In light of this year’s RIMPAC military games, community groups such as Women’s Voices Women Speak, Oceans4Peace Coalition and Malu ‘Aina spoke out in protest of the multiple harms inflicted upon the Hawaiian islands by this biennial event. I support the arguments of all these groups, and particularly lend my voice to point out the degradation of our oceans that results from these war games.

I have hesitated to speak up about this issue, because many of my ocean-minded friends have some connection to the military, and I have unfortunately never had conversations with them about the interconnections between U.S. military occupation in Hawaii and the environmental issues that our islands face. It can be a difficult conversation to have. However, even as RIMPAC has ended, there is still time to open a dialogue for the future, and consider what is at stake for our ocean ecosystems in these games.

While we may be playing pretend, the battleground feels our ammunition in a very real sense. And when the battleground is actually the sea, it becomes difficult to track or quantify all the losses we accrue when sinking ships.

US Marines Amphibious Assault Vehicle rolls onto the sands at Pyramid Rock, Marine Corps Base Hawaii. Kaneohe Hawaii. 30 july 2016
A U.S. Marines amphibious assault vehicle rolls onto the sands at Pyramid Rock at Marine Corps Base Hawaii in July 2016. What are the consequences for the environment and wildlife? Cory Lum/Civil Beat

One of the main issues people have become concerned over is the safety of marine mammals in the midst of this fabricated war zone. Military personnel could be fired or fined or both for harming certain marine mammals such as whales and dolphins. Therefore, sonar is used to scan for these marine animals, to ensure that any military activity does not put them in harm’s way.

Unfortunately, sonar does not look out for deep sea corals that get crushed by SINKEX (“sink exercise”). Additionally, sonar itself is disruptive to marine mammals that depend on echo-location for daily life functions such as group communication, hunting, and breeding. Oceans4Peace Coalition has done extensive work to educate the public about the ways in which noise pollution in our seas can cause mammals to change their diving patterns, often diving too deep too frequently or surfacing too quickly, resulting in a vulnerability to decompression sickness. Sonar-related deaths of marine mammals might occur miles away and many minutes after the military’s presence. Sonar-related injuries are even more difficult to track in the vastness of the sea.

Furthermore, mammals are not the only animals in the sea that suffer from noise pollution. Fish become stressed and confused by noise that inhibits their ability to detect predators. So when the U.S. Navy’s sonar retains an intensity of 140dB over 300 miles, compared to the 150dB at 25 meters that a jet emits during takeoff, it’s probable that RIMPAC doesn’t feel like a peaceful pretend game to all the animals who live in this temporary battlefield.

These games take place in multiple marine monuments.

The argument can be made that realistically, the Navy is not going to stop using sonar technology any time soon, and other sea traffic uses sonar as well. RIMPAC only happens every two years. Shouldn’t we be more concerned with the disruption that commercial boats are causing to marine life in Hawaii on a daily basis?

These arguments are valid, but here is what rubs me the wrong way about RIMPAC in particular: These games take place in multiple marine monuments. The U.S. Major Military Testing Range crosses into Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument, Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, and Mariana Trench Marine National Monument.

These are supposed to be protected areas for marine life, yet the U.S. military is still able to use these waters for national security purposes.

How can we rest assured and feel proud of our marine national monuments when we know that these places are still vulnerable to boat traffic, noise pollution, and sinking ships at the hands of our military as well as military from 21 other nations?

Power Posturing

And to what end? Ultimately, RIMPAC is U.S. power posturing disguised as necessary and peaceful training alongside 21 other nations, in preparation for some imagined future threat or disaster. Again, arguments can be made about the necessity of these games in our islands. But what if, instead of preparing for future threat, 25,000 military personnel from 22 countries were to spend 36 days working together on the endless environmental disasters currently playing out right now?

Malu ‘Aina called out RIMPAC in a similar way, suggesting that providing aid to people on Hawaii island in the aftermath of the volcano eruptions might be a more protective, healing, and peace-building use of the military’s time than bombing ships in the middle of the ocean. Or what if 25,000 personnel from around the world came here to clean up our coastlines, or partner with local nonprofits, or grow coral on our reefs, or plant native species in our forests, instead of training amphibious landings that wreak havoc to our shoreline reefs?

RIMPAC is a question of priorities. On the one hand, RIMPAC floods the state economically, and prepares for future disaster, if you believe that the U.S. military and these 21 other nations who are supposed allies would actually keep us safe in a natural disaster. On the other hand, RIMPAC continues to harm countless nonhuman lives and adds to the already accumulating stresses of global climate change in places where sea life is otherwise protected.

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