‘There was a lot of talk in the office about annihilation,’ shouted Gretchen above the overexcited din of a basketball game, filmed in a college town in the American Midwest and beamed into the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The Warriors had just opened up a 14-point lead as she recounted her experiences of a recent accidental air raid warning in Hawaii that had presaged nuclear attack from Pyongyang. How had she reacted during the few minutes when nuclear destruction brought by an in-bound North Korean missile had seemed possible, I asked? ‘I texted my family to tell them I loved them and then hid in the bathroom with a cup of coffee,’ she replied prosaically. ‘If you’ve ever sky-dived, that was the feeling. There aren’t any evacuation centres in Hawaii or anywhere you could go, so we just sat there with that terrible feeling of falling and churning. You felt it in your stomach. It didn’t happen, it didn’t change anything, but we all felt giddy for days later.’
The basketball game continued to blare its melodrama as the Kings staged a comeback. Through the noise, a travelling salesman from New Zealand had overheard our conversation and decided to have his two cents’ worth. ‘It’s a strange world, even in New Zealand, the government’s changed—they don’t care about economic growth and no-one wants to work hard any more and that’s why they changed from the Nationals to Labour,’ he interjected as if Pyongyang had unduly influenced politics in Auckland and the ascent of Jacinda Ardern was somehow a victory for Kim Jong-un.
Watching the event on the television from Australia, I had seen a Hawaiian road sign, intended by the authorities in Honolulu to bring calm and clarity to the situation. ‘There is no threat’, it read in a vast orange LED display above a traffic jam that had the paradoxical consequence of making me think the end was imminent and inevitable. I wondered how an office annihilation chat would go—would this occur by the proverbial water cooler or in a departmental meeting? Would there would be a last address by HR on ‘end state entitlements’ (incrementally available depending on final salary grade) or perhaps a few minutes to clear out some last emails? But my reverie was interrupted by the real-life intercom system: ‘Those terminating on Majuro will deplane now.’ A chill went down my spine.
The other passengers on the flight from Honolulu to the Marshall Islands were locals returning home and a group of men with close-cropped hair and disproportionately large arms. The flight was early and there was little discussion at that hour of the morning. Instead the men all put on matching sets of Bose headphones and slept or stared into the middle distance, silent in their separate auditory worlds. They were on their way to the US military base in Kwajelein—the largest of the Marshallese atolls that has been forcibly rented from the country since independence in 1979 in a deal known by its Orwellian name as the Compact of Free Association. They were soldiers on their way to one of the most important military bases in the Pacific. But the modern grunt was noiselessly cocooned in the same technological world that steered missile delivery systems, launched in California, through the stratosphere to land in the ‘catcher’s mitt’ of the Kwajelein lagoon.
On landing, I heard a number of distinctly Australia voices mingling with the Americans, relaxed and easy in each other’s company, sharing the latest apps on their iPhones: soldiers bound for the same place and a common duty. Recently, a number of secret American bases had been exposed because a fitness tracking app had revealed large numbers of people taking excessive exercise in remote and incongruous places.
George W. Bush was famously asked if he saw Australia as ‘deputy sheriff’ in the Pacific. ‘Hell no,’ he replied, ‘they’re sheriff.’ Here was Australia’s sheriff role in action—the quiet, unremarkable, out-of-sight and unobtrusive integration of Australian forces into an American command structure on a remote atoll in the Pacific.
• • •
‘You know, they’ve found plutonium in the lagoon,’ says Abacca Anjain-Maddison, a former senator from the atoll of Rongelap that was evacuated owing to radioactive fallout from the 1954 ‘Bravo Shot’ on Bikini Atoll, the largest hydrogen bomb ever detonated by the United States, thousands of kilometres from Rongelap. She now lives on Ebeye, an atoll adjacent to Kwajelein, and home to many of the nuclear evacuees and their descendants. ‘Of course, they won’t tell us any more about it or help us understand how dangerous it is,’ she says. ‘We found the information in declassified US documents. As far as the United States is concerned Rongelap Atoll and the Kwajelein lagoon are safe.’ She doubts this and, despite significant US pressure to return, Rongelapese displaced to Ebeye and other parts of the Marshall Islands are refusing to do so. ‘We believe it’s unsafe,’ she says, ‘if you can’t eat the coconuts or the fish, how safe can it be for human habitation?’
Anjain-Maddison has recently returned from Sweden where the network she represents, the International Coalition Against Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), has just been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. ‘I brought everyone in the office special Nobel Prize chocolates shaped like the medal,’ she says laughing, ‘they were delicious and that was our reward. The US always thinks it can tell us what to do, we are always getting American advisers and experts. But we have to teach Americans their history. The tests didn’t just happen here—they are not the Bikini tests or the Enewetak tests—they are American tests and are part of US nuclear and Cold War history. We have to show them that we are human too.’
There is a disturbing lack of information about the consequences of nuclear pollution as well as what the bits of destroyed rockets from the Star Wars program and its successors mean for the environmental health of the lagoon. I visit Ebeye’s Environmental Protection Authority, which turns out to be three new recruits holed up in a hotel room in the absence of a permanent office. ‘We can’t even afford this any more,’ laments the EPA director. One of the representatives shows me a presentation he gives at schools—it is about lead poisoning in fish and the diagrams suggest that this is from the waste site at the end of the atoll. ‘Don’t eat the fish,’ he tells me sternly, emphasising the point. But this seems like a bizarre transfer of blame from the potentially lethal chemicals—plutonium, strontium and caesium as well as missile casing—known to be in the lagoon, which is growing less and less idyllic by the minute. I ask about sewage—a major problem in other low-lying atoll states. ‘Either people use the beach or, if they use a toilet, it is flushed untreated into the lagoon. Still don’t eat the fish.’
Senator Jeban Riklon, the now retired representative from Ebeye, was born on Rongelap. His strong-willed grandmother had divorced his grandfather and had left Ebeye with her grandson for her home atoll of Rongelap in 1952. It turned out to be a disastrous decision. Riklon is a nuclear survivor. As a young boy he was covered in radioactive ash (‘snow’ as the islanders thought it was at the time). He became extremely unwell, his hair fell out, and there were lesions all over his young body. Miraculously he lived and is now in relatively good health. ‘Every time there is a missile test,’ he tells me, ‘children get sick.’ I hear this frequently from worried parents who live with the fear of testing and of the horrendous effects of cancers and the memory of the ‘jellyfish babies’ born with no bones to mothers who had been contaminated with nuclear radiation while pregnant.
‘The children often get flu-like symptoms, headaches, nausea, fever when the testing occurs. We know when this is because the US closes the base at Kwajelein and doesn’t let anyone in. They won’t give us any information about what is going on and refuse to share medical information about the possible consequences of living in a rocket range. Whenever there is a test, chickens die by themselves. People want to know, why do chickens keep dying?’ asks Riklon rhetorically. Even as a former senator, a representative of the government of the Marshall Islands, and an anti-nuclear campaigner, the United States has refused to share many important details of the extent of environmental destruction or its human impacts with him or other Marshall Islanders.
As if this were not enough, Anjain-Maddison tells me that there are now serious concerns about the former German battle-ship Prinzen. This was used as part of a ‘ghost fleet’ during ‘Bravo Shot’ to measure the impact of the bomb, estimated to be a thousand times the power of the Hiroshima bomb. The Prinzen was far enough away from the blast not to sink and now lies, capsized, in the Kwajelein lagoon with an estimated 80,000 cubic litres of oil in its rusting hull. It is an additional environmental catastrophe in the waiting.
• • •
‘It reminds me of the US in the 1950s,’ says Alson Kelen, master navigator, who grew up on Kwajelein where his family were exiled prior to the ‘Bravo Shot’ test on Bikini Island. He is a former mayor of the Bikini Atoll community, who live on the small separate islands of Kili and Ejit, permanently displaced from their expansive island chain and now confined to two small atolls thousands of kilometres away. Coming from a long line of canoe builders, Kelen’s father was a military carpenter and he grew up on Kwaejelein. ‘There’s a lot of discrimination—you’re not allowed to be treated at the hospital there,’ echoes Jeban Rikon, who has spent his life representing the people of Rongelap and advocating for proper transparency, compensation and clean-up of the US nuclear legacy.
Islanders now require authorisation to go to Kwajelien. ‘I understand that military sites might be off limits,’ says Kelen, ‘but we can’t even go the supermarket or the laundry without permission.’ Even then, the quantity of food that can be purchashed from the market is strictly limited, and it cannot be taken off the island, meaning that people in neighbouring Ebeye are stuck with their inadequate local shops selling tinned food and chips. I try to get a sense of what this discrimination looks like in its daily experience. Almost all the Marshallese on Ebeye I speak with raise this as a major concern. ‘They say we’re monkeys, that we’re stupid and lazy and they say this to our faces,’ says one Marshall Islands government employee who asks not to be named.
Marcella Sakaio, who runs the College of the Marshall Islands extension campus in Ebeye, and her son attended school on Kwajelein. He is now in the US military. I discover this as Sakaio is telling me about the importance of school communities—that really effective educational institutions involve the students, teachers and parents. It is ironic, then, that being Marshallese and a teacher she was excluded from her son’s school community. ‘I was not allowed on the base after business hours and so I could never attend sports or theatre or any extra-curricular activities. Once my son won a scholarship to go to a science lab in Arizona. When the other parents realised that a Marshallese and not an American had won, they complained and in the end two scholarships were awarded. It was the only year that this happened.’ Her son progressed rapidly in the military through hard work and volunteering for deployments, although he had urged his siblings not to join up but to go to college and complete their education instead. This was now possible because he was earning reasonable wages in the army and it was something he regarded as his responsibility as the eldest child.
He took Sakaio to visit him in the United States and they stayed on an army base in Texas. ‘It was totally different to Kwajelein,’ she tells me. ‘Kwajelein made me paranoid. There were places we could and couldn’t go, you have to have permission and they check you all the time. At the base in America I was scared to go anywhere but my son laughed and said it was totally different here. “It’s not Kwaj,” he told me.’
As I prepare to head to the ferry, the plane and back to the big smoke of Majuro, there is a knock at my hotel room door. The night manager has appeared and says he knows I’m writing and wants to have a word. ‘Some of the Americans come over here,’ he tells me, ‘and I see what they do here as night manager. They find girls—often young ones—and bring them back here to the hotel.’ I ask how young the girls are. ‘About 13,’ he replies. ‘There are so many young people, so little supervision, and often they’ve dropped out of school and have no options. They think by finding an American boyfriend their problems will be solved, but it’s not like that.’ He once took a very young girl to hospital and called the police but there were no repercussions. ‘They don’t want to cause problems with the Americans.’ He used to work on the base and had complained about the attitude he had encountered. ‘If it wasn’t for us, you people wouldn’t have anything,’ he was told.
• • •
On the ferry back from Ebeye to Kwakelein, an older American wearing a Marshall Islands T-shirt sits opposite me. He is craggy and tousled and the conversation starts pleasantly—what brings you here? How do you like it? It turns out he has married a woman from Ebeye and, after two years, he’s going to work in Fort Worth, Texas, where she will join him. ‘I sing four-part harmony,’ he says, ‘so for the next three to five years I’m going to work and sing.’
But then, out of the blue, he starts talking about Trump. ‘You won’t read about it, but he’s doing great,’ says Vernon, ‘what he’s saying is America will look after our own interests and you other countries can look after their interests—Australians, Marshallese can all speak for themselves, we’re not going to do it. Just look at the UN and NATO,’ he continues, ‘we give them a shock by not supporting them any longer and everyone else starts paying up for once. The only country, other than the US, to meet its obligations is Sweden.’
I ask what he thinks about the investigations over Russian influence. ‘It’s all the Democrats,’ Vernon shoots back. ‘Trump is doing a great job rolling back Obama’s influence but Obama was the one using the FBI to spy on Trump. You should check out the website “people killed by the Clintons” if you want to see how corrupt they really are. Trump’s done nothing like that and is trying to make life better for us—putting Americans first. The stock market is up 20 per cent and there are more jobs than ever before. You know—the blacks and minorities and the people who represent them really don’t because they all have jobs now thanks to Trump—these jobs didn’t exist under the Democrats. And he’s doing something about the illegal Mexicans—we’ve got more of them in California than the entire population of Australia, we just can’t cope. So who do you help—the cute-looking Mexican child in poverty or the veteran who has served his country? My heart goes out to them, it really does, but my priority is with Americans, just as Australia’s priority
is with Australians. You try getting into Australia if you’re an illegal.’
I ask if he considers himself a Republican. ‘I’m neutral,’ he declares improbably and clarifies, ‘I’m a libertarian.’ As if to emphasise his lack of classical ideological convictions, he then starts talking about how badly the Marshallese on the base have been treated. ‘The new company wanted to cut their pay right back. Guys who had been making 15 dollars an hour now make six or seven. That’s why I resigned—I choose my jobs as much as possible on the basis of moral integrity, not how much money you can make. I worked delivering Dominos pizzas a while ago—there were people doing that for a living. They had families—how do you make that work? Trump’s doing something about it, but the Democrats aren’t.’
Is he concerned by the polarisation of American politics? ‘Yes,’ he says, ‘it’s the Democrats. They’re the ones who take their children to rallies with signs that say ‘Fuck Trump’. Look at all the presidents who have been assassinated—all Republicans killed by Democrats.’ (He seems to have overlooked John F. Kennedy.) ‘They want to let everybody in, they abolished slavery, they profit from deals with Iran. The Republicans are only interested in money—they’re as bad as the religious right, they say they have the correct answer to everything. You know, I’ve got friends who are Mormons and I say to them, “Imagine what Jesus Christ would say if he came across a homosexual couple?” He’d say what he always says and offer them God’s love. You know, I’ve read the Bible, Torah, Koran, I’ve studied Buddhism—they don’t say anything about these things.’ Finally he pauses for breath. ‘I’m glad to be moving to Texas,’ he says ‘I’ll be among people who think the same way I do.’ He walks off as we arrive at the checkpoint at Kwajelein and I sit down in the holding pen confused and alarmed. Above me a sign reads ‘Today’s FPCON is: ALPHA’.
As I wait for the plane I suddenly find myself in America. A group of white contractors are joking about finding new jobs now there is a new company running the base. One is going to Saudi Arabia, a few to Texas, others are returning to new jobs in Kwajelein. I see Vernon chatting with a group of identically clad middle-aged and overweight men in loose polo shirts, baggy shorts and baseball caps—a collection of right-wing Michael Moores. To avoid eye contact and having to talk with him again, I move quickly over to a series of exhibits from Kwajelein laid out in a glass case as if in a museum. There is a rusting US Army helmet from the Second World War, some dog tags, and an ancient machine-gun barrel. But mostly, the glass cabinet contains a collection of vintage Coke bottles. Above it, the television blares a broadcast from the army channel, the DMA—Defence Media Activity.
There are interviews with proud sergeants standing in front of their Humvees, and ads for financial management. It’s multicultural—a black financial adviser talks with a colonel of perhaps Philippine origin while a Hispanic general offers words of wisdom about duty, service and the importance of financial planning. This is the modern American military—the young poor people from the imperial periphery forging a life and a career. Around me are the Trump-voting contractors—better paid, white, and pining for a vanished world of American apartheid that exists only on remote, mainly civilian bases such as Kwajelein and the now-defunct Panama Canal Zone. The winter Olympics are on and a casual viewer would be forgiven for thinking that there was only one country competing—a succession of American medal winners and competitors fill the screen to the exclusion of all else.
As the flight is called, I walk onto the tarmac and turn back. ‘Kwajelein US Army Garrison—a community of excellence’, it reads. •
Tom Bamforth is a writer and aid worker. His articles have appeared in the Age, Granta, Griffith Review and Island.