Cargo Cults Worship the Gods of War
The only way John Frum became a god is because whether you go to work in a three piece suit or a loincloth, we all live in a material world. We just interpret things a little bit differently.
On the Melanesian island of Tanna, John Frum has been the god of plenty since 1937. For the islanders who still worship him he is part Santa Claus, part Jesus. Who was John Frum? Just another G.I. who got off a cargo plane and captured the local’s imagination because they had never seen planes before. When someone asked him who he was, he probably said, “Hi, I’m John from America.” His name was interrupted as John Frum.
Fast forward nearly 80 years and the John Frum movement on Tanna, part of the island nation of Vanuatu, is going strong. Islanders march shirtless chanting his name hoping he returns with all the wonderful cargo that spilled out of military planes during WW II. That cargo brought temporary prosperity to the volcanic island whose main industry today is tourism. Sometimes when people encounter advanced technology they can’t comprehend; it becomes part of their religion.
With nearly 200 Cargo Cults arising since the 1890s independent of each other and separated by thousands of ocean miles, there is one common denominator— ritualistic acts designed to lead to material wealth.
Among the earliest cargo cults was the Vailala Madness movement in Indonesia’s Papua territory in 1919. Islanders envisioned a ghost steamer piloted by their returning dead ancestors who would bring guns to expel white colonizers. When anthropologist Margaret Mead returned after 25 years to Manus in the Admiralty Islands in 1953 she discovered new rituals as part of the “The Noise,” a cargo cult that grew out of WW II.
Among the ritualistic acts the cults create are handcrafted offerings and ways to communicate with the gods of cargo. Wood replicas of planes and other military paraphernalia dot the islands. Frum followers carve microphones out of coconut shells and try to contact him to bring cargo. Some chant the magic phrase, “Roger over and out,” hoping that magic message will summon the return of the silver bird bursting with food and equipment. Unfortunately for the Frums, unless Uncle Sam redirects its war efforts from the Middle East to the South Pacific, the folks on Tanna may have to keep waiting for Frum and his precious cargo.
Friday Nights in Tanna
Of the world’s cargo cults, the only one still flourishing is on Vanuatu’s Tanna Island. The world’s other cargo cults gave up the ghost realizing the cargo wasn’t coming back. However, every Friday night on Tanna the John Frum cult gathers and sings his favorite songs. Their guitars twang with retro American country music from 1930s cowboy movies. On Feb. 15 every year, the cult’s members dress up in blue American navy uniforms and march with bamboo spears with red tips. They believe that American symbols are the universal language of cargo. They paint USA on their chests and carry wooden rifles.
The colorful Frums have attracted academics as well as filmmakers and photographers. In the early 1960s, shockumentary filmmaker Gualtiero Jacopetti turned his Mondo Cane lens on Tanna to capture what most viewers likely saw as madness.
Russian photographer Vlad Sokhin took a less harsh view after spending a week on Tanna in 2012 living with the John Frums. He photographed the wooden planes they carved and the airstrip they made in the jungle. He waited with them all day on the airstrip with flags to guide the returning cargo planes that never came in. He went with elders to Tanna’s tourist airport, but instead of John Frum descending, it was just your run of the mill tourist in shorts and sandals.
Sokhin told Vice’s Jamie Clifton that the real John Frum was a black American soldier who came to Vanuatu in 1937 and preached that if the islanders stopped getting high on local weed and booze they would better their lives. Frum was black like the islanders and when they saw men under his command polishing his boots they knew he had great power. Local prophets saw John as proof that god’s original plan was for Tanna’s people to be owners of the entire world’s cargo. When they achieved that the rest of world would disappear.
Somehow it didn’t work out that way, but don’t tell that to the people of Tanna who still have no TV or internet. They do have political power. The John Frum party is granted one member to the Vanuatu parliament. Now if only the elusive Mr. Frum would return, his devotees would likely take over the nation.
Cargo Cult Visits Burning Man
Cargo culture is very much with us today shaping art and fashion. At Burning Man 2013, the art theme was “Cargo Cult” and the event’s signature poster was a space ship descending on a crowd of well-dressed humans with shopping bag heads.
Larry Harvey, Burning Man’s founder, wrote that John Frum is just one in a line of god’s that ancients and moderns staked their futures on. In Mexico, the Aztecs waited for a fair skinned god named Quetzalcoatl, but instead got conquistador Hernando Cortes who ravaged their civilization. The ancient Egyptians prayed for the return of Osiris, the god of earth who would flood the Nile and bring grain to the fields.
Harvey is not a big believer in cargo gods. He writes in part, “Cargo culture is unsustainable; no deus ex machina descending from the sky can possibly provide consumers with relief. The only spaceship worth considering is planet Earth. Each and every one of us must find our Inner Frum: the first step toward salvation is to give our gifts to fellow human beings. This Myth of Return is no less relevant today. To put this in a modern context, what if your electricity went dead and stayed that way — would you know how to make the current flow again? Can you fix your car if it breaks down, or build yourself a new one? Like the islanders, most of us are many steps removed from the Cargo that entirely shapes our lives. We don’t know how it’s made, where it’s made, or how it works; all we can do is look beyond the sky and pray for magic that will keep consumption flowing.”
Middle East Cargo Cult
If Uncle Sam’s military cargo lies at the heart of Oceania’s cargo cults of the 20th century consider what’s happening today in the Middle East. ISIS, the current threat to stability in Iraq is fueled by the messianic principles of Islamic jihad but also by U.S. military cargo. ISIS fighters have looted U.S. Army Humvees and assorted weaponry to power its offensive. Similarly the Taliban use U.S. military cargo to prop up their efforts in Afghanistan. Visit markets in Pakistan today and you will find thousands of looted items of U.S. military cargo for sale.
The new cargo cult isn’t about John Frum delivering the goods, but seizing the cargo already there and using it to slay today’s khaki-clad John Frums and kick him out so Allah can reign.
Back in the U.S. we seem closer psychologically to Tanna than we are to Baghdad and Damascus. Millions of Americans are looking for someone to deliver the goods. Remember the preachers during the housing boom that encouraged their parishioners to pray for material wealth? Do they really think that Jesus is going to help them have a bigger house? What about the long lines of young people waiting outside Apple stores for the latest iPhone or tablet? Do they really think their lives are going to be better with the latest tech-gadget?
Perhaps sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke said it best, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” And that’s what it’s about, magic. You can believe in it, pray for it and wait for John Frum to return. Or you can stop praying and start learning how to fix your car.