by Nola Barr
Portland, Oregon, residents like to think of their city as “The People’s Republic of Portland” and proudly display “Keep Portland Weird” bumperstickers, but on a recent evening hundreds chose to serve as cheerleaders for the drone program.
Organized by the Oregon Humanities Council as part of the “Drink and Think” series, “The Future of Robotic Warfare” was advertised as a debate on an important issue of the day. Drinks flowed freely at the pub where the debate was held, but critical thinking was in short supply, replaced by another demonstration of the growing national acceptance of murdering civilians all over the world as a necessary and welcome part of “defending the Homeland.”
In a chummy exchange, the speakers, General Merrill A. McPeak, former Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force, and Constitutional Law professor Tung Yin fell over each other in demonstrating their patriotism and supporting the President in his role as judge and executioner.
General McPeak described the use of the new technology as “effective and precise.” “In our democracy we made a deal with our armed forces. We grant them the weapons, with a chain of command and teach them tradition and bravery,” he intoned. Therefore, “our military professionals” must be allowed to do “the job” in “a civilized war.” “Drones will happen, so shut up, stop whining, and figure how to do it,” he admonished.
The general acknowledged that each military action creates a backlash, but that there was no need to be concerned as “we have got to do what we got to do.” He admitted that in World War Two hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed in Japan and Germany by Allied airstrikes, but “we necked down barbarity,” implying that this was equally acceptable in the 21st century. He praised President Obama’s “leadership and toughness,” his only complaint being that the CIA was running the program instead of the military.
Professor Tung Yin, who was supposed to present a different perspective, was indistinguishable from McPeak. Making sure that no one deemed him not supportive of the “War on Terror,” he never once questioned the stated reasons for the aerial campaign of terror. The drone attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan are OK “because Congress has declared those nations as enemies.” “We have to check about Pakistan” was the most critical objection Yin was able to muster. Yin also noted his support for capturing Noriega, oblivious to the Panamanian leader’s decade long association with the CIA and the 4,000 Panamanians killed during the American invasion. While the constitutional law professor expressed no concern for the civilians murdered by American drones, he confessed being worried about “terrorists or a state” smuggling a drone into the US, and elicited knowing smiles from the audience when mentioning a Beavis and Butthead drone operation center scene.
The moderator, Oregonian Journalist Richard Reed is a winner of a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting, but that night those skills were left behind. He never challenged any of the speakers’ erroneous assertions while occasionally volunteering to answer audience questions, repeating the administration’s lies about the attacks’ “precision” and claiming that in the USA only 300 drones are flying and that they are mostly used for “crop control.” 30,000 are to be employed.
On the official website of the U.S. Air Force, McPeak is described as an outstanding and highly decorated commander. Missing from the official account are embarrassing details of a career as a soldier in the service of the empire spanning five decades. McPeak flew planes during the Vietnam War, part of an aerial assault which, as documented by many scholars (see Nick Turse’s book), was a sustained campaign of murder and ongoing environmental destruction, with thousands still affected by the “payloads” dropped. Later, McPeak played a leading role in planning the First Gulf War and selecting bombing targets. His forces flew over 130,000 sorties, targeting water and sewage treatment facilities, transport infrastructure and irrigation systems, resulting in many civilian deaths. Among the campaign of aerial terror was the attack by laser-guided “smart bombs” on the Bagdad Amiriyah shelter. The Pentagon claimed that the site fit the description of a military command center. The laser-guided “smart bombs” resulted in the death of over 400 civilians. Later that year, the general took charge of delivering US fighter planes to Indonesia, shortly after the November 1991 Dili (East Timor) massacre, in which Indonesian forces murdered 250 pro-independence demonstrators.
The moderator and the audience members who asked questions chose to focus on technical details of the drones, without considering the morality of killing civilians. Worries were expressed about danger posed to the President if the “terrorists” smuggled a drone into the country and a sense that “we” are the real victims prevailed. The audience applauded loudest when McPeak praised Obama as a leader and his “toughness by using drones.”
My question about the “precision” of the strikes, while citing the Yale and Stanford universities’ researchers’ studies elicited looks of bemusement and annoyance from the panel and moderator, as if I were a naïve visitor from another dimension, a time-traveler from an era when the military policies of its leaders and armies are still questioned and terms like “kill list” and “signature strikes” critiqued. McPeak, in a tone reserved for a slow-witted “enemy combatant,” answered that the drones are the height of precision and that “in wars, unfortunately collateral damage happens.”
I considered asking if he would view the killing, Heaven forbid, of his granddaughter in such a strike as “collateral damage,” but abstained. My hopes that among the over 500 in attendance someone might object to referring to innocent civilians as fair game, or that one righteous person would stand up and oppose the policy and practice, went unanswered.
A veteran asking about possible psychological damage to the soldiers sitting in their Nevada bunkers and pushing the drones “payload” drops received assurances from the general that there is nothing to worry about and their actions and those of a pilot bombing from the air are the same. “Not everyone should be in the business and if you are not up to it then find another line of work. The biggest problem might be Carpal Tunnel,“ he added.
Perhaps I should not have been surprised for, beyond the liberal façade, Oregon has long been a place where military installations, operations, and manufacturing have thrived. These included companies making parts for the Cruise Missiles (ESCO, FLIR, and Precision Castparts,) and flying CIA missions to help the Nicaraguan Contras (Evergreen Aviation.) Companies currently building drones or drone parts include Insitui and Sage Tech of the Columbia Gorge and WUAV of McMinnville.
Walking into the night, I thought of other historical eras in which the murderous acts of empires were accepted as the norm, the rightful privilege of those with the most powerful weapons to do as they wish, and woe to all who resist. I wondered about my neighbors supporting a president who, if justice prevailed, would be brought before an international tribunal and be charged with war crimes. I thought of our lives moving along, and if we stopped the mad rush after gadgets and amusements, cheap oil and fast profits, perhaps we would hear the sound of the icebergs melting and the cry of the Loggerhead Turtle and the Siberian Tiger becoming extinct.
Getting ready to hop on my bicycle, I looked up. Soon, thousands of drones will dot the beautiful Pacific Northwest skies, their ever-seeing eyes trained on all of us, unless we wake up and resist.