Leah Bolger is a former National Board President of Veterans For Peace and continues to serve on the VFP board. She is currently touring the U.S. to promote the work of VFP’s “Drones, Robots, and Future Weapons Working Group.” Leah has worked with Quakers on many common causes over the years, and she spoke with Western Friend by phone on January 25, 2013.
Western Friend: I know you’re on the road right now, talking about drones. So if you would describe the work you’re doing now, that would be a good starting point.
Leah Bolger: Well, I was part of a delegation organized by Code Pink that went to Pakistan to meet with victims of drone strikes in late September and early October of 2012. Since we’ve come back, pretty much all thirty-one people who were part of that delegation have been going around the country and speaking to people, educating them about what we saw and heard. I just finished four appearances in Iowa. The delegation itself was from all over the country. So we’re trying to educate people all over the country about the truth of the harm that this drone program is causing.
WF: And when you say that you came back to talk about “what you saw” in Pakistan, what did you see?
LB: First of all, we met firsthand with families of drone victims, people whose family members had been killed or injured by drones, people whose homes had been completely demolished by drones, people whose family members were totally innocent people. One man we met with, Kareem Kahn, his 18-year-old son and his brother were both killed by a drone strike. Both of them were educators. But the American government reported it as a strike that had killed militants. And this was so distressing to Kareem – not only was his son killed, but then labeled as a terrorist. So what we found was that innocent people were being killed who were not militants and not terrorists. And our government is not verifying who it is that they’re killing. They really don’t know who they’re killing. And they’re getting away with it with impunity.
WF: Part of what motivated me to call you was a question from Friends Committee of National Legislation on this topic. It’s a multipart question. “FCNL urges the ‘elimination of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons,’ and restrictions on conventional weapons. What about lasers, unmanned aerial vehicles (drones), and other weapons we don’t know about yet? Can we say why FCNL should urge that certain kinds of weapons be eliminated or restricted? Is it the technology itself, or how these weapons are or can be used?”
LB: I hope FCNL and the Quakers do come out with a strong position against drones. The U.N. is currently investigating the American combat drones program, which has violated lots of international laws. The way they’re being used by the American government really opens up a Pandora’s box of possibilities. If it’s OK for the United States to use drones within the sovereign boundaries of another country to kill people we believe are in opposition to our country, what is to stop other countries from doing the same?
And what worries me the most is that as Americans, we just believe what we are told. We believe that the media would not lie to us, especially major networks. So our government is not telling us the truth about what these drones are doing. The headlines will only say that, “They’re very precise, and they’re only killing bad guys.” And when we do kill someone, we say militants were killed. We don’t name them, because we don’t know who we’re killing.
Another thing that’s really of great concern is that in Pakistan, the CIA is controlling the drones program. There’s no transparency whatsoever about their operation, who they’re killing, the numbers of people, the identities of the people. Even the budget of the CIA and the drones program is classified. This is very troubling to me, that we are killing civilians in a country with which we are not at war, by means that are being controlled by a civilian agency.
Other violations of international law concern the Geneva Convention. I know that Quakers support the Geneva Convention. It talks in great detail about how you can treat the enemy. You have to have positive identification of the enemy before you can try to harm them, and you’re supposed to capture somebody instead of killing them first. You’re supposed to give fair warning. You’re supposed to give them an opportunity to surrender. So what we’re doing really amounts to extrajudicial assassination. We’re not giving any kind of due process of law [to so-called terrorists], there’s no evidence being brought before them, they’re not being charged with anything. We’re simply murdering them. And in doing so, we’re also murdering a lot of people that our government doesn’t even suspect of doing anything wrong, they just happened to get in the way. So it’s really, really reprehensible, and it’s being done in our name, with our tax dollars, and I think every American should be just outraged by it.
WF: And this is to belabor . . . Why drones particularly? Why is this type of technology particularly violating of the Geneva Conventions?
LB: Well, it’s not the technology so much. It’s not the drone that kills people; the drone is the vehicle. And in fact, that’s the real name of a drone; it’s called an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle or UAV. But attached to the drone, some drones, are Hellfire missiles, and it’s the missiles that are killing people. But what the United States likes about drones is they don’t put Americans into harm’s way.
International law says you can’t kill somebody unless they pose an imminent threat to you. We know this is not the situation here. The people that we’re killing in Waziristan with drones, even if they were Al Qaeda, even if they were Taliban – and we don’t know that for sure until after the fact – even if the were, they do not pose an imminent threat to this country, and therefore they can not be assassinated.
What I think Americans really need to understand is that this just goes against all the principles of democracy and justice that we supposedly stand for. And by sanitizing it, because it doesn’t involve jeopardy to Americans, it’s much easier for the American public to not care about these deaths that are being conducted in our name. We’re not being told about the children who are being killed. We’re not being told about the women who are being killed, or the old men, or even the young men. None of these people who are being murdered have had any due process whatsoever.
WF: What are practical steps that you’re advocating now, to turn this around?
LB: I really think the key is to educate the public and make sure people are starting to ask questions when they hear about these drone strikes, that they question the morality and the legality of these things happening. I mentioned that the U.N. is just starting an investigation, and I’m hearing more and more in the news about people questioning drone policies. I think that eventually there’s going to be enough international pressure that the United States is going to have to rein in its program that’s run amok in recent years.
WF: There’s nobody in Congress who’s sympathetic to the work you’re doing?
LB: Not yet. It’s very difficult to find congressmen who are opposed to drones. In fact, there is a “drones caucus” in the House of Representatives that’s been around for about three years. These congressmen work with drone manufacturers, who lobby them to increase the amount of money and research going for drones. Most of the members of that caucus live in southwest states that border Mexico. They see drones as useful for patrolling the border. But it’s hard for us to find a congressman who will speak out against drones because they don’t look beyond that superficial idea that drones are saving American lives. Well, maybe in the short run they are, but for every person we are killing in Waziristan, we are making a hundred more enemies. So in the long run, they will end up harming the United States and American citizens.
WF: Good point. Who are the major manufacturers?
LB: General Atomics is the major manufacturer of the Predator and Reaper drones, which are combat drones that carry the Hellfire missiles. But there are dozens of companies who are manufacturing all different kinds of drones. Drones can come in all shapes and sizes. Predators and Reapers are very large, I think they’re between 40 and 50 feet in wingspan, but drones can also be very small. They can be the size of a small insect. And they are being manufactured with an alarming increase of the rate of manufacture. Seventy-six countries now possess drones, and we are the major manufacturer of them. Israel also manufactures them.
WF: Could you talk a little bit about the place of Quakers in all this? I know that you have worked with Quakers where you live in Corvallis, so if you could talk a little bit about your experience working with Friends over the years?
LB: Well, one member of our board of directors of Veterans for Peace, Matt Southworth, works for FCNL on Capitol Hill. He works on issues having to do with Afghanistan and drones. Veterans for Peace works very closely with FCNL, lobbying Congress to end wars and end militarism and reduce the defense budget. FCNL is one of the leading organizations in peace and justice; they have a lot of resources that some smaller organizations don’t have. Quakers have a highly respected history, and their voice carries a lot of credibility and a lot of weight.
I think that all peace and justice groups need to collaborate and work together in ways to amplify our voices. The issue of drones is one that a lot of groups are just now finding a footing on. Coalitions and groups are forming up all over the country now to work together on this issue of drones, especially combat drones. I think we need it from all sides – we need activists on the ground and we need people on Capitol Hill. We need to be pressuring our government to do the right thing and to act in the best interests of humanity.
So I think that perhaps Quakers and the Friends community might be able to amplify their voice by working in conjunction with other faith-based groups – Catholic Workers, Unitarians, Congregationalists – lots of church groups have a long history of peace and social justice activism. So I think just like veterans have a sort of unique, special credibility when they speak about these issues, faith-based groups do as well. And it’s very important to exercise that voice.
WF: Can you recommend resources for working on the issue of drones?
LB: There’s a website called droneswatch.org, which is serving as a sort of central repository for lots of postings and action alerts and resources. And there are actions being planned for the whole month of April, in cities across the country, at different drone manufacturers and drone bases.
WF: Where are you going to be in April?
LB: I am definitely going to be in San Diego the 4th though 7th. That first weekend in April is going to be a major protest in San Diego against General Atomics, which as I mentioned is the biggest manufacturer of Predators and Reapers. The second weekend in April, actions are going to be targeted against drone bases. So I may make it down to Creech Air Force Base, or Hancock in New York. It depends on my schedule, but I will definitely be involved in protesting throughout the month, wherever I can find it.
WF: Are there any other last thoughts that you want to add?
LB: I just want people to really think when they hear things, just question what you hear. When you read in the media that militants were killed, then question that. How do you know they were militants? And what is a militant?
And then we need to work on re-budgeting our federal dollars into programs that uplift and help people, rather than spending them on war and militarism. That’s a basic tenant of the Quaker philosophy, and I hope we can continue to push that message over and over again. ♦