme of “masking” in the phenomenon of the Korean War mascot. That was the practice of including children caught in war with nowhere to go, as “mascots” in military units. The author shares photos of big American soldiers posed beside Korean children wearing miniature GI uniforms, that serve to neutralize their enemy status. The images are poignant, but raise disturbing questions, in the glaring potential for abuse. That power inequity is the experience of Pax Americana, writ large.
War overseas, war at home
The Korean War was the first war to desegregate troops, but Hong is unmoved. She interprets the mandate as a disingenuous public-relations ploy to help establish and maintain what she calls “security imperialism.” She contends that militarized blackface in the Korean War consolidated “a formidable infrastructure of violence central to U.S. postwar dominance: the national security state, the military-industrial complex, the empire of bases, and the permanent war economy.” Paul Robeson, in 1953, disputed the integrity of the policy, “No one has yet explained to my satisfaction what business a black lad from a Mississippi or Georgia sharecropping farm has in Asia shooting down the yellow or brown son of an impoverished rice farmer.”
An astonishing, little-known chronology on efforts made by notable African-Americans at the United Nations is featured. A petition entitled We Charge Genocide was filed by William Patterson the same year that scorched-earth policy rained terror on Korea. Patterson described the domestic front, where “the policeman’s bullet replaced the lynchman’s noose.” We Charge Genocide” was one of a genealogy of petitions that was first initiated by W.E.B. DuBois in the 1940s for the National Negro Congress and the NAACP, and then followed by similar ones by Patterson and Paul Robeson in 1951, Malcolm X in 1964, and Huey Newton and Bobby Seale in the late 1960s. In each case, the petitioners called upon the nascent UN to apply its instruments—the 1945 UN Charter, the 1948 Universal Declaration, and the 1948 Genocide Convention—to block violence against African-Americans. The hope was that precedents of human-rights abuses in Nazi Germany and Vietnam would be seen as parallel violations against repression at home. Unfortunately, the international community was not moved to endorse any one of these visionary pleas for an emancipatory interpretation of human rights.
Nonetheless, the historical UN petitions provide an interesting counterpoint to Aguon’s legal work. Mr. Aguon, in the footsteps of the black-liberation leaders, also filed a submission to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, in 2020, seeking to test one of the organization’s instruments—the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Together with the Brussels-based Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization, Aguon filed on behalf of Guam indigenous rights group Prutehi Litekyan: Save Ritidian, against the United States with the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The submission detailed the infringement of self-determination; free, prior, and informed consent; permanent sovereignty over the island’s aquifer and natural resources; and other rights. Like W.E.B. DuBois, Julian Aguon towers in multiple arenas as a freedom fighter.
While the year 2021 has unleashed a torrent of anti-Asian violence in U.S. cities, a new wave of consciousness is rising. Asia-Pacific scholars and activists are erupting in solidarity across the terra nullius. Aguon and Hong are just two of them. Vastly diverse, they hail from the Philippines, Taiwan, Okinawa, the Ryukus, Japan, South Korea, the Mariana Islands, the Marshall Islands, Australia, New Zealand and Hawaii—and the U.S.—covering a hemisphere, but connected by the legacy of U.S. militarism and a call for justice.
The next generation refuses to be invisible-ized any longer. Their voices are irresistible, in the way that truth always is. Finally, this, from Julian Aguon:
Despite what we’ve been told, the world is not ours for the taking.
Indeed, the world we have inherited comes to us bruised, a tender shard of her former self, having passed clumsily through the well-intentioned hands of our mothers and fathers, seeking a generation it can trust enough, and long enough, to drop its shoulders.
Of the belief that love can save the world, I have a story to tell…