War Stories and the Chamorus: journalism and militarization on the tip of the spear.

By Beau Hodai
Special to News From Indian Country 7-09


The weight of occupation and corporate media self-censorship

It was a typical day in the jungle, though more overcast than the constant island diet of endless blue skies and fluffy white clouds; humid-- drizzling rain that would materialize from the sticky mist in the air, a breeze stirring through breadfruit and banana leaves.

I was at the family home of Navy Hospital Corpsman Second Class Anthony Carbullido, Jr., whom the Department of Defense had recently listed among the dead to be routed back from Afghanistan to Guam through Dover, Delaware-- the victim of an improvised explosive device.

Family and friends of the corpsman were seated in rows of folding chairs under a glowing green fiberglass awning reciting the rosary, “may eternal peace and rest be unto Tony…” a dull, sleepy drone mixed with the static rain.

I was seated in one of the chairs, as were my photographer and his girlfriend. To the side of the house, under a separate awning, large tables were being set with large trays of traditional Chamorro food. A pit-bull puppy pawed at the kitchen door, leaving streaks of red clay as more family members prepared food inside.

I had arrived on Guam less than a month before to work for the island’s largest newspaper, the Gannett-owned Pacific Daily News. My assigned beat was “health and environment,” and while the Carbullido rosary service did not exactly fall under the banner of that beat, it was assigned to me as one of my co-workers, who was usually assigned to rosaries and military funerals, had said he needed a break from covering such functions, as the process of extracting a story from a grieving mother is-- at best-- draining.

In the darkened living room of the family home I was made to understand this sentiment all too well as I held my little recorder in the mother’s face and asked her how she felt about her son’s death.

Aurora Carbuliido, the sailor’s mother, said that her son’s death was the realization of her fears as a mother of a sailor involved in active duty.

“I’ve seen past pictures and past articles (of troops who have died in combat) and it scared me because my son is over there,” she said.

“This is a hard situation to be in,” his father said. “It’s hard to believe that this is happening to us.” (From: “Family, friends mourn sailor: Acting governor orders flags to half-staff,” Pacific Daily News, August 9, 2008).

It should be noted that the idea that what a person is quoted as saying in a newspaper is accurate is not necessarily accurate; as the photographer haggled with the father about his desire not to be photographed, Mrs. Carbuillido spoke of her son and her fears in the present-tense… “and it scares me because my son is over there.”  The idea that they would be shoveling clay into their son’s face sometime in the weeks to come had not yet hit home.

There had been a steady succession of these stories, as Cabullido was the 17th casualty from Guam and the 29th from the northern Marianas region since the outset of Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001.

This succession has given Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands, with a population of under 300,000, the dubious honor of being the region of the United States with the highest number per capita of such casualties.

This is comparable to a city the size of Spokane taking the same blow in the “War on Terror,” but with one large difference: in the insular world of Micronesia, everybody is related in one way or another to everyone else. Few get out. It is because of this that one family’s pain ripples out through the entire community.

A brief history of Guam to bring you to this point:

Guam, the northern-most island of the Marianas Archipelago, known to the Chamorus who occupied it as Guahan, was dubbed the “Island of Thieves” by Ferdinand Magellan when a group of natives attempted to steal one of his ships during his 1521 landing.

In 1668, the Jesuit Padre San Vitores, began colonization of the island for the Spanish crown.

San Vitores was promptly killed in 1672 by a Chamoru chief named Matapang for baptizing his daughter without permission. Matapang was eventually killed in turn.

At the time of Spanish colonization, there were 175,000 Chamorus on Guahan; 100 years into colonization, the population had dwindled to 1,500.

Following the Spanish-American War, Spain ceded the island to U.S. forces in 1898, at which time it served as a small military outpost.

In 1941, Japanese forces invaded the island. Fortunately, U.S. citizens on the island were evacuated prior to the occupation. Unfortunately, all Chamorus were left behind to face three years of forced labor and life in concentration camps around the island. A further 300 Chamorus died during this period. Scars from this period can be found throughout the island in the form of old munitions and tunnels bored though hillsides by Chamoru slave labor for the Japanese.

On July 21, 1944, the U.S. Marines retook the island in the bloody Battle of Guam. Today, Liberation Day warrants a week-long barbeque party along the island’s main drag, Marine Corps Drive, in the capital of Hagatna.

In 1950 the Guam Legislature passed the Organic Act, which laid the foundation for local government as it is now and established Guam as an unincorporated territory of the United States.

Today, Catholicism extends to every facet of life on-island and the Archdiocese of Hagatna holds heavy political sway. The word “Matapang,” which, at the time of San Vitores’ death meant “to be made pure by cleansing,” means “silly” or “foolish” in modern Chamorro, which is a polyglot of English, Spanish and Chamoru.

The word Guahan, which meant “we have”, has long since been replaced by the bastardized “Guam,” which means nothing; and every day the most mournful cacophony I have ever heard rings out of the synth bells atop the Basilica of the Archdiocese of Hagatna, echoing off the cliffs and out into the Philippine Sea like a funereal music box opened for a dead child. 

At present, a full third of the island’s land mass of 209 square miles is occupied by either Andersen Air Force base or U.S. Naval Base Guam. Guam is often proudly referred to as the “tip of the spear” for U.S. military operations, as it is the furthest military outpost from the U.S. mainland. Many bumper stickers also proclaim: “Guam: where America’s day begins,” or “SPAM!”

Guam has no exports, virtually no agricultural production (due in large part to military contamination of the land and water—much of this contamination has been attributed to nuclear weapons testing that took place in the Marshall Islands from 1946 to 1962, the effects of which were documented in a 2005 report filed by the National Research Council under the National Academies of Science. Because of this, legislation has been introduced repeatedly—and with little success—by Guam Congressional Delegate Madeleine Z. Bordallo to include the territory in the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act) and no other line of production. Outside of federal subsidies, the main source of revenue on-island is in the trade of Japanese tourist dollars—a revenue stream that has been dwindling in recent years.

This dead-end environment leaves the military as the only viable option for many young people looking to get out.

Following the recitation of the rosary, while waiting to interview Carbullido’s parents, I spoke with several of his friends, his siblings and some of his cousins.

As I was speaking to his teenage brother, one of his cousins joined us.

“What do you think? Still planning on joining up?” the brother asked the cousin, a man in his early twenties clutching a pale blue Bud Lite can.

“Yeah,” he said, raising the can and tilting his head.

“This doesn’t change your mind at all?” asked the brother.

No, the cousin replied; there really wasn’t much other choice for him—no other way out, or up-- even if it meant coming back in a box.

Unfortunately for those whose families could not afford private school tuition or cannot afford higher education and who are products of the Guam Public School System, even the military option appears to be closing on them.

A recruiter for the Guam Army National Guard told me in an interview at the time that, while he has seen an increase in interest in military service in the region, increasing numbers of young people educated on the island have been unable to pass the Armed Forces Vocational Aptitude Test.

GPSS  is, by far, the GovGuam line agency beset by the most demons—which is considerable, given that GovGuam could be likened to a boondoggle of contemptuous, incompetent snakes, each trying to bight the other’s head off in the perennial battle over the territory’s small annual budget.

Last year the office of the Guam Attorney General closed down several of the system’s schools, citing exposure of students to raw sewage, asbestos and fire hazards.

 

All but one of the schools have been reopened to date, but the department has still been unable to fill its staffing needs, students still continue to perform well below national standards and at a 2008 budget hearing a GPSS employee told the Guam Legislature that teachers in the system actually had a higher absenteeism rate than students.

But, even if enlistment is not an option, many still see the Department of Defense as Guam’s Savior.

In 2006, the DoD announced plans to relocate some 5,000 Marines and their dependents from the Japanese prefecture of Okinawa to a new to-be-built base on Guam.

The estimated impact of the shift, or “military buildup,” as it is commonly referred to, when considering the number of workers to fill jobs created by the need to expand both civilian and military infrastructure, translates to at least a twenty percent population boom over the course of a few years, set to begin (tentatively) in 2010. Some believe that a twenty percent population increase is a conservative estimate and set the number much higher.

Many members of the Guam business community and government are bedazzled by what they anticipate to be a cornucopia of new possibilities in profit and employment offered through the expansion.

Many of these dazzled individuals are the same ones who advertize in, and thereby underwrite, the island’s news media, chief of which is the same Gannett-owned Pacific Daily News that I covered the Carbullido rosary for.

When my editor changed Aurora Carbullido’s quote, he also buried it at the back of the article. He had placed canned statements from the island’s acting governor and congressional representative before not just statements from the grieving mother, but of all the corpsman’s family members.

“We extend our sympathies and prayers to all his family, friends and loved ones,” said Guam Delegate Madeleine Bordallo…

“Anthony will rest in the hearts and minds of a grateful people humbled by his ultimate sacrifice,” said Acting Governor Mike Cruz in a statement yesterday. “I have ordered all government… agencies to fly flags at half-staff in honor of…”

This same editor had lectured me on previous occasions about putting the statements of “real people” above whatever hollow canned crap you may get from the desk of a politician. This rule apparently did not apply to cases involving a military death.

Cases when the rule did apply, by PDN/Gannett standards, were when you’d be handed a press release on some banal item, such as “Healthy Snack Food Month,” or “Infant Automobile Safety Awareness Month,” from some ad hoc task force. You’d then be given your orders to go over to the shopping center down the block, get three “reactions” from “real people,” then march back to the newsroom and churn out six to eight inches of copy by combining all or parts of the press release with the quotes.

That is Gannett journalism: the best in fast food, bulleted coverage—as pioneered by U.S.A Today.

My theory then, as this editor in the most gently condescending tones, explained the role of “real people” to me, is the same as it is now in hindsight; Aurora Carbullido’s reaction was too real. It was the visceral reaction of a shocked mind to an inconceivable pain. And this pain was brought about by involvement with the Department of Defense, the same DoD that so many underwriters looked on as a messiah that would finally put them on the map. This is why the quote of a grieving mother was altered and buried.

The statement that journalism at such a paper is only an incidental byproduct that suffers from this ad-driven editorial policy could be considered libelous if—for one, it was not true—or if it was not the Gannett modus operandi by definition:

The company was started by Frank Ernest Gannett, who in 1906 began buying small newspapers in New York state...

... These newspapers were usually the only ones published in their city and so could be run very profitably. The company’s growth was further spurred by the attention it paid to advertising and circulation and by its tight control of costs...

…This pattern of buying up all the newspapers in an area, slashing subscription rates to levels which (according to critics) only a national conglomerate could sustain, and then raising advertising rates once control over the local market had been secured brought Gannett severe criticism as well as lawsuits. Smaller community and privately owned newspapers have charged the media giant with predatory practices and violations of antitrust laws. Not helping Gannett’s image was the frank admission of brash business tactics by former Gannett chairman Allen Neuharth in his autobiography, Confessions of an S.O.B. (1989). (From, “Gannett Co., Inc.” as defined by Encyclopedia Britannica, 2009).

So it should have been no surprise when the PDN refused to cover any story outlining the long shadow of rape and assault allegations that accompanied the history of Marines stationed in Okinawa and whose arrival was being staged on Guam.

The same co-worker who had declined to cover the rosary and myself had been pressing our editors to do a story on this history, as there had been virtually no coverage of it in Guam media to that point.

Nothing ever came of it; each day we logged on to the program that contained the daily budget and found that the item had either been pushed back or removed entirely.

Eventually, unable to stomach their editorial policy any longer, I jumped ship and went to work for the PDN’s only competition, the Marianas Variety.

One day my old co-worker said he had given up trying to get the story into the PDN following an especially heated exchange between himself and the managing editor on the subject of the Okinawa Marines story in which he said the editor had indignantly exclaimed, “I have friends and family in the military!”

Military censorship

I had been holding the story up to that point out of respect for my friend, but on hearing that he had given up trying to run it in the PDN, I decided to run with it.

I set out to get some information on the allegations from the Navy and the Joint Guam Program Office, which had been set up by the DoD to act as a civilian-military liaison to pave the way for the Marines. It seemed that once the Navy had figured out I was going to write a critical article, my phone calls and emails went unanswered.

The Variety finally ran an article—despite lack of cooperation on the part of the Navy—in November highlighting the grave concerns of many Guam senators over the violent history of the Marines in Okinawa.

At about that time the Navy’s public information officer met with the Variety’s general operations manager, saying that I was harassing him and that he thought I didn’t know what I was talking about. He said the Navy did not keep any records of allegations against its service members and suspected that I had not done my research.

Given the Navy’s reticence on the issue, I cited numbers directly from the Okinawa prefecture government website, as well as data compiled by Japanese activist groups:

“A report filed this year by an activist group, Okinawa Women Act Against Military Violence, documented over 400 alleged cases of rape, abduction, assault, murder and other forms of abuse committed by U.S. forces in Japan from the period of their post-war occupation to the present.”(“Concerns raised over Okinawa incidents: part 1” Marianas Variety, October 30, 2008)

“(T)here have been more than 5,076 cases of crime caused by the SOFA (Service of Forces Agreement) status people since the reversion of Okinawa to mainland Japan (1972). This number includes 531 cases of brutal crimes and 955 cases of assaults. Thus, there is fear amongst the people of Okinawa as to whether or not security for their daily lives can be maintained and whether their property can be preserved."(From “Concerns raised over Okinawa incidents: part 2,” Marianas Variety, November 7, 2008—as quoted directly from the website of the government of the Okinawa Prefecture.)

In December, following the story on the Okinawa Marines, I wrote an article for the Variety entitled “DoD’s ‘mystery’ project puzzles Guam officials,” which examined a tip I had received that JGPO was looking to convert about 650 acres currently belonging to the Chamorro Land Trust Commission and 250 acres belonging to the Ancestral Lands Commission—which was currently occupied by Guam International Raceway-- into a firing range.

On January 15, Variety reporter and editor, Mar-Vic Cagurangan, wrote a follow-up article, based on a written statement from JGPO Operations Director, Lt. Col. Rudy Kube, confirming the suspicions.

On April 28, the Variety received payment from JGPO for their role as a ‘watchdog’ paper when Variety reporters were barred from attending the “Guam Industry Forum III,” while all other media outlets on-island were granted access.

Variety reporter, Jennifer Naylor Gesick, wrote:

Onsite industry forum personnel notified the reporting staff that the ban was on a “federal level” and was issued as a “government order” from U.S. Marine Corp Capt. Neil Ruggiero with the Joint Guam Project Office...”

The ban was in effect in all venues, as confirmed by Variety reporters in the field. Press passes were printed for every media company on island, except for the Variety...

... Ruggiero argued that Variety could have attended the event as a business if the publishers had registered with the forum.

“Marianas Variety was given the same opportunity as anyone else, they just chose not to be paying registrants, [Pacific Daily News] chose to pay and they were allowed access,” he said...

...However, any media covering the event was allowed in free.

In response to claims of a violation of the freedom of the press in restricting access to the forum, Ruggiero responded that “the press who only stays one session is allowed in free.” That accommodation was not extended to the Variety.

Ruggiero also said that a Variety columnist was given access to represent the paper.

Variety columnist Jayne Flores confirmed that she was given a pass, but Ruggiero later said, “I told her she could not come as Marianas Variety or write any news for them.”

(From “Variety banned by JGPO,” Marianas Variety, April 29, 2009)

Gesick went on to quote Ruggiero, who is the public information officer for JGPO, as saying that  the ban on Variety reporters was in effect because he felt part of Kube’s statement had been published out of context, although he did not challenge the veracity of the story.

Despite this lack of cooperation with media outlets willing to report any story critical of the DoD’s plans for the island, events in which the public have been able to ask questions of those involved with the proposed buildup or voice their concerns have drawn large crowds.

The large turnout at such forums suggests that those who are concerned for their island’s future in light of such weighty developments are not marginal or fringe groups as the dismissive attitudes of the DoD and the PDN would suggest.

At a forum held in November at the University of Guam, panellists from both the Civilian-Military Task Force, which works under the auspices of the Office of the Governor with JGPO, as well as members of the community working toward Guam’s self-determination stated both their progress and concerns with the buildup.

Panelist Mike Bevacqua of Famoksaiyan said every resident of Guam—regardless of their position on the buildup—needs to realize that the buildup will affect them personally. He encouraged residents to take a more proactive role in the course of their and Guam’s future.

“It  is taking place because we are America, and it’s taking place because we’re not. It is not only something that takes place because of our geographic position, but our colonial status as well...”

“...It is also taking place because we are one of the few American communities where a unilateral announcement by the DOD that it intends to drastically affect life in your community and cause a population increase of 74 percent is met with excitement, celebration and a frightening lack of questioning...”

“...and this military buildup is predicated on the fact that you live in a colony and you can be treated as an object for the subject of the United States, as a weapon of the warrior of the United States military. This is the United States military sharpening the tip of its spear.”

(“Military buildup forum draws huge crowd,” Marianas Variety, November 20, 2008)

Bea Hodai can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

 

 

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