On April 7th, my Family and 20 or so other people protested drone warfare in front of the main gate of the Battle Creek Air National Guard base in Michigan. In 2013, the base was named a Reaper Drone Operating Station and should be operational any day, if not already. Weaponized drone operators are dropping bombs from my backyard.
We stood in the mud on the side of the four lane highway from Noon to 1pm. A few of us held signs with slogans like “Stop Drone Warfare” while others offered conversation to each other or waved at honking cars. One father and fellow protester brought fresh-popped popcorn, which he passed out in little blue bowls to the few children that were present. In between piling kernels in their mouths, the kids stomped in the water and slid on the ice behind us that had accumulated at the base of a mountain of plowed snow.
This wasn’t the type of protest that drew the media or police in riot gear. The only law enforcement present was a lone Sheriff's deputy who was on hand to escort us across the highway from the muddy field we parked in to our assigned area. He stayed just long enough to see the bulk of us across and then drove off with a nod and a wave. The only pictures taken - outside of the ones the group took themselves - were by a pink haired woman who slowed down in the median to snap a few pictures with her camera phone.
“Who said we weren’t going to get any press,” I said as she drove away.
I couldn’t help wondering what point or purpose our protest had. Obviously, we weren’t going to shut the drone program down or change the USG’s policies on drone warfare. It wasn’t immediately clear how the small group would make much of a difference at all. I could see how an outsider might consider the showing pathetic. I imagined soldiers and airmen trading snide comments at our expense, and commanders deriding us to their troops in formation. It all seemed a little futile and inconsequential. I’m sure there are a few people reading this that know that feeling.
Half way through the hour, soldiers and airmen started driving onto the base, probably returning from getting lunch in town. Each drive-by was exactly the same. The soldier(s) would approach and slow down to turn onto the base, avoid eye contact with us and then disappear through the gate. Each encounter lasted no more than 5 seconds and never was there any kind of interaction between us.
I wondered what they thought as they drove by. I thought back to my time in the service and remembered the early days of the Iraq war when I used to watch Fox News and listen to right wing talk radio. I had consumed media that had saturated me with the belief that the Unitsed State was the greatest country in the world and that it was our job to teach the people of the lost and misguided nations how to live. What would I have thought if I had seen an anti-war protest at the entrance to the base?
I didn’t know. I never had to pretend to ignore protesters, because the street sides were always bare when I drove to base. All I ever encountered were waving flags, yellow ribbons and well-wishers who thanked me for my service. It dawned on me that if we weren’t on this corner right now maybe these soldiers and airmen would have the same experience. Instead of smiling protesters and children playing, they would see only a dirty snow bank.
Perhaps, this was the purpose. We were asserting an idea into their world counter to those put forth by their bosses, colleagues and government. Perhaps some of them had thought that there was a consensus around the righteousness of their mission, and our presence had tainted that unbalanced picture. Perhaps we were planting a seed of doubt that would one day blossom into curiosity and eventually lead them to reject the precepts of war and embrace peace. Perhaps.
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Then again, maybe it’s more realistic to view our gathering from a more modest perspective. The one hour our small band spent proclaiming our rejection of what we view as illegal and institutionalized murder, was a drop on a scale that is overwhelmingly offset by the entrepreneurs of war toward the side of injustice. Those who support drone warfare flood millions via the US media with a hundred pro-war messages a day for every minute we stood at that gate.
Daunting indeed, but there we were, humbly banded together, devoting a bit of our precious time to trying to solve a cypher whose key will surely only be revealed by either a true miracle, an epic amount of compounding serendipity or ages of enlightened human evolution.
And yet, it didn’t feel even a little bit right to call it either hopeless or pointless. In fact, my overriding emotions as I accepted the logic of the situation were peace and serenity. I hadn’t come with any delusions anyway. Like many of us, I know firsthand the enormity of the war machine and the mindless momentum of its consumption and destruction.
My thoughts returned back to the scene in front of me. I watched the children throw snowballs and hold signs with their mitten covered hands. I remembered the stories of the children in the war zones; the ones that live each day of their lives with drones hovering above. I thought about the ones who were in the “wrong place at the wrong time” and were indiscriminately killed by the same drone operators that ignored us as they returned to their war.
The personal belief that drove me to turn my back on the war machine and landed me on that roadside occurred to me again: there is no difference between my family and those killed by drone operators. There are no differences between my son and 6th Grader Mohammed Saleh Qayed Taeiman, who was killed by a drone strike in Yemen earlier this year - the latest of dozens of children that have been murdered in US drone strikes in Yemen since 2002. Nor is there a difference between my community in Pontiac, Michigan and the communities of the people that live with the terror of drones every day. And since there is no difference between us, our children are their children, our voices are their voices and their tragedies are ours. We the people isn’t just a turn of phrase, it’s an inviolable reality of human life on earth: we are all fundamentally here together.
Or, as President Obama, the Commander in Chief of U.S. Drone Warfare, succinctly stated: “There is no us and them, only us.”
The only borders that truly separate us are the ones we construct in our own minds. None of the superficial differences we perceive with our senses justify a disparate application of fundamental human rights. However, both consciously and subconsciously, the inverse belief permeates our military actions, the propaganda that supports it and the resulting public discourse. A schoolboy in Iowa has no more of a right to life and liberty than a 6th grader in Yemen. Yet, dropping a bomb on the former to kill his criminal brother would be front page news in every media outlet in the country, if not the world. Meanwhile, the US media barely acknowledges Mohammed’s story or any of the dozens like it.
Luckily, there are no drones that hover in the skies above me today. It’s this accident of geography that allows me to protest safely as my children play in the snow, while our brothers and sisters downrange from the drones can only pray that firebombs are not dropped on them from thousands of miles away by someone behind a computer screen sipping a latte. Since they can’t be here to remind the soldiers – and the rest of us far removed from the war zone - that they are also sentient beings with a right to life, we have to do it for them. Even if it’s drop by drop, one hour at a time.