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‘Don’t be alarmed’ can be alarming in strategic conversations

These Islands By Robert Underwood

Last month, Rear Adm. Ben Nicholson, commander of the Joint Region Marianas, told the Guahan community: “I don’t want you to be alarmed.” Being alarmed is a great motivator to act, but frequently the action is irrational and unfocused.

When someone in authority tells you not to be alarmed, there is some hesitancy to accept their word. For many, it has the exact opposite effect. We become alarmed.

Military officials could be telling us not to be alarmed as a way to assert their management of an impending situation. There may be something startling on the horizon and we are given reassuring statements in order to contextualize the next development.

The next action is the movement of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD system. It has been on Andersen Air Force Base, but now will be moved to Finegayan. The ever-changing scenery on Route 3 could now have one of the Army’s missile defense systems as part of our journey through the northern part of the island.

A missile defense system isn’t exactly a tourist attraction so it is hard to know whether it invites or discourages visitors. If you haven’t driven up Route 3 in a few months, you will notice a great deal of change as the construction activities for Marine Corps Base Camp Blaz and related military facilities have increased dramatically. When you see all of this construction going on, different emotions are aroused.

Many feel a greater sense of security. Contractors see greater profits. Cultural activists see greater destruction of ancient remains. Some feel a greater sense of insecurity. Military commands see a greater need to explain the events to the civilian population. It seems that whatever is happening, Guahan is becoming greater at something. Make Guam Greater Again – sounds like a slogan.

A major effort at providing missile defense in Guahan is underway. Former Indo-Pacific Commander Admiral Phillip Davidson described funding for the island’s air and missile defense as his number one priority. Current Indo-Pacific Commander John Aquilino in his congressional testimony earlier this year said, “Guam’s strategic importance is difficult to overstate.”

As a native of Guahan, I am unsure how I should react to this attention and the altered physical landscape it brings. Does it enhance my island’s importance? Does it make my island more of a target in the geopolitical struggles in our part of the world? If Guahan is more important than ever, are we being treated in a way that reflects this importance?

I understand the changed geopolitical situation in the region and the need for military commanders to make frank and sobering assessments. I just want to know whether my island’s importance means something more than words and military construction.

It certainly means a new use of possessive pronouns. As part of the press conference held by Adm. Nicholson earlier this month, he stood before a new logo that featured a sailing canoe and the CHamoru words “Defende I Isla-ta.” He was standing for the defense of “our” island. He wasn’t a warfighter or a defender of military assets. He was defending the island— or now the “homeland.”

But it was even more than that. It featured the use of the possessive pronoun “ta” which is different from “mami.” Both mean “our” but one includes the person you are addressing and the other excludes them. This linguistic feature is common in Austronesian languages like CHamoru and Filipino but absent in Indo-European languages. “Ta” is ours together.

It seems presumptuous. One is tempted to use the statement used by Tonto to the Lone Ranger when surrounded by restless Native Americans: “What do you mean ‘we’ white man?”


This attempt to indigenize missile defense or the defense of the homeland brings out many curious thoughts. Is this just an inartful way of trying to convince all of us that we are being protected by missile defense? What is the real purpose? Defending the island or protecting the military capabilities on island?

Of course, they are linked. It is a pretty small island. One of the other ways that they are linked is the use of the phrase “homeland defense.” Protecting Guahan is not just protecting the military assets, but the protection of the U.S. homeland. The people are American citizens, so it is naturally the homeland.

Protection of the homeland was outlined in Joint Publication 3-26, published on Aug. 2, 2005. It designates the Department of Defense as the lead agency for homeland defense. The Coast Guard under Homeland Security is added to that responsibility.

I wonder if our “fellow Americans” see Guahan as part of the homeland. I have even heard a few loose statements about protecting the “homeland” in the freely associated states. The use of Palau and the FSM for potential military sites even on a temporary basis has somehow enhanced their “homeland status.” But they would be included as a result of the compacts and not because they are under U.S. sovereignty.

In “Defende I Isla-ta,” the slogan refers to only one island. If it means to include other islands like the Northern Marianas or Micronesia, it has to be pluralized. “Defende I Isla-ta Siha.” I am sure the CHamoru language experts at Joint Region Marianas will take up that matter soon.

The use of the possessive pronoun “ta” and the expansion of the homeland are now being used to explain the purpose of missile defense to the civilian community. There is a third point that is frequently articulated. We will be receiving 360-degree protection. Incoming missiles from any direction will be dealt with by the combined Army-Navy system. Defense experts don’t think it is possible. Maybe it could be “almost 360 degrees” or “360 degrees-like” protection. It is less reassuring but more accurate.

All of this is based on the Chinese threat to U.S. hegemony and military assets in Guahan. China has nicknamed its DF-26 “the Guam killer.”

I am not taking it personally. Besides, Adm. Nicholson has asked us not to be alarmed. No such robust defense is contemplated for American Samoa or the U.S. Virgin Islands although they are part of the homeland. Homeland status is not a political statement, but part of a strategic vision based on threat assessment.

Homeland can be defined or redefined through congressional action. If we draw attention to Guam and the surrounding islands as part of the American homeland and ask Congress to include it in the next National Defense Authorization Act or homeland security reauthorization, there may be avid conversation or even controversy. Is anyone up to that level of national attention?

In the meantime, don’t be alarmed.

Dr. Robert Underwood is the former president of the University of Guam and a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Send feedback to

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