In 2009, Des Moines-based peace activist Karla Hansen took a break from traveling around Iran with a banner apologizing for U.S. policy to attend a wedding in the Kurdish village of Qarcheghah near the Turkmenistan border. This experience provoked in her a desire to expose the horror of civilian deaths caused by U.S. aerial drone strikes in similar tribal areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan, some of which have mistakenly targeted wedding parties.
The result of this inspiration, a 36-minute documentary film called Death by Drones: Silent Screams was screened this week at the Faulkner Gallery. A testament to what an ordinary person can do with a video camera and a MacBook, the film — purportedly a protest against drone attacks — covered a wide range of territory. It showed harrowing footage of innocent civilian victims of aerial bombardments in Afghanistan and Pakistan, called attention to the vast amount of money the U.S. invests in the military (37.3 cents of every tax dollar), suggested a symmetry between our spending on destruction abroad and lack of spending on healthcare domestically, and lastly warned that the U.S. is angling for war in Iran.
After the film ended, David Krieger, cofounder of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, gave a talk on the dangers of targeted killings with predator drones. He warned that although drones — unlike nuclear weapons — are designed to kill individuals and limit collateral damage, they are still a “tool of warfare.” Moreover, said Krieger, military drones bring with them their own set of problems, namely that they are extra-judicial. That is, the CIA or military replaces the judicial approval usually necessary for the exercise of lethal force with a target list. He asked his audience to consider a world in which “each country could have its own death list,” to which an audience member audibly replied, “I’ve got some names.”
Drones also alienate the American public from military action, argued Krieger. “Drones are a sanitized way of killing and we live in a sanitized society.” The soldiers who operate them do so from Creech Air Force Base north of Las Vegas.
They also kill a lot of people who are not bad guys. Counterinsurgency experts David Kilcullen and Andrew McDonald Exum estimated in 2009 that upward of 700 civilians had been killed by U.S. drone missile strikes. Only 2 percent of all those killed in Pakistan, they wrote in a New York Times op-ed, were military or intelligence targets.
Krieger suggested that the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts are illegal because Congress never voted to declare war. In Pakistan, though, there is little room for argument since neither the executive nor legislative branches have formally authorized military force against a nation we consider an ally.
Members of the audience and sponsors of the event represented all of the left of left organizations in Santa Barbara from the Veterans for Peace to the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) of which Hansen is a member.
In her remarks introducing Krieger, Lois Hamilton, chapter leader of the Progressive Democrats of Santa Barbara, said that Democratic Representative Lois Capps “is brainwashed” on the issue of the war in Afghanistan. Other audience members shared their disappointment in Capps’s support for the war, decried the military-industrial complex, and suggested that 9/11 was an inside job.
One man said that the names of the U.S. military’s aerial drones — Predator and Reaper — suggest a cavalier attitude toward war, an event more aptly responded to with mourning. Homer and Sun Tzu might have disagreed, but then again Achilles might not have seemed so heroic had he killed Hector with missiles fired from a remote-controlled vehicle operated with a video game-like console thousands of miles away from the scene of the attack.
The lone voice of dissent was John Perlin who asked Krieger, “Didn’t it strike you that the end of the film defended Iran’s right to pursue nuclear technology?” Perlin, an energy consultant and a proponent, in particular, of solar energy, was voicing his own personal and professional concerns, but he pointed out a lack of focus in the documentary. Krieger himself mentioned that the film conflated aerial attacks by conventional pilot-operated bombers and drone attacks. It was more important for him, though, that the film helped to wake us from “a stupor of complacency.” All military weapons, including drones, he said, “are an arrogant instrument of imperial power.”