By Anna Vodicka
Arriving in Palau by private jet with his wife, daughter, guns, two U.S. military veterans and several bodyguards, Texas Governor Rick Perry was welcomed to the Pacific island nation this April not with a lei, but a title: Honorary Citizen of the Republic of Palau.
This marks Governor Perry’s inaugural visit to the western Micronesian country, and why he was selected for the honor is a mystery to the observing public. But Perry’s is the latest in a string of political and media appearances in Palau in connection with the BentProp Project, a volunteer- and drone-powered effort to recover and repatriate the remains of eighty World War II pilots still listed as Missing In Action in Palauan waters. Palau’s islands played stage to some of the highest casualty clashes in the war’s Pacific Theater—namely, the Battle of Peleliu, in 1944. Japan relocated native Palauans and converted their land to an underground cave system, invisible beneath a jungle canopy. America converted it to a napalmed swath of stony silence. Some 20,000 bodies littered Peleliu’s shores, lives sacrificed for a tiny airstrip that was considered strategic, but like the battle itself, went largely forgotten. As a 70th anniversary tribute, the BentProp Project is in full force, and Rick Perry is here to help.
“The people are amazingly friendly,” he said. “I was intrigued by your way of life.”
In his honorary citizenship acceptance speech before a joint session of Palau National Congress, Governor Perry thanked those Palauans who have chosen to serve in the U.S. military, and shared his first impressions of the country: “The people are amazingly friendly,” he said. “I was intrigued by your way of life.”
Perry recited a long list of “the accomplishments of Texas under his watch,” the Island Times reported, and “the many similarities between Texas and Palau.”
“‘Palau and Texas have so much in common,’ the Governor said. Among the similarities are spirit of independence and people who are fiercely proud of heritage.”
Perry demanded an exception to the constitutional rule prohibiting guns, wrangling special permission for his seven-person security detail to pack nine firearms along with their bathing suits.
Like Rick Perry, when I think of Palau, I can’t help but think of the good old Lone Star State.
True, Texas is a hulking desert mass of beef and petroleum, while Palau is a tropical archipelago whose land—250 volcanic and coral limestone islands flecking 400 miles of ocean—if consolidated, would be roughly the size of Huntsville, Alabama, with a population of less than 20,000.
True, Texas prides itself on guns for all, at all times, while Palau’s gun ban is written into its constitution (Article XIII outlaws guns for anyone but law enforcement; penalty for possession is a mandatory 15-year prison sentence), along with its bold stance as the world’s first country to constitutionally limit the use, storage, or disposal of nuclear material, a distinct anti-war, pro-peace proclamation. Perry demanded an exception to the constitutional gun ban, wrangling special permission for his seven-person security detail to pack nine firearms along with their bathing suits. When risking ten days at the premiere Palau Pacific Resort, one can never be too careful.
When a murder does occur, it is not unusual for a Palauan family to settle outside of court, clan to clan, through reparations of money or land, or a customary conflict resolution so utterly forgiving, so foreign to Western notions of retribution as to be incomprehensible: the victim’s family adopts the murderer, taking him in to fill the void left by their loss.
True, Governor Perry wears his state’s death penalty record—the nation’s highest—like a shiny sheriff’s badge, along with his crowning personal achievement of most executions of any governor in modern history (his gubernatorial predecessor, George W. Bush, held the record for fastest rate of executions). Palau has not only abolished the death penalty; when a murder does occur—a rarity, since machetes and fists are less lethal than firearms—it is not unusual for a Palauan family to drop charges altogether, opting instead to settle outside of court, clan to clan, through reparations of money or land, or a customary conflict resolution so utterly forgiving, so foreign to Western notions of retribution as to be incomprehensible: the victim’s family adopts the murderer, taking him in to fill the void left by their loss. He will work to support the family he wronged, and the two clans will be forever entwined, patched-together branches of the same family tree.
True, Texas interprets the Bible’s Genesis charge of man’s dominion over the earth as justification for all the oil-sucking machinery money can buy, pillaging the land for all she’s worth, while, traditionally, Palau’s approach to land is one of conscientious stewardship and posterity upon which the entire social structure depends. When America took up phosphate mining in Palau after the war—a practice begun by Germany in 1909 and perpetuated by Japan during its colonial rule of Palau—Chief Ucherbelau wrote that his people were “disturbed about these things, and our hearts weep to think of them. We are most disturbed over the problem of what will become of our people when this little island that belongs to us has all been mined.” And while the influx of foreign development and importation has resulted in significantly lower reliance on historical methods of agriculture and conservation (hard to get young women interested in tending the taro patches prized by their grandmothers; impossible to find a shoreline free of plastic, Styrofoam, Bud Light and Spam cans fading in the sun), Palau is taking proactive—and progressive, by global standards—action to protect its natural environment, declaring Palau’s ocean waters a Protected Area Network, shark sanctuary, coral reef protection zone, and, as of March, 2014, industrial fishing-free, by Presidential decree. It may be too late to avoid the overfished fate of the rest of the world’s commercial fishing zones, but the enthusiasm behind this effort, and the desire to preserve the natural environment for future generations, is palpable.
But other than that, Texas and Palau are totally the same!
I will give Perry that Palauans take Texas-level pride in their history and independence. After the war, Palau and other Pacific islands became Trust Territories of the United Nations under U.S. administration. Decades of negotiation for sovereignty followed. The Northern Marianas settled for Commonwealth status—automatic U.S. Citizenship dangled like a carrot in 1986, but only in exchange for military rights. The Federated States of Micronesia and the Marshalls went for Free Association, but agreed to house nuclear material on land in times of war. Palau held out for independence on its own terms, budging no further than to allow ships carrying nuclear material to dock in its waters. In 1994, Palau entered into Free Association with the U.S.: independence, plus $450 million. Palau’s constitution reads like a model of self-respecting, progressive nationhood, one that has learned from others’ mistakes. Unlike Guam and Saipan, Palau has no sweatshops churning out “Made In the USA” schlock, no McDonald’s or KFC in sight. Unlike Hawaii, which earned a reputation for property values too expensive for many born and raised there, Palauan citizens claim sole rights to land ownership in their country, which they may lease to foreigners at their discretion.
Still, Palau’s economy relies almost entirely on foreign assistance, primarily from the United States, which has supplied over $852 million since 1994, but also from Japan, China, Taiwan, Australia and the EU. Everyone, it seems, wants a piece of Palau for political, strategic or militaristic reasons—a new kind of Pacific Theater, in which everyone is posing. Perry’s trip was billed as an on-the-ground expedition in which he would “help search for American servicemen,” be “in the field,” “looking for downed pilots,” according to his press release and the headlines it precipitated. Photos of the trip will reveal the Texas Governor smiling in safari pants, a handkerchief around his neck as he poses with veterans and delivers speeches before scenic jungle backdrops. According to BentProp’s online logbook, though, the Texas contingent missed every actual mission. Perry did manage to get out on an expedition boat—with a documentary film crew—take exclusive tours of Palau’s diving and tourist sites, and throw a lovely sunset reception at the resort.
Like a beauty queen born with the right looks at the right time, Palau gets paid to be Palau, smiling and collecting when the cameras flash. When a powerful Republican with presidential aspirations arrives, she flirts accordingly. Her largest employer by far is the government. Much of that work is dedicated to allocating foreign handouts. So I’m not sure this is your average Texan politician’s definition of “independence.”
I’m being hard on the Governor. But when friends and I met up in downtown Koror for a drink at our usual Friday night bar and saw Rick Perry in a hunter green t-shirt with a bullseye on the back, I admit I felt sorry for him. In person, he looked nothing like the grown-up Ken doll I’d seen on TV, with his deep tan and whitened teeth. He looked old, diminished. His wife was overdressed for the island in a black cocktail dress and updo, and she stood for a long time in the lobby with the bodyguards, her arms folded across her chest and a scowl on her face, tapping the toes of her high heels. Inside, Perry wandered through the crowd mumbling about something he’d lost. “I had a hat around here…” He looked confused. “Has anyone seen my hat?”
It is easy to discount someone who has offended you, your values, your land, or members of your human family when you don’t see them as a complex being. I can sit in my living room with the newspaper and shake my fists at the two-dimensional page. I can be unforgiving. I can make enemies of strangers. It’s the terrifying thing about drones: one step closer to the dehumanization of war.
When I speak to a parent whose child or niece or nephew or cousin is starting another tour in Afghanistan, I can’t help but sense the irony: seventy years after Peleliu, and twenty years after independence, Palau is still stuck fighting America’s war.
But there, in the bar, Rick Perry could have been my uncle, or my grandfather. He was an old man I felt compelled to help.
Shortly after I moved to Palau, I asked a local friend why so many Palauans had family in the U.S. military. He told me that when Palau entered into the Compact with the U.S., then-president [Salii] vowed to send the nation’s “best and brightest” to defend our country, a commitment Palau has honored. Drive around town and see the bumper stickers: “Proud parent of a soldier.” See the ex-army men on afternoon runs, in formation, six or eight or ten of them in a line down the sidewalks, huffing and puffing so many years after boot camp.
Of course, it’s more than that. Recruitment is high in the Pacific islands, and a U.S. salary can go a long way to help a family gain money and status, or at least afford customary funerals and ceremonies. The reality of the work is a trade-off: as non-citizens, Palauans are restricted to enlistment status, the lowest ranks. They hold the weapons. They work the front lines. When I speak to a parent whose child or niece or nephew or cousin is starting another tour in Afghanistan, I can’t help but sense the irony: beneath the shadow of regret or knit look of worry on a mother’s face, the lingering sense that, seventy years after Peleliu, and twenty years after independence, Palau is still stuck fighting America’s war.
Despite its mandate against guns and nuclear activity, Palauans were never a peacekeeping people. Their traditional bais—men’s meeting houses—depict scenes of villages at war with spears and fists. Local legends reveal as much, a constant state of competition between clans, with money often at the heart of conflict. Money and pride. Titles and honor.
So let that be the tie that binds Texas and Palau, if it serves you. Find the common ground of war, of patriotism, of pride so great as to be fierce, and all of the aggression and intensity and destruction that goes along with that chosen adjective. Give Rick Perry the honor of citizenship, and he, in return, will wrangle money your way—twist congressional arms, promote your cause, persuade Congress to re-up the Compact for another decade, say. At the very least, he will publicize his goodwill trip in a nice press release.
But let’s not make the power of bones brought up from the sea about anyone’s record of achievement. Let’s see them for what they are: somebody’s son, father, grandfather, brother. Life lost, sacrificed to an old-fashioned power structure. War is death, the great diminishing, a sentence from which none of us are exceptional.
Anna Vodicka’s essays have appeared in Brevity, Guernica, The Iowa Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Ninth Letter, Shenandoah, and other national literary magazines. In 2013, she won The Missouri Review audio contest for prose, a Pushcart Prize Honorable Mention, and a Notable Essay in Best American Essays. She currently writes from Palau, in western Micronesia. You can find more of her writing at www.annavodicka.com.