JPRI Critique Vol. VII No. 10 (November 2000)
Teaching the U.S. Military on Okinawa
by Randall Doyle
In January 1996, I arrived in Okinawa as a teacher in the University of Maryland's program to offer college courses to U.S. military personnel and Department of Defense civilian employees at Kadena Air Force Base and other military installations on the island. A few months prior to my arrival the infamous rape of a twelve-year-old Okinawan schoolgirl by three U.S. servicemen had occurred, and I was immediately inundated by military propaganda concerning this incident. I was told that Governor Masahide Ota was manipulating the crisis to get the American forces off the island and that if this were allowed to happen, northeast Asia would fall apart due to the threats represented by China and North Korea. These threats, including the one posed by Governor Ota, were never really explained. It was assumed that you implicitly understood, being a "good American," that regional if not global peace was at stake.
There were huge protests on the island over this crime. I was told that these protesters did not represent "real" Okinawans: that most of them were from the mainland and flown in by left-wing political groups. When I brought up this subject on the base or in academic meetings, there was always an awkward silence. Eventually, angry defensive posturing would follow this silence. One individual in my history class informed me that older men in Okinawa raped schoolgirls all the time. When I asked what that had to do with the behavior of three U.S. servicemen, I was informed that the Americans were simply behaving like the locals.
The University of Maryland University College
The University of Maryland University College has been a part of the East Asian scene since the 1950s. In Japan education is provided to U. S. military personnel, civilians, and Japanese nationals by UMAD (University of Maryland, Asian Division). The courses it provides are theoretically the same as those offered at the University of Maryland, College Park, although the quality of instruction in some subjects is inconsistent. However, the overall faculty in Okinawa was very good. In fact, having taught in South Korea, Germany, and mainland Japan, I can state with absolute conviction that the Okinawa faculty was the best U.S. faculty in Asia. And it was as good as the faculties I have worked with at other universities in the U.S.
I left Okinawa after eight months, in August 1996, to take a one-year assignment in Germany. But I quickly returned in August 1997 because I preferred living in Asia. In December 1999 I left the island for the final time to take a job in the United States. During my first term in Okinawa I taught three classes and a seminar. At the end I had given about a half-dozen F's and several D's, mostly for lack of attendance or failure to complete assignments. The director of UMAD's operations in Okinawa looked at my grade sheet and asked what I was doing. He then told me that students would quit taking my classes if the word got out that I gave F's and D's. The military community believes it should receive "special treatment" as students, and UMAD's administration agrees. I did not, but since I was paid by the class, I was well aware that no classes meant no money. In other words, I had to be careful not to alienate my "special students." This subtle but undeniable reality corrupted our grading policies. Some teachers were quite open about giving students higher grades to ensure that their classes were filled the next academic term. It should be noted that grade inflation has infected American education at all levels.
Despite these institutional attempts to curry favor with the military, I did not encounter censorship in the classroom. In fact, I spoke freely and without fear until my last year. In the spring of 1999, I had distributed an article in a constitutional law class about the so-called Gulf War syndrome that had affected thousands of U.S. soldiers. The Pentagon had denied and covered up the physical and mental effects on its soldiers, and its officials provided little information concerning the malady's possible origins. The article came from Vanity Fair magazine, and its author was a reporter during the Gulf War who believed that he might have been indirectly affected. In the end, the reporter discovered that Gulf War syndrome was probably caused by the powerful vaccines that the military gave to soldiers in preparation for a possible biological attack from Saddam Hussein's Iraqi military. The shots inadvertently overwhelmed an individual's immune system, thereby causing neurological and physical damage. I used this article to question the constitutionality of the military giving anthrax shots to soldiers during peacetime as a preventative against possible future biological attacks. Little did I know that I had touched a raw nerve.
As a result of my informing students that these shots had a potential for great harm, I was told by UMAD that I would not be teaching government classes any more. My classes were given to another instructor who was having problems getting students because of a lack of interest in his government courses. In early 2000, I learned that my concerns about the anthrax vaccine were justified when the military announced that they were stopping the vaccination program until further review of its possible side-effects. The U.S. Congress, under pressure from concerned soldiers and citizens, asked the Pentagon to reevaluate the program, although, in a face-saving gesture, the Pentagon stated that it had run out of the anthrax vaccine.
Unofficial TV in Okinawa
Another thing that caused problems for me on Okinawa was my television appearances. I was a volunteer at an independent (i.e., not controlled by the U.S. military), American-owned cable station. My program was called "Okinawa P.M.," and it had irritated the local military command structure and a few UMAD administrators. The owner of the television station, a former active-duty military media person, ran the station as owner-manager and seemed to enjoy the occasional flack he received from my comments concerning military policy (e.g., the treatment of gays in uniform, Okinawan land issues, and the quality of life in the armed forces). My program partners were the wife of a military chaplain at Camp Foster, and a former U.S. Air Force officer who had worked in the areas of diplomacy and military policy development. The retired Air Force officer was a hard-core conservative but an able and competent individual, and I came to like him for his candor on local and regional issues.
However, the station owner was starting to get increasingly nervous about complaints coming from the military, since our television studio was located on Camp Foster, one of the many U.S. Marine bases. He began to receive thinly veiled threats concerning the station's future on the base. The owner's brother also had ambitious ideas for the station, wanting to expand its programming throughout the Pacific region, including military bases in mainland Japan, South Korea, and Singapore. Corporate investments into new television outlets and controversial political viewpoints do not mix well in this type of environment.
Oddly enough, the former Air Force officer was the first to be forced off the show thanks to intense military pressure. He told me that he had received a number of phone calls from the local command saying that his retirement might be in jeopardy if he remained on the program. He did not like President Bill Clinton's military policies, and he believe that the president should have been impeached over the Monica Lewinsky scandal. The phone calls from the command said he should "cool it" because criticisms of the president weakened the American position on Okinawa.
In my classrooms, military students who watched the program often passed on stories in class of individuals in the U.S. military who were packed up and moved off the island quickly for criticizing the U.S. presence on Okinawa. If you were removed because of this type of (mis)behavior, your career in the military was, for all intents and purposes, over.
The wife of the military chaplain, who had been a former television and radio personality in the Philadelphia and Washington DC areas, eventually started to distance herself from the show as well. Since her husband served on the base where the show was taped, and since he was close to retirement, this show represented a potential threat to their family. She did stay on, however, after the retired Air Force officer and I had left the show. I later discovered that toward the end of my stint there were a number of calls concerning my status on the island and that only my being a civilian and a college professor had kept the military censors at bay.
U. S. Military Attitudes
Unlike many critics of the U.S. military, I did serve for four years (1976-1980) in the U.S. Navy as a radioman in Western Australia (Naval Communications Station Harold E. Holt) and on Guam. The military community is very tribal and isolated from civilian culture. Quite often during my tenure with the U.S. Navy, civilians were scorned and seen as lacking proper patriotism and respect for the military. That same attitude, from my direct observation, is strongly prevalent within the military community today. The armed forces see themselves as being "special" and they angrily resent criticism and believe that their commitment to defend America is not properly appreciated by the U.S. public. I constantly reminded my students that most Americans cannot find Okinawa on a map, and almost none, including many military personnel, knows what the mission is for the thousands of troops stationed there. Their perception of being "victims" made a regular appearance in my classes and on the television show that I hosted. Military literature and television programs within their own community reinforce these attitudes.
The military perspective concerning Okinawa was saturated in arrogance. There was a strong and unshakable belief that Okinawa was really U.S. property. Even though the military publicly acknowledged that Okinawa was a prefecture of Japan, troops often thought of Okinawa as a quasi-suburb of Hawaii. To criticize U.S. military behavior on Okinawa was seen as tantamount to criticizing America itself. Even many of the UMAD faculty saw Okinawa as an unofficial fifty-first state. A good friend on the faculty once responded to a statement concerning Governor Ota by calling him "that man" in a derisive tone of voice. It reminded me of how during the 1930s the rich refused to speak Franklin Roosevelt's name out loud. They also referred to him as "that man." In fact, a UMAD administrator on Okinawa once told me that Governor Ota was lying about his educational accomplishments. When I asked him for the source of this misinformation (ex-Governor Ota has a bachelor's degree in English literature from Waseda University, an M.A. from Syracuse University in New York, and was during the 1980s dean of the College of Law and Literature at the University of the Ryukyus; he is the author of over forty books on Okinawan history), I was told that the military public relations department at Yokota Air Base was the source.
Governor Masahide Ota was a figure to be scorned and was identified as an enemy by the U.S. mission on Okinawa. One student, a U.S. Marine at Futenma Air Station, blurted out in class that Governor Ota was a communist. Futenma Air Station had by then been designated to be returned to the Okinawan government. Obviously not everyone agreed with this decision.
In December 1998, after Governor Ota's failed election campaign for a third term, I invited him to appear on "Okinawa P.M." This hour-long dialogue in English was the first interview with Ota to be broadcast to U.S. military facilities on Okinawa. In it he said that regardless of the outcome of the election, he was going to dedicate himself to working on the growing environmental problems of Okinawa due to population and industrial growth. He also said he was going to write his political memoirs about his eight years as governor of Okinawa. These the Asahi newspaper published in February 2000 as Okinawa no ketsudan (Decisions on Okinawa), a frank exposé of the way the power brokers in Tokyo and Washington treated Okinawa during his two terms in office.
It is Masahide Ota's historical legacy to have revealed to those Okinawans, Japanese, and Americans who want to listen the contradictions of American military policy toward Okinawa and within the Japanese-American Security Treaty itself. Despite the harsh American military canards directed against him, it is surely his vision that will prevail.
RANDALL DOYLE is a professor of history and political science at Great Basin College in Elko, Nevada. He taught for three years in Okinawa in the University of Maryland, Asian Division.