Today is Memorial Day, a day when we remember those who served and died in wars gone by. In Guam, when you talk about ‘the war’, you are talking about World War Two. Even though Guam has lost more people per capita than any US state in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, WWII is the war that most shaped modern day Guam and its people’s psyche. Guam was occupied by the United States between the Spanish-American War (1898) and WWII. The Japanese took Guam shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. The Battle of Guam began on 21 July 1944. 21 July is now known as Liberation Day and celebrated every year with a carnival and huge parade down the main highway. There are still citizens of Guam who lived through the occupation and can recall the horrors of war that were visited upon their island.
Guam’s economy is based on three things: government jobs, hosting two major US military bases, and Tourism. Ninety percent of tourists come from Japan. So, Guam has a very complex relationship with the United States, the US military, Japan, and war.
For the past three years on Memorial Day weekend the National Park Service and about 350 volunteers have planted one flag for each American service member or Guam civilian who was killed on Guam during WWII. Asan Beach, where the flags are displayed, is where the US forces came ashore to take Guam back from Japanese. There are 3,055 flags in rows like a huge military formation. The spectacular display evokes a feeling of reverence. It reminded me of the American cemetery in Normandy and the rows upon rows of marble head stones. It reminded me of the overwhelming sense of gravity I felt when I first experienced that place. The flag display is a great way to show the enormity of the loss of life that happened during the battle and allows people to interact with that information in a very physical way.
Today, Jackie and I stopped by the display to take some pictures and experience the scale of the huge field of flags. We read the narrative put forth by the NPS and were disappointed that it still spoke of enemies and victors. We were saddened by the tragedy that is war and we both wondered how people would interact with the display if there were another 18,040 flags for the Japanese who died during the battle. I thought it would be something if a group were to set up “the rest of the display” next year. Then I was ready to go back to what I was planning to do with the day which was work on the boat. Jackie, however, had more of a sense of immediacy and responsibility to give people more information to consider when taking in the scene, reflecting on war and service and whatever people contemplate while looking at a field full of flags on Memorial Day. She dropped me off at the boat and went to finish some errands and find a Japanese flag. She called me later to meet her back at the park with some paper, a sharpie, and my good camera.
At the park Jackie wrote on one piece of paper, ”American + Guam (3,055) + Japanese (18,040+) + Unknown = dead (>21,095). On another piece of paper she wrote, “All wars are civil wars because all men are brothers – Francois Fenelon.” She placed the two sheets of paper anchored with small stones on the ground near the center front of the field of American and Guam flags and stuck a similar sized Japanese flag in the ground in front of them. We took a few pictures and then moved back to see how people would interact with the Japanese flag.
As Jackie pushed the flag into the ground we heard a young boy shout excitedly, “Dad, look, there’s a Japanese flag!” and a few seconds later, “Did Japanese people die here too?” A little girl said, “There’s a Japanese flag. We should have brought our flags, Dad.” Lots of people came up to look at the flag and read the handwritten signs. Many of them took pictures. Some of them walked by without stopping. Some stopped and contemplated things. Some were kids who asked questions which parents tried to answer. I wished we had some sort of audio recorder or a video camera that could have captured people’s reactions.
Our friend Ranger Ben of the NPS showed up while we were there. We had speculated earlier about what he might think. We didn’t want to step on his toes as he and everyone else had put a lot of effort into setting up the flags. We didn’t want to do something that would be seen as disrespectful to the sacrifices of the soldiers or the sensitivities of anyone involved. Ben mentioned that it is American Memorial Day but he generally seemed to agree when I posited that war was tragic no matter who was fighting or dying.
We ran into some of our other friends at the park who stopped to see the flags and walk their dog. One of them is a veteran from the more recent wars in the Middle East and was excited about our addition to the exhibit. He talked later about his experience with war and how long it has taken him to realize “the enemy” he had learned to hate were just people like him, with hopes and dreams of their own.
Jackie was meeting a friend and had to leave. I stayed and hiked up to the park overlook to take in the whole display and shoot some more pictures. I could see people stopping to look at the Japanese flag from the top. I took a few pictures and then came back down to try to get some face shots of people reacting to the one Japanese flag. Unfortunately, between the time I left the top of the overlook and the time I got back to the flag display, someone had removed the Japanese flag and the signs. I was disappointed that I missed it. I really wished I could have seen who removed the flag and maybe gotten a picture. I wondered who had decided it needed to go and what their motivation might be. I sort of assume it was one of the park rangers and their reason was just that it wasn’t part of the planned display and didn’t fit well with their posted narrative. I was a little disappointed, mostly that I hadn’t been there to see it come down, but not upset. I looked around and noticed a trash can nearby and decided to check. I lifted the lid and found the flag neatly rolled up with the two sheets of paper placed inside. They weren’t balled up or ripped, just placed in the trash can. I pulled them out and left the park.
I called Jackie to see what she wanted to do for dinner. She immediately asked if our flag was still there. I hesitated before I told her that it had been taken down and I hadn’t seen whodunnit. She was more upset than I was, mostly because she didn’t want someone to take it down out of fear of offending someone else (as opposed to removing it because of their own feelings that it evoked.) She really wanted people to see the flag and think about all the people who died rather than just the Americans. Before I arrived with the paper and sharpies, Jackie sat taking in the display, Japanese flag in hand. A woman came up and asked if she was trying to commemorate all the people who died on Guam. Jackie said, yes. She asked, “Don’t the flags represent people who died from Guam in all the wars?” Jackie explained that the flags were for American servicemen and civilians who died on Guam during WWII. The woman commented that it is American Memorial Day but she could see where Jackie was coming from. Jackie said she felt like the exhibit was very moving and all these people’s lives were worth respecting and honoring but so were the six times as many Japanese lives that were lost. The woman agreed and said, “Back then we didn’t care about the Japanese, but now they come to Guam as tourists.” She added, “Funny how the world changes.” Jackie wondered if the world has changed as much as we to think.
I don’t know if we really fit into the category of provocateurs but I hope we helped illustrate the tragedy of war and got people to think about it in a way they might not have otherwise. I don’t think Memorial Day should be about good guys and bad guys. I don’t really feel the zeal anymore of celebrating a nationalistic narrative of heroes and enemies and victories over our evil foes. I think we should put our energies into honoring the dead and preventing more tragic deaths by avoiding senseless wars.