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Letter From Okinawa

Dear Mom:

I haven’t written much from Okinawa. I’m sorry about that. I guess maybe you were expecting lots of exciting war stories from your son the Marine. But honestly, the most exciting thing we’ve done is put in a sea wall over by the Torii Beach shoreline and then take it down again when it wasn’t doing its job of controlling erosion.

I’m not really sure why we’re over here in Japan, all 17,000 of us in the III Marine Expeditionary Force. Everyone talks about the Chinese threat. But I’m reading in the newspaper that the next Chinese leader is right now over there in America talking with President Obama and going to a Lakers game. He’s even supposed to show up in Iowa, in Muscatine it says, right near us in West Liberty.

If I’m supposed to defend my homeland from China, maybe I should be sitting on our front porch with a .50-caliber Browning machine gun in case this fellow and his delegation come over to steal our land. But that’s just craziness, I know. He doesn’t want our land. Heck, we tried to sell the farm to the Crawfords last year and even they didn’t want it. This Chinese fellow, he just wants to sell us more of his flat-screen TVs. And buy up more of our government’s debt.

I enlisted to fight the bad guys. That’s my job. Saddam Hussein. Al-Qaeda. It’s just my luck to arrive out here when we’re already out of Iraq and drawing down in Afghanistan. So it looks like I’ll spend my whole rotation here in Okinawa, halfway around the world from where the action is. You don’t have to worry about me getting hurt. Except for that wicked sunburn I got first time we hung out at the beach.

I secretly thought we’d get a hero’s welcome when we arrived three months ago. But it turns out that they don’t really like us over here, these Okinawans, though they’re polite and all. I figured they’d be happy we were here to defend them against, I don’t know, the Chinese maybe. But all the Okinawans want to do is buy those same flat-screen TVs.

Can’t say I blame them much. I mean, this place is like paradise, all the beaches and the nice weather and the great food. We call our base Club Futenma! But here’s the thing. U.S. bases occupy almost 20 percent of the island. And my base, Futenma, is located right smack in the middle of a big city. It’s crazy! Imagine a huge military base in the middle of New York City. Remember when we went to Central Park when I was a kid? That’s what it’s like to fly into Futenma. Take a left at the Empire State Building, coast over Rockefeller Center, and drown out all the sound on the city streets. They tell me that a helicopter crashed into an elementary school just next to the base a few years back. It didn’t kill anyone, but still.

There are other reasons why folks here are not big on the Marines. It’s mostly guys here, young guys who aren’t married. Like me, they joined the Marines to fight and because there weren’t any other jobs around. But there’s no one to fight here except each other. We’re all revved up with nowhere to go. There’s a lot to do on the base, I mean they even have a bowling alley, but a lot of us we want to go out on the town, see something new. There’s a lot of drinking, fist fights, car accidents. Even some rapes. That’s not what being a Marine is all about. We enlisted to do a job. It’s not right to put us through all that training on Parris Island and then stick us somewhere with nothing to do.

If you’ve been reading the newspapers, maybe you know about the controversy going on right now about this base. Everyone agrees that Futenma is old and dangerous. So we’re supposed to be shutting it down, sending half of us over to Guam, and keeping half behind in a new base up north where there aren’t so many people. But it turns out that the Okinawans up north don’t want us any more than the people around here do. And it costs way too much money to expand the bases on Guam for 8,000 Marines. So, instead, they’re going to send only a couple thousand of us to Guam and rotate another couple thousand around the Pacific, in the Philippines or Australia, places like that. And the rest of us will stay here, in funky old Futenma.

Honestly I don’t understand why they don’t just down close down this place and send us home. Suck it up and drive on. But I guess Marines, once we set up in a place, we don’t like to leave even if there’s no good reason to be here. What happens if that Chinese fellow, he decides that he doesn’t need to sell us any more TVs and what he really wants is Taiwan? A couple thousand Marines aren’t going to make any difference if a big war breaks out. And if those crazy North Koreans decide they want to march down south, the South Koreans don’t need us. I mean, the only difference I think we could make is if the government collapses up there in North Korea and we need to find their nukes and lock them down. That’s the kind of assignment I’d like to have. But they’d be better off asking the South Koreans to do that job. I don’t speak a word of Korean, and I got lost last time we were driving around Ginowan City.

Everybody here is talking about something called the “Pacific pivot.” President Obama is saying that we have to pull ourselves away from the Middle East and pay more attention to Asia. Maybe so. I just don’t see much for us Marines to do here. Like most of the guys in our squadron, I don’t want to do jobs I’m not trained to do. I’m an ordnance tech. I inspect, repair, and load aviation ordnance. I’m good at my job. If there’s an earthquake or something, sure I’ll help out, just like I volunteered to help out with that sea wall. But I’m guessing that there are organizations that can do a better job than we can. People talk about a dispute over some islands south of here in the South China Sea. But that’s for the State Department and the diplomats to work out. I’m all for this Pacific pivot. Just send me somewhere else to do the job of a Marine.

They tell me that everyone back home is talking about the economy. No different from when I left, I guess. Seems like they might get around to trimming a little bit from the military this time around. I hear that the Marines are supposed to cut 12-20,000 as part of the belt-tightening. Well, that’s just about the size of our group here in Futenma. I guess it would make sense just to close us down, send us home. It would make the Okinawans and the bean-counters in Washington both happy. It’s like that sea wall we built. If it’s not doing its job, you just have to go out there and tear it down and use those stones for something else.

But here’s the thing, Mom. I bet there’s still no jobs in West Liberty or Muscatine or anywhere else in Iowa. Sure, I’ll go home if they ask me to. But there sure better be something back home for me to do. Until then, I’m staying put.

Say hello to everyone in the family for me. And if you happen to run into that Chinese fellow, say hello to him too. Who knows, maybe he’ll invest some money in Muscatine and build a factory. So that I can have a job when I get home.

Okinawa on the Hill

Last week, Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF) and the Network for Okinawa sponsored a briefing on the Hill courtesy of the office of Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA). The keynote speakers were Susumu Inamine, the mayor of Nago City where the Futenma replacement facility has been slated to go, and Denny Tamaki, a Diet member from Okinawa. The room was packed, and the press was out in force. The Japanese press, that is. The U.S. media has been singularly uninterested in the viewpoints of Okinawans toward the much-vaunted Pacific pivot announced by the Obama administration. Here’s an ad that the anti-base movement in Okinawa placed on The Washington Post website, which does a good job of summarizing the Okinawan position.

I was struck at the briefing by a question from an audience member and former Marine who couldn’t quite understand why the Marine Corps wasn’t just shutting down Futenma and bringing home the Marines.

Even more striking is this website put together by a former Marine officer who spent a year on Okinawa. His proposal goes beyond even some Okinawan demands. “The Marines must relent and promptly close Futenma and Kinser, and close nearby Camp Foster as well,” he writes. “Marine units could easily move to other U.S. military bases overseas and to larger bases in the less crowded northern half of Okinawa. These changes would increase the relevance of the U.S. Marine Corps while eliminating the major diplomatic conflict with the Japanese. This would remove half the 15,000 Marines from Okinawa, and could be accomplished within four years with no new construction or additional funding.”

These inputs from former Marines prompted me to compose the above letter from an imaginary Marine on Okinawa. There is perhaps more common ground between Okinawans and Marines than either Washington or Tokyo imagines.

John Feffer is the co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies, writes its regular World Beat column, and will be publishing a book on Islamophobia with City Lights Press in 2012.

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John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus, where this article originally appeared.

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