I am a Warship, or Unapologetic Americanism
America as global superpower. America as arbiter of national law. America as flexed muscle. America as menacing grace. This Monday I toured the USS Lassen, which has been confirmed by several news outlets as the ship that sailed through the South China Sea (SCS). Its “routine patrol” was a simultaneous show of force in an ongoing international conflict, in a region where the USA interferes whether invited or not. It was a chance to question my own movement through this space where I am so foreign, so out-of-place, so simultaneously wanted and unwanted. State, Citizen, and uncomfortable parallels.
The USS Lassen and the South China Sea
The SCS conflict in question is the matter of legal clam to the resources of the South China Sea (SCS), a shared ocean with a set of strategically-advantageous islands sprinkled unevenly throughout. Over $5 trillion in global trade passes through these waters every year. There are really clear articles here and here which are worth reading, not least because, as a naval officer grinned, “Your tax dollars paid for this beauty [i.e. the USS Lassen].” The South China Sea has a long history going back thousands of years, but tensions came to a head recently when the Chinese began to manipulate and build upon sandbars and shallow reefs. We’re talking air bases, small concrete strips enough to say “this is inhabitable land,” enabling China to claim more offshore territory. These small islands, in China’s view, extend China’s international EEZ boundary far beyond mainland shores. As a Chinese product, these adapted (and destroyed) reefs become imbued with the legal and symbolic properties of Chinese earth. The other nation-states bordering the SCS, beg to differ.
The US came into direct conflict with China in the first of, I kid you not, as series of “Freedom of Navigation Operation.” Can’t spell American without that good ol’ F-R-E-E-D-O-M. The Spratly Islands are a claimed by some hodgepodge of Vietnam, China, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Japan. The US Navy entered the SCS to enforce its right to navigate international waters.The commanding officer describes the recent encounter here and here, with surprising sensitivity given what was ultimately a symbolic middle finger to the Chinese. It feels a bit like some prod in poker, testing the waters and reading cues. The USS Lassen’s excuse to be in the area? It was en route to Brunei to do a knowledge exchange with the Royal Brunei Armed Forces (RBAF), coordinating military efforts to ensure smooth sailing should America need allies in the SCS. “Interoperability” is a word, I learned.
Easily Enforced Distinctions
Brunei has been really hard. I wonder if people are tired of my whining yet. I should say “was hard” because, surreally, I am off in Malaysia observing a coral research team and it’s great. More on that later. It was only in my last weeks that I cultivated a sense of the adventures I could find for myself if I was truly bored, but it was also then that I felt like my time in Brunei (though not Borneo) was over. It was’t just the strongest sense of “other,” or not having a car, or not loving my British Neighbors’s senses of humor. It was hard as a Watson Fellow with a project, with a strong idea of what I wanted to get done without anyone curious about my vision – let alone willing to help. I began to develop a Sisiphysian shoulder cramp. No one asked me to be here, but I came in with a lot of opinions, ideas, and capital to make sure my project came out as I wanted. I was floating.
The US warship rested innocently in the water the Brunei Bay, just a few miles from the dive shop I worked at, the way that a shark sleeps. Besides a debacle with my headscarf, the visit aboard was low-key. Casual. The staff showed a confident comfort with the ship’s weapon power. The Lassen is a guided missile destroyer or, rather, your worst enemy in Battleship. Short version summary is that, using intense radar technology and a big-ass missile launcher, this ship can pretty much wreck you with the press of a button. The radar system accounts for climatological factors and the location of the target and communicate with the missile launch. There are machine gun artillery rounds draped casually over the railings, Glocks strapped to the thighs of sailors in what-I-no-longer-consider-threatless navy costumes. I made friendly chatter with the naval officer and enlisted staff who gave us a tour, took photos, asked nosy questions, and was not kicked off-board. The “us” here denotes the Brunei military personnel I was grouped with for the trip, I think by mistake. Brunei women in hijabs and camo flashed peace signs for the camera in front of a 5-in. missile launcher. I got to sling Americanisms around and did so without reserve. An officer, amidst a shared laugh, asked what brought me to Brunei, and when I said artificial reefs (which for him are central to the SCS conflict) got very quiet and held his gun a little tighter.
Like I said, causal.
I came to Brunei to exchange labor as a dive instructor for free diving and discounted housing with Poni Divers. I got some of the free diving, but the staff weren’t particularly eager to help me get the project done. I got some emails, but whenever I wanted to dive the rig the boats weren’t going that direction. Touring Brunei’s shipwrecks had its own contributions to the artificial reef project, but I only got to dive Brunei’s oil rig 3 times (I made it to Miri for a very productive dive, however). Sometimes the teaching schedule took me out with the tides, and I soon remembered a bigger promise. I promised the Watson Foundation but, more importantly, myself, my independence. I began to think about leaving early. Maybe I should have stayed and forced my project on the shop, but I don’t know if I have it in me right now.
What if I thought of myself as a warship. Not some gentle anthropologist or ingenue adventurer but a live wire. Precise and dangerous playing at diplomacy. I could be this. In many ways I’ve missed the ability to feel dangerous or imposing as a woman while in Brunei. I’ve met a lot of strong women here, but that doesn’t mean the guys listen when presented with strength. I want to blaze paths and sling ideas and not feel like I’m stepping on glass when I’m critical. If I was a warship, armed and fast, keeping diplomatic ties and not personal ones, guilt holding no candle to my sense of stubborn nationalist righteousness. Not subject my sense of self to this constant internal and external interrogation. If I was a warship, I wouldn’t be me. There’s that rub of honest reality and connection that points at something true, real, important. (Lovely Salish passed on Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, and Nelson passed on Wittgenstein’s ruminations on the inexpressible and I am hooked.) So by the time I hustled out of Brunei I made amends as best I could and flew on.
Brunei will not be symbolic of the rest of my year, I’ve promised myself that. If anything it might be the hardest spot in the journey. But I want to keep thinking about the way my presence impacts the communities I work with, especially when working with local researchers and conservationists. They have lives and schedules and priorities and communities – how am I supposed to bump in and out? Sometimes they just invite you to do so. Somehow I ended up in a hotel room in a hotel in Semporna with some Malaysian coral researchers, joining their dives to observe. I have to be kind, open, and transparent about my interests and that’ll take me where I need to go. The researchers are smart and engaged and curious and responsive folks. My time is productive and I’m learning a lot. Going with my gut turned out to be the right move. I’m happy to quiet my americanisms in the name of hearing the rest of the world.
America is seen as a blase international authority, almost happy to intervene in the SCS, the Middle East, ready to jump in when other global powers debate/think things through. Last Monday I saw the military power it takes to be that casual. To be honest a lot of the other nations in the SCS are very angry with China and are happy the US is around, but that’s not a long term solution. It’s certainly not a short term solution for the healthy reefs getting absolutely wrecked every day as China builds new islands. And the US is enforcing our own right to access as much as some idealized policy-perfect sense of proper EEZs. Oil, fish, tourism. Four months in and I’m beginning to really understand the material value embedded in SE Asia.
I can tromp around as sensitively as I want. Like the USS Lassen, I’m still here. That presence means something, small shifts in language spoken or a days work for the people I meet and interview. Doesn’t mean I’m not gonna try.
The ever-verbose Rennie
p.s The U.S. 7th Fleet rock band, made up of residents on the USS Lassen, is called the “Orient Express”
p.p.s. More on what I’m actually doing soon. FYI, I am in Semporna, Sabah, Malaysia. I am alive.
p.p.p.s. There’s a lot more to be said about the South China Sea. Thoughts incoming.