Hubris in Paradise

Marshall Islands missile tests

An unarmed Minuteman iii missile streaks out of California on its way to the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site in the Marshall Islands. / Photo by Gene Blevins/Reuters

kwajalein atoll—The Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site at Kwajalein Atoll, in the Marshall Islands, is a hard place to visit. The Pentagon likes it that way. Lost in the central Pacific, far from prying eyes, Kwajalein has been a vital US asset for over fifty years. It was a key naval base in World War II and the command centre for sixty-seven atomic bomb tests between 1946 and 1958. Since the early sixties, Kwajalein’s huge lagoon has been the perfect bull’s eye to fire missiles at from California or Alaska. Today, the Pentagon considers Kwajalein the best place to test its defences against a North Korean nuclear attack defences it wants Canada to help develop.

But there’s trouble on the horizon. Traditional residents are demanding higher rent, particularly for Kwajalein Island, the largest of the atoll’s ninety-three islands and islets, and for the uninhabitable Mid-Atoll Corridor through which the US fires its projectiles. The thorniest dispute concerns Ebeye, a tiny, overcrowded mass of coral just north of Kwajalein Island, where 12,000 people live in humiliating proximity to land many call home. Long referred to in activist circles as the “slum” of the Pacific, Ebeye has been a bad-news story for the US military for years. Visitors inevitably try to go there, much to the Pentagon’s chagrin; in my case, officials claimed that a missile-defence test was in the works at the Reagan Test Site and they couldn’t fit me in.

Finally, they relented. I flew to Kwajalein Island from the Marshallese capital of Majuro at the height of “mission ramp-up,” on a plane packed with excited Americans. In a few days, a rocket fired from Kwajalein would rendezvous in the upper atmosphere with an unarmed warhead lobbed from Alaska. When I arrived at the airport, a military cop ordered everyone to drop their bags for a dog to sniff. Kwajalein was at “Force Protection Bravo,” he barked. After sitting for a while, I was ushered through a set of doors and greeted by the deputy garrison commander, Les Jones. There would be no tour of the island’s American community, much less the Reagan Test Site itself. Instead, Jones would whisk me to Kwajalein wharf, where I would remain under watchful eyes until my boat departed for Ebeye.

Along the drive to the wharf, Americans strolled about in shorts and T-shirts. “Kwaj,” as Americans fondly call it, looked like a cozy retirement community. “Basically you’ve got small-town usa,” Jones reflected as a few locals pedalled by on old-fashioned bikes. The scene was reminiscent of the sixties television series The Prisoner, in which stone-faced cyclists and parasol-twirling island dwellers were a front for sinister activities elsewhere.

Jones described the upcoming test for me: a rocket fired from tiny Meck Island would perform a “zero fly-by” (near hit) of the long-range missile fired from Alaska. It would be over in thirty minutes, with nothing to see from a visitor’s vantage point but a bright ball of light and a column of smoke. What a shame I can’t watch closer up, I thought, as I climbed into a taxi boat for the ten-minute ride.

Expecting the worst, I reached Ebeye and phoned Julian Riklon, a local activist who moved here from Rongelap Atoll after it was contaminated by a hydrogen-bomb test on nearby Bikini Atoll. Riklon took me on a drive along Ebeye’s only paved road, which was lined with houses jammed together beneath the relentless sun. We stopped at a seaside garbage dump where children played, then at Ebeye’s cemetery, where Riklon explained that, due to lack of space, old graves are sometimes dug up so that fresh remains can be tossed in. Water, electrical, and sanitation services are poor here, and tuberculosis, stds, and influenza are prevalent, as is diabetes fuelled by American junk food.

“People ask me, ‘Why do you live on Ebeye? How do you stand this place?’ ” said Irene Paul, a senior administrator at Ebeye’s new hospital. “I don’t understand when people ask me that, really. So maybe I’m crazy.” Paul is currently working on a number of environmental and health campaigns in an attempt to improve the community.

But some Ebeye residents believe things will improve only when the Americans get out. “The reason why Ebeye is the way it is now is because people are not free to go to their home islands,” said Riklon. “Marshallese are simple people,” he added. “You move them around and they will move. But there is a time when it will come to a stop, because they cannot take it anymore. They want the US to pack up and leave.”

Riklon may not have long to wait. In 2016 the Americans’ current lease will expire. They have a deal with the Marshallese government in place, but Kwajalein’s landowners, who hold the leasing rights, aren’t likely to sign on. They want Washington to pay $1.4 billion (US) up front for a fifty-year lease—more than doubling the current annual average of $13.2 million—plus $6 million annually for a health- and environmental-risk fund.

Compounding the dispute, since 2000 the Majuro-based Nuclear Claims Tribunal has awarded over a billion dollars for site cleanup and personal injury arising from the sixty-seven US nuclear tests. The Americans have provided only $150 million of this total thus far, and the State Department has recommended that Washington not make up the difference. If the United States says no to both the landowners and the nuclear victims, the Marshallese government will be forced to back its citizens or risk defeat in upcoming elections at the hands of the Kwajalein landowners’ party, the Ailin Kein Ad. The aka is already urging Washington to come up with an exit strategy.

I returned to Kwajalein Island shortly before the missile-defence test, which ended up failing when the interceptor rocket on Meck refused to fire. A security guard from Florida drove me to the airport, taking me on a scenic tour past oceanside cabanas, baseball diamonds, and an outdoor movie theatre. Beside the airport, an American flag fluttered at half-mast. “Who died?” I asked. “A Marshallese person, in hospital yesterday,” he replied, after thinking for a moment. “But they wouldn’t have it at half-mast for that.”

Dave Kattenburg