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Underwood: Guam faces housing, cultural and economic insecurities in exchange for military security 

Marine Corps Base Camp Blaz

By Jayvee Vallejera

Former Guam Delegate Robert A. Underwood has drawn attention to some of the fallout arising from the U.S. military’s buildup in Guam and the sacrifices being demanded of the island and its people in the name of military security.

Speaking before the Rotary Club of Tumon Bay at the Hyatt Regency Guam on Tuesday, Underwood said the housing, cultural, and economic insecurity Guam is experiencing due to the military buildup stems from Guam’s powerlessness in the face of the American military-industrial complex. He described this as a violation of the core American principle of consent of the governed.

Robert Underwood

“This is best understood in the original phrase which animated the American revolution—no taxation without representation,” said the former president of the University of Guam. “In Guam’s case, the statement ‘annihilation without representation’ might be most appropriate.”

About 5,000 Marines will be relocated from Okinawa in Japan to their new base in Guam, Camp Blaz. The main contingent will be moved to Guam in late 2024.

Underwood said the U.S. military self-justifies almost all of its activities in Guam under the logic of military security against which the island and its leaders are almost powerless against—mostly because Guam and the U.S. military are tied at the hip in what he describes as the political economy of Guam, the marriage between political policy and economic activity.

“Our island’s political economy is essentially organized around military spending, its promotion and its protection,” he said.

Because of this arrangement, he said, Guam’s political leaders and economic players band together to present a view of the economy that crowds out other possibilities under the logic that there are none and that there is no real path to economic self-sufficiency, that Guam only has two available options—tourism and military spending.

Unfortunately, Underwood said, that view also drowns out dissenting voices or criticisms of the U.S. military’s activities.

“If you critique the military buildup, the response is quick and unforgiving—ranging from being unappreciative of the military, naive about real threats to peace to being unpatriotic, even disloyal,” he said. Those three responses to critical voices keep criticisms or even analysis of the military buildup at bay, he added.

“It is the 360-degree shield against incoming critical missiles,” he said.

If Guam’s people express concerns about being threatened with destruction, they are told this is the price they pay for being loyal Americans, he said.

That “price” is made concrete by the array of military activities that are now happening in Guam: base construction and augmentation; offensive missile batteries and an expected 40 percent growth of the military population over the next 13 years, Underwood said.

At the center of all these is the planned missile defense system for the island that will supposedly give it 360-degree protection from incoming missiles. Underwood, however, isn’t convinced.

“We are told that it is kind of an ‘iron dome’ but in reality, it isn’t,” Underwood said. “Most scientists and many analysts have expressed concerns that this will not work as planned, but perhaps what is really meant is that it will not work as advertised.”

He said the 360-degree shield will not protect the island from a missile attack but will buy enough time for a counterstrike from Guam-based military assets. “Perhaps it will give the island an additional 30-60 minutes,” he added.

Worse, Underwood said, the people of Guam have not signed up for the added risk of a possible missile attack from a hostile neighbor.

Underwood was quick to clarify that his statements are not meant to disrespect people in uniform, but he pointed out that the U.S. military is a human institution that can and do make mistakes.

“It is also an intense endeavor that self-justifies almost all of its activities under the logic of military security against which we are almost powerless to argue against,” he added.

Underwood said the effects of the Guam buildup are many and disruptive to the Guam economy and society, but he gave particular focus on its impact on the already fragile housing situation on the island.

“The housing situation appears to be totally in disarray,” he said. This is because it has only worsened the vast amount of housing insecurity in Guam, he said.

Citing the 2019 Guam housing study and needs assessment of 31,000 residences, Underwood said the situation with local families appears to be beyond crisis proportions as it has made renting very expensive and priced many families out of affordable homes.

“The end result is overcrowding, which means families are doubling up, tripling up and living in multigenerational residences at a rate that is nearly tripled the average in the United States,” he said.

He said overcrowding in Guam is estimated to be almost double that of Hawaii’s. “Homelessness is constant and is now family-based.”

In the meantime, there doesn’t appear to be large-scale public housing plans, he said.

In the 2024 National Defense Authorization Act, which outlines the U.S. military’s spending authorization, the Secretary of Defense is only required to report on the housing situation in Guam for military personnel; the original provision that had been watered down from an independent study to a congressional report.

Yes, housing insecurity and cultural resource insecurity could be justified as the price Guam is supposed to pay for the security of the country and the region, Underwood said, but if that is so, plans to build shelters where island residents could take cover in case of an attack should already be on the drawing board. Yet that has not happened.

“Just like housing insecurity, there is little planning for shelters. Add to this situation shelter insecurity,” he said.

This very awkward situation demands more than conversations with military commanders in Guam, Underwood said, and demands the exploration of other economic opportunities and the development of mechanisms that will also benefit not just the military but also Guam and its people.

Also, it demands an NDAA that isn’t sweetened with projects but is juiced with local authority. “I have yet to see any of that on the horizon,” Underwood added.

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