By John A. Ostenburg
The Outpost Observer
Recently I had the opportunity to hear a lecture by Kathy Kelly, coordinator of Voices for Creative Nonviolence. Her announced topic was "U.S. Drone Warfare in Pakistan and Afghanistan," but actually her talk covered a much wider scope of things. Really, her presentation should have been promoted with the old John Lennon song title, "Give Peace a Chance."
A longtime peace activist and currently one of the Creech 14 — fourteen protesters arrested in Spring 2009 for trespassing on government property at the Creech Air Force Base in Nevada — Ms. Kelly has spent lots of time in Middle East war zones and has a first-hand knowledge of the devastating effects that modern combat techniques have on the wellbeing of native populations. As she points out, many of the victims of conflict in the Middle East are so undereducated as not to understand even remotely what is happening to them, or why.
That, she said, is the reason the U.S. and its allies are making so little progress in Afghanistan, in Pakistan, and in other areas with large rural populations that live in truly primitive conditions: because our government policy is predicated on the notion that the population wants us fighting there in order to bring about democratic governments. In fact, she maintains, the population has no idea of what "democracy" means but does have a clear understanding that missiles and bombs sent into their homes by "the great Satan" are killing their mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, grandparents, brothers, sisters, cousins, and neighbors. She said key advisors to U.S. military leadership have exposed this dilemma time and again, but the Defense Department personal and the generals seem powerless in stopping actions that they themselves have initiated. They’re like gamblers who keep chasing their losses, confident that the next throw of the dice or spin of the roulette wheel will make it all well again (my analogy, not hers).
The use of drones is particularly problematic, according to Ms. Kelly, because they seem to diminish accountability on the part of those who activate them. She compared the military personnel who deploy the drones, operating from a location thousands of miles away, to youngsters engaged in computer combat who use their joysticks to eliminate or compromise an opponent in some virtual combat scenario. Almost as confirmation of that opinion, an audience member said her own youngsters believe drones are beneficial weapons of warfare because they minimize the potential that they might be drafted into actual combat. Ms. Kelly said that may be true, but it doesn’t justify the thousands of deaths that occur — often to innocent victims and not to enemy combat troops — as a result of the drones being used in seek and destroy missions by U.S. forces operating from their remote locations.
It was in protest to the use of drones that Ms. Kelly and her thirteen compatriots crossed into the property of Creech AFB on April 10, 2009. They said they desired to engage in conversation with the Air Force personnel on the base who actually operate the Predator and Reaper drone missiles that are used in combat in the war zones of Afghanistan and adjacent regions. Instead of being given that opportunity, they were arrested for illegally entering government property. They are scheduled for trial in Clark County, Nevada, on September 14.
In part, Ms. Kelly’s talk before a group of 100 or more at St. Irenaeus Church in Park Forest was intended to help raise funds for the defense of the Creech 14. Equally as important to her, however, was her goal of convincing her audience and anyone to whom they might in turn reach out, that somebody needs to do something about war and violence. Ms. Kelly made the argument that world peace can be effected if a sufficient number of people get behind the effort. She pointed to the civil rights movement in the United States as an example of how a prevailing national attitude was changed as a result of hard work on the part of a number of dedicated proponents of equality for all races. She told her audience that she sincerely believes the same is possible as regards world peace.
While I agree with Ms. Kelly in principle, that the sincere and consistent efforts of even a handful eventually can reap genuine rewards, I also am inclined to believe that it is extremely difficult to control the behaviors of any individuals — or even nations — who have hatred in their hearts. Turning the cheek is a personal act that any one of us can take (I might even say, should take), but those charged with the responsibility of protecting the public at large face additional responsibilities that reach beyond that. As Christians, Ms. Kelly and her compatriots do well to imitate the actions of Jesus Christ in how he showed love for those who extended ill toward him; however, even Jesus took up the whip to expel the money-changers in the Temple because of the social ill they were spreading.
As such, I find it difficult to accept that absolute pacifism is enough to effect the kind of change that Ms. Kelly would like to see. Lest we forget, law enforcement also was a necessary component of the changes that ultimately brought major controls on racial hatred in the 1960s and 1970s. People had to be arrested, sentenced, and sent to jail; federal officers often had to engage in strong tactics in order to bring the wrongdoers to their knees. And — even with all the combined efforts of peaceful protest and effective law enforcement — things today are far from perfect and the ugly head of racism still rises all too often and spews its hateful venom.
So, from my perspective, it is legitimate for the U.S. to seek to curtail hateful acts by Al-Qaeda and/or the Taliban. But I also believe the methods we employ in our efforts at self-protection must likewise be legitimate.
The "just war" theory has its roots in Augustine and Thomas Aquinas and lays out various particulars that create justification for why a nation might go to war. Actions that have lasting and serious harmful effects and for which all other means of finding solution have been exhausted — for example, the extermination of 6 million Jews by the Nazi regime in Germany — generally are regarded as legitimate reason for going to war. However, as theologians point out, the tactics of war that are used by the parties engaging in a "just war" must not be even more harmful than what is intended to be corrected. Use of the atom bomb in the Pacific theater during World War II raises some questions for me in that regard. Likewise the use of drone missiles and scatter bombs in the conflicts of today.
Over the past 15 years, a gentleman named Greg Mortenson has been establishing schools in remote areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan in order to bring education to children — especially young girls — who otherwise probably never would learn to read or write. He has documented his work in a highly acclaimed book, Three Cups of Tea, and recently wrote a second volume on his work, Stones Into Schools. He established the Central Asia Institute after he encountered difficulty in a mountain-climbing expedition in Afghanistan and then received kind treatment from locals. As a "thank you" for the local people’s kindness, he decided — against great odds — to bring schooling to the children of the region.
Mr. Mortenson says the cost of educating one child in Afghanistan or Pakistan is approximately $1 per month. By contrast, I’ve read that the cost of one drone missile is about $100,000. While I believe that the U.S. needs to take every necessary step to assure that our nation is protected against attacks by terrorists, I can’t help but think that we’d have a lot more luck in fighting the Taliban and Al-Qaeda by putting more of our tax dollars into Mr. Mortenson’s efforts to improve the life for locals than we will have by continuing to pour funds into more drone missiles to destroy what little quality of life those residents may otherwise enjoy.
Maybe doing so would be a better avenue for giving world peace a chance.
John A. Ostenburg is mayor of Park Forest, Illinois, and formerly served in the Illinois House of Representatives. He recently retired as the chief of staff for the Chicago Teachers Union. E-mail him at [email protected].