Weapons

No More Droning On

In April, 14 Christians were arrested at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, from where drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan are guided, in the first major U.S. public protest against combat drones. “These crews in Nevada actually guide the drones that kill 10 to 100 civilians for every ‘high-value target,’” organizer Jim Haber told Sojourners. “We’re obviously creating more enemies than we’re killing.” Between January 2006 and April 2009, 60 cross-border drone strikes from Afghanistan into Pakistan killed 14 suspected terrorists, along with 687 civilians.

Since 2005, pilotless aerial systems, or “drones,” originally developed for intelligence gathering, have been used as combat weapons. Drone operators at Creech AFB take 12-hour shifts, watching the close-up aftermath of each attack, then return home to Las Vegas. “The base chaplain told me that they are having problems helping the drone operators handle issues with their missions and that they are affecting their families,” Franciscan Louis Vitale, who was arrested at Creech AFB, told Sojourners. “Drone squadron commander Col. Chambliss told a journalist that he needed more chaplains and psychologists to help the crews cope, particularly the sensor operators who are new in the military and about 19 years old.”

Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced in April that the 2010 defense budget calls for fielding and maintaining 50 Predator-class drones.

President Obama’s 2010 military budget represents a 62 percent increase in drone capability over the current level and 127 percent from a year ago.

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Sojourners Magazine August 2009
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Killer Robots

When I reflect on the drone aircraft now being used by the U.S. military to kill suspected “extremists”—and large numbers of innocent bystanders—in Afghanistan and Pakistan, an episode of the original Star Trek comes to mind. In it, Captain Kirk accidently transports into a parallel universe run on fear and violence, where the evil “mirror” Kirk maintains his hold on power with a device that allows him to spy on anyone in the ship and to assassinate them with the press of a button.

Sound familiar?

Drone aircraft are pilotless planes operated by remote control, often from thousands of miles away. In the last two years the drones, which are equipped with both cameras and weapons, have been increasingly used to launch attacks rather than gather intelligence—a fact that has quietly and without significant protest slipped into the narrative of the U.S. war in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Yet there is every reason to oppose their use and existence. Consider: Even worse than our overall military operations in Afghanistan, which kill significant numbers of civilians, these pilotless drones are by their nature incapable of distinguishing between combatants and civilians. Drones simply launch missiles into buildings or compounds, killing whomever happens to be there. David Kilcullen, a former adviser to Gen. David Petraeus, testified to Congress earlier this year that 14 al Qaeda leaders have been killed in Pakistan by drone attacks since 2006—along with 700 civilians. That’s an astounding ratio of 50 innocent victims killed for each targeted individual!

And, because those targeted are only suspected extremists, drone attacks fundamentally subvert our core legal value of “innocent until proven guilty.” The attacks are, as Catholic anti-war activist Kathy Kelly notes, nothing more than extra-judicial executions, turning mere suspicion into an automatic death sentence.

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Sojourners Magazine August 2009
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