- Bravo for the Marshallese: Regaining Control in a Post-Nuclear, Post-Colonial World
In Barbara Myerhoff's book Number Our Days (1978 ), Shmuel the tailor/ philosopher warns her not to put pins in people, deflate them, flatten them out, and sacrifice their multidimensionality. Shmuel counsels her to "leave them be. Don't try to make them stand still for your convenience. You don't ever know them. Let people surprise you" (Myerhoff 1978, 41). In turning lived existence into text or film, anthropologists can never leave people be. Moreover, entextualization inevitably involves transformation (Michael Silverstein and Greg Urban, Natural Histories of Discourse, 1996 ), but in transforming performances into text it is important not to deflate and flatten people out.
Reading Holly M Barker's Bravo for the Marshallese, I sense the voices of Marshall Islanders—who are themselves lively and multifaceted—being flattened out by a theory that presents them unilaterally as victims of colonialism. Of course, there is no question that Marshall Islands residents, particularly those who reside in the northern atolls, have suffered severely from US nuclear testing after World War II. There is also no doubt that the consequences of those tests continue to affect Marshall Islanders today and will have substantial effects well into the future. Barker makes this point [End Page 445] well. She demonstrates how Marshallese social organization, particularly that of Rongelap people, has been radically disrupted by nuclear testing. She shows some alterations in Marshallese identities that were interwoven with a past etched into the landscape, and how people's daily activities have changed as a result of nuclear testing. Not only have residents of the northern atolls been displaced from their primordial homes, but Barker also points out how people's bodies have been infused with radionuclides, forcing them to change their images of themselves. Equally importantly, she demonstrates how the United States has tried to limit its liabilities by enforcing an artificial four-atoll boundary that excludes residents of Likiep, Ailuk, and adjacent atolls from consideration for nuclear damages. These images are important parts of a counter-history of the nuclear-testing era for Marshall Islanders.
Barker's work is a critical counter-hegemonic account pointing to serious contradictions in the smoothly polished image of the United States as heroic world savior that fills many secondary school texts. She couches her work as anthropological advocacy rather than standard ethnography, and perhaps readers, especially the undergraduate audience for whom this book is written, should not expect her to delve much deeper. In the Marshall Islands, the perpetual sequence of US blunders is the only thing more earth-shattering than the nuclear detonations themselves.
It is laudable for Barker to actively support the Marshallese pleas for fair compensation in the face of ongoing US resistance to paying for damages that have been established, in accord with US demands, in an internationally constituted Nuclear Claims Tribunal. Nonetheless, in her attempt to construct a history of nuclear testing as reflected in the accounts of Marshallese, Barker oversimplifies or obliterates both Marshallese and US histories of the cold-war era. For example, she assesses US activities from a presentist perspective, as if US scientists knew as much about radiation risks in 1954 as they do today; as if animals that were sacrificed to learn about the effects of radiation in 1946 should be viewed with the empathy of animal-rights advocates who began to gain salience in the 1980 s; as if the idea that no humans might survive the nuclear holocaust that many thought was inevitable was not a real fear embedded in the US psyche of the 1950 s.
Barker does a commendable job of presenting materials derived from interviews focused on nuclear testing. Often, these stories are heart-rending and, generally, the translations are excellent. Nevertheless, the content of these interviews is heavily influenced by the contexts of their elicitation. They represent Marshallese framing themselves...