Growing up in American Samoa, I was constantly surrounded by the United States military. They were at family gatherings, with many family members reminiscing about their times at boot camp or out in the field. The military was at school, with recruiters sizing students up, assessing our Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test scores, and bombarding us with all of the “opportunities” the military has to offer. And the military was just five minutes away from my house, with their base being located at the heart of our island — surrounded by our only airport, our only stadium, and our largest high school.
It’s hard not to feel obligated to join the military — hard not to feel like it’s your “duty” to serve. When it is constantly presented to you as your best option, or rather your only option, what other choice do you have? The simple answer is that you don’t — or at least it feels like we aren’t given any other alternative.
This pervasion of the military into almost every aspect of life in American Samoa dates back to even before its cession to the U.S. In fact, the primary reason why the U.S. even wanted to cede the eastern half of the Samoan Archipelago in 1900 was because of the unique shape of Pago Pago harbor and its potential military advantages. But even before this, in 1899, the U.S. had already built the United States Naval Station Tutuila in Pago Pago harbor, physically establishing their military presence on the islands. And after the cession, the United States Navy literally assumed rule over American Samoa from 1900 to 1951, with the commandant of the naval station also serving as the American Samoan governor. During World War II, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. even built several canon-like guns in the beautiful mountains surrounding the harbor in the name of safety and military strategy. So with a government historically established by the U.S. military with a purely militaristic agenda, is it really such a wonder why this pervasion exists?
But this pervasion of the U.S. military is definitely not unique to American Samoa — it is evident throughout the Pacific. The U.S. military has three major bases in Guam, with about 7,000 troops and nearly one third of its land occupied by the military. In Hawaii, there exists one of the largest concentration of U.S. military bases in the entire country, with close to 50,000 military personnel assigned there and rising each year. And in the Federated States of Micronesia, which became an independent island nation from the U.S. in 1986, there are more Army recruits per capita than any U.S. state, with recruiters visiting local high schools and signing students up by the dozen. With this pervasiveness of the U.S. military in our homes, our schools, and our daily lives, the idea that joining the military proves our worth as a people — that it is our “duty” — gets continuously reinforced into the minds of the people of the Pacific.
So to my friends, family, and members of the Pasefika community who were and are in the military, please do not take this piece as a criticism of your personal decision to enlist. I understand your valid reasons for joining — such as taking care of your families, getting out of financial struggles, or even just seeing it as one of the best options for yourself after school. And it would be naive for me not to recognize some of the opportunities and benefits that the military has provided for many people back home, my own family members included. So I applaud your decision to take action and put yourselves in better positions for providing for yourselves and/or your families, and for wanting the same for generations after you.
But at the same time, we do have to recognize that it becomes a problem when our people are widely overrepresented in the U.S. military — with an overrepresentation of 649 percent in 2005 — yet make up tiny percentages in higher education. It becomes a problem when recruitment rates for Pacific Island people into the military are higher than our college retention rates. And it becomes a problem when the narratives of our people are reduced to the stories of our military occupation rather than our unique histories and beautiful cultures.
Why are our military recruiting pathways more accessible than our pathways to higher education? Why is it easier for us to see ourselves in camouflage suits with guns than in classrooms with pen and paper? While it’s hard to see past the military because of its omnipresence in our lives, we need to understand the military is not our only option and that we belong in spaces outside of the army or the navy or the air force. We belong — and are in fact desperately needed — in higher education and other professional spaces, and those pathways need to be made more accessible to us.
Gabrielle T. Langkilde ’21, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a joint concentrator in Sociology and Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.