The “American Dream” in Melanesia: Island Soldier

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
“I want to be an American … soldier”

The absent protagonist of Island Soldier, Sappuro “Sapp” Nena, replied to this question while in uniform, riding an armored personnel carrier in Afghanistan. He died in action before he could return home. Although enlisted in the U.S. Army, he was not an American citizen. Perhaps his answer, “I want to be an American … soldier” was a joke among the tight group of platoon mates filming each other as they traversed dangerous territory. Yet it seems to capture the ambivalence veterans and their families feel in Kosrae, part of the Federated States of Micronesia, former U.S. colony and U.S. military “recruiters’ paradise.” Through a close look at families in Kosrae as they mourn, wait, or send off young men, Island Soldier causes us to ask whether “sovereignty” can account for the complicated reality of Micronesia and other post-colonial nations.

In its attention to everyday practices of getting by in Kosrae, the film shows us a mobile population who are as likely to be packing for deployment in Afghanistan or filing papers at an understaffed Veterans’ Affairs Office as they are gardening, fishing, or processing taro. Repeated scenes of U.S. flags and large marble tombstones in front of houses add to our sense that attachments to the metropole remain. In part, these attachments to the U.S. endure because of outstanding security and economic treaties, such as The Compact of Free Association; however, the film suggests that in a deeper sense, people in Kosrae cling to a set of promises that the U.S. offered but has never delivered. Although the U.S. formally decolonized in 1983, the sense of unfulfilled promises remains, much like the coral encrusted tanks in Kosrae’s lagoon. Showing us these ghosts of colonial history, Island Soldier suggests that pride in one’s national independence does not always mean a complete rejection of the colonizer’s ideals.

Although Island Soldier shows that economic insecurity motivates young Melanesians to sign up in the U.S. military, the film explores what Yarimar Bonilla, writing about the French Caribbean, calls “non-sovereign futures.” If discourses of sovereignty generally depict autonomy as the goal and outcome of decolonization, the vision of sovereignty presented in Island Soldier suggests that the departure of the colonists—partial because of U.S. military control of Melanesia’s vast ocean territory and provision of some necessary government services—does not automatically lead to autonomy. The film shows us how Melanesians express commitments to, and pride in, their nation in discourses of “island culture” and in the islander networks Melanesians have formed in the U.S. military. Shared military service, Veteran’s Day observances, funerals, and fishing all create conditions for an imagined Micronesian nation. These conditions ultimately lack the possibility of resolution into an untroubled national identity, however. While some activists work for sustainable agriculture and food sovereignty, tastes for cheeseburgers and awareness of the looming end of U.S. economic assistance fill the thoughts of those in the film. The men enlist in order to help their families economically, but also to stake a larger claim: Do not abandon us.

From another perspective, the film shows us the human costs of the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan from the perspective of families in Kosrae. The film follows the Nena family’s attempts to commemorate Sapp, who died in Afghanistan, but also shows their frustrations in securing veterans’ benefits. When the flags are folded after funeral’s end, those in the community can turn to each other and to the land for sustenance. But with most of the island’s young people off island to seek economic opportunity, who will remain to tend taro and banana gardens? And with the cost of gasoline, is it still worth it to fish? These questions touch on how Melanesia’s (non-)sovereign realities are personally felt.

Island Soldier relates these questions through a wide variety of archival and social media footage, as well as sensitively filmed scenes of life in Kosrae and on military bases in the United States and Afghanistan. Contrasts between Kosrae’s lush maritime landscape and the dry expanses of Colorado show the distance between home and the army bases where one of the recruits prepares for deployment. Weaving scenes of family gatherings with informal interviews, often conducted in boats or automobiles, the film presents disparate perspectives on military recruitment and service. Giving further depth to these perspectives, scenes of both public and relatively private commemoration, including local string band and gospel music, highlight the many ways that they are lived and felt in Kosrae. In this sense, the film puts a human face on an otherwise abstract set of questions.

In its depiction of U.S. military recruits in Kosrae, the film might cause us to reflect on colonial nostalgia elsewhere. Micronesia, Pelau, and the Marshall Islands may seem to be the opposite of Taiwan’s condition. These Pacific Island nations have UN recognition, but many key functions of their governments are performed by the United States. Taiwan, of course, has all of the functions of a fully sovereign government but lacks formal recognition. By appealing to shared sacrifice and ambitions, U.S. military veterans in Micronesia express desires for a kind of normal nationality that might only be possible if they were “American.” Yet in their military service these men also stress their commitments to an impossible but deeply felt homeland. Hence the gap in Sapp’s answer, “I want to be an American … soldier.” In its attention to how this gap is experienced in Micronesia today, Island Soldier resonates with post-colonial desires for national identities that can account for the unfinished business of colonial relationships. It is a beautiful and thought provoking film.

Watch the trailer for Island Soldier.