The failure to cancel RIMPAC or the slowness in doing so – whichever turns out to be the case – demands a reordering of our priorities to place healthcare before warfare. A call from the Australian government to our troops to “#StayAtHome” is long overdue.
At the time of writing, the US has not declared whether, amid coronavirus concerns, the RIMPAC military exercises will proceed in Hawaii in June and July as scheduled. Nor has Australian Defence Minister Linda Reynolds announced whether, if they do, Australia will take part. As whole countries virtually shut down, there has been a troubling slowness in grasping what was obvious weeks ago – that a gathering of tens of thousands of troops in the close confines in which Navy personnel sleep, eat and work would add further disaster to the current crisis.
RIMPAC (Rim of the Pacific) is the world’s largest international maritime warfare exercise and is held every two years in Hawaii, hosted primarily by the United States Navy‘s Indo-Pacific Command. In 2018, RIMPAC involved troops from 25 nations both near and distant, including, of course, Australia.
The people of Hawaii are rightly dismayed at the risk they would face from such a scenario. Governor of Hawaii David Ige has asked for RIMPAC to be postponed, and other people in Hawaii and elsewhere have called for the exercises to be cancelled. It is not just Navy personnel who are at risk but also the civilians who inevitably come into contact with them.
The recent experiences of other Pacific Islanders suggest that the health of local communities is not a US military priority. In March there was an outbreak of COVID on the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt, with over 150 sailors diagnosed. Thousands of US sailors were moved into local hotels on the Pacific island of Guam rather than into the island’s US military bases. Journalist Nic Maclellan writes that the move angered many residents including indigenous Chamoru people, because local hotel staff are vulnerable to the infection. The island has only two civilian hospitals and very few ICU beds. Maclellan reports that the government of Guam had turned away the cruise ship MV Westerman in February, fearful of a spread of COVID from infected passengers, but Guam has no authority to block a US warship from its harbours.
It has been revealed also that in March and early April, 72 US troops were positive for coronavirus in testing done for US Forces Korea by a research institute in South Korea, with only numbers rather than names attached to the samples tested. The U.S. military eventually said on 6 April that the troops were not stationed on the Korean peninsula, but did not disclose where they actually were.
Pentagon orders prohibit US military bases and commanders from releasing numbers of personnel tested or quarantined for COVID, citing the standard smokescreen of “operational security” beloved of leaders there and elsewhere. Such stonewalling means that, if RIMPAC proceeds, local communities in Hawaii would not know which bases or units are hard-hit with the virus.
All this comes in the context of the UN Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire to enable responses to COVID. Quite apart from the public health imperative, the cancellation of military exercises could be a powerful step towards the de-escalation of tensions that is needed to address not only COVID but a host of other global problems. Perhaps it is that power of a good example of de-escalation that has troubled US military leaders and delayed any announcement about RIMPAC.
Even before COVID, community leaders in Hawaii have opposed RIMPAC, because of the bombardment of their land, the live-fire training, the unexploded ordnance that dots the landscape, the sinking of decommissioned ships that release toxic chemicals just offshore, the corroding fuel tanks that threaten aquifers, the destruction of cultural sites, and the suppression of Hawaiian sovereignty. Militarism leaves a heavy environmental and cultural footprint.
While reports emerging that RIMPAC might be postponed are extremely welcome, it is of concern that Australia has not taken an independent stand and declared our non-participation weeks ago when the scale of the medical risk, to the people of Hawaii and to our own troops, was known.
The failure to cancel RIMPAC or the slowness in doing so – whichever turns out to be the case – indicates a mindset that places our preparations for yet another war above virtually everything else, including healthcare. Despite regular military exercises, Australia has not had a large-scale national pandemic exercise since 2008.
A re-ordering of our priorities is needed. Health threats demand far more of our attention, and destructive military exercises should receive much less. A call from the Australian government to our troops to “#StayAtHome” is long overdue.
Dr Sue Wareham OAM is President of the Medical Association for Prevention of War (Australia) and a board member in Australia of ICAN, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. She is a former Canberra GP.