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Activists Confront 2020 Candidates in Iowa About Drones and War

Killer drones are deployed daily in eight nations where U.S. corporations are vying for control of resources.

An MQ-9 Reaper drone is prepared for a training mission at Creech Air Force Base.

In late July, the MQ-9 Reaper drone, the U.S.’s foremost killer drone, will enter the Iowa presidential primary contest in a cable TV ad that challenges 2020 Democratic presidential candidates to pledge to end all U.S. drone attacks, close U.S. drone bases and work for a global ban on weaponized drones.

The ad, due to appear on MSNBC, CNN and Fox News, will urge support for the End Drone War Pledge campaign planned for candidates’ forums by members of the Des Moines Catholic Worker House and the Des Moines Veterans For Peace chapter, a cadre that has protested drone killings for two years, with some being arrested at the gate of the Des Moines Air National Guard drone control center after engaging in civil disobedience.

The ad makes the point that, at this moment, while presidential candidates campaign in Iowa but speak very little about war and nothing about drone killing, Iowa’s Air National Guard members are doing the grisly work, every day, of remotely piloting Reaper killer drones, armed with 500-pound bombs and Hellfire missiles, over undisclosed locations overseas, stalking and killing.

The insignia of the Des Moines Air National Guard drone control unit features a grim reaper symbol.

“The Reaper aircraft lives up to its grim name,” proudly proclaims the Air National Guard website. “This remotely piloted aircraft provides a unique capability to find and eliminate high value, time-sensitive targets.” That is: people.

On May 18, at the most recent Des Moines drone protest, where five demonstrators were arrested, Frank Cordaro, a Des Moines Catholic Worker, read a list of killer drone bases inside the U.S., saying, “We are going to try to make sure we get to every Democratic candidate to see where they stand on this.”

A coalition of humanitarian groups is challenging the Democratic field to pledge to cut Pentagon spending by $200 billion annually and to agree that the U.S. should not go to war without congressional authorization and identification of revenue sources to support such wars. The pledge calls only for a reduction in nuclear weapons, not elimination.

Abolition of U.S. nuclear weapons is, however, the goal of the presidential candidate pledge campaign of NuclearBan.US, which challenges the Democrats to “sign, ratify and implement the 2017 International Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.”

But why, given the enormous negative impact of Pentagon spending and the existential threat of nuclear weapons, are presidential candidates being challenged about killer drones in particular — machines that have miniscule death-dealing power compared to the entire U.S. arsenal and nuclear weapons?

Killer Drones vs. Nuclear Weapons

Day in and day out, the U.S. fleet of at least 300 Reaper drones is dispersed over at least eight nations, bringing a combined population of 375.3 million under threat of killer drone surveillance and attack. Any of these people are subject to drone stalking and assassination at the whim of U.S. politicians and military commanders, all in violation of international law and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which calls for protection of privacy, due process and life itself, and these attacks are conducted routinely.

While nuclear weapons threaten apocalypse, the bombs and Hellfire missiles of the Reaper drones are right now delivering terror and very personal apocalypses to some of the poorest people in the world, notably, people of color. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports that U.S. drones have killed up to 12,100 people in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia alone since the Bureau began collecting data in 2002.

This is a gross underestimate of total U.S. drone killing, however. U.S. drones have been, or are, also conducting uncounted attacks in Libya, Syria, Iraq and Niger.

Moreover, many drone attacks generally occur in remote areas where there is no reporting. The U.S. government provides no useful information about the extent of its drone war campaign, the numbers of people who have been killed or where killer drones are flying. The U.S. drone war is a secret war, conducted with no public accountability and no effective oversight by Congress. Meanwhile, President Trump has reportedly eased rules controlling drone attacks, undoubtedly leading to a dramatic surge in killing and wounding.

“What are these kinds of (drone) attacks doing to the world?” author Arundhati Roy asked in a 2015 “Democracy Now!” interview. “You know, it’s almost more frightening than nuclear weapons because nuclear weapons are not being used. But this kind of targeting is going to destroy the world as we knew it to be in completely new ways.”

To illustrate her point, consider the current war in Yemen, the world’s foremost humanitarian crisis according to the United Nations. This war was preceded by, and certainly stimulated by, U.S. drone attacks, starting in 2002. A 2015 report describes the devastating societal impact of U.S. drone attacks in Yemen:

The sky in the Yemeni countryside, or, the U.S. drones’ playground, regularly inflicts violence without any warning or reason on people that are already vulnerable to both poverty and conflict. An entire generation is increasingly succumbing to a way of life that is marked by unpredictability, uncertainty and brutal violence that may suddenly manifest in the form of drone attack at anytime and anywhere.

Normalizing Government Vigilantism

The first U.S. drone attack, in 2001, on the first day of the Afghanistan War, was a failed attempt to assassinate Taliban leader Mullah Omar. The U.S. drone war continues to be a war based on assassination.

Assassination is a form of what is sometimes called preemptive killing; that is, illegal killing based on suspicion, fear, prejudice, hatred or all the above. In the case of killer drones, it is a form of governmental vigilantism. This is politically acceptable in the U.S. because the use of killer drones means that U.S. pilots and soldiers do not have to penetrate dangerous territory in person.

As pointed out by, drone killing makes it “much easier — perhaps too easy — for politicians to opt for a quick, short-term ‘fix’ of ‘taking out the bad guys’ rather than engaging in the often difficult and long-term work of solving the root causes of conflicts.”

The U.S. government has also put forward the argument that drone killing is “precise,” a clinical, clean way of killing, and, somehow, this is supposed to negate or trivialize concerns over the fundamental issues of legality and morality.

This is an extremely dangerous development for humanity.

“There is a danger at the moment that we are conditioning ourselves to think a certain way, that wars are bloodless and that we can carry out war in a nice way,” Air Marshall Greg Bagwell, a commander of British drone operations, pointed out in an interview . “Thinking war is bloodless is a mistake because we need to be aware that war is nasty and opting for it, must be the last resort. Thinking it can be done cleanly, etc. is a mistake.”

Former President Obama — who dramatically increased drone killing during his presidency and oversaw the creation of a global infrastructure to support drone attacks — stunningly chose to trivialize drone slaughter, terror and illegality with a “joke” in which he said he’d use a Predator drone against the Jonas Brothers if they showed any romantic interest in his daughters.

The implicit message for the U.S. public (coming from the president no less) was that killer drones offer a quick, efficient way to deal with annoying people. Here was a presidential seal of approval for drone vigilantism — indeed, a message consistent with the vigilantism of the U.S.’s killer police.

The allure of “easy,” preemptive killing, and the threat to other nations presented by U.S. killer drones, have led to a surge in international adoption of killer drone technology, as reported recently in The Intercept, with more than a dozen countries possessing killer drones. Government-sponsored drone vigilantism has had a particular appeal in Turkey where the government has developed its own killer drone, primarily for use against its own people, the anti-government Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

“Call them whatever you want — Predator, armed drone — under international law, the way they are being used, they need to be banned all over the world,” Öztürk Türkdoğan, president of Turkey’s Human Rights Association, told The Intercept. His group has been attempting to monitor casualties in the Turkish government’s attempt to suppress the PKK.

An international ban on drones is essential not only to prevent killing such as that being conducted by the U.S. and Turkey, but also in preventing larger wars, including nuclear war.

This danger is evident in the recent incident in which Iran shot down a U.S. Global Hawk surveillance drone off its coast. The Global Hawk is widely known to be used for targeting as well as information gathering, and its introduction near or into Iranian airspace was itself a hostile act by the U.S. that nearly precipitated a war.

Would the U.S. have made that decision if the aircraft had a pilot on board? Would U.S. commanders have taken the risk of having a pilot killed or captured, as in the case of the 1960 Russian capture of U-2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers?

Killer Drones as “Corporate Cavalry”

The U.S. confrontation with Iran raises another question with respect to the use of drones, and the U.S. military in general: Will the U.S. military continue to be used around the world on behalf of extraction corporations to ensure favorable access to precious resources, particularly oil?

Reporting for CNN, Antonia Juhasz makes it very clear that the intended beneficiaries of U.S. military action in the on-going tragedy of Iraq are oil extraction corporations: “Before the 2003 invasion, Iraq’s domestic oil industry was fully nationalized and closed to Western oil companies. A decade of war later, it is largely privatized and utterly dominated by foreign firms.”

Presidential hopefuls Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren are building their campaigns on their avowal to break up corporate power and to liberate politics from control by the superrich. But so far, theirs and other candidates’ analyses have not examined the dependency of extremely wealthy corporation heads and large stockholders, and the economy they have collectively and deliberately created, on extracting resources from around the world at gunpoint, especially oil.

Given U.S. economic dependency on fossil fuels, the “control” over access to oil supplies through military force and death-dealing sanctions have been fundamental to the extraordinary profitability of a wide range of corporations, including the largest banks, which are at the center of corporate power in the U.S. and globally.

The significance of oil to major banks is illustrated in a recent Rainforest Action Network report which finds that 33 global banks invested $l.9 trillion in fossil fuels since the 2016 Paris Climate Accords were signed. The four largest such investors were the four largest U.S. banks: JPMorgan Chase at $195 billion, Wells Fargo at $151.4 billion, Citigroup at $129.5 billion, and Bank of America at $106.7 billion.

In 1967, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of the U.S. military’s role as corporate enforcer: “This need to maintain social stability for our investments accounts for the counterrevolutionary action of American forces in Guatemala. It tells why American helicopters are being used against guerrillas in Cambodia and why American napalm and Green Beret forces have already been active against rebels in Peru.”

Viewed from this perspective, it seems that killer drones are the “cavalry” flying in to relieve U.S. ground forces beleaguered by corporate demands to put boots on the ground in an increasing number of zones targeted for corporate fossil fuel extraction and other exploitation.

All U.S. killer drone operations are in zones where there are contests for control of precious resources. All these areas are home to poor people of color who are without adequate technological defenses against air attack.

These are the zones of the “small wars” in which the U.S. is involved — wars that get no press attention in the U.S. However, the heads of banks and other major corporations understand very, very well that these wars of repression and conquest are not a sideshow but are, rather, absolutely at the center of sustaining concentration of corporate power and increasing their own personal wealth.

Americans fear “terrorism.” Killer drones represent a challenge to U.S. political leaders to muster the courage to explain what U.S. wars are really about: the concentration of wealth and corporate power.

There can be no meaningful progress toward diminishing corporate power and stopping climate catastrophe without pulling the U.S. military rug out from under corporate power, starting with drone warfare and targeted killings.

Where a candidate stands on killer drones will, indeed, tell us a lot.

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