The U.S. military and Hawaii have a long and complex history. The 1893 overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom happened in part because U.S. Marines came ashore to assist the white coup leaders. Hawaii eventually became a U.S. territory during the Spanish-American War because of Pearl Harbor’s value to the U.S. Navy as a coaling station.
At the same time, huge numbers of Hawaii-born men and women have served in all branches of the U.S. military–probably the most famous being Daniel Inouye, who as a U.S. Army lieutenant won the Medal of Honor in Italy during World War II and eventually became a powerful U.S. Senator. Maui’s U.S. Congressional representative, Democrat Tulsi Gabbard, is herself a member of the Hawaii National Guard and an Iraq War veteran.
The American military’s presence in Hawaii is immense, though nowhere more so than Oahu, where it controls about a quarter of the island’s land. But now, budget cuts and changing technological and strategic priorities have the Pentagon–and the U.S. Army in particular–rethinking its footprint in Hawaii. And this has state officials (well, except for Maui Rep. Kaniela Ing, who we’ll get to in a moment) screaming.
If only someone had predicted a long time ago that, regardless of ideological concerns, a community, an island, an entire state could get itself addicted to the machinery of war. That the army bases, naval stations and airfields could become so intertwined into the local economy that those living near them would demand they remain–even if their whole reason for being no longer existed. Oh, wait, someone did:
“The conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience,” outgoing President Dwight Eisenhower said in 1961. “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”
Activist Khara Jabola Carolus agreed in a Feb. 2, 2015 Honolulu Civil Beat op-ed piece. “As much as we, as a society, are addicted to federal dollars linked to military spending, the military is addicted to the youth from our communities who struggle with poverty and joblessness,” she wrote. “Now is the moment to decrease our inter-generational dependency on the U.S. military.”
This view, though steeped in historical practicality, is decidedly the minority view in Hawaii.
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Put simply, the U.S. Army wants to reduce the size of active duty force from the 562,000 it fielded at the end of the 2012 fiscal year to 490,000 by the year 2020. Proposed two years ago, the plan will require troop reductions at bases across the country. This includes Schofield Barracks and Fort Shafter on Oahu. Named for Civil War officers and Medal of Honor winners John Schofield and William Rufus Shafter, the forts are home to about 25,000 Army troops.
The two bases are more than a century old. Shafter dates to 1907, while Schofield opened a year later. Schofield Barracks has an almost romantic feel, possibly because the great World War II novel and movie From Here to Eternity took place there.
According to what the Army’s calling it’s “2020 Force Structure Realignment,” these bases will dramatically change over the next five years. The Army will “potentially” move 16,000 troops out of Schofield (18,441 people were stationed there in 2012, the baseline figure the Army used for its calculations) and another 3,800 troops from Shafter (7,431 stationed there in 2012) by 2020.
“These actions are being undertaken to reshape the Army’s forces to meet more effectively national security requirements while reducing the Army’s end-strength,” army officials announced in a Jan. 18, 2013 news release on the release of the restructuring effort’s Programmatic Environmental Assessment. “The implementation of this force rebalancing is necessary to allow the Army to operate in a reduced budget climate, while ensuring the Army can continue to support the nation’s critical defense missions.”
Though budget restrictions largely drove this, the Army is acknowledging that technology–and the growth of asymmetric military force, in which military “threats” are largely come from very small, non-governmental groups and organizations–has changed the way we make war.
“After more than 10 years of war, our nation is facing new challenges and opportunities that call for reshaping our defense priorities,” states the Jan. 18 news release. “Concurrent with a reduction and realignment of the force, the Army proposes to reorganize and restructure its forces using lessons learned over the past 10 years, information about what the future global security environment will be like, and results of previous brigade combat team studies to reshape the Army into a force capable of supporting the full spectrum of military operations.”
In other words, big divisions of infantry, armor and artillery are increasingly obsolete in favor of “special forces”–small units of highly trained soldiers–and drones capable of firing missiles at suspected terrorists without endangering American personnel. We can question the wisdom and necessity of doing these things, but as of now, this is the future of war.
The media has described the cuts with scary language, often saying (as the Christian Science Monitor reported last year) that the cuts “will take the Army down to pre-World War II levels.” If a U.S. soldier back in 1945 was equivalent to one today, this would indeed be cause for concern. But given the fact that today’s army, though smaller than its World War II counterpart, is far better trained and equipped, we could probably survive quite nicely with an even smaller force (often lost in these debates over “security” is the fact that the U.S. still controls 4,800 nuclear warheads, nearly twice the total combined nuclear stockpiles of the rest of the world).
Make no mistake–this isn’t happening because the White House and the Pentagon decided that we no longer need to invade oil-rich nations or bomb poor villages. The restructuring is taking place because we can now fight future wars with less people. We still need all that oil, and will still coddle all those repressive dictatorships that create the conditions ripe for bloody insurgencies, but we can do so on a smaller budget.
And for that reason, the Army’s making the cuts. Last November, The New York Times reported that a little more than 1,500 captains and majors have already been forced into retirement–many at ranks substantially lower than their current levels. And for people who’ve spent their lives happily serving this nation, these cuts can be brutal.
“It’s our culture, it’s our family, it’s our language,” Bill Moore, a captain in intelligence, told the paper. “A lot of us have been in since high school. We feel like we’ve given everything, our families have given everything, and they just give us a handshake and say ‘Thank you for your service.’”
As far as Hawaii officials are concerned, this plan is doomsday. In fact, the Hawaii Chamber of Commerce has gone so far as to create an online petition titled “Keep Hawaii’s Heroes” (Keephawaiisheroes.org). “Save our bases,” the Chamber’s campaign states, “Our communities depend on it.”
And on Tuesday, Jan. 27, U.S. Senators Brian Schatz and Mazie Hirono and Representative Tulsi Gabbard–all Hawaii Democrats–sent out emails blasting the Army for proposing cuts at Schofield and Shafter (the timing of the messages is because last week the Army held a “listening session” on Oahu for the community to speak out on the proposed cuts).
“Thousands of jobs for Hawaii’s heroes are at stake,” Hirono said in her message. “The Army’s plan would devastate our economy and dramatically affect the military families who are so vital to Hawaii’s communities and our future.”
“The Army cannot allow the budget to drive its strategy in this critically important region,” Schatz said. “The people of Hawai‘i and the soldiers here have always worked together to support our national defense and will continue to do so.”
Gabbard, as mentioned a Hawaii National Guard officer, was even more alarmist. “The estimated impact would be a decrease of 5% of Honolulu’s population and a $1.35 billion hit to Hawai‘i’s economy,” she said in her news release. “Such drastic action would create a ripple effect for defense and military spending in our state, which makes up 18 percent of our economy. While there is an obvious need for economic diversification, that goal must be pursued in tandem with keeping our strongest industries productive.”
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Though they have little say in the issue, the Hawaii state Legislature even got into the act. On Jan. 21, 44 House members (virtually the entire chamber) introduced House Concurrent Resolution 3, titled “STRONGLY OPPOSING THE UNITED STATES ARMY’S PROPOSED FORCE REDUCTION OF SCHOFIELD BARRACKS AND FORT SHAFTER BASES.”
Though a non-binding resolution, much of HCR 3 read like it was written by the Republican Party back in the 1980s. It calls North Korea a “notoriously unpredictable and dangerous nation.” It denounced China’s “aggressive military growth,” “lack of transparency” and “pattern of increasingly assertive behavior in the region.” HCR 3 also included the $1.35 billion figure cited above (which it called an “estimated payroll loss”) and said the restructuring “will gravely hurt Hawaii’s economy.”
On Jan. 22, the House approved HCR 3 by a vote of 43-1. The lone nay vote was Democrat Kaniela Ing of South Maui. That day, Ing explained why in four minutes worth of remarks on the House floor. If the U.S. Army wanted to pull most of its troops out of the state, Ing seems perfectly willing to hold the door for them.
“I support the Army, the moves that the Army is doing,” Ing said on the House floor on Jan. 22. “If they say, strategically, this is what they want to do–move troops to the Philippines, closer to North Korea, then fine. I think we should support their efforts” (Ing didn’t respond to a request for comment for this story).
In his floor remarks, Ing mentioned the Native Hawaiians who live near Makua Valley, long a firing range for 25th Infantry Division soldiers stationed at Schofield. ‘’Our problem with the military is they don’t understand the significance of Makua Valley,’’ William J. Aila Jr. told The New York Times back in a April 1, 2001 story. ‘’They’re bombing the Earth Mother.’’
For decades, those residents–who argue that the valley’s historical, cultural and environmental significance overrides the need for combat training–have long suffered under the barrage of Army guns. “This decision will be welcome,” Ing said on Jan. 22, speaking of Makua residents. “In fact, it may not go far enough.”
At times during his four-minute speech, Ing sounded like a libertarian, referring to the Army’s cuts as a huge potential to move thousands of highly trained people from the public to private sectors. “That $1.3 billion can be agriculture, technology,” he said. “It’s not about holding onto sunsetting industries and taking what we can from the federal government. It’s about home rule and self-determination.”
Though he found himself in a very isolated minority, Ing’s views will probably prevail. If the Army listened to every state that complained when it tried to close a base or redistribute troops, nothing would ever change. Besides, as Bart Dame pointed out in a novel Jan. 22 Hawaii Independent essay titled “A case for army downsizing in Hawaii,” the whole restructuring could actually make life a bit sweeter for state residents.
“Those of us who rent, especially near a military base, are aware how military housing allowances drive up the cost of rentals dramatically,” Dame wrote. “While that may be a plus for landlords, that advantage is negated by the huge disadvantage for renters. If the bases are downsized, the vacancies created in military housing will provide a significant boost in the supply of affordable housing for civilian renters. That would definitely be a plus.”
Then again, a lot can happen in the next five years. Something really nasty could take place in Asia, and then all bets are off. But for now, it looks like the Army’s largely pulling out of Oahu. We can cry over it, or we can take Ing’s words to heart, and see it as an opportunity to build a more peaceful future.
Cover design: Darris Hurst
Cover photo: Department of Defense