Guam Braces for Peaceful Military Incursion
Friday, January 25, 2008
HAGATNA, Guam -- People on this faraway island -- a U.S. territory 7,824 miles west of Los Angeles -- delight in calling Guam the "tip of the spear" for its role defending U.S. interests in the Far East.
Although the island is typhoon-plagued and earthquake-prone, cursed with bad traffic, unable to cope with its own garbage and overrun with invasive tree snakes that have eaten nearly all the birds, the Guamanians aren't just blowing smoke.
The Pentagon has chosen Guam, a quirkily American place that marries the beauty of Bali with the banality of Kmart, as the prime location in the western Pacific for projecting U.S. military muscle.
Guam has served as an important U.S. military outpost since World War II. But now the sultry tropical island, about three times the size of the District of Columbia and with a population of 173,000, is set to become a rapid-response platform for problems ranging from pirates to terrorists to tsunamis, as well as a highly visible reminder to China that the United States is nearby and watching.
To that end, U.S. Marines by the thousands and U.S. tax dollars by the billions ($13 billion at last count) are to be dispatched to Guam over the next six years, along with a major-league military kit that includes Trident submarines, a ballistic missile task force, Navy Special Operations forces and Air Force F-22 fighter jets. Nuclear-powered attack submarines and B-2 stealth bombers have already arrived, and preparations are being made to accommodate aircraft carriers.
The peacetime invasion, due to continue into 2014, will balloon the island's population by about 40,000 service people, contract workers and dependents, an increase of almost 25 percent. Real estate prices have jumped, and outside investors are descending on the island. A Chamber of Commerce poll found widespread popular support for the move.
"We can't help but boom," said Jeff Pleadwell, who owns Jeff's Pirates Cove, a beach hamburger joint, and expects his business to prosper. "But the island is going to change radically. Everyone is scared -- of how the Marines will behave. We also worry that life inside the base will be first-world, while outside the fence it is going to be third-world."
All in all, the Marine move is giving many Guamanians -- an extraordinarily patriotic people who fight and die in U.S. wars at rates much higher than on the mainland -- a serious case of the jitters.
"We are proud to be the tip of the spear, but the federal government needs to assist us to make sure that the quality of life outside the military fence line is better, not worse, after the Marines come," said Michael W. Cruz, lieutenant governor of Guam, a colonel in the Guam Army National Guard who has served in Iraq and a point man in local planning for the Marine move.
Whether or not that assistance materializes, the plan is proceeding. The Marines are moving here from Okinawa, Japan, where their six-decade presence has sometimes outraged the local people. The Japanese government, as part of a unique joint security deal with the United States, is footing $6.1 billion of the cost for housing the Marines on Guam.
The U.S. federal government already owns about a third of the island, and military planners here say they may buy or lease still more so Marines can train with rifles, mortars and heavy machine guns.
The newcomers will be mostly young, mostly single men trained as warriors -- and periodically looking for a big night out on a small island where most hotels and restaurants cater to the sushi-and-kimchi predilections of upper-middle-class Japanese and South Korean tourists.