Foreign Policy in Focus | 19 July 2016
John Pilger is a world-renowned journalist, documentary filmmaker and author. He has twice won Britain’s highest award for journalism. His films have won television academy awards in Britain and the US. Two of his films, on Cambodia and East Timor, are rated with the most important of the 20th century. The Coming War on China is his 60th film.
Daniel Broudy: You’re now finishing up work on your latest project the title of which, it seems, can also trigger feelings of considerable dread. The Coming War, maybe you’d agree, is pretty heavy. Can you describe the impetus for this particular look at world events, especially as you see them unfolding in East Asia?
John Pilger: The film picks up the theme of much of my work. It will set out to explain how great power imposes itself on people and disguises itself and the dangers it beckons. This film is about the United States—no longer sure of its dominance—rekindling the Cold War. The Cold War has been started again on two fronts—against Russia and against China. I’m concentrating on China in a film about the Asia-Pacific. It’s set in the Marshall Islands where the United States exploded 67 atomic bombs, nuclear weapons, between 1946 and 1958, leaving that part of the world gravely damaged—in human and environmental terms. And this assault on the Marshalls goes on. On the largest island, Kwajalein, there is an important and secretive US base called the Ronald Reagan Test Facility, which was established in the 1960s—as the archive we’re using makes clear—“to combat the threat from China.”
The film is also set in Okinawa, as you know. Part of the theme is to show the resistance to power and war by a people who live along a fence line of American bases in their homeland. The film’s title has a certain foreboding about it because it’s meant as a warning. Documentaries such as this have a responsibility to alert people, if necessary to warn, and to show the resistance to rapacious plans. The film will show that the resistance in Okinawa is remarkable, effective, and little known in the wider world. Okinawa has 32 US military installations. Nearly a quarter of the land is occupied by US bases. The sky is often crowded with military aircraft; the sheer arrogance of an occupier is a daily physical presence. Okinawa is about the size of Long Island. Imagine a bristling Chinese base right next to New York.
I went on to film in Jeju Island, off the southern tip of Korea where something very similar has happened. People on Jeju tried to stop the building of an important and provocative base about 400 miles from Shanghai. The South Korean navy will keep it ready for the US. It’s really a US base where Aegis Class destroyers will dock along with nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers—right next to China. Like Okinawa, Jeju has a history of invasion and suffering, and resistance.
In China, I decided to concentrate in Shanghai, which has seen so much of China’s modern history and convulsions, and modern restoration. Mao and his comrades founded the Communist Party of China there in the 1920s. Today the house where they met in secret is surrounded by the symbols of consumerism: a Starbucks is directly opposite. The ironies in China today crowd the eye.
The final chapter of the film is set in the United States, where I interviewed those who plan and “war game” a war with China and those who alert us to the dangers. I met some impressive people: Bruce Cummings, the historian whose last book on Korea is bracing secret history, and David Vine, whose comprehensive work on US bases was published last year. I filmed an interview at the State Department with the Assistant Secretary of State for Asia and the Pacific, Daniel Russell, who said that the United States “was no longer in the basing business.” The US has some 5,000 bases—4,000 in the US itself and almost a thousand on every continent. Drawing this together, making sense of it, doing everyone as much justice as possible, is the pleasure and pain of filmmaking. What I hope the film will say is that there are great risks, which have not been recognized. I must say it was almost other-worldly to be in the US during a presidential campaign that addresses none of these risks.
That’s not entirely correct. Donald Trump has taken what appears to be a serious if passing interest. Stephen Cohen, the renowned authority on Russia, has tracked this, pointing out that Trump has made clear he wants friendly relations with Russia and China. Hillary Clinton has attacked Trump for this. Incidentally, Cohen himself was abused for suggesting that Trump wasn’t a homicidal maniac in relation to Russia. For his part, Bernie Sanders has been silent; in any case, he’s on Clinton’s side now. As her emails show, Clinton appears to want to destroy Syria in order to protect Israel’s nuclear monopoly. Remember what she did to Libya and Gaddafi. In 2010, as secretary of state, she turned the regional dispute in the South China’s Sea into America’s dispute. She promoted it to an international issue, a flashpoint. The following year, Obama announced his “pivot to Asia,” the jargon for the biggest build-up of US military forces in Asia since World War Two. The current Defense Secretary Ash Carter recently announced that missiles and men would be based in the Philippines, facing China. This is happening while NATO continues its strange military buildup in Europe, right on Russia’s borders. In the US, where media in all its forms is ubiquitous and the press is constitutionally the freest in the world, there is no national conversation, let alone debate, about these developments. In one sense, the aim of my film is to help break a silence.
Daniel Broudy: It is quite astonishing to see that the two major democratic candidates have said virtually nothing of substance about Russia and China and what the US is doing, and as you said it is ironic that Trump being a businessman talking about China in this way.
John Pilger: Trump is unpredictable, but he did state clearly he had no wish to go to war with Russia and China. At one point, he said he would even be neutral in the Middle East. That’s heresy, and he backtracked on that. Stephen Cohen said that he [Cohen] had been attacked just for uttering this [Trump’s points]. I wrote something similar recently and upset a social media sub-strata. Several people suggested I supported Trump.
Maki Sunagawa: I’d like to shift gears to some of your previous work that touches upon the present. In your film, Stealing a Nation, Charlesia Alexis talks about her fondest memories of Diego Garcia, pointing out that, “We could eat everything; we never lacked for anything, and we never bought anything, except for the clothes we wore.” These words remind me of the peaceful and untouched places and cultures across the world that existed before classic colonizing techniques were applied to Indigenous peoples and environments. Could you expand a bit more on the details you uncovered during your research on Diego Garcia that illustrate facts about this insidious force we still endure today?
John Pilger: What happened to the people of Diego Garcia was an epic crime. They were expelled, all of them, by Britain and the United States. The life you have just described, Charlesia’s life, was deliberately destroyed. Since their expulsion, beginning in the 1970s, the people of the Chagos have staged an indefatigable resistance. As you suggest, their story represents that of indigenous people all over the world. In Australia, the Indigenous people have been expelled from their communities and brutalized. In North America, there is a similar history. Indigenous people are deeply threatening to settler societies; for they represent another life, another way of living, another way of seeing; they may accept the surface of our way of life, often with tragic results, but their sense of themselves isn’t captive. If we “modernists” were as clever as we believe we are, we would learn from them. Instead, we prefer the specious comfort of our ignorance and prejudice. I’ve had much to do with the Indigenous people of Australia. I’ve made a number of films about them and their oppressors, and I admire their resilience and resistance. They have a lot in common with the people of Diego Garcia.
Certainly, the injustice and cruelty are similar: the people of the Chagos were tricked and intimidated into leaving their homeland. In order to terrify them into leaving, the British colonial authorities killed their beloved pet dogs. Then they loaded them on to an old freighter with a cargo of bird shit, and dumped them in the slums of Mauritius and the Seychelles. This horror is described in almost contemptuous detail in official documents. One of them, written by the Foreign Office lawyer, is titled, “Maintaining the Fiction.” In other words: how to spin a big lie. The British government lied to the United Nations that the people of the Chagos were “transient workers.” Once they were expelled, they were airbrushed; a Ministry of Defence document even claimed there had never been a population.
It was a grotesque tableau of modern imperialism: a word, incidentally, almost successfully deleted from the dictionary. A few weeks ago, the Chagossians saw their appeal to Britain’s Supreme Court rejected. They had appealed a decision by the House of Lords in 2009 that refused them the right to go home—even though a series of High Court judgments had already found in their favor. When British justice is called on to adjudicate between human rights and the rights of great power, its decisions can be almost nakedly political.
Daniel Broudy: In hearing over the past couple of decades people talk about the great beauty of Diego Garcia and the amazing marine leisure activities in store for anyone fortunate enough to be stationed or temporarily assigned there, I am consistently struck by the determined ignorance of those who blithely come and go undisturbed about the history of the island. Maybe it’s the media that many people consume that serve a part in creating this detached awareness. The clear line that once traditionally separated civilian commercial advertising and military public relations seems to have effectively disappeared in these mass communications. Nowadays, civilian publications carry headlines like The Best Overseas Military Base Towns Ranked. The author of a recent article points out that service members admit to their dream of “seeing the world” as a central reason that motivates their military service. I wonder if the present system allows you, encourages you to see yourself as some sort of cosmopolitan world traveler and, thus, helps develop in you a superficial sense of the wider world, which also veils hideous realities and histories, like in Diego Garcia, lying just out of sight. Do you think perhaps the process of commercializing and glamorizing these military activities has played some part in maintaining the global system of bases?
John Pilger: Persuading young men and women to join a volunteer military is achieved by offering them the kind of security they wouldn’t get in difficult economic times and by making it all seem an adventure. Added to this is the propaganda of flag-waving patriotism. The bases are little Americas; you can be overseas in exotic climes, but not really; it’s a virtual life. When you run into the “locals,” you may assume the adventure you’re on includes a license to abuse them; they’re not part of little America, so they can be abused. Okinawans know this only too well.
I watched some interesting archive film about one of the bases on Okinawa. The wife of one of the soldiers based there said, “Oh, we try to get out once a month to have a local meal to get an idea of where we are.” In flying out of the Marshall Islands last year, my crew and I had to pass through the Ronald Reagan Missile Test Site on Kwajelein Atoll. It was a Kafkaesque experience. We were fingerprinted, our irises recorded, our height measured, our photographs taken from all angles. It was as if we were under arrest. This was the gateway to a little America with a golf course and jogging tracks and cycle lanes and dogs and kids. The people watering the golf courses and checking the chlorine in the swimming pools come from an island across the bay, Ebeye, where they’re ferried to and fro by the military. Ebeye is about a mile long and has 12,000 people crammed on it; they’re refugees from the nuclear testing in the Marshalls. The water supply and sanitation barely work. It’s apartheid in the Pacific. The Americans at the base have no idea how the islanders live. They [members of the military community] have barbecues against tropical sunsets. Something similar happened on Diego Garcia. Once the people were expelled, the barbecues and water-skiing could get under way.
In Washington, the assistant secretary of state I interviewed said that the United States was actually anti-imperialist. He was straight-faced and probably sincere, if vapid. He’s not unusual. You can say to people of academic stature in the US, “The United States has the greatest empire the world has seen, and here is why, here is the evidence.” It’s not unlikely this will be received with an expression of incredulity.
Daniel Broudy: Some of the things you are talking about remind me of something I learned from previous friends in the State Department. There is always a risk of State Department employees or people serving in the military overseas “going local,” beginning to empathize with people in the local population.
John Pilger: I agree. When they empathize, they realize that maybe the whole reason for them being there is nonsense. Some of the most effective truth-tellers are ex-military.
Daniel Broudy: Maybe the fences, more than keeping the foreigners [local people] out of that area [inside], are to remind the people within the fence line that there is a barrier and sometimes you are not permitted to cross that barrier.
John Pilger: Yes, it’s “them and us.” If you go outside the fence line, there is always the risk you’ll gain something of an understanding of another society. That can lead to questions of why the base is there. That doesn’t happen often, because another fence line runs through the military consciousness.
Maki Sunagawa: When you look back on your scouting locations in Okinawa or when you undertook certain shoots for this project, what are some of the more unforgettable and/or shocking memories you have? Are there any scenes or conversations that really stick with you?
John Pilger: Well, there are quite a few. I felt privileged to meet Fumiko [Shimabukuro], who is inspiring. Those who had succeeded in getting Governor Onaga elected and securing Henoko and the issue of all the bases on the Japanese political agenda are among the most dynamic people of principle I have met: so imaginative and gracious.
Listening to the mother of one of the young people who eventually died from his terrible injuries when a US fighter crashed into the school [in Ishikawa] in 1959 was a sharp reminder of the fear that people live with. A teacher told me she never stopped looking up anxiously when she heard the drone of an aircraft above her classroom. When we were filming outside Camp Schwab, we were (as well as all of the demonstrators) deliberately harassed by huge Sea Stallion helicopters, which flew in circles over us. It was a taste of what Okinawans have to put up with, day after day. There is often a lament among liberal people in comfortable societies confronted with unpalatable truths: “So, what can I do to change it”? I would suggest they do as the people of Okinawa have done: you don’t give up; you keep going.
“Resistance” is not a word you often hear in the West, or see in the media. It is considered an ‘other’ word, not used by polite people, respectable people. It’s a hard word to twist and change. The resistance I found in Okinawa is inspirational.
Maki Sunagawa: Yes, I suppose when you are a part of the resistance it isn’t so easy to see its effectiveness so well. So often, when I’m doing field research, interviewing, taking notes, and writing, it takes some time for me to take a step back and look at the details more objectively to understand the larger story I’m seeing. I wonder, during the editing process for this new film, if you can talk about any new and important insights—you’ve already gained—as the storyline has come together.
John Pilger: Well, making a film like this is really a voyage of discovery. You start off with an outline and a collection of ideas and assumptions, and you never really know where it’s going to go. I had never been to Okinawa, so here were new ideas and experiences: a new sense of people, and I want the film to reflect this.
The Marshall Islands were also new to me. Here, from 1946, the US tested the equivalent of one Hiroshima bomb every day for twelve years. The Marshallese are still being used as guinea pigs. ICBMs are fired at the lagoons in and around Kwajelein Atoll from California. The water is poisoned, the fish inedible. People survive on canned processed junk. I met a group of women who were survivors of nuclear tests around Bikini and Rongelap atolls. They had all lost their thyroid glands. They were women in their sixties. They had survived, incredibly. They had the most generous characters and a dark sense of humor. They sang for us and presented us with gifts, and said they were pleased that we had come to film. They, too, are part of an unseen resistance.