Marshall Islands: Kwajalein Missile Range
I used to love America for its spirit of rebelliousness. Now I saw servility and compliance.
All of you probably read Joseph Heller's "Catch 22," one of the greatest antiwar novels of all time. And perhaps you remember Captain Yossarian's friend Nino, a crazed bloke, who in a moment of thorough insanity, in order to sell to Germans his planeload of rotten eggs, agreed to bomb his own airport during WWII. I read Heller's masterpiece when I was a kid, about 15-years old, growing up in occupied Czechoslovakia.
I am not complaining about my childhood: it was not a particularly bad life then and I would have had nothing against "a socialist republic," except that the one I was living in was not really very socialistic nor very republic-like, run by occupying forces and a bunch of balding, servile, vulgar, fat-pork eating cynical and humorless uncles. Czechoslovakia of my childhood was far from Sandinista Nicaragua, far from Cuba after the revolution, and far from Chile during Salvador Allende.
Ever since I was a child, I admired American literature. It was passionate and daring, rebellious and outrageously honest. In American novels, nothing seemed sacred, no thought forbidden, no injustice unnoticed. Dreiser, Sinclair and Dos Passos wrote against social inequality.
Richard Wright and James Baldwin helped to define the struggle against racism in their desperate and unmatched masterpieces: "Native Son" and "Another Country," two books that send shivers down my spine even as I write this commentary. I feel desperate and I feel like fighting whenever I think about them. And they outrage me, as they are frustratingly relevant right till now; right to this very moment.
And there was Robert Jordan, an American teacher who went to fight in Spain, to defend the republic against fascism far from his native town across the Atlantic Ocean. There was his last and only true love — Maria — a woman whose head was shaved and who was raped by the fascists, a woman who 'made the earth move,' a woman who fought and died in a lost battle, but died with dignity and purpose. "No man is an island," Hemingway quotes John Donne. "For Whom the Bell Tolls" is easily one of the most important reasons why I became an internationalist!
I feel indebted to American literature and to its characters. To Ming of Faulkner's novella, to Huck Finn, to West's "Day of the Locust," to "The Grapes of Wrath" but also to Bukowski and his acid dreams and scorn he felt for the establishment.
When I was facing the hard choice of whether to take United States citizenship in 1992, I thought about these books and writers who shaped my life. In the end, I decided to take a pledge of allegiance to the American men and women of letters. As I stood in some hall in Manhattan, repeating banalities after some clerk, I thought about blues and jazz nightclubs in Harlem and New Orleans well after midnight, about Captain Yossarian holding to his inflatable raft defecting from the army; I thought about "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (ok, Milos Forman was Czech, but Jack Nicholson was not) and about "They Also Shoot Horses," "Inherit the Wind," "Black Boy," and "Good As Gold."
I was sure that the American political establishment was rotten, that the system was, but I, somehow, had confidence that the nation capable of producing such outrageous and brilliant rebels would fight against the corrupt establishment and win! And I pledged allegiance to that fight, eager to join.
That was a long time ago. Some 15 years back, to be precise.
In October 2007 I peeked from a window of a Boeing 737 approaching Kwajalein Atoll in the Republic of Marshall Islands (RMI), pulled out my professional camera and began snapping photos of the enormous bay which serves as a missile range for the United States star wars program. Kwaj island is rimmed by rotting metal pieces (whatever they are), dotted with huge radar installations, missile interceptors and who the hell knows what else?
After landing, I was taken to the military checkpoint. My hand luggage had to be left on the floor; a dog came sniffing at it; a policewoman explained security regulations; the outrageous military propaganda posters decorated the walls. The small and humble immigration checkpoint of the Marshall Islands was stuck in the corner of the room. I had a hard time explaining that I was actually traveling to Ebeye, a small island four miles away, a place that provides cheap labor to the United States military base, a place of misery — an over-populated and desperate end of the Marshall Islands.
Finally I was taken by police escort through the island to the docks, where I had to go through yet another security clearance, until I was ejected from the military base of my adopted country back to Marshall Islands territory, where I was already expected by the people from the local government who had been informed about my arrival by two rebellious RMI senators and friends — Tony Debrum and Mike Kabua.
There is no point going into the details of the terrible conditions the people of Kwajelain Atoll have to endure. That will be described in my other reports. But just to refresh the memory of readers, the Marshall Islands, like Japan, experienced atomic explosions on Bikini Atoll, as well nuclear contamination. Entire islands had to be evacuated, people died and are dying still today. They have to sue for compensation, even for adequate medical care. Others had to be evacuated from Kwajalein Atoll when the United States began building its star wars facilities.
What is really happening on Kwaj? Long-range missiles are tested by being launched from California, flying over 6,000 miles, then shot down by the interceptors based on Meck Island. Some missiles are simply allowed to fall into the bay, the enormous atoll lagoon the target.
After signing a "defense treaty" with the United States, the Marshall Islands became fully dependent on the aid. That led to the terrible culture of dependency, to one entirely wasted generation, something that can't be described by any other term than "neo-colonialism."
In the meantime, the people on Ebeye have no running water. They are experiencing blackouts. Their traditional diet disappeared and they are now fully dependent on "Spam" corn beef, bacon, and junk food. A great number of inhabitants have diabetes. Preventive medicine is almost unknown and even those who are diagnosed with diabetic conditions continue with their previous lifestyle and diet. As a result, it is shocking to see the number of amputees.
Ebeye is more crowded than Hong Kong and the island is dotted with the garbage dumps and pitiful carton shacks. Traditional culture has disappeared. Television sets beam military programs from Kwaj. Many Marshallese joined the United States army, out of desperation or simply from boredom. A number of them are fighting in Iraq.
The United States military pays rent, but the money goes directly to the landowners; some of them became extremely rich and moved to the United States. Checks that used to be cashed in the Marshall Islands are now deposited in banks overseas. While only a few Marshallese enjoy the high life, the majority live in desperate conditions. Many of those who remember the Japanese occupation claim that even then life was easier and had more dignity than during this "American era."
Fiction and Reality
I took more than one thousand images; I talked to simple folks and government people, to Philippine migrant workers and to the children of Ebeye. I did as much as I could to document the plight of this desperate island.
On the speedboat back to Kwajalein I felt sick to my stomach. I didn't sleep for almost three nights as my A/C broke down during the first night and my bed was periodically invaded by a combat platoon of suspiciously corpulent cockroaches. There was no water in my hotel - supposedly the best hotel on the island. No towels. The carpet was stained by betel nut spit, or maybe it was blood? But I was still fortunate. I had cash. I ate in the diner that had disgusting, but at least semi-hygienic food. Every morning, a dilapidated truck of the local government came to pick me up and show me around. I had arrived here by my own choice and my equipment bag hid Continental Micronesia tickets to Guam and from there to Tokyo, so I had absolutely no right to complain. Compared to everyone else I was a lucky bloke!
For the day of departure I was told that I had to present myself to the checkpoint at least four hours before my flight. I took the speed ferry to Kwajalein, went through security, got picked up by police and was escorted through the military base to the airport. An unfriendly Continental clerk checked me in. After that she informed me that the plane was several hours late — "It didn't even leave Honolulu yet." Fine, I said: feed me; take me to some restaurant.… "Oh no," she replied. "You can't stay on the base. You have to get off the island!"
I replied that I am a United States citizen and this is a United States territory and that's where I am going to wait for my plane, but she was unyielding. "Do you mean that I have to go abroad?" I asked sarcastically, but she nodded, a grave expression on her face.
"If that's the way you look at it…" she said.
Back to the police car, back to the checkpoint, to the ferry, to RMI.
And then it hit me: nobody complained. Weren't Americans known, even famous, for complaining loudly? Weren't we complaining, just a decade ago, about nearly everything? Weren't we hellraising when the plane was late or when the airline overbooked the flight! Not anymore. Passengers stranded at the airport were smiling their servile, submissive smiles.
Then this subversive line of thought took me even further. "Hell," I thought, "I never read a novel, not even a short story, about the plight of the people on Ebeye Island. Our military sodomized the entire nation, nuked its people, relocated hundreds, turned the rest into submissive and dependant beings. Then it converted the biggest and one of the most beautiful atolls in the world into missile catchments, into some perverted and bizarre star wars saga. And nobody has read one single word about it! Nobody makes Borat-style films about them."
While the private contractors and military guys with their families enjoy the "cultural center" and craft shop on the base, while they play golf next to the runway, while their children have cute little playgrounds and beaches and benches to watch the sunset from, the people of the Marshall Islands are crammed like sardines on polluted and dirty Ebeye and elsewhere around the Kwaj Atoll, their feet and legs amputated because they can't get adequate food and adequate treatment for their medical conditions as well as a decent education!
And while I was at it, I continued with this dangerous reasoning: "So what happened to our journalist traditions? Weren't our best novelist also brilliant journalists? Didn't fiction and nonfiction go hand in hand, complimenting each other, inspiring each other? Where the hell are our novelists? Why don't they write about the Marshall Islands and Ebeye? Why don't they write in the mass media?"
At that point I began to worry about myself. "These thoughts are probably the result of dehydration and an acute lack of sleep," I thought. "Nobody asks such stupid questions in this day and age. Of course nobody writes about Kwaj and Ebeye. And of course no major publication will ask me to write or will allow me to write about this place."
I wandered around Ebeye, mad and tired, desperate. Five hours later I took the speedboat back to Kwaj, went through security, was escorted to the airport again. Then, together with several other passengers I got locked in some hangar called a waiting room. Continental Micronesia didn't provide food or even water. There was no explanation and no apology. We had to take off our belts and shoes while going through security. "Can I keep on my underwear?" I asked. "Sir?!" I heard the cold military bark.
When the plane finally arrived, I was still seven hours away from Guam as this was the famous "islands hopper," stopping at all the airports of the Federated States of Micronesia that are on the way: Kozurai, Phonopei, Chuuk. I realized I would have only three hours of sleep before catching my Tokyo bound flight early in the morning.
To my surprise, the other passengers welcomed the arrival of the plane with loud cheers. No resistance, no revolution in the making. They reminded me of North Koreans welcoming Dear Leader. Then I realized I had had enough. I suddenly yelled at my fellow passengers: "Why are you grinning like hyenas? Aren't you pissed off? Aren't we going to demand an explanation or compensation or something?!" Suddenly there was a profound silence around me. People were staring at me in horror. A security guard slowly approached. He was twice my size. "Do you have a problem?" he asked in a chilling voice.
"Yes," I said. "My plane is almost six hours late. I was kicked out abroad to wait for it. I am hungry, thirsty and pissed off. And everybody looks like I deserve to be taken to Guantanamo Bay for saying it!" People watched me as if I were a suicide bomber.
I realized I had said something that was not supposed to be pronounced. Guantanamo Bay! Yes. Would Joseph Heller now be declared a terrorist for writing about Nino's bombing of his own airport? Would others be locked in the secret prisons in the Middle East or Eastern Europe for writing books that justify the struggle for justice? The real struggle for justice, not the dominant media lie. Can one end up in a concentration camp these days, or lose his or her citizenship, for saying that our military bases suck? Can one be screwed for declaring that we are taking advantage of defenseless people, and that our star wars technologies are just expensive, counter-productive, immoral toys for private contractors and top military brass?
Is one still allowed to scream, to protest — to ridicule insanity? I looked at the guard and then at the passengers. I used to love America for its spirit of rebelliousness. Now I saw servility and compliance.
I was in the middle of a United States high security military installation, surrounded by passengers who were, at least many of them, private contractors, working on the base. I was at least risking that my boarding could be denied. But I couldn't do otherwise. "And I have another problem," I said. "I have a problem with this base which should be closed down and returned to the people of Kwajalein."
And then… nothing! The security guard said nothing, the door finally opened, and Continental Micronesia staff invited us to board the plane. I was not arrested; nobody put a bullet through my brain. I boarded the plane, took off and left.
Were we too scared to speak out, too scared for nothing? Or was I extremely lucky?
Then I saw the enormous beauty of Kwajalein Atoll below the wing. And I was stunned. It was probably because I was so exhausted, so tired, so sleepy. But down below, on one of the small islands of the atoll I saw small figures, holding hands, walking with no particular aim. They looked like the characters from the Bergmann movie, from the "Seventh Seal." There was no Death at the back of the procession, but they looked unmistakable, so familiar and so heartbreaking. But they were not Bergmann's actors. Despite the distance, in horror, I began recognizing their faces: Huck Finn holding hands with old Jim, Nino and his whore and Yossarian all in one group, Gold, Bigger, Robert Jordan. And so many others. And they were all waving: not in greeting, but they were waving good-bye toward the United States plane which was taking me away from Kwaj to Guam. They were not waving at the plane itself, but at something else. And as they waved, once giants, once my heroes but suddenly so small and irrelevant, my glasses became foggy and for some reason I had to swallow very hard and turn my face away from the window as one does when one feels he is losing home.
In Guam, in the arrival hall, several photos of young Pacific Islanders — those who had recently died in Iraq — welcomed me.
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