Kalamazoo College Class of 1997 graduates Mike and Jen (Kipka) DeWaele and Jerry and Molly Mechtenberg-Berrigan of Peace House in Kalamazoo co-sponsored and participated in a 165-mile walk from Chicago to Battle Creek, Mich., to protest drone warfare. Located in Kalamazoo’s Eastside Neighborhood, Peace House is dedicated to fostering peace, justice, and community building. It is one of more than 200 communities in the Catholic Worker movement, founded by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in New York City in 1933 to “live in accordance with the justice and charity of Jesus Christ.”
The walk began at the Chicago headquarters of the Boeing Company, manufacturer of the MQ-9 Reaper, the drone that will be operated out of the 110th Airlift Wing of the Michigan Air National Guard (ANG), a new command center in Battle Creek. A core group of 16 walkers were joined by 100 people for the final mile of the walk and a one-hour vigil of songs and speeches about U.S. activities with drones and peaceful alternatives to drone warfare.
“The walk sends a message that there is a group of Americans so deeply concerned about drones that they would take two weeks to walk against them in order to try to stop their use,” said Jerry. “The walk also relates to the work we do at Peace House fostering hope for a future for kids.”
The peace activists are also concerned about the moral and legal questions of drone warfare as well as the possibilities of retaliation on U.S. soil.
“We believe in a world without war,” said Mike, “and drones are creating a new kind of war.
So what can a 165-mile walk do?
Part pilgrimage, part spiritual exercise, the walk brought together people with different experiences and commitments and to create a community of hope.
One of the walk’s organizers, Voices for Creative Nonviolence, asked local peace groups along the route to house and feed the marchers as well as to gather people for information sessions. VCNV leaders Kathy Kelly and Brian Terrell have both visited Pakistan and seen the effects of drones on the people there.
“Drone pilots spend an eight-hour shift involved in surveillance and strikes at a war zone 7,000 miles distant, and then they go home to their families,” said Terrell during a potluck in Kalamazoo. “In an attempt to keep war further away, drone warfare has brought it closer—closer to home.”
“The myth about drones is that they are a quick, precise and an efficient tool for targeting the right bad people,” said Mike. “The truth is that drones are clumsier and more indiscriminate than their reputation claims.”
In January 2014, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimated that the United States has launched 381 strikes in Pakistan since June 2004. Casualty figures range from 2,537-3,646 people killed, including 416-951 civilians. The Bush administration conducted 51 drone attacks and President Obama has ordered 330 strikes. A Human Rights Watch study revealed that in Yemen “in six selected air strikes since 2009 at least 57 of the 82 people killed were civilians.”
Drones glide like a kite and can’t handle breezes or winds well, according to Mike. The pilot reacts to a target, but there is a two- to six-second lag between trigger and strike. This adds a layer of inaccuracy. The MQ-9 Reaper can carry up to four Hell-fire II anti-armor missiles and two laser-guided bombs that can create enormous explosions. It has a cruising speed of 230 miles and can fly for 1,150 miles.
Drone flight by itself can terrorize. Sixteen-year-old Malala Yousafzai in her book, I Am Malala, mentions the fear villagers experienced when drones were heard or seen flying overhead in northern Pakistan.
“These are the hidden costs,” said Molly. “Families and children must live with the mental cost of having to live with drones. These costs can’t be put on a graph.”
Drones are proliferating. Non-military uses include examining crop growth in agriculture, cinematography, scientific research, climate tracking, wildlife management, species preservation, search and rescue missions, mapping, communications networks, news reporting in hot spots and delivering medicine after natural disasters. The United Nations and other human rights advocates want to use drones for human rights monitoring.
According to CNN the drone market doubled from 2007 ($3.75 billion) to 2013 ($7.5 billion). Projected sales will reach $11 billion by 2022. The United States accounted for two-thirds of the 2013 global market. Other countries purchasing drones or drone technology include China, England, India, Iran, Israel and Russia—and 70 other countries, according to a July 2012 GAO report. Only two countries currently use drones to attack targets.
The U.S. Air Force has invested in drones as part of the Pentagon’s overall restructuring plan to slow down the growth of military spending. The cost of a drone ranges from $4 million to $10 million compared to the $100 million required to make a F-35 fighter jet.
The Remote Piloted Aircraft mission in Battle Creek is scheduled to begin operations in 2016. It will be one of dozens of command centers throughout the United States—with dozens more planned in this country and all over the world.
“We reject the whole drone program,” said Jerry, “because we Americans would not tolerate them if our enemies violated our territorial sovereignty.”
The K Connection
The work of the four Peace House activists is deeply influenced by their studies at Kalamazoo College, particularly under Professor Peter Gathje, currently a professor of Christian ethics at Memphis (Tennessee) Theological Seminary.
“He was radical,” said Molly. “He wasn’t teaching religion only. He was teaching about nonviolence in the world. We had him for our first-year seminar, and he invited local peace activists Jean and Joe Gump and Roy Bourgeois, founder of the School of the Americas Watch (SOAW).”
One of the first actions of Mike, Jen, Molly and Jerry was to establish the Nonviolent Student Association, which became a living/learning unit and community on Catherine Street.
“We had great conversations about what kind of world we wanted to live in and how we could direct our lives to make that happen,” said Jerry. “We discussed how we could create a world that was fairer, more just and decent, and less violent. NVSA was the original Peace House.”
The four students educated themselves on issues of political importance and traveled all over the country to attend various peace demonstrations (on one occasion they were arrested). Their purpose was to emulate Gandhi’s “experiments in truth.”
“We had a sense of who we were, and what we were about,” said Jerry, “and we wanted to walk forward. This march against the drones is another ’experiment in truth.’”
The two couples graduated in 1997, and their weddings in 2006 were two weeks apart. Jerry majored in history and earned a minor in religion. Molly and Mike were international studies majors. Jen earned her degree in human development and social relations major. They started Peace House in 2009.
Molly and Jerry work with the youth group at St. Thomas More Catholic Student Parish, which involves high school, middle school and upper elementary students. Jen works at Community in Schools, part of the Kalamazoo Public Schools system. Mike oversees the day-to-day operations of Peace House.
The military use of drones save American lives, protect the country from its enemies, and reduce civilian casualties, according to Major Kelly Black, USAF, executive officer, 110th Airlift Wing, Michigan Air National Guard, Battle Creek, Michigan.
Major Black was the contact person for the Peace House activists who approached him in advance about their plans for the demonstration at the base’s front gate. He found them polite and responsible in all their actions and added that it is the right of citizens to express themselves freely, and in fact one the missions of the military is to defend that right. However, he doesn’t believe those who protest the military uses of drones have all the facts about them.
One of the military’s most important objectives is to be more efficient and economical. This shift in priorities began with the end of the Cold War when the United States began the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process that closed more than 350 installations in five rounds: 1989, 1991, 1993, 1995, and 2005. This downsizing included two Michigan bases: K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base in Marquette County (1995) and Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda (1993). A smaller force requires doing things in new ways. And, theoretically, reductions in military spending mean potential reallocations of money to domestic peace time uses.
Since September 11, 2001, war has changed, said Major Black. Small terrorist groups, not nations, conduct operations that take place in cities as well as obscure and vast areas. The drone is particularly good at reconnaissance of the enemy’s movements without sacrificing the lives of American ground troops or pilots.
The drone is slow and it provides a much better view of what is going on and who is involved. In the past, the military had to depend on a jet pilot riding at almost the speed of sound. Therefore, a reconnaissance drone provides more accurate intelligence because it can fly for a longer period of time over a wider area. Its video feeds can be reviewed and analyzed by a group of people rather than one pilot.
“You have more people seeing what’s going on,” said Major Black. “Is the enemy killing troops? Assassinating ambassadors? Holding children at gunpoint and forcing them to lay IEDs and set out road-side bombs? These video feeds allow us to pinpoint the action and allow a highly trained team to analyze what is seen and then decide what to do.”
Drones can be mass produced at a relatively low cost. They’re the size of a fighter or metro commuter plane and can use the same precision munitions. However, they operate much more cheaply than a fighter jet. Their camera equipment is similar to that of a news helicopter.
Reconnaissance technology has changed – and must change – over time, according to Major Black. In the 19th century scouts went in front of the battlefield. Then, the military used balloons and binoculars. During World War I and II, it was biplanes and single-engine propeller planes. Jets came shortly after World War II. Drones have been in operation since 2004.
“America’s enemies have technology,” said Major Black, “so we use also use technology to defend ourselves. Technology is always evolving, it’s important to keep our equipment up to date. It’s the most efficient, ethical, and effective use of the funds taxpayers have entrusted to us.”
Drone technology does change very quickly. FedEx, Amazon, and E-Bay-type businesses as well as wedding photographers are capitalizing on possible commercial applications. Ted Talks provide an interesting look at an aspect of this current technology.
Although drones were originally designed for reconnaissance, they now can carry weapons against enemies seeking to harm the United States and its people. “Our weapons systems are more accurate and steadily getting better,” Major Black said. “We have the best equipped troops and the most ethical, most educated soldiers the military has ever had.” Cannot an ethical case be made for the judicious use of a weapon against a committed enemy of a country and its people? Are not drones less invasive to a country’s sovereignty and people than troops in-country?
Fair – and tough – questions. Questions that Major Black and the members of Peace House will continue to address.