Protesters rally against drones at Des Moines air base

Originally published on The Des Moines Register’s website.

Protesters from across the country rallied in Des Moines on Saturday against the U.S. military’s drone warfare.

 “What we’re doing today is not a last gasp of defeat, but is a part of a continuing effort,” said Ed Flaherty, presdent of the Iowa City chapter of Veterans for Peace. “I don’t know how we stop this in Des Moines or in the country, but we have to use our creative minds to think how we do it.”

About 100 people gathered at the Iowa Air National Guard Base in Des Moines, 3100 McKinley Ave., for the rally. Des Moines Catholic Worker and the Des Moines Veterans for Peace chapter organized the rally.

The protest took place at the Air Guard base because the Guard’s 132nd Fighter Wing is starting a new mission piloting and controlling armed Reaper drones around the world.

“It brings war directly, physically to Des Moines,” said Gilbert Landolt, president of the Des Moines Veterans for Peace chapter. “I don’t think the people of Iowa know what’s going on.”

The military’s increased use of drones for air attacks and surveillance has been condemned by activists and government officials around the world. Drone attacks have caused an unacceptable number of civilian deaths and in some cases flout international law, critics argue.

“They have killed innocent women and children,” Landolt said. “They’re illegal, immoral and unjust.”

The Des Moines fighter wing’s manned F-16 jets were a victim of budget cuts, so the U.S. Air Force decided early last year to have the airmen work with drones and other missions, mitigating the potential job loss.

An F-16 took its last flight at the Iowa Air National Guard’s 132nd Fighter Wing in September. Airmen have received new training, and personnel have been shuffled.

On the drone mission, 290 people have been hired to work full time. The drone mission is in an initial stage while a building is constructed to meet its needs.

Organizers of the protest said the rally was not only meant to try to stop the Air Guard from participating in drone warfare, but also to raise awareness of the issue.

“I hope people will be inspired to do research and form their own opinions,” said Julie Brown, the emcee for the rally.

National Guard officials, after past protests of the drone mission, have said that they support Americans’ First Amendment speech rights.

The rally featured several speakers from across the country.

One was Daniel Hale, an Afghanistan war veteran who worked on a mission involving drones.

Hale, who now lives in Virginia, said he began the mission believing drones were “a necessary evil” to help Afghans.

“The idea being sold was drones are cleaner, more sophisticated, there’s less room for error,” Hale said.

Now, Hale is against the use of drones, saying there’s “no clean way of doing things in war.” He also said drone warfare shows “the overwhelming trust in intelligence.”

Kathy Kelly, a peace activist, said the use of drones, at best, blinds the U.S. to the scope of Afghanistan’s problems with poverty and hunger.

Kelly advocated for money to be used to help nourish children instead of to deploy troops to Afghanistan. She said it costs $2.1 million per year for each soldier in Afghanistan and “5 cents to get iodine into the diet of a malnourished child.” The per-soldier statistic is from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

“You have to weigh the options,” Kelly said.

The rally ended after protesters laid flowers at the entrance of the Guard base. Brown said the rally was “one small step.”

Some Midwest Catholic Workers said they plan to commit “nonviolent civil” disobedience beginning at 9:30 a.m. Monday at the Guard base.

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