Iowans Walking 195 Miles to Stop Drones in Their State

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Plans to pilot lethal drone strikes from Des Moines don’t show signs of faltering, but peace activists trekking through Eastern Iowa this month are hopeful they can send a message.

3pr“I do think if there are 100,000 people outside the entrance to the base for seven days in a row, I think it might have an influence on folks. But really you don’t know what it takes,” said Ed Flaherty, an Iowa City activist with Veterans for Peace.

That turn-out appears unlikely, but more than a dozen demonstrators marching 195 miles from Rock Island, Ill., to Des Moines say they’re getting a positive reception from observers and helping to increase awareness about drone strikes.

The Iowa Air National Guard in Des Moines is ending its F-16 operation in the next few months. Once the manned aircraft are gone, the Des Moines unit will shift to operating unmanned aircraft — commonly known as drones — and collecting military intelligence. Even though the aircraft will be piloted from Des Moines, the drones will stay overseas, well away from Iowa.

Military leaders and some Iowa officials have praised the transition, saying it will preserve military jobs in Iowa.

“They are exciting new missions across the board,” Iowa National Guard Col. Drew DeHaes told The Des Moines Register this month.
But Buddy Bell — an activist with Illinois-based Voices for Creative Non-Violence who’s leading the anti-drone march — is more pessimistic about the change.

“Someone will sit in a trailer in Des Moines and control a plane flying over Afghanistan, for example, that drops bombs on targets,” Bell said.

Aaron Jorgensen-Briggs, who lives in Des Moines, says that’s not a project he wants in his backyard.

1pr“I feel that the United States drone war is a form of terrorism, plain and simple. I don’t want my community taking part in that,” Jorgensen-Briggs said.

Walkers arrived in Iowa City on Friday afternoon, hosting a presentation about their effort for a crowd of about 75 at the Iowa City Public Library. On Saturday, they walked to Kent Park, where they planned to camp out before continuing East to Des Moines this week.

Drone warfare has earned increasing scrutiny in recent months as more details about the often-secret operations have trickled out.

U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, has been among the leaders calling on the Obama administration for more information about the program, especially regarding the at least four American citizens who have reportedly been killed by drone strikes overseas.

[Jules Orkin from Bergin Field, N.J., holds a flag with a peace dove on it while protesting Saturday on Mormon Trek Boulevard en route to Kent Park. More than a dozen demonstrators are marching 195 miles from Rock Island to Des Moines. / Ben Roberts]

A lack of transparency surrounding the strikes makes it difficult to determine who’s being killed. Left-leaning groups say many more civilians are killed than terrorists, but federal officials insist the killings are effective and legal.

“I’ve insisted on strong oversight of all lethal action. … The high threshold we’ve set for taking lethal action applies to all potential terrorist targets,” President Obama said in a speech last week.

2prThe 14-day anti-drone march from Rock Island to Des Moines has drawn activists from here in Iowa City and as far away as England.

Linda Sartor came from her home in northern California to participate in the walk. Long concerned about warfare issues, she’s visited Afghanistan twice to speak with people directly affected by drone strikes.

She said she’s convinced the attacks breed as many terrorists as they eliminate.

“The people of Afghanistan believe we’ve been there for 11 years and many of the people there haven’t seen any improvement in the security situation there. Instead, they’ve seen an increase in people joining the Taliban since we’ve been there,” Sartor said.

Maya Evans, an English activist who also has traveled to Afghanistan, agreed.

“This is a major incentive for people in Afghanistan to join the Taliban, to turn to terrorism in order to defend themselves basically or to gain revenge,” Evans said.

Carol Tyx, an Iowa City resident who joined the walkers Saturday, wishes supporters of the country’s drone operations would consider a hypothetical shoe-on-the-other-foot scenario.

“How would we react if a foreign country was flying unmanned planes and dropping bombs on our citizens? We’d be outraged,” Tyx said.

Reach Adam B Sullivan at [email protected] or 887-5412.