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Former Army satellite communication operator feels ‘an ethical and moral obligation’ to inform the public on the horrors of drone warfare

Webinar examines the growth and implications of drone strikes

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Iewek Gnos via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — Tuesday’s Drones 101: A Webinar on the Human Cost of Remote Warfare featured the compelling story of Justin Yeary, who was a satellite communication operator and a seven-year veteran in the U.S. Army before receiving an honorable discharge last year as a conscientious objector. Watch the webinar, hosted by the Office of Public Witness on behalf of the Interfaith Working Group on Drone Warfare, by clicking here.

Yeary, who’s now an antiwar and anti-imperialist activist, said he speaks out against drone warfare to “reach out to those presently serving and those considering a career in the military. Part of what haunts me” in the years since serving in Iraq “is knowing I was complicit in crimes against humanity.”

Although he was not a drone pilot, “I supported the drones and I saw the effects,” he said. Yeary helped to build the internet network that allowed the drones to fly. “I wasn’t the trigger-puller,” he said, “but I am nonetheless complicit in that.”

He recounted one day while overseeing combat footage seeing two young men flying a recreational drone atop an apartment building in Iraq. “I know sometimes the Islamic State would try to use those drones, but I had no way of knowing that [in this case],” Yeary said. A strike was called and the apartment building was obliterated.

Yeary said after that he began drinking and using “a lot of drugs. I felt depressed all the time. I was easily agitated.” His marriage fell apart.

Fortunately for Yeary, he was not alone. He gave a shout out to help he received from the Fortress on a Hill podcast as well as the veterans’ antiwar organization, About Face.

“I’m speaking out to draw attention to American imperialism and drone warfare. My status as a veteran gives me a unique perspective,” Yeary said. “I feel an ethical and moral obligation to the Iraqi people specifically to inform the public, and I have a useful role in reaching out to other veterans and recruits.”

Dan Moriarty

Dan Moriarty, Sustainable Pathways to Peace program coordinator for the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, said that armed drones are proliferating and can both launch missiles and drop bombs. Some are large, relatively expensive and high tech, while others are off the shelf and can be “easily adapted” into armed drones.

“They are hyped as super accurate and it sounds limiting, but frequently non-combatants are killed,” he said, resulting in “terrorizing civilians and blowback against the United States” as well as “serving as a recruiting tool for terrorist groups.” Piloting a drone can result in “moral injury” to drone pilots, who are often thousands of miles away from the intended target.

Armed drones are used by the U.S. military and by the Central Intelligence Agency, which can use them “in total secrecy, with no chance to investigate the impact and call the actors into account,” Moriarty said. They are sometimes “adapted for conflicts we would not normally engage,” such as alleged terrorism targets in Pakistan and Yemen.

“It’s easier for lawmakers to employ lethal force without putting troops in the line of fire,” Moriarty said.

Matt Hawthorne

Matt Hawthorne, policy director for the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, said armed drones have been employed by every president since George W. Bush, although President Joe Biden “has dramatically curtailed the use of drone strikes.”

The Department of Defense carries out most drone strikes. Congress has passed legislation to compensate the families of victims, “but it’s become apparent that the Department of Defense almost never makes those payments,” Hawthorne said. In January, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered an “action plan” to prevent civilian deaths in U.S. strikes months after the Pentagon admitted a drone attack in Afghanistan had mistakenly killed 10 civilians, including seven children.

The Interfaith Working Group on Drone Warfare has two proposals, Hawthorne said. One is to back legislation to ban CIA drone strikes entirely, consolidating all strikes into the Department of Defense. The second is to encourage Congress to require that human beings be able to stop any drone strike. Hawthorne said both China and the U.S. are building autonomous drones “without humans in the loop. There should always be real person who would be accountable for causing the deaths of people, especially civilians,” Hawthorne said.

Bonyan Gamal

The final speaker was Bonyan Gamal, a human rights lawyer based in Sana’a, Yemen. For the past decade, her organization, Mwatana for Human Rights, has been documenting civilian harm from the United States’ use of lethal force in Yemen. Its most recent report is “Death Falling From the Sky.”

“The main impact of drones is not just on civilians who are killed and injured,” she said. “These attacks affect the community.” She said civilians are asking, “Why are we being targeted?”

“People have lost their breadwinners,” she said. “They haven’t received any compensation and there’s no accountability from the U.S.” Drone strikes often occur in communities “with almost nothing — no schools, little electricity and no cell phone reception. But drones can reach their areas … It’s clear there should be accountability and reparations to allow people to move beyond the catastrophes that have happened to them.”

Asked what webinar viewers might do, she replied that “putting pressure on the U.S. government from the inside would be great.” She also recommended “shedding light on the situation in Yemen and helping with the humanitarian need through known organizations.”

The Office of Public Witness is one of the Compassion, Peace & Justice ministries of the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

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