If you stopped a person on any street in America today and asked them what they thought about the U.S. naval station at Guantánamo Bay, chances are, you would hear a response about “detainees,” “torture,” or the “War on Terror.” If you asked a person who has lived or served at GTMO that same question, however, you are liable to hear the words “paradise” or “Mayberry”. While there is no denying or minimizing the presence and role of the detention camp in the history of the site, there is more to the long history of the base than what has happened there in the last ten years.
I too had my own preconceived notions about GTMO when I first became involved with the Guantánamo Public Memory Project through the University of West Florida’s Public History program in the summer of 2012. My first thoughts about the base conjured up images of detainees clad in orange jumpsuits and handcuffed behind chain link fences and razor wire. After studying the history of the base and, more importantly, meeting with and interviewing people who had lived there, I came away with an entirely new perspective. I realized that GTMO was a place where thousands of Americans had served their country, where children were born and raised, and where people came together and formed an extremely close-knit community under circumstances unlike anywhere else in the world.
When speaking with those who lived at the US naval station at Guantánamo Bay, I found they rarely had negative things to say about the site. The majority of people I interviewed over the summer said they did not want to leave and would jump at the chance to go back. One couple in particular stands out.
Winston and Nelda Williams made GTMO their home over the course of four decades from the 1960s through the 1990s. They moved from the base on three occasions and each time could not stay away. If they could have retired down there, they said, they would have. Living in Guantánamo Bay at different times through four decades provided the Williams family with a unique perspective on the history of the base. They witnessed the changes that came with the advancements of technology, from having a military transport fly in the tape of the Super Bowl on Monday during the 1970s to satellite television in the 1990s, but the close-knit nature of the community largely remained the same. In all the time they spent there, they never locked the doors to their house or car. For the Williams family, Guantánamo provided “peace and solitude that cannot be found anywhere else.”
The same sentiments were echoed by many, including Barbara Phipps, a member of the Navy WAVES in the 1970s. For her GTMO was a place full of adventure and opportunity. While serving at the US naval station at Guantánamo Bay she learned how to square dance and how to sail, she played tennis and golf, bowled, and went snorkeling and swimming at the beaches. Like most people who have lived at GTMO, she never worried about locking her house or car because “there was no crime”. When describing the uniqueness of the community at Guantánamo she said, “Everybody knew everybody; you never met a stranger down there.” She too, longed to stay at GTMO but she had already extended her tour once already.
As a historian, it is essential to understand that nothing is ever black or white. To only view Guantánamo as a symbol of American Imperialism or the War on Terror would be a mistake. While those events are important in the base’s history, they alone do not define GTMO. It would also be remiss to completely dismiss the controversy and negative aspects of the base. To fully comprehend the dynamics of the base and gain a better understanding of its history, it is necessary to speak to the men and women who served and lived there. To foster a complete discussion about GTMO and what it symbolizes, we as historians must recognize and set aside our preconceived notions and realize that it means different things to different people and that the truth lies somewhere in between. When we do that, we will come away with a more complete and accurate history of the US naval station at Guantánamo Bay.
Posted by Sean Baker – M.A. Candidate at the University of West Florida
The University of West Florida is participating in the Guantánamo Public Memory Project‘s National Dialogue and Traveling Exhibit. Opening at NYU’s Kimmel Center for University Life Windows Gallery in December 2012 and traveling to 9 sites (and counting) across the country through at least 2014, the exhibit will explore GTMO’s history from US occupation in 1898 to today’s debates and visions for its future. The exhibit is being developed through a unique collaboration among a growing number of universities as a dialogue among their students, communities, and people with first-hand experience at GTMO.