Brian Terrell of Strangers and Guests Catholic Worker Farm in Maloy, Iowa, prepared this statement and shared parts of it at the drone war protest at Whiteman AFB, near Knob Noster, MO, April 30, 2022.
Some of you were here at the Spirit Gate of Whiteman Air Force Base ten years ago, April 15, 2012, when Ron Faust, Mark Kenney and I were arrested in our attempt to deliver an indictment to the commander of this base, a good deed for which I was rewarded with six months in federal prison. We are drawn here again today at the scene of the crime. It should be noted that the “Spirit” invoked by the Air Force in naming this gate and even the “Spirit Chapel” that we can see from here does not mean the divine animator of life, but the demonic force of a weapon of mass destruction.
On October 7, 2001, the first bombs exploded over Kabul, Afghanistan, purportedly in response to the attacks in New York and Washington on September 11, less than a month before. On that night, six B-2 “Spirit” stealth bombers of the 509th Bomber Wing, based here at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, launched an aggressive war labeled “Operation Enduring Freedom” that was to last more than 20 years. While the stealth features of the B-2 bomber were wasted in attacking a country with no air force, no air defenses, no military at all, to speak of, and that had already been devastated by years of war, this was an impressive undertaking.
Taking as much as 44 hours to reach their target and return, Whiteman’s B-2s conducted the longest bombing missions in aviation history, requiring “tag team” crews on each plane and multiple in-air refuelings. This was a remarkable exercise in stamina. While the 509th is still Whiteman’s prime mission (with 136 nuclear bombs kept at the ready, “Execute Nuclear Operations and Global Strike…Anytime, Anywhere!” is the 509th’s mission statement), the 20th Attack Squadron, a unit that includes technicians, administrators, and pilots who operate the MQ-9 Reaper drone, is engaged in combat operations by remote control, without ever leaving this base. “Drones were billed as a better way to wage war — a tool that could kill with precision from thousands of miles away, keep American service members safe and often get them home in time for dinner,” says a recent New York Times report I will speak of later.
Promoted as a safer, cheaper way to wage war, the military and politicians and weapons dealers cite the advantages of keeping our soldiers far from the battlefield, safe from harm, “over the horizon” fighting with “no boots on the ground,” in the words of President Biden. Safer, too, for noncombatants in those battlefields. “By narrowly targeting our action against those who want to kill us and not the people they hide among, we are choosing the course of action least likely to result in the loss of innocent life,” boasted President Obama in 2013. All along, though, both alleged advantages of drone wars were known to be false. General Stanley McChrystal, for example, commander of US and NATO operations in Afghanistan, contradicted his commander in chief and warned about civilian drone casualties there, that each innocent person killed means 10 new enemies for the United States, and said that “The resentment created by American use of unmanned strikes … is much greater than the average American appreciates. They are hated on a visceral level, even by people who’ve never seen one or seen the effects of one.”
Whistleblowers like Daniel Hale, in prison now for telling the truth to the American people, documented that more than 90 percent of those killed in drone attacks were not the intended targets and that many of the other 10 percent were targeted due to misidentification or faulty intelligence. Few were killed while engaged in hostilities and none were charged with crimes.
I have had the privilege of visiting Afghanistan seven times between 2010 and 2019 and have seen the city of Kabul each time more fetid and packed more tightly beyond its capacities with internal refugees from the twin and codependent terrors of the Taliban and US drone strikes. The US war continues there, “over the horizon,” now. Hunger is exacerbated as the Biden administration has seized Afghan bank assets, taking half of Afghanistan’s wealth for recompence to the victims of the attacks on 9/11, even though the official narrative of those attacks is they were perpetrated by Saudis based in Hamburg, Germany. The median age in Afghanistan is just over 18 years, and a generation is being published for a crime committed before they were born.
It has also been proven false that US service people operating drones killing from a distance are kept entirely safe from harm. Testimony by a few courageous Air Force veterans of the anguish, post-traumatic stress and moral injury that they suffer have been largely ignored before now, but such evidence, along with problems recruiting and retaining drone crews, has pressured the Air Force to acknowledge a problem. “The Air Force will now recognize drone pilots who conduct remote military strikes from Whiteman Air Force Base as ‘attack squadrons,’ a new designation with more prestige that could help with recruitment and retention of these airmen,” the Air Force announced in an April 11, 2016, news release unveiling the new designation. “These airmen are under significant stress from an unrelenting pace of operations,” Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said. “Under the new policy, the Whiteman unit (previously the 20th Reconnaissance Squadron) will now be known as the 20th Attack Squadron. Their mission will remain the same, but the new title is a recognition that they are involved in combat and it could help increase their status within the Air Force. That in turn, could help with recruiting for these high-demand, high-stress positions.”
That this cosmetic change has not proven effective in alleviating the problem facing members of the military in these “high-stress positions,” known by many of us here, was revealed to the public two weeks ago in a New York Times expose by Dave Phillipps, “THE UNSEEN SCARS OF THOSE WHO KILL VIA REMOTE CONTROL.”
The story is told of Air Force Capt. Kevin Larson, a 32-year-old drone pilot, based at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, the center of the US Air Force drone program. On January 19, 2020, faced with demotion, the end of his marriage and a possible prison sentence after being convicted in a military court for his use of hallucinatory drugs, Capt. Larson took his own life. “Because he was not a conventional combat veteran, there was no required psychological evaluation to see what influence his war-fighting experience might have had on his misconduct. At his trial, no one mentioned the 188 classified missile strikes or the funeral he had targeted. In January 2020, he was quickly convicted.”
Like the drone pilots here at Whiteman, Kevin Larson was pledged to secrecy, not allowed to discuss his work with friends and loved ones. “But tendrils of distress would occasionally poke up, in a comment before bed or a grim joke at the bar” says the report in the Times. “Once, in 2017, his father pressed him about his work, and Captain Larson described a mission in which the customer told him to track and kill a suspected Al Qaeda member. Then, he said, the customer told him to use the Reaper’s high-definition camera to follow the man’s body to the cemetery and kill everyone who attended the funeral.”
“‘He never really talked about what he did — he couldn’t,’ said his father, Darold Larson. ‘But he would say things like that, and it made you know it was bothering him. He said he was being forced to do things that went against his moral compass.’”
The Times reports that under President Obama and later under President Trump the rules regarding drone strikes were dramatically loosened. “Decisions on high-value targets that once had been reserved for generals or even the president were effectively handed off to enlisted Special Operations soldiers. The customer increasingly turned drones on low-level combatants. Strikes once carried out only after rigorous intelligence-gathering and approval processes were often ordered up on the fly, hitting schools, markets and large groups of women and children.”
When the Times broke this report, I was in Nevada, finishing the Sacred Peace Walk with the Nevada Desert Experience, a 60-mile Holy Week pilgrimage from Las Vegas to the nuclear test site with vigils at Creech Air Force Base, about halfway in between.
For more than 20 years, we have been told that “we are fighting wars overseas so we don’t have to fight them here” and that drone technology means that even our soldiers don’t need be in harm’s way. For much longer, we have been told that the threat of “mutually assured destruction” by nuclear weapons has effectively kept war from our shores. These lies are quickly being disproven, but even if against all evidence, many now cling to them more than ever. War is never the way to peace and the war always comes home. Advances in nuclear weapons technology and proliferation of drones as a cheaper, more politically safe way to wage war only makes those wars more deadly and more intractable than before.
The hard, pragmatic realism of the day is that war needs to be abolished. Faced with imminent global climate catastrophe and with both the US and Russia for the first time imagining winning a nuclear war, humanity has no other choice.