In light of the global pandemic, the people of Hawai‘i have joined people across the world by sheltering in place. Because of our position as a tourist destination and military hub, the prospect of disease from abroad poses a particular danger to our communities. March 26 marked the beginning of a 14-day quarantine for travelers, a stop on the disembarkation of cruise ships, and a statewide stay-at-home order.
Despite these measures, the U.S. military plans to hold the largest international maritime exercise in the world in Hawaiʻi from late June to early August, and more than 26 nations plan to attend. Hosted every two years by the Pacific Fleet, the last Rim of the Pacific Exercise (RIMPAC) in 2018 brought 47 surface ships, five submarines, more than 200 aircrafts, and 25,000 military personnel to Hawai‘i’s lands and waters. Confronting a petition to #CancelRIMPAC signed by thousands, Hawai‘i Governor David Ige announced on April 3 that he will request to postpone these war games.
Still, Capt. Jeff Bernard, commander of Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam insisted, “RIMPAC is on. RIMPAC is going to happen absolutely positively until you read publicly it is not.”
"Rather than allowing the military industrial complex to capitalize on this crisis, we need to seize this moment to scale back military presence and look to environmentally just alternatives."
This shows a shocking indifference to the safety of our island community. Rates of COVID-19 among troops recently jumped nearly 60 percent, surpassing the overall U.S. rate.
As we learn from the 1918 flu pandemic during World War I that spread the virus across the planet, war is an incubator of disease. Dr. Remington Nevin, a physician and former Army epidemiologist, said recently that the military is “highly susceptible as an organization to outbreaks of particularly respiratory infectious illness.” A recent U.S. Army document reported that the U.S. Army’s COVID-19 mitigation measures have proven insufficient.
RIMPAC plans bring into clear relief the disregard for the health of the lands, waters, and peoples that bear the burden of U.S. military presence in the Pacific. In Guam, the Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier docked on April 3 after 114 crewmembers tested positive for COVID-19, and 3,000 sailors disembarked to quarantine in a hotel. The situation on the ship was so bad that it spurred dissent by its own captain, who was fired for speaking up and is now stricken with the novel coronavirus. In response, eight Guam community groups including I Hagan Famalåo’an Guåhan voiced opposition to the risk this ship poses to their island, situating it as part of the broader problem of military occupation. As of April 7, the island had 128 confirmed COVID-19 cases and four deaths, bearing the highest burden among small Pacific Island jurisdictions. The use of islands as hubs for hemispheric military activities brings a disastrous convergence of risks to our homes.
Even before COVID-19, community leaders have opposed RIMPAC. From 1980 to 1990, the Protect Kahoʻolawe ʻOhana and Nuclear Free and Independent Pacific protested the bombardment of the island of Kahoʻolawe during training exercises. The sinking of decommissioned ships releases toxic chemicals just offshore from beaches. Live-fire training has set fires at Pohakuloa at the base of Mauna Kea, a focal point of Hawaiian cosmology and resistance where kia‘i (protectors) have contested desecration for decades. Every two years, RIMPAC has destroyed our island resources while naturalizing the imperial violence that underlines these encounters.
Masking this destruction, the U.S. military touts troops’ economic activity, who receive so-called “liberty options” in Hawai’i that include hiking, surfing, watching turtles on O‘ahu’s North Shore, and eating at off-base restaurants. In 2018, some crews enjoyed as many as twelve days of liberty, putting them in daily interaction with civilians. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, RIMPAC’s merging of militarism and tourism would undermine measures to stop the spread of the virus and put the people of Hawai‘i in harm’s way.
"We are organizing for a future that prioritizes collective life over senseless destruction."
Militaries have already canceled or scaled back joint exercises throughout the world. And yet plans for RIMPAC persist.
Adding insult to injury, the Indo-Pacific Command just submitted a report to Congress calling for $20.1 billion of additional spending over the next five years to further militarize U.S. efforts to contain China. Ultimately, this spending works to secure the continuation of the political and economic dominance of the United States and the profit margin of weapons manufacturers. It sheds light on the military’s priorities to surveil, conquer, and destroy at the expense of Pacific communities and people throughout the world.
Rather than allowing the military industrial complex to capitalize on this crisis, we need to seize this moment to scale back military presence and look to environmentally just alternatives rooted in place-based knowledge that include Indigenous practices of abundance as the basis of well-being, community-based agriculture, social housing, youth arts programs, and more.
While some argue that the military provides economic benefits, such measurements do not show its costs. For example, they fail to address the corroding Red Hill fuel tanks at risk of contaminating O‘ahu’s aquifer that brings water to our island’s taps, the military cost-of-living allowances that inflate the housing market, the destruction of cultural sites, the enclosure of hunting and hiking grounds, the unexploded ordnances that dot our landscape, the ongoing history of displacement and occupation in Hawaiʻi, and the suppression of Hawaiian sovereignty and self-determination.
The Department of Defense Office of Economic Adjustment argues that military reduction can open pathways for abundant possibilities and that base closures can in fact contribute to the growth and prosperity of entire regions.
Bullets and bombs are useless against viruses. This pandemic reveals that our mutual survival depends on fostering an ethos of solidarity to develop systems that care for all members of our community. Millions of people around the world are heeding calls for social distancing and changing the way we move through our daily lives so that we may better protect each other. We are also organizing for a future that prioritizes collective life over senseless destruction. We call upon our lawmakers and the U.S. Pacific Fleet to honor these acts of sacrifice and solidarity by canceling RIMPAC 2020.