With roots planted in the 1893 overthrow of Queen Liliuokalani and a presence that extends through the entire archipelago, the military’s influence in Hawaii is surpassed only by tourism.
The military controls some 236,000 acres throughout the state, including 25 percent of the land mass of Oahu, and thousands of square miles of surrounding airspace and sea. Yet as a branch of the federal government, the Department of Defense (DoD) operates in the Islands with little public oversight and virtual impunity, except when national environmental laws come into play.
Notwithstanding, it’s burned up native forests, dumped hazardous materials into the ocean and killed protected native species. It’s rendered land unusable with its unexploded ordinance, disrupted neighborhoods with its noise, dropped nearly every bomb known to man on the island of Kahoolawe. It’s unearthed ancient burials, launched rockets from sacred dunes, shut off public access mauka and makai. And in the course of a century, it’s transformed Waimomi, once the food basket for Oahu, into Pearl Harbor, a giant Superfund complex comprising at least 749 contaminated sites.
So why do our people, and politicians, allow the militarly to stay, aside from the fact that it is well-armed and deeply entrenched here?
Money is the answer most often given. DoD expenditures in Hawaii totaled some $6.5 billion in 2009 — about 9 percent of the state’s gross domestic product.
“Yes, some people get paid, but who’s paying the price of that?” counters Kyle Kajihiro of Hawaii Peace and Justice, a non-profit organization. “There are losers in this, and unfortunately, it’s often native people,” he adds, citing damage to ecology and cultural sites, and Hawaii’s being perceived as “am accessory to the militarization that extends from our shores.”
About 65 percent of the military spending, or $4.2 billion, covers the salaries of 48,000 active duty personnel, 18,000 DoD civilian workers and 9,000 National Guard and Reserve members, as well as the benefits of 16,088 retirees.
The work tends to pay well, averaging $74,000 per year for military employees and $69,800 for DoD civilians, compared to an annual median income of $40,000 for Hawaii residents, according to a RAND National Defense Research Institute study commissioned last year by the Hawaii Institute for Public Affairs and Chamber of Commerce.
The remaining $2.3 billion in federal defense spending goes to procurements, which encompass everything from basic supplies to multi-million-dollar construction contracts. But while 94 percent of that total goes to Oahu, only 58 percent of it went to companies with a Hawaii address. But RAND estimates that $6.5 billion in defense expenditures could generate as much as $12.2 billion, and create an additional 26,000 jobs, as it moves through the local economy.
Another plus: military spending is relatively consistent, according to Leroy Laney, a Hawaiii Pacific University professor of economics and finance.
And when you have a powerful representative in Washington, namely Sen. Daniel Inouye, the military’s presence can be leveraged to secure funding for other projects, particularly infrastructure. “You certainly cannot discount the role [Inouye] has played in bringing money to the state,” Laney says, noting that one of the primary justifications for the federal money that financed the H-3 freeway was moving marines from windward Oahu to Pearl Harbor. As chairman of the Senate Committee on Appropriations, Inouye was instrumental in securing some $490 million for Hawaii this year to finance initiatives ranging from military construction and highway projects to native Hawaiian healthcare and disaster preparedness.“Tourism will slow in its rate of growth, but the military will remain fairly stable. It is an infusion of money from the outside.”
Earthjustice attorney David Henkin views that “infusion” a little differently. “As for the money they’re spending in the state, it’s our money, it’s federal tax dollars. It’s not like they’re some third party that is investing in our community.”
The state has also sweetened the pot to keep the military happy, such as exempting the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard from the general excise tax — although this perk was recently suspended for several years as lawmakers scrambled to make up the budget shortfall.
Furthermore, Henkin says, “the nature of the enterprise is one that brings lots of temporary residents through who strain our infrastructure, compete for housing, and often have dependents who compete for civilian jobs. It’s not like a private company coming in and hiring local workers.”
Indeed, nearly two-thirds of the positions attributed to the military are held by its own personnel, who otherwise wouldn’t be in the Islands. And some 25,000 military spouses work full or part-time, according to the RAND study. Still, as Laney points out, “the troops that are garrisoned here spend money like everyone else, on housing, retail spending, entertainment.” The RAND study also showed that active duty personal, DoD civilian employees and reservists paid some $113 million in state taxes and spent $72 million on local healthcare providers between 2007-09 .
“If we suddenly took the military out of the economy, obviously Central Oahu would be hurt, but also the windward side,” Laney says. Marine Corps Base Hawaii, with 1,400 non-military workers, is the largest civilian employer on the windward side of Oahu, according to Lt. Diann M. Olson, the base’s media officer.
When it comes to creating jobs, however, a recent study by the Political Economy Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst determined that defense expenditures are an inefficient way to do it. The study found that $1 billion in government spending creates 11,200 jobs in the defense industry, compared to 16,800 jobs in clean energy, 17,200 in healthcare and 26,700 in the education sector.
“The San Francisco Bay Area created more jobs per acre when its [military] bases closed,” Kajihiro says. “Unfortunately, our leaders in Hawaii never look at how inefficient military spending is.”
That’s because money is only one factor in the equation.
“Hawaii is blessed, or cursed if you will, by our geography,” Kajihiro says. “We’re seen as a critical strategic location for U.S. imperialistic interests. We’re a place they’ll fight very hard to hold on to, unfortunately.”
With President Obama talking about shifting America’s focus away from the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific region, all signs point to an expanding military presence in Hawaii. The Marine Corps recently announced plans to base Osprey aircraft and Cobra and Huey attack/utility helicopters at Kaneohe starting this year, a move that would add some 2,100 persons to that facility and greatly increase noise from flyovers and training exercises. Inouye secured funding to base F-22 Raptor fighter jets at Hickham Air Force Base and build a new Coast Guard command and control center on Sand Island.
In February, the Senator announced his goal of bringing an interisland ferry back to Hawaii, by securing DoD funding to help support a state-run operation. The Navy recently purchased both vessels built for Hawaii Superferry (and currently stationed elsehwere) after the company went bankrupt. Elsewhere in the Islands, the Big Island’s Pohakuloa facility is poised to become the Army’s training center for the Pacific, And with Guam resistant to accepting the marines due to be relocated from Okinawa, it’s likely some will be transferred here: Gov. Abercrombie has floated the idea of building military housing for them in West Hawaii.
Despite the planned buildup, Kajihiro thinks Hawaii will see less military money “in a post-Inouye situation.” Though the Senator has announced his plans to run for a tenth term in 2016, it is questionable whether the 87-year-old will be able to fulfill that dream. His spokesman, Peter Boylan, did not respond to questions on how the Islands would fare economically without the clout of the Senate’s most senior member.
“Let’s start looking at alternatives now,” Kajihiro urges. “What is a different economic model for our islands, one that is more sustainable?”
Such a review also demands a closer look at tourism, which serves to “sugar-coat the violence and repressive history” of militarism in the Pacific region, Kajihiro says. But it’s not easy, he adds, to get folks talking about economic alternatives, or scrutinizing the true costs of the military’s presence, including its occupation of former kingdom lands that remain key to Hawaiian sovereignty and self-determination efforts.
“Whenever people raise these issues about the military impacts, they’re very quickly tainted as anti-military or anti-American, but it’s important to do an objective analysis,” Henkin says.
Kajihiro concurs that he would like to see a “freer climate to speak. I think there’s too much deference to the military by the business and political leadership, even among progressives, because so much funding comes attached. It makes it hard to have an honest discussion with this elephant in the room.”