A small army of pilots operate the drones flying over Afghanistan and Iraq, acting as Uncle Sam’s eyes in the sky, and the Hellfire-armed drones firing missiles at people on the ground in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, Syria, and Iraq. Just in late January, in one case we happen to know something about, a 13-year-old boy named Mohammed Toiman al-Jahmi was incinerated in Yemen, though initial reports in the U.S. press referenced only “suspected Qaeda fighters.”
Many of them are based at Creech Air Force Base – the scene of a national protest mobilization earlier this month. The base is less than an hour drive from Las Vegas, Nevada but some 10,000 miles from their victims.
The venerable journalist Andrew Cockburn reports in his new book, “Kill Chain: The Rise of High-Tech Assassins” on a particularly lethal instance of aerial assault in 2010. An MQ-1 Predator drone provided the faulty reconnaissance on a civilian convoy of men women and children in southern Afghanistan that would lead to a helicopter assault on the innocent travelers. Cockburn’s account is worth reading in full for a richer sense of the military bureaucracy of remote execution.
From 14,000 feet up the drone operated out of Creech Air Force Base recorded the “ramshackle vehicles” and transmitted the data it collected to an orbiting satellite, and then bouncing the data stream down to Ramstein, Germany, which then sent the feed via fiber-optic cables running along the floor of the Atlantic to Nevada and Florida. The bureaucrats of death debated what they were seeing:
Mission intelligence controller: Screener said at least one child near SUV.
Sensor: Bullshit . . . where? Send me a fucking still [picture]. I don’t think they have kids at this hour, I know they’re shady, but come on.
Pilot: At least one child . . . Really? Listing [him as a] MAM [military-aged male]—that means he’s guilty.
Sensor: Well maybe a teenager, but I haven’t seen anything that looks that short, granted they’re all grouped up here, but.
Mission intelligence controller: They’re reviewing.
Pilot: Yeah, review that shit . . . Why didn’t he say possible child, why are they so quick to call fucking kids but not to call shit a rifle. ….
Pilot: They’re praying.
Sensor: This is definitely it. This is their force. Praying? I mean, seriously, that’s what they do.
Mission intelligence coordinator: They’re going to do something nefarious.
The unarmed convoy of civilians with young children was assessed to be a high value target. There was some concern that a teenager may have been among the party but this was easily dismissed since “12 to 13 years old with a weapon is just as dangerous.” The commanding captain of the U.S. raiding party on the ground nearby ordered a helicopter strike, to be followed by the Predator drone on cleanup. A barrage of armaments was launched at the humble convoy.
Unsurprisingly, the victims did not respond to the assault in military fashion. Twenty three people were killed. Many more were injured. Among the dead were three-year-old Daoud and four-year-old Murtaza. After noticing the odd (that is, untrained) movements of the supposed high value targets wearing jewelry and bright burqas and carrying children the assault was finally halted.
The desperate search in the immediate aftermath for a single face-saving weapon in the convoy did not prevent “successive layers of Special Operations commanders [from] refus[ing] to report CIVCAS (civilian casualties).” Washington eventually determined the monetary value of each of the lives it had taken: $5,000 and a goat. This was likely much less than the cost of the ammunition fired at them.
To die it is enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, though there is no way for the victim to know the ‘wrong’ where or when that will cast one under suspicion and result in pulverization. Domestically, police killings of unarmed civilians with impunity have galvanized a movement to assert the elementary ethical principle of valuing the lives of people with low socioeconomic standing. Similarly, the slaughter of civilians in far-flung territories of the planet is a grim demonstration of the absence of value attached by Washington to the lives of the people there. The drones do not intentionally target innocent civilians – that would serve no purpose – but they frequently reach erroneous conclusions based on flimsy profiles derived from the tracking of individuals’ movements. Or civilian victims may have the misfortune of being proximate to a target. Innocents die; no big deal – collateral damage. Perhaps a little money is thrown at survivors’ families.
Such stories have motivated a group of U.S. citizens to acts of protest and civil disobedience against the drone wars. A decade after Creech first began operating remote-controlled assassinations protesters gathered to “shutdown” a base which “remains the primary air base in U.S. state-sponsored global terrorism.”
People from 18 states converged on Creech in the first week of March to demonstrate outside of the base and to symbolically disrupt its operations in efforts organized by a coalition of groups, including Code Pink, Veterans For Peace, and Voices for Creative Nonviolence. Nonviolent direct action was undertaken to block the I-95 highway leading to the base. Rechristening I-95 the “Drone Victims Memorial Highway,” organizers erected markers along the road with the names and ages of victims.
Concurrently, a television ad calling upon drone pilots to refuse their assignments aired in the Las Vegas from February 28 through March 6 on CNN and MSNBC among other networks. Shamefully, there was little interest in the action from the national media. Local television stations provided cursory coverage. The Associated Press piece was ignored entirely by the national press (which, needless to say, did not send their own reporters either), getting picked up only by some local media and the Air Force Times and Stars & Stripes, at least as presently archived by Google News at the time of writing. The nation’s newspaper editors apparently feel that it is better not to worry the public with such unpleasantness.
One organizer of the mobilization, Toby Blome of the Bay Area CODEPINK, has found “the national coverage [of anti-drone protests] is very unpredictable and spotty. The San Francisco Chronicle, my local paper, exhibited no interest, in spite of phone calling and a very early press alert.” Numerous media alerts were distributed by the individual participant organizations before and during the week of action. However, Blome was pleased by the results of their media outreach work:
“Ultimately, in spite of a lack of response by some mainstream and alternative media, we did still get quite impressive media coverage overall, including some Russian and German media coverage, and a very good local story in the main Las Vegas newspaper, the Las Vegas Review Journal, which included a very telling photograph that included a sign with photos of 3 child drone victims from Pakistan held by Arizona activist, Dennis Duvall, who was dressed himself as a bloody drone pilot. These truthful images are almost always censored in mainstream media, so it was very daring for the editor to allow it, and he deserves much praise.”
The indifference of the national media is par for the course unfortunately. Malala Yousafzai, who has been justly lionized in Western media for her courageous activism against Taliban fundamentalism, has received much less coverage for her opposition to U.S. drone strikes. Similarly, the overwhelming public opposition in Pakistan to drone strikes in their country is sometimes acknowledged in a cursory fashion but is otherwise ignored. At a 2013 briefing on Capitol Hill, thirteen-year-old Zubair Rehman told the handful of lawmakers who bothered to attend of the drone strike that injured him and killed his sixty-seven-year-old grandmother while she was picking okra in her field. He commented, “I no longer love blue skies. In fact, I now prefer gray skies. The drones do not fly when the skies are gray.” Despite the painful lyricism of the boy’s words, the major media have ensured the horror of the assassination flights does not linger on the public mind.
The over 100 people who assembled Friday, March 6th in the chilly morning air were there to change that – to prick the national conscience. Many had spent the cold night in tents out in the desert. Thirty four people were arrested in the morning hours and given misdemeanor charges.
The aim of the civil disobedience action on Friday, March 6th, was to shut down the base (or at least disrupt its operations by blocking the points of entry and egress during the shift change of the drone operators) for as long as possible and through the mass mobilization to, as Blome says, “help build an ongoing campaign that ultimately will lead to regular, annual mass mobilizations at Creech AFB until drone warfare ceases.”
Both gates were successfully closed several times during the Friday action, Brian Terrell of Voices for Creative Nonviolence reports. Terrell points out that,
“The real effects might not be easily measured, but it is no small thing that many drone operators got to work late that morning. Many of us saw the play “Grounded” that was performed as part of the week’s program. The protagonist, a young drone pilot, speaks of her thought processes during her daily commute between Las Vegas and Creech. I cannot help but imagine this young woman’s reaction having that commute interrupted by last Friday’s drama! Admittedly, this is a small victory, but one that needs be built upon to close the base entirely.”
The week of Shut Down Creech actions built upon years of prior protest work. Blome said that he was had been inspired by witnessing the Creech 14 trial in Las Vegas. He has helped to organize annual protests at Creech since 2009, following the example set by Father Louie Vitale and the others arrested in April of that year. In 2012, Blome participated in the Code Pink peace delegation to Pakistan.
Blome became involved in the movement against drones out of a sense of ethical outrage. Blome says, “Execution itself is inherently wrong in my eyes, but if you are going to execute, bring forth the evidence first.” Blome was struck by the words of a veteran of the Vietnam War who pointed out to him that the targets of drone attacks are defenseless “sitting ducks” against the aerial attacks. “We are,” Blome observes, “terrorizing some of the poorest tribal communities in the world, and propagating more violence in return.”
John Amidon, a member of Veterans For Peace, was also arrested on the Friday action. He became involved in local anti-drone activism (this was his second arrest at Creech) after being coming to Nevada to work with Sister Megan Rice to advocate for the abolition of nuclear weapons. Amidon is blunt about his expectations for immediate change, saying “There is no viable short term strategy that I see.” His motivations then are not dependent upon hope for quick results. Rather, he is guided by the ethical conviction that “to give up is to acknowledge evil as your master and this we will refuse to do.”
Terrell was one of the original Creech 14, arrested in April 2009, timed, as Terrell notes, “just as the Obama was ratcheting up the drone program.” He was moved to focus on anti-drone work because “very few people, even in the peace movement, were informed or concerned about drones.” By then he had heard “first and second hand accounts from the victims of drones, so the harm and terror they cause is not an abstraction” for him.
The anti-drone activists confront a challenging political environment. Polls indicate solid public support for the use of drones, though this approval is likely quite shallow and a function of the uncritical coverage of the weapons program by mainstream media. Blome cites Howard Zinn: “We live in a sea of deception.” However, he hopes the general distrust of institutions so prevalent in American society can finally be extended to the military:
“Is this a government that I can trust to use caution and ethical restraint with such a deadly weapon as an armed drone from thousands of miles away? Hardly! To the U.S. government those other lives don’t matter! No government should have carte blanche to assassinate people in the world.”
Blome articulates the strategy for compelling the U.S. government to halt its drone strikes as follows:
“Occupy all drone bases with ongoing protests, much like is growing across the country and collaboration with other international organizations that are working for common goals. Interestingly, recent news indicates that the military is having a hard time recruiting new drone pilots fast enough to keep up with those pilots that are burning out and quitting I like to think that our expanding drone base protests across the country has had a significant impact on this trend.”
Terrell has seen skepticism within the U.S. of drone warfare increasing since he began organizing on the issue over half a decade ago. “Support is clearly eroding and our work, along with the reports by academics, legal experts and journalist and people in the streets in Pakistan, Yemen and other places all contribute to this change,” he says. Terrell takes a broader view of anti-drone activism, stressing its cumulative impact:
“Last Friday’s action did not get much national media attention, but it rocked the local scene. … Getting mainstream national media attention is all but impossible for the likes of us. On the other hand, protests at Hancock base in Syracuse, NY, also get a lot of local media and much effective public education happens there. [For example,] what Ramsey Clark thinks about drones might not get into the NY Times, but when he testified in our Syracuse trial, the local papers and TV news gave great coverage. Two years ago, I did six months in prison in Yankton, SD, for protesting drones at Whiteman AFB in Missouri, and the Yankton paper printed an extensive interview. The national media is locked up and when we get in, it is due to luck as much as strategy. We have been very effective, though, in getting discussions going in many local venues around the county. This all adds up.”
The responses of locals in this small military town to the mobilization were varied. However, Blome took heart in those who were won over by the protests: “two local folks from Indian Springs saw us from the highway and stopped and gave support, including offering showers and other accommodations. One, an Hispanic man, even joined our protests repeatedly and wants to support us in future actions.”
Veterans for Peace released an open letter “from U.S. Veterans to Drone Operators and Support Personnel at Creech Air Force Base.” The statement read in part: “Military personnel have the right and the responsibility to refuse to participate in war crimes, [a category which might well include drone warfare] according to international law, U.S. law and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. And then there are the higher moral laws. If you decide to refuse illegal orders or to resist illegal wars, we are here to support you.”
The Franciscan priest and peace activist Louie Vitale was also among the demonstrators. In 2009, he was among those who first initiated civil disobedience actions at Creech, getting arrested and helping to launch the global protest campaign. Since the arrest and trial of the “Creech 14,” there have been numerous actions over the past few years at Creech and other bases around the country out of which the drones are operated. Among those arrested with Vitale in 2009 was Kathy Kelly, who is presently in the middle of serving a three month sentence at a federal prison camp in Lexington, KY to punish her nonviolent protest against drone killings (delivering a loaf of bread and a letter) last year at Whiteman Air Force Base, in Missouri. Those, like Kelly, sitting in prison occupy a historical place analogous to the lonely honor of Henry David Thoreau’s stay in jail during the Mexican War. Anti-drone actions continue across the country at numerous air force bases implicated in the remote-piloted warfare.
The movement is also international. Almost universal hatred in Pakistan of the drone program has been consistently reported and has been a recurring political issue in Pakistani elections. The German Drone Campaign (Drohnen-Kampagne) sent a message of solidarity and noted that drone operators must route communications through Ramstein Air Base, making Germany complicit in the global drone assassination program. The Drohnen-Kampagne observed that a February 2014 European Parliament resolution demanded that the European Council and the European states “ensure that the Member States, in conformity with their legal obligations, do not perpetrate unlawful targeted killings or facilitate such killings by other states.”
As Blome noted, disruptions like that at Creech may contribute to an already high outflow of drone operators from the U.S. military’s program. Pratap Chatterjee reports in the Nation that drone pilots are quitting in record numbers. At any given time, there are some 1,000 drone pilots in active duty with the U.S. Air Force, a few of whom are loaned out to the CIA for its own aerial assassination program. The CIA’s drone program and its secretive 17th Squadron is also based out of Creech. The turnover is very high. About one quarter of that number quit every year.
Some, most painfully fellow Air Force personnel piloting traditional aircraft, regard drone operators as cowards – as “Nintendo warriors” – though from such quarters the accusation seems somewhat unfair given the overwhelming and virtually unchallenged dominance of U.S. air forces for decades prior to the rise of drones. The video game jockey label may seem exaggerated, but the U.S. military is actually recruiting drone operators at video game fairs.
Ironically, the operator of a Predator drone sitting in Nevada is typically far more familiar with their targets, having observed them from the skies, than a jetfighter pilot, who often never even sees their target.
In contrast to the Top Gun pilots, drone operators witness something of the aftermath: women and children incinerated by Hellfire missiles, and targets crawling across fields, “trying to make it to the nearest compound for help while bleeding out from severed legs,” as one former drone operator noted bitterly. The long hours of such dirty work take a toll. As the operator wrote, “When you are exposed to it over and over again it becomes like a small video, embedded in your head, forever on repeat, causing psychological pain and suffering that many people will hopefully never experience.” Another told a Nevada radio station, “I felt like I was haunted by a legion of the dead. My physical health was gone, my mental health was crumbled. I was in so much pain I was ready to eat a bullet myself.”
Humanizing the tragedy of innocent deaths resulting from drone strikes on the other side of the planet is a challenge Blome urges activists to undertake with education, including all of the means at hand, such as the showing of documentaries, the hosting of discussions, transmission of the message through the mainstream media in coverage of protests, the placement of op-eds and letters to the editor. In his experience, one of the principle hurdles is “that we have too few people working on this.” He calls upon the public to join in efforts to end drone warfare: “There is so much education that needs to be done, and not enough of us doing it.”
Blome called the Shut Down Creech mobilization “a most amazing and magnificent and magical experience.” Participants came from as far away as Maine, Hawaii, Alaska and Minnesota and “played a critical role in its success, [a reflection of] the great disgust that we all feel, those of us who have our eyes and ears open to the great tragedy and brutality of drone killing.”