Since the terror attacks in September 2001, the U.S. has increasingly used un-piloted aircraft to watch, and often attack, those considered to be enemies. But the use of what some call “drones” has been controversial. That controversy is headed to the Air National Guard base in Battle Creek this weekend as anti-drone activists end a march that began in Chicago.
Participants in the 160-mile march stopped in Kalamazoo Thursday evening for a dinner at Saint Thomas More Catholic Church. The walk organized by the group Voices for Creative Nonviolence started Tuesday outside the headquarters of Boeing and will end Saturday in Battle Creek. Some marchers are walking the whole distance. Others, like Jerry Berrigan of Peace House in Kalamazoo, joined them part of the way.
"I've read figures where as little as two percent of the 4,700 people who are documented as having been killed by drones, as little as two percent are, quote-unquote high-level targets. So, you're seeing quite a few innocent people being killed. And, for me, that's the fundamental problem, you know, people who are not involved in conflict who happen to be related to somebody that our government might have a problem with, they deserve immunity from the conflict. And they don't get it under this manner of warfare."
Kalamazoo Peace House and Kalamazoo Nonviolent Opponents of War are cosponsors of the march.
Activist Maya Evans came all the way from the United Kingdom to join the anti-drone march. Evans says she met people whose relatives were killed in drone strikes when she visited the Afghan capital Kabul as part of a peace delegation. She says drones are increasing rather the diminishing the terrorist threat. "It is only natural, if somebody experiences their home [being] flattened and generations of their family wiped out within a blink of an eye, and they feel there's nothing else to live for within a country that's absolutely devastated by war and your options are very slim, then I can - I don't agree but I can understand why people then turn to acts of terrorism or join the Taliban."
But the executive officer of the 110th Airlift Wing at Battle Creek’s Air National Guard base says what the Pentagon calls “remotely piloted aircraft” are often misunderstood. The Air Force announced in the fall of 2013 that Battle Creek would become one of its control centers for MQ-9 “Reaper” drones flying over Afghanistan and other countries. Major Kelly Black says what opponents call “drones” are not autonomous robots that act on their own. He says the pilot thousands of miles away isn’t the only one making the call, something Black says reduces the chances of a drone attack on the wrong target.
"It can see what's going on in the area of concern, and you've got a whole bunch of people that are all looking at what's going on to say, "Yes, we agree, we all agree, this is what we're doing, this is what we need to do.' So that's kind of what I was referring to by the 'committee,' if you will, that makes the decision on is something going to be done. Whereas, [With] traditional warfare, you have just the pilot."
Black is also skeptical about claims that drone strikes have killed many innocent people. He says the Taliban in Afghanistan and other groups often claim people were killed by drones when none were in the area.
"And also these are the same people that had no qualms about hurting men, women, children, elderly, putting them into an aircraft and attacking us in our backyard. Well, sometimes when they're developing their weapons at home, sometimes they blow up their own children and families and elderly. And if they can use that to say it's us, they'll happily do so."
But march participant Kathy Kelly, a veteran anti-war activist and 2001 Nobel Peace Prize nominee, says the use of drones often violates international law. She says the U.S. would never tolerate foreign drones in its skies, so she asks why other countries should have to accept ours. And Kelly says she’s spoken with some drone operators who told her that piloting the attacks takes a psychic toll.
"It's a very different way to wage a war because you stay with the victim almost like you're out on a hunting mission. And you follow the assigned target for days, maybe weeks. And then you see the person's body parts flying when the impact order is given and the attack is made. And this stays with some of them and they feel troubled. One fella said, 'The only thing I really knew about the guy is that he was a very good father,' because he could see that when the kids ran to him he picked them up and cared for them."
Kelly says marchers hope to speak with Air Guard officials when they reach Battle Creek. Major Black says officers have been in phone contact with the group but aren’t aware of an invitation to meet.
The Pentagon shows no sign that it plans to ground its drone aircraft. But Jerry Berrigan of Kalamazoo Peace House says the march will be worth it if it draws public attention to the issue.
"I'm not under any illusions that our efforts are going to lead to a reversal in policy in Battle Creek or in Washington, tomorrow or next week. This takes time. But it's a conversation that we need to have."