The forces of history have entangled the U.S. Marine Corps and the island of Guam in myriad ways. The island’s main road is named “Marine Corps Drive” in honor of the 3rd Marine Division that expelled occupying Japanese troops during World War II. A significant but lesser-known connection can be found in Marine Corps expeditionary thought. Over three decades before the Marines’ “liberation” of Guam, a legendary Marine predicted Japan’s occupation of the Pacific. During his visits to Guam, he conceived and practiced the means that became modern amphibious warfare. Guam was a landscape in which Marine Corps expeditionary thought was birthed.
Today, the connection between Guam and the Marine Corps is set to grow as thousands of U.S. Marines are to be transferred from Okinawa in Japan to Guam’s newest base (as well as the newest Marine Corps base since 1952), Camp Blaz. While the Marines have not yet moved en masse, one can turn to historical patterns and recent developments to foreshadow how Camp Blaz will affect Guam.
The historical connection between Guam and the Marines is filled with commemorations of World War II, and many in Guam partially base their opinions of Guam’s Marine buildup on this nostalgia. Few Marines know that an expectation of Guam’s re-invasion by Americans drove the invention of technology that would propel their Pacific campaign as liberators. In Guam, as much as the Marines are storied, the remaining witnesses of WWII are now in their 80s. This is where one sees a disconnect in the relationship between Guam and the Marine Corps. The risk that respective ideas will clash with reality seems likely and may have repercussions for both the Marines and Guam.
Not a Marine Choice
By all estimations, the Marines are not setting up this new base in Guam because they deem it optimally strategic or advantageous. Rather, the catalyst for the move lies in Okinawa’s longstanding grievances with the U.S. Marine presence. Guam is far from ideal. The island does not have the jungle warfare training capabilities of Okinawa, and the relatively small size of the island constrains the Marine code of training to “break things.” The inability to identify other hosts in the region, as late as 2019, left the United States with little choice. Marine foot-dragging while the service reportedly looked for other locations was ultimately overcome by the absence of alternatives. With a drought of choices, the billions of dollars being provided by the government of Japan may have been the forcing factor. Moving to Guam was not a Marine preference, but rather a result of constraining circumstances.
The Marine buildup in Guam has also been a concern among Guam’s community. The delay of the move from Okinawa to Guam speaks to both the lack of Marine enthusiasm as well as local concerns. The original 2006 Japan-U.S. agreement was to transition 8,000 Marines to Guam by the mid 2010s. Myriad concerns, including local opposition to the impact of the move, led to revisions in 2012. These changes scaled back the size of the relocation to 5,000 Marines and ushered in a Department of Defense “One Guam, Green Guam” initiative in response to local concerns about the impact of this relocation.
The U.S. Marine Corps conducted its base reactivation ceremony in January 2023. This not only signals a relocation of the Marines to Guam, but also a relocation of the grievances Okinawans have with the Marine presence. Plans for the move of personnel to occur in FY2025 are still being publicly announced as on track. However, how the Marines and Guam’s community interact has a significant “to be determined” element. Ample evidence already exists that as much as Guam is less than optimal from the Marines point of view, the way the U.S. government sees the island may leave Guam dissatisfied with the Marines.
Foreshadowing The Relocation
Metaphorical mines litter the landing site for the Marines at Camp Blaz. Many of these are the result of a lack of planning and a lack of true community consent (which the United States is not required to receive from Guam). Thus, it should be asked: Is a “One Guam” truly achievable?
Five thousands Marines are set to arrive in Guam. That is not a small number; only a few hundred Marines have ever been stationed in Guam other than during World War II. Marines are trained to be on the front lines of combat, and stationing a number that is equivalent to over 3 percent of Guam’s population foreshadows real issues of public safety. It is not uncommon to hear local worries about having this many Marines in Guam.
Related to this population increase is the glaring omission to prepare for the impact of incoming personnel on the local housing market. Already beset with rising home purchase prices and residential rents (in part driven by Marines’ “Overseas Housing Allowance”), additional demand will be a fly in the open wound. New off-base housing has failed to keep up with demand largely because almost all of Guam’s local construction workforce has been engaged in on-base construction for the past few years. To add insult to injury, while the military is able to recruit temporary foreign labor for construction, the same privileges are not readily available to the community “outside the fence.” This will be an issue that will affect the local community disproportionately.
U.S. officials are suggesting that Okinawans’ experiences with the Marines do not have to be replicated in Guam. The U.S. Navy official in charge of the region put his hopeful spin on personnel behavior recently by suggesting that “Guam’s culture, language and currency [are] closer to home than Japan’s and it will be easier for them to connect with the locals.” This does not, however, guarantee a frictionless co-existence. This aspirational outlook overlooks that Guam’s Chamoru culture and norms may also appear alien to many Marines. Shared language and currency will not subdue daily Marine-local relations, much less rooted tensions such as environmental degradation and other societal issues related to Marine expansion.
Poor planning and cultural insensitivity, however, pale in comparison to other red flags, which suggest the military is happy to say one thing and do another. “One Guam, Green Guam” bromides aside, there are military actions that have violated the spirit, if not the clear intent, of the “One Guam” pledge meant to help pacify local opposition.
For example, to house the Marines’ expansion, several hundred acres of pristine limestone forest in Guam have been cleared. Ironically, in the 1980s the Navy declined to return this then-unused land to Guam’s people on the grounds that “the area is a natural wildlife habitat containing endangered species.” In addition to the effects on endangered flora and fauna, the process of clearing was marked by a series of desecrated prehistoric and historic sites followed by great fanfare about the reinterment of disturbed burials.
After clearing the land of its environmental and cultural character, the military openly proclaimed its environmental and cultural commitment, stating, “As good stewards of the land, we have a responsibility to properly manage resources that enrich our lives and increase our collective appreciation of the world around us.” Not to be outdone by this self-praise, the team overseeing these clearings was awarded the “Secretary of the Navy’s 2021 Environmental Award,” reflecting the “commitment to cultural stewardship and respect for the island’s cultural heritage.” There is an undergirding logic in Guam in which mitigation of destruction becomes a net positive, rather than mere “mitigation.”
An impending but recurring effect of these new base facilities (and the effect of the firing range) will be to restrict some land based access to public and private properties as well as marine access for up to almost 3 miles from the coastline. While these restrictions have been codified, the implementation of the “danger zone” is yet to come and will limit public access (for up to 242 days per year) to property in northern Guam and to fishermen in the restricted areas.
The “One Guam, Green Guam” approach contains a specific commitment to island-wide utilities infrastructure capacity and green development. However, these are already beginning to wane. Every water well that the military has transferred to the Guam Waterworks Authority has “forever chemical” (PFAS) contaminants above the U.S. EPA’s Health Advisory (HA) levels — many of them ten times above. Backsliding on a 2017 commitment to provide the Guam Power Authority military-held lands for a solar farm also occurred recently. The clawed-back lands once promised for green energy are now proposed to host one of the many remote sites for an anti-missile system being developed by the Missile Defense Agency.
Collectively, these events foreshadow what might follow the Marine Corps expansion in Guam. There are historical antecedents that can help us understand what shape the Marines landing at Camp Blaz will take. Yet, there are still so many things that lie in the dark. As a community, Guam will have to prepare as much as possible to address this large-scale transformation.