The trip was hosted by the Columbia River Fellowship for Peace. Hood River is a relatively small community in a beautiful part of the state about an hour east of Portland. Surrounded by mountains the area has attracted high-tech types over the years who love to windsurf along the Columbia River. One such group of technologists created a corporation called Insitu that makes drones and was recently bought out by Boeing. Insitu has grown so much in recent years, as demand for drones in Iraq-Afghanistan-Pakistan has increased, that the company now is operating out of many different buildings in small towns on both sides of the river that separates Oregon and Washington.
Recently activists discovered an Insitu plan to build a central production facility that the company says will employ 700 people. The local media, politicians, and supporters of America’s current wars applaud the proposal but local peace activists have been organizing a campaign in the community to force debate about drones.
I was invited to come speak to help spread consciousness about Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV’s) in the community. After a frustration marked series of flights that led me to Newark and Houston, I finally made it to Oregon in time to do the talk. Local organizer Linda Short picked me up at the Portland airport and showed me a column from one of the local papers that was talking about the planned community event. Not only did the columnist call drones a “clean” way of fighting war but he also gave the wrong date for the meeting, something I am told his paper had done before.
Fortunately though the peace group had purchased three full-page advertisements in different local papers to promote the event. Linda told me she hoped 50 people would turn out. She also told me that a local activist had come forward to cover the expense of the three advertisements.
As it turned out 160 people packed the small church sanctuary where we met in Hood River. Included in the audience was the columnist who had given the wrong date for the meeting and the man who had founded Insitu but has since sold his shares in the company for a reported sum of $20 million.
I centered by talk around the large group of letters-to-the-editor that Linda had supplied me in advance of my trip. I was impressed by the positive non-violent conflict they had created in the community around the drones issue and began my talk by telling them that Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. had said that real change could only come by creating such positive social tension in our communities.
I took many excerpts from the letters and used them to make my key points: drone killings may be violating international law against summary executions; drone attacks have killed 700 innocent civilians in Pakistan since late 2008; we are making more enemies out of drone victims families; surveillance UAV’s could be used against us back here in the US as our civil liberties are destroyed; building drones waste tax dollars that should be going toward dealing with our real problem which is climate change; military production is the worst way to create jobs in our declining economy; and what does military production for endless war say about the soul of our nation.
I suggested though there was one vital issue that I did not find covered in the letters. It was the reality that our present war policy in Afghanistan-Pakistan was really driven by the desire of the oil lobby to control these two countries so that pipelines could carry Caspian Sea oil and natural gas to ports in the Arabian Sea rather than extending pipelines through Russia and China. This was all part of the larger US military program of controlling resource extraction at a time of declining supplies of fossil fuels. For evidence I quoted extensively from Zbigniew Brzezinski’s book, The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy And It's Geostrategic Imperatives, written in 1998.
In the book Brzezinski says, "The world's energy consumption is bound to vastly increase over the next two or three decades. Estimates by the U.S. Department of Energy anticipate that world demand will rise by more than 50 percent between 1993 and 2015, with the most significant increase in consumption occurring in the Far East. The momentum of Asia's economic development is already generating massive pressures for the exploration and exploitation of new sources of energy and the Central Asian region and the Caspian Sea basin are known to contain reserves of natural gas and oil that dwarf those of Kuwait, the Gulf of Mexico, or the North Sea....any successful American policy must focus on Eurasia as a whole and be guided by a Geostrategic design.
"That puts a premium on maneuver and manipulation in order to prevent the emergence of a hostile coalition that could eventually seek to challenge America's primacy.
"The most immediate task is to make certain that no state or combination of states gains the capacity to expel the United States from Eurasia or even to diminish significantly its decisive arbitration role.
"Moreover, as America becomes an increasingly multi-cultural society, it may find it more difficult to fashion a consensus on foreign policy issues, except in the circumstance of a truly massive and widely perceived direct external threat."
There were many great comments from the audience following my talk. The man who founded Insitu tried to filibuster the meeting by saying that I had made many misleading and wrong statements and he was prepared to talk extensively about the drones made by the company and their civilian uses. After a bit I asked him if it was true that the Insitu made UAV’s were being used in US wars in the Middle East and Central Asia. Yes, he replied, it was true.
At the end of my talk I suggested that it was quite apparent that many people in the region had deep concerns about drones and I recommended they might explore holding some town hall meetings so the public could be heard. I also suggested that the time had come for citizens to do more than vote, that we needed the public to become involved in democratizing production decision making so that we could begin to stop the colonization of our nation by the military industrial complex.
The next morning I woke up early for a 5:00 am ride to the Portland airport. I was driven by a local activist, and veteran, by the name of Rollean. Rollean had been the one to put the money up for the three full-page ads in the local papers. He is not a wealthy man, he is a carpenter who lives quite simply, but felt so strongly about the drones that he had to do something to help build momentum around the issue. It was quite apparent that the advertisements had in fact done just that.
As it turned out Rollean told me he remembered me from years ago in Florida. He had come to Florida in 1987 when I organized the historic protest at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at the time of the first flight test of the Trident II nuclear missile from the space center. Just prior to the big rally, attended by well over 5,000 people, we held a Florida Peace Pilgrimage that began at the Trident nuclear submarine base in St. Mary’s, Georgia. The peace walk attracted people like Rollean who had already walked across the US in the Great Peace March and then came south for our walk. As the peace pilgrimage moved southward toward Cape Canaveral, with about 200 walkers, many of them began sneaking into the huge swampy nature preserve that surrounds the space center in a non-violent attempt to get near the Trident launch pad in order to stop the missile test. Each day for about a week activists were arrested by space center security. Then on the day of the big demonstration at the front gate of Cape Canaveral another 200 folks, led by Dr. Benjamin Spock, climbed the fence in a symbolic attempt to also get on the launch pad.
The Brevard County jails were overflowing after that action and several people refused to give their names and remained in jail for some time. Rollean was one of those who stayed in the jail for 65 days, refusing to give his real name in order to keep the debate alive in the space coast community.
It’s clear that the drone issue is “taking off” all over the country. There are presently active US military drone operations in at least seven states - and probably many more that we are not aware of. People are having strong moral and ethical reactions to the idea of robotic warfare – what the Space Command says will help “increase the kill chain.”
The use of UAV’s will dramatically surge as the Obama administration is likely to see them as a substitute for adding huge amounts of troops in Afghanistan. The killings of innocent civilians will escalate as will the creation of new enemies. Yes, we need more jobs in America but we don’t need to get them from making killer drones. Instead the peace movement needs to be calling for the conversion of the military industrial complex.
According to a recent UMASS-Amherst Economics Department study we get 8,555 jobs by building weapons like drones for every $1 billion spent by the Pentagon. But the study says, we would get 19,795 jobs for the same $1 billion if we built mass transit systems. Drones won’t help us solve for climate change. Mass transit could. Which would you rather spend your tax dollars on?