Living Along the Fenceline: Militarism and Gender (part 2)

By Lynn Koh
Sep 27, 2012

This is a review of the documentary Living Along the Fenceline, second in an ongoing series about militarism and gender. The first part of the series is here. If you think there is something I should review (a book, a movie, anything), please let me know. 

What is the story of U.S. imperialism? What happens on and around the 1000 U.S. bases which grip countries across the globe, from Afghanistan to Korea?  Living Along the Fenceline is a documentary directed by Lina Hoshino and Gwyn Kirk, and co-produced by Deborah Lee; it brings us the story of seven women organizers who live next to military bases in Texas, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Japan, Korea, Guam, and Hawai'i.  

While each of the segments begin with some background information about the military bases in each region, the documentary mostly focuses on the women's concrete experiences with militarism, told in their own voices. This delivers a richness that a strictly analytical documentary about militarism could not capture.  Thus, nearly all segments weave together a number of themes with the particular history of an area, a family, or an individual.  

The opening segment, for instance, introduces us to Diana Lopez, a 19-year-old antimilitarist organizer in San Antonio, Texas, which we learn has live near 8 different bases.  

"My dream was to fly a fighter jet," she says, and goes on to describe the intensely militarized culture at her high school, where students have to enroll in band, ROTC, or Phys Ed.  Even though Lopez, who was a musician in the Mariachi tradition chose her band, she still saw a military recruiter every day at lunch. Her older sister enlisted and her guidance counselor told her the best route into aviation was through the Air Force. As graduation approached, Lopez recalls that she worried whether her whole life would be tough if she didn't enlist. 

But Diana Lopez turned out to not meet the height requirement for an Air Force pilot, and through the encouragement of a teacher ends up doing an internship with a social justice organization. The end of her segment in the documentary follows her as she explains the way a local creek has been poisoned by Kelly Air Force Base, resulting in astronomical levels of cancer and how the community has been moved to fight for justice and a healthy environment.

"Your neighbor has cancer and you think it's normal," she explains. In one scene Lopez describes how the sign she put up saying 'Don't Swim due to Contamination' was taken down and replaced by another sign saying 'Strong Currents -- Do Not Swim'. 

The segment, then, provides a window into how the military shapes aspirations as well as options for young people in working-class communities, and how that is reinforced through institutions such as the education system; at the same time, it demonstrates how opportunities in those same institutions exist for providing non-military alternatives for youth. By way of Lopez's recounting of her family's migration history and the annexation of Texas, the documentary also alludes to the irony and tragedy of a colonized people bearing both the responsibilities -- as victims and soldiers -- and costs of contemporary imperialism.

The filmmakers have chosen to highlight some of these themes as common threads holding together the various segments, and so viewers can watch a string of segments focused on the environment, violence against women, colonization, or the Asia-Pacific region. The thematic groupings work as good introductions to several of the issues related to militarism, but as I have suggested in describing the San Antonio segment, the ways that the military shapes these women's lives are sometimes difficult to reduce to categories.

Lisa Natividad, an organizer from Guam, discusses how her mom worked at a military base and developed health complications throughout her entire, unnaturally short life. We also see -- in one of the most memorable images of the film -- how her mom used to collect bomb casings to use as a fence because they matched the color of their red-and-white house. Natividad, who works with a network of other women leaders, has launched a campaign to oppose the transfer of 8,000 more marines to Guam.   

The documentary, at a little over an hour, is very concise.  I found myself wanting to see more about Zaida Torres' work as an organizer from Vieques, as well as an exploration of what the transnational linkages among these women and their organizations -- which is touched on briefly -- has meant for their organizing efforts. I also thought that the stories of the women who worked to support sex-workers seeking alternatives raised questions about the relationship between militarism and sex-work. The documentary describes how the emergence of a large sex-work industry because of a military base distorts the economic options available to young women. As Alma Bulawan from the Philippines describes, she could earn in one night what she earned in a whole week doing menial labor. But how might the experience of doing sex-work in a militarized community differ from doing sex work in another location?  

The stories in this documentary insistently pose the important question -- if military bases do not bring security, what is our vision of genuine security? Such a vision must anchor our antimilitarist work.

For more information check out the following articles and websites:

Women for Genuine Security

Fortress Guam: Resistance to U.S. Mega-Military Buildup   

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

Lynn Koh is a long-time activist in the anti-war movement, and is a labor organizer in the Bay Area.

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