Truth and the Consequences of Colonialism, Conquest, and Control
A journalist confronts unfortunate truths about the consequences of colonialism, conquest, and control in the region of Hawaii.
If journalism’s core tenet is an unfailing commitment to reporting the truth, then it is essential that journalists recognize and report the truth. One most unfortunate truth we face in this region are the consequences of colonialism, conquest, and control.
Tonight we’re gathered in Honolulu in the heart of the Pacific. Just east of us is the tourism mecca of Waikiki. Eleven miles to the west is Camp H. M. Smith, home to the US Indo-Pacific Command, the oldest and largest of the United States’ unified combatant commands.
Established in 1947, US INDOPACOM, as it is now called, claims an “Area of Responsibility” covering half the planet, extending from Central Asia to South America and the Arctic to the South Pacific.
For 75 years, this military command has overseen a region scarred by war. The battles fought at Kwajalein and Guadalcanal, Saipan, Guam, Japan, Okinawa, Jeju Island, the Korean Peninsula, the Philippines, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and elsewhere still offer living testimony of the cost of war and consequences of colonization.
In 1945, when two American B-29s, dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, many said it would end the war. And while the fighting ceased, the battle to control the Pacific never really stopped.
In 2018, when the US Pacific Command renamed itself the US Indo-Pacific Command, it was as if it was lifted from the pages of George Orwell’s 1984 where protagonist Winston Smith remembers the ever-competing superstates of Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia but admits he does not know who is at war with whom. “In fact,” Orwell wrote, “he had not been aware that there was any war. … The war has continued without a break, always the same war.”
Many of you may know that today was the opening day of RIMPAC, the Rim of the Pacific biennial maritime exercises. What began in 1971 as military training among Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States, has grown to include 26 countries, extending far beyond the rim of the Pacific, from Ecuador to Singapore to India, beyond to Israel and five European nations, redefining the meaning of the word “Pacific” and prompting the US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to insist that RIMPAC is not an Asian version of NATO.
The truth is, when military testing and training continue indefinitely, weapons must always be at the ready, preparation for war is endless.
And with this comes a slew of associated costs—a network of sprawling military bases noted for their pollution, noise, accidents, crime, and the denial of local sovereignty. These bases are rooted in land seizures and displacements under order of bulldozers and bayonets.
Real-time examples of colonization and conquest can be found in the concrete-capped dome filled with plutonium and other nuclear waste built by the United States at Enewetak Atoll, to the destruction of hundreds of acres of primary limestone forests on Guam, to forced land reclamation at Henoko, Okinawa, for new US military installations, and to years of US Navy fuel leaks contaminating Oahu’s drinking water at Red Hill.
Minuteman III ICBMs are still being fired into Kwajalein lagoon in the Marshall Islands. These missiles are designed for one purpose: to deliver nuclear weapons that the US continues to modernize and is spending between $1 trillion and $2 trillion dollars by 2046 to build the next generation of nuclear weapons, including smaller, “more useable,” so-called low-yield warheads. Much of this goes unreported, or underreported, and unnoticed.
Sometimes, in unguarded moments, politicians inadvertently tell us what’s really on their mind. In 2015, during a televised presidential debate, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee proclaimed “the purpose of the military is to kill people and break things.” The audience whooped and hollered enthusiastically for his plainspoken candor.
In 2008, appearing on the TV program Face the Nation, US Senator John McCain of Arizona attempted to justify the US military remaining in Iraq for 100 years, saying: “How long do we have to stay in South Korea? How long are we going to stay in Japan? How long are we going to stay in Germany? All of those fifty-, sixty-year periods. No one complains.” Right there his interviewer should have stopped him and called out his false and misleading statement. It’s not that no one complains, it’s that not enough people are listening.
It’s hard to find the truth in a six-line press release or an 11,000-page navy-issued environmental impact assessment dropped on a community for review six weeks before Christmas. The truth and consequences of an overmilitarized Pacific can be found in the voices of real people, ordinary people like the Korean rice farmers whose land was taken to accommodate the expansion of Camp Humphreys, the world’s largest overseas US military base. Or the Okinawan mothers of children whose school playgrounds were struck by US military aircraft parts falling from the sky. Or the Marshallese communities who were shuffled from island to island to accommodate the US government’s nuclear weapons testing program. Or in the voices of Hawaiian farmers or fishpond custodians trying to revive the land and centuries-old ponds on the edges of Puʻuloa, once the food basket of Oahu and now a toxic superfund site known around the world as Pearl Harbor.
So when you hear of cover ups and deceit, and think about building trust, remember: It isn’t just Red Hill, and it isn’t just Hawaii. But if this isn’t reported—if it isn’t even noticed—no one will know. No one will care, and nothing will change. That’s why the work of journalists is so important.
Imagine if just a fraction of the media coverage that is devoted to celebrity intrigue and scandal was instead committed to examining and scrutinizing the enormous global expenditure on military and arms—over $2 trillion in 2021. That alone could play an important role in educating the public about the consequences of pursuing global peace and security by permanently preparing for war.
Jon Letman is a Hawaii-based independent journalist.
“Truth and the Consequences of Colonialism, Conquest, and Control” written by Jon Letman and delivered as a “lightning talk” for the Stanley Center for Peace and Security as part of the East-West Center’s International Media Conference “Connecting in a Zero Trust World” on June 29, 2022, in Honolulu, Hawaii.
IMAGE: Jon Letman.