Hawaii: Head of the Tentacled Beast

RIMPAC 2008 (Photo courtesy of Jon Letman).

RIMPAC 2008 (Photo courtesy of Jon Letman).

This article is part of a weekly FPIF series on the Obama administration’s “Pacific Pivot,” which examines the implications of the U.S. military buildup in the Asia-Pacific—both for regional politics and for the so-called “host” communities. You can read Joseph Gerson’s introduction to the series here.

Fresh from hosting the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Honolulu last autumn, U.S. President Barack Obama recently told members of the Australian Parliament that America’s defense posture across the Asia-Pacific would be “more broadly distributed…more flexible—with new capabilities to ensure that our forces can operate freely.”

The announcement of America’s “Asia-Pacific pivot” by its first Hawaiia-born president was highly fitting, since the Hawaiian Islands are at the piko (“navel” in Hawaiian) of this vast region.

A less flattering metaphor for Hawaii’s role in the Pacific is what Maui educator and native Hawaiian activist Kaleikoa Kaeo has called a giant octopus whose tentacles reach across the ocean clutching Japan, Okinawa, South Korea, Jeju island, Guam—and, at times, the Philippines, American Samoa, Wake Island, Bikini Atoll, and Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands.

The head of this beast is in Hawaii, which is home to U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM), with sonar, radar, and optical tracking stations as its eyes and ears. Its brain consists of the supercomputers on Maui and the command center on Oahu that connects PACOM to distant bases. This octopus excretes waste as toxic land, polluted waters, abandoned poisons, blown-up and sunken ships, and depleted uranium (DU). Like a real octopus that can regenerate severed limbs, the military in the Pacific grows in new locations (Thailand, Australia) and returns to old ones (Philippines, Vietnam).

PACOM headquarters at Camp H.M. Smith on Oahu is a short drive from Waikiki Beach, but it’s unlikely many tourists pause to consider that tensions between the United States and Russia over missile defense, the war in Afghanistan, the destruction of Iraq, the use of drones in Libya, Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan, and the Philippines—as well as growing opposition to military bases in Okinawa, Guam and Jeju—are all linked to Hawaii.

Thirty-six nations— and over half the world’s population—live in PACOM’s “Area of Responsibility” which spans from the Bering Strait to New Zealand, as far west as Pakistan and Siberia and east to the Galapagos. This behemoth’s self-proclaimed duty is to defend “the territory of the United States, its people, and its interests,” and to “enhance stability in the Asia-Pacific,” “promote security cooperation, encourage peaceful development, respond to contingencies, deter aggression and, when necessary, fight to win.”

Sovereignty violated

Hawaii’s relationship with the U.S. military was cemented on January 16, 1893, when U.S. Marines overthrew what had been a sovereign kingdom recognized by the United States and dozens of countries around the world. Encouraged by Anglo-American subjects of the Hawaiian kingdom seeking tariff-free access to American markets for their sugar cane, the U.S. military—pursuing what was then already a mission of expansion in the Pacific—toppled Queen Liliuokalani, making way for the 1898 U.S. declaration of the Territory of Hawaii and, in 1959, statehood.

In 1900, President Theodore Roosevelt said, “I wish to see the United States the dominant power on the shores of the Pacific Ocean.” He and every president since have understood the importance of Hawaii in fulfilling that goal. “Our future history will be more determined by our position on the Pacific facing China than by our position on the Atlantic facing Europe,” Roosevelt said.

Since even before World War II, but especially since the 1947 establishment of PACOM, Hawaii has been at the center of testing, training, and deployment of U.S. military hardware and personnel around the region. Today Hawaii is home to 118 military sites, from the Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai to Kaena Point Satellite Tracking Station on Oahu, from the Air Force Maui Optical and Supercomputing observatory to the Pohakuloa Training Area on the Big Island (Hawaii Island).

Besides Hawaii’s four largest islands, the military has used smaller Hawaiian islands and offshore islets for live-fire testing for decades. Best known is Kahoolawe, which was a bombing range from 1941 until 1990 when, after more than a dozen years of protests and legal challenges, President George H.W. Bush ordered a cessation to bombing and the removal of unexploded ordnances. Yet as of 2004, one-quarter of Kahoolawe still had unexploded ordnances and was considered “unsafe.”

On Hawaii Island, at 133,000 acres, Pohakuloa Training Area (PTA) is over four times the size of Kahoolawe. The high-altitude site between the volcanoes Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea has been used by all branches of the military for small arms training, mortar firing, and other live-fire tests.

In addition to being shelled with millions of rounds of ammunition annually—and on the receiving end of 2,000-pound inert bombs dropped from B-2 bombers—PTA is contaminated with an undetermined amount of depleted uranium (DU). In 2008, the Hawaii County Council voted 8-1 for a resolution calling for a halt to live-fire training until further assessments and clean-up can be conducted. The military, however, continues to exploit the site, according to Jim Albertini with the Malu Aina Center for Non-violent Education & Action.

Below PTA, in the sleepy town of Hilo, community advocate Lori Buchanan describes Pohakuloa today: “It’s so disheartening to drive past and see the degradation to the land. What I see will bring tears to your eyes—not only animals with no place to go, but dust storms reminiscent of Kahoolawe because of the erosion and impact of military training.” She says the bombing doesn’t make sense. “Why would you bomb the hell out of the land when it’s so limited? We live on an island…and they’re bombing a huge area, making it a wasteland.”

Although a native Hawaiian, Buchanan says she isn’t instinctively anti-military. “It’s the whole patriotic [thing]. It’s ingrained in us. We understand the importance of defense—no one is challenging that, but is all this really necessary? You cannot kill your own resources when you live on an island and have nowhere to go once you’ve killed everything off.”

“It isn’t just Pohakuloa. It’s Kahoolawe, Makua, Barking Sands, the proposed training on Maui and it’s Kalaupapa,” says Buchanan, talking about Kalaupapa peninsula, on the island of Molokai. Kalaupapa is a quiet place, best known for its 19th-century leprosy colony at the bottom of Hawaii’s highest sea cliffs. Less well known is that Kalaupapa and “topside” (upper) Molokai are used by the Navy for confined area and field carrier landing “touch-and-go” training by CH-53D helicopters, the type used in Afghanistan. In July 2012, activists on Molokai helped thwart plans to increase night training exercises for the controversial MV-22 Osprey and Huey attack helicopters from 112 takeoff and landings per year to 1,388.

The Navy plans to base two squadrons (12 aircraft each) of Osprey and one squadron of light attack H-1 Cobra and Huey attack helicopters in Hawaii. The Osprey, which takes off like a helicopter but can fly like an airplane, has been heavily criticized over safety concerns following at least seven fatal crashes—including two this year, in Florida and Morocco. Osprey helicopters have been used in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, and they’re being deployed in Japan and Okinawa despite fervent protests.

In addition to concerns about some 2,000 new active-duty personnel and their dependents being transferred to Oahu, civic and cultural groups are worried about the impacts of the aircraft on local communities, wildlife, and historically and culturally sensitive areas on Kalaupapa, which is designated a U.S. National Historic Park. The military has said the increased training will have “no significant impact on noise levels for most communities,” but local groups wedged between high cliffs, mountains, and the sea fear otherwise.

Under my thumb

An Asia-Pacific pivot will increase testing and training beyond what has taken place in Hawaii for years—from live-fire testing in Makua Valley on Oahu to missile defense, rocket, and drone testing at the Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai. Additionally, every two years, the U.S. military holds its Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) training—the “world’s largest international maritime exercise,” which was most recently held this summer across the islands.

RIMPAC 2012 included 22 regional allies (including Canada, Japan, Australia, South Korea) and more distant nations like Colombia, Netherlands, Tonga, India, and Russia. Notably absent was China, but in September 2012, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced that Beijing would be invited to participate in a limited capacity in the 2014 exercise.

Retired U.S. Army Colonel Ann Wright sees RIMPAC and the growing number of multi-national joint military “exercises and engagements” in the region as an opportunity for the United States to test (and show off) its next generation of weaponry: laser-fueled, computerized, and submarine-launched drones. It’s also a chance to closely assess regional capabilities while positioning the United States to more effectively “push around” other countries and persuade them to do the foreign policy and military operational bidding of the United States, Wright says.

Wright, who resigned in protest of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, points to the South Korean naval base on Jeju which, when finished, will house AEGIS-equipped destroyers linked to U.S. missile defense as an example of how the United States pressures its allies to follow certain paths.

Speaking at a Pentagon news briefing last June, PACOM commander Admiral Samuel J. Locklear basically said the same thing: “We’re not really interested in building any more U.S. bases in the Asia-Pacific,” he said. “We shouldn’t have to at this point in time. We have reliable partners and reliable allies, and together we should be able to find ways to—not only bilaterally, but in some cases to multilaterally—to be able to find these locations where we can put security forces that respond to a broad range of security issues.”

“It’s complicated”

Much has been made of the Asia-Pacific pivot, but Oahu activist Kyle Kajihiro of Hawaii Peace & Justice says this is just the most recent wave in a series of endless waves.

“Every pivot needs a fulcrum in order to turn. Hawaii was the first fulcrum for U.S. in the Pacific and has allowed it to leverage their power to greater effect,” he says. Kajihiro points out that questions of land use and the military’s social, cultural, and environmental impacts on Hawaii are frequently overlooked or sidelined by the notion that seemingly endless infusions of money and military-based employment always trump the needs of people and the environment.

For decades the military has enjoyed solid backing from Hawaii’s congressional delegation in Washington, the Hawaii Chamber of Commerce, and unions with construction interests. Hawaii’s own population, which overwhelmingly votes Democratic, has largely accepted what Kajihiro calls “the dominant myth” that a large military presence is organic, inevitable, and naturally beneficial. He refers to events like “Military Appreciation” month and the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor, where he says militarism and war are monumentalized as forms of “redemptive violence”—that is, as a source of goodness, honor, and valor from which the United States always emerges “stronger and better.”

In Hawaii, the military has widespread local support, even from some native Hawaiians (whose kingdom was overthrown), people of Japanese descent (who have suffered discrimination and internment) and others whose ancestral homelands have born the brunt of the U.S. military (Koreans, Okinawans, Chamorro, Pacific Islanders).

“When you’re severely addicted to something like the military,” asks Kajihiro, “how do you transition away without causing trauma?” He says Hawaii would face serious economic hemorrhaging if it turned away from the military cold turkey. “How do we plan for and invest in an alternate course that will take us off an addictive substance that deteriorates the body to a more diversified, healthy economic sustenance?”

Hawaii is a remote archipelago almost wholly dependent on imported oil, commodities and manufactured goods, but increasingly its people are recognizing the need to become more self-reliant, especially in terms of local food production.

In the last decade Hawaii has seen a mushrooming of businesses and educational efforts to pursue alternative energy based on sun, wind, waves and waste. Author Richard Heinberg, a senior fellow in residence at the Post Carbon Institute, has suggested Hawaii should move in a direction like New Zealand, which places very little emphasis on military strength but has become a global leader in environmental conservation.

Under the banner of an “Asia-Pacific pivot,” the United States is positioning its military to secure access to remaining resources and drive the economic and political winds of the region, but it also demonstrates that it understands the importance of finding alternatives to building large, new bases that rely on increasingly hard-to-obtain money and oil.

In order to successfully secure a place for its people in a more crowded, resource-strained world, Hawaii would do well to pursue its own pivot away from militarism and instead shift its efforts to food and energy self-reliance, environmental protection, and planning for survival in a world beset by climate change.

The sooner Hawaii recognizes that it would be better off with a drastically reduced dependency on the military, the sooner it can begin to move toward a healthier, safer, and more secure future.

Jon Letman is a freelance writer and photographer based on the Hawaiian island of Kauai.