Monday, April 2, 2018

Willow Grove: Drones from Home (Easter 2018)

Willow Grove Park opened in 1896 on 130 idyllic acres, just fifteen miles north of Center City Philadelphia in the small town of Willow Grove.  In the similar spirit of Coney Island, it offered Philadelphians an opportunity to get out of the city, via trolley car, and enjoy amusements, rides, food, and music—most famously, John Philip Sousa’s band would play there every year.  As middle class and suburban life evolved outside of Philadelphia in the early 1900s, so did Willow Grove Park.  Cars replaced trolleys as the means of transportation, and Easton Road became more built up and developed.  Still, "Life [was] a lark in Willow Grove Park," as its slogan attested.  As an early teen in the 1960s, my mom walked to Willow Grove Park two or three times a year.  She and her best friend Kathy would get unlimited rides on “Abington Hospital Day.”  Pop Pop’s company had its picnics there every summer.  Now though, the amusement park and most of the willows and groves are gone.  It closed in 1975, and seven years later, the Willow Grove Park Mall opened in its place.  A 1991 low-budget local history documentary about the park proclaimed of the shopping mall:  “A vast, glittering monument to modern times rises on the site of old Willow Grove Park.”
            Six miles north on Easton Road, before reaching the Bucks county line, sat the Naval Air Station-Joint Reserve Base, which shared a name with the park/mall/town: “Willow Grove.”  Technically in Horsham Township, Willow Grove was a fixture in Bucks-Montgomery life.   Before my lifetime, my mom and her other best friend Edna drove onto the base when they were seventeen—security was more lax then—looking for jobs.  (They did not get hired—they weren’t even sure what type of jobs they were looking for.)  None of my mom’s family or my nearby dad’s family worked at the base, but plenty of local residents did.  Finally, there was a large parking lot off Easton Road adjacent to the base, where local teenagers would go to “watch the submarine races,” i.e. make out in cars.  Everyone had his/her way of supporting the troops. 
            In my childhood in the early 1990s, trips from the hinterlands of Chalfont to Mom Mom’s in Hatboro or Nana’s in Warrington meant driving along the edge of the Willow Grove base.  A few people we grew up with worked there.  Mr. Ganter did for a time.  Mr. Armstrong completed some of his reservist duties there, and his connection landed us the base pool for our 8th-grade graduation party, which was pretty cool.  My family never attended the annual air shows, but we heard them and appreciated them from afar.  We had as much respect and knowledge that most non-military families had, both towards Willow Grove and the military in general.
            In eighth grade, when I started to hear the call of Uncle Sam to serve and, in particular, to serve in the navy, I took slightly more interest in Willow Grove.  But for the most part, I didn’t think much of it: it was the base we drove by; occasionally, we’d see a plane; we, the U.S., probably needed it; and we, the U.S., probably used it for good.  Life simply went on, on the way to Mom Mom’s house and, later, on the way to what I thought would be an illustrious naval career.
March of my senior year of college, I chose the USS Cardinal in Manama, Bahrain as my first duty station.  The day before graduation, I was commissioned an Ensign.  Therefore, I was officially in the navy and on the navy payroll.  So, I had to find “stashed Ensign” duty to keep me occupied and accountable until I reported to the Cardinal in June.  I called up our neighbor Mr. Witowski, who was a Lieutenant Commander at the P-3 squadron at Willow Grove, and he helped stash me there.  
Willow Grove, then, holds a special, odd place in my heart.  It was my first duty station of sorts.  My responsibilities in those three weeks there involved sitting by a phone that maybe rang once, organizing some paperwork into accordion file folders, retrieving squadron hoagies from Silvio’s Deli, slowly making my way through The Brothers Karamazov (to be finished three months later), working out, and playing basketball.  That P-3 squadron seemed to play a lot of basketball.  In those three weeks, my mom actually started working at Willow Grove, in Mr. Ganter’s office.  Forty-seven years later, she finally landed that job on the base.  We were a very cute and very green navy-mother-son duo: she the new civilian, I the freshly minted Ensign, getting lunch together at Lancers’ Diner across the street.  
I reported to the Cardinal in Bahrain to start my less than illustrious naval career.  Several months later, the navy moved our crew to Ingleside, Texas to take over the USS Pelican instead.  In 2005, the same Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) commission that recommended closing Naval Station Ingleside recommended that Willow Grove be closed as well.  Local residents near both stations reacted with similar sentiment to the closure announcements: roadside signs, petitions, and town hall hearings to “save the station; save the jobs; our nation needs it to be safe (particularly post-9/11).”  (In reality, the BRAC commission, comprised of no doves, was probably right.  President Eisenhower, no dove himself, warned against this type of civilian economic dependency on military bases and industry, but that is another story for another blog entry).  In September of 2011, Willow Grove did shut down as a joint Navy-Marine-Air Force base, but the Pennsylvania Air National Guard soon took it over, and it is formally called the Horsham Air Guard Station today.  Most folks still refer to it as Willow Grove.
In 2016, Willow Grove become one of the country’s twelve drone command centers.  The command center remotely flies unmanned MQ-9 Reaper Drones, which themselves are based in and fly across the Middle East (the particular locations, missions, and any potential strikes directly connected to Willow Grove are not disclosed).  In addition to the pilot and the sensor operator, these drones—made by General Atomics at $14 million apiece—require a large support team at Willow Grove:   
A mission commander, a mission intelligence coordinator, an intelligence supervisor, and a weather specialist make up the rest of the team's key members. It takes 140 people to deliver "actionable information" for each [combat air patrol]….
The MQ-9 Reapers, typically armed with four Hellfire missiles, can gather intelligence and provide surveillance for the better part of 24 hours, hovering over a targeted area from up to 50,000 feet. When directed, the drone can strike a target with the weapons. Each drone has a range of 600 miles to 800 miles.

Drones from Willow Grove?  Yes, the other, deadlier “captive flying machines.”    
I was surprised and upset when I heard this news.  My surprise, however, was admittedly irrational.  It was an operating base after all, despite BRAC.  Willow Grove had supported combat operations and wars in the past, while I rode by it on the way to extended family holidays and dinners.  Now, drones happen to be the weapon of choice.  That’s what militaries and national guards do—fly them, shoot them.  All those hoagies and all that basketball does eventually, sometimes lead to a “kill.”  Furthermore, I had spent eighteen months on the USS Cowpens—a ship that had fired 37 missiles during "shock and awe" over Baghdad in 2003.  I played in the war games with South Korea practicing for the invasion of North Korea.  I was in the Persian Gulf for a brief time.  In short, while I was not in combat, I was much more directly, morally entwined in the questions of the war machine at that navy stage in my life.  And as a participant, an officer no less.  But County Line Road?  Across from (the short-lived and now gone) Happy Times go-karts and arcade games?  Catty-corner from Saint Joseph’s Church and Saint Joseph-Saint Robert School?  On the way to (now gone, but longer-lived) Nana and Poppi?  This drones news hit close to home.  All that other stuff I did was on those gray ships in that past, non-illustrious life.  On southern or foreign bases.  And drone bases—they’re supposed to be in Nevada or upstate New York, or if you had to put one in Pennsylvania, somewhere in the middle or out west.  But here?  On the way to (now gone) Mom Mom and Pop Pop?  From where (now gone) Mr. Armstrong worked?      
In a hypothetical situation, perhaps the drone is the most appropriate weapon.  “Bad actors” do exist.  I believe people can do evil things.  If the drone can stop an evil or harmful act, without putting a pilot or a foot soldier (or in the potential civilian context, a cop on the beat) at risk, should not then the drone be the weapon of choice, albeit a last resort?  Is not that even better than P-3’s, than guided-missile cruisers (like the Cowpens), and than infantrymen?  What is the big deal with drones then?
Through one fictional mission, the British film Eye in the Sky (2015), starring Helen Mirren and (the now gone) Alan Rickman, brilliantly and sharply explores the morality of drone warfare and of air warfare and targeted killings in general.  While certainly not pro-drone, the film to my surprise was not explicitly anti-drone either.  It makes the viewer wrestle with the moral quandary, and viewers may leave with different judgments on the film’s outcome.  
The movie thus does a very a good job of delving into the morality of the moment.  In a similar way, my ROTC leadership classes presented particular film clips and case studies that made us think.  For example, "Should Samuel L. Jackson's character in Rules of Engagement have killed the unarmed POW in order to get the North Vietnamese commander to call off the ambush on Tommy Lee Jones' platoon?"”  It is a worthy question, and my ROTC classmates landed on different sides of the debate.  What Eye in the Sky and my ROTC classes did not do, though, was provide historical context leading up to the moment.  There is the morality of the moment, but not much discussion of the morality of the historical context leading up to it.  That is not a knock on the film—that wasn’t Eye in the Sky’s job.  However, that might be a knock on my ROTC classes—I think that was supposed to be their job.  If you zoom out and ask the morality questions of U.S. involvement in Vietnam in the first place, does not that then necessarily color our response to the Samuel L. Jackson moment?  We did not do too much zooming out in ROTC.  We tend not to zoom out much in the general public discussion either.
Take Syria, for example.  In the news, you are presented with two bad options, if you are even paying attention: a, take out Bashar al-Assad and go for regime change, or b, let him continue to kill thousands in Syria.  You are then either a “hawk” or an “Assad-apologist” depending on your answer.  There is little to no context.  True, policy makers have to make hard decisions between bad choices at the end of some days, but context matters.  The fierce journalist Mehdi Hasan, known for his interviews on Al Jazeera’s Up Front and now with The Intercept and his new podcast Deconstructed, gave the best summation I’ve seen of the debate over Syria.  While good people of conscience may disagree here and lose sleep over Syria, it is the mad fools without consciences and emperors without clothes who call for missile strikes while eating "the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake you've ever seen" and who sleep all too easily afterwards.   In another Intercepted podcast on war and historical context, Jeremy Scahill and historian Nikhil Singh have a conversation that’s worth quoting at length:
JS: And in this country, there’s a media culture that dictates that you have to accept two primary factors in order to talk in a reasonable or responsible way about war. The one hand, you have that the U.S. motive is always based on some benign interest — that it’s a humanitarian intervention or it’s to stop a despot or a dictator from threatening world stability or it’s that a particular country is pursuing a weapons of mass destruction program, and then the other factor that I’ve noticed that needs to be present is you have to agree, if it’s not already natural to you, to a self-induced amnesia about how we ended up where we are, like in Syria today, in Iraq today, in Iran, in Somali, all these countries — Pakistan — around the world that the United States has played an active role in creating the conditions we see today. It’s like you erase all of that and only talk about the narrow question that officials in the U.S. pose: Is it right or wrong to try to stop country x from pursuing weapons of mass destruction?....
NS:To any way challenge the notion that the U.S. is a benign, world-ordering power is to break from a kind of a ideological sort of monolith. I mean it’s not even just a consensus, it’s kind of a, it’s really the equivalent of what we used to condemn as you know, Soviet, ideology….
JS: This is part of the point I’m getting at, we can have that [moral debate] conversation about World War II if you don’t start the history of World War II at ’39. Is there a such entity, as al Qaeda, that does want to kill Americans, Westerners et cetera? Yeah, there is.  I would love to have the conversation about: How do we take away the motive or the justifications that these people use to their own base to justify their acts of violence. But it requires a real reckoning with American history. And that’s what’s not allowed.
We then arrive at fictional or actual just war scenarios where we side with Helen Mirren (fire) or with Alan Rickman (don’t fire), but we only should get to make those decisions if we have considered all the facts, including the facts of history.  That requires homework, which we haven’t done.  Citizens could debate the merits of these drone strikes, but that requires knowledge and awareness, which we don’t have. 
Much of the latter is by design: Our drones operate in a semi-secret, quasi-legal arrangement between the military and the CIA.  The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has exhaustively tracked our drone attacks in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Afghanistan—the last being the only country that we are actually at war with, albeit not constitutionally-congressionally declared.  The Bureau reports that, since 2004, there have been 4,737 strikes, killing between 7,361 and 10,677 (between 737 and 1,551 of them civilians, and between 242 and 335 of them children).  Many of us critics on the left side of things were quieter in the eight years with Obama at the helm.  The case for a just war or at least more just actions seemed more feasible sans Bush and Cheney, but under Obama’s watch, we launched a total of 542 strikes.  Many of us unfortunately outsourced our critical thinking and democratic dissent and trusted the hitherto shoddy legal framework with our favorite constitutional lawyer president.  In some "double tap" operations after the initial strike, the drone comes back to fire upon those who have come in to help the injured.  Any military-aged male in a strike zone was considered a combatant. Now, that already shoddy legal framework and moral slippage is in the small hands of the small-minded reality-show host president, ripe to continue on with the strikes and even let the CIA run looser on their end of the deal.
 In that clean hypothetical, history-began-yesterday drone strike debate, the drone would be the weapon of choice, so as not to put one’s own soldiers at risk.  But that is also precisely the problem with drones.  I would not argue for U.S. military boots on the ground in any of the countries we are or are not at war with.  I certainly would not argue for the merit of one U.S. military or civilian death.  But in a democracy, the potential loss of life of any of our citizens is supposed to give us pause and cause for reflection in any war or action: Is it just? Is it worth the risk of life?  Without that check on the powers that be, they go on with the drone strikes, moral slippage slides even more, missions “creep,” and we drive right by the base on County Line Road, going on with our lives without having to give much thought.  With these new weapons, there is the new luxury, or danger, that the military members themselves don’t have to give it much moral thought either.  The targets are thousands of miles away from Willow Grove, and the screens are reminiscent of video games.  The military even admits that younger people of the "video game generation" are targeted for recruitment.  Perhaps even straight out of the defunct arcades at Happy Times.
As the article above from the local Intelligencer says, “It takes 140 people to deliver ‘actionable information’ for each [Combat Air Patrol].”  But in a purported democracy, it takes millions of more people—sometimes deluded, often distracted, and usually in the dark—to consent to these operations.  To return to my question: that’s the big deal with drones. We take them for granted.  
There are courageous people, however, who are making sure we do not take this warfare for granted.  They are the "drone whistleblowers," and at great risk to themselves, they wrote to the Obama administration:
We came to the realization that the innocent civilians we were killing only fueled the feelings of hatred that ignited terrorism and groups like ISIS, while also serving as a fundamental recruitment tool similar to Guantanamo Bay. This administration and its predecessors have built a drone program that is one of the most devastating driving forces for terrorism and destabilization around the world.
And despite the video game feel, post-traumatic stress disorder is real.  One of these whistleblowers, Brandon Bryant, describes a particular strike as seen from the operators’ booth:
Yeah, it’s pixelated, but, I mean, you could—you could see that it was a human being, and you could see that—what he was doing, and you could see the crater from the drone—from the Hellfire missile, and you could see probably the body pieces that were around this guy….You know, it’s the femoral artery, so he could have bled out really fast. It was cold outside, you know, wintertime. It seemed like forever to me, but we—as the Predator drone can stay in the air for like 18 to 32 hours, and so they just had us watch and do battle damage assessment to make sure that—to see if anyone would come and pick up the body parts or anyone really cared who these people were. And we watched long enough that the body cooled on the ground, and they called us off target….Well, you know, the clinical definition of PTSD is an anxiety disorder associated with witnessing or experiencing a traumatic event. And it’s such a blanket term that so many people are like, “Oh, you can’t get PTSD from this or that.” And it’s a widely—it’s a wider phenomenon than I think a lot of people realize.  And my deal is more moral injury, like think of it—think how you would feel when—if you were part of something that you felt violated the Constitution. And, I mean, I swore an oath, you know? I swore to defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. And how do you feel if, like—you can’t use “I obeyed orders” as an excuse. It’s “I obeyed the Constitution, regardless of lawful or unlawful orders.” And lawful orders follow the Constitution. And that, that’s the hardest part.  And I was really unprepared for—for it. I tried to get out multiple times and do a different job, and I was consistently told that it’s the needs of the Air Force come first, and so I did it. I buckled down, and I did it. I did the job. I did it as best as I could, because I was scared that someone would come in, and they wouldn’t do it very well. And I—I mean, I paid a spiritual and mental price for that. And I think that’s something that people really discount, because I didn’t take any physical injury through it.
In time, we remember the things and people in our land—from our home—that are now gone: the forests, the Lenni-Lenape, the farmland, the amusement parks, our (perceived) innocence, John Philip Sousa and “Stars and Stripes Forever” (songs of our (perceived) innocence), the willows, the groves, the willow groves, the larks, the strip malls on County Line and Easton Roads, the navy base, the jobs on the navy base, probably soon the Willow Grove Park Mall, Pop Pop, Mom Mom, Mr. Armstrong, Nana, Poppi.  Some of these we simply remember, fondly or less fondly.  Some we mourn.  Some we reclaim and redeem.

In time, we also should remember, mourn, redeem, and reclaim the things and people that are now gone “over there.”  Especially because we have consented to their destruction.  In fact, before we even do that, we have to at least name the dead and recognize that this warfare is happening in the first place, in our name.  Whole bodies and homes and communities destroyed.  Willow Grove and the towns that surround and support it are forever linked to the towns and villages in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Afghanistan.   
“In a free society,” Rabbi Heschel reminds us, “some are guilty, but all are responsible.”
This Saturday—Holy Saturday, the day before Easter—Brandywine Peace Community will resume its demonstrations in front of the Willow Grove base from 12 noon to 2pm.  (Speaking of Eisenhower and the military industrial complex earlier, Brandywine also resumes its “IGNITE PEACE...Prayer for the Love of Humanity” in front of the King of Prussia’s Lockheed Martin on Good Friday from 12 noon to 3pm.)
Certainly, there are many other ways to dissent and to repent.  But, on the way to get an early seat across the street at Saint Joseph’s Easter Vigil mass in this, the "United States of Pontius Pilate", give a stop, or a honk, or a moment of reflection for Willow Grove. 
It will indeed require all types in this peace movement.  Veterans and non-veterans.  Even active-military resisters and active-military thinkers.  Workers at the Willow Grove base and (lower-wage) workers at the Willow Grove mall.  We on this side of the Atlantic and they "over there" in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Afghanistan.  Pacifists in principle and pacifists in effect.  The religious and the secular.  People against all war and drones and people against endless war.  People who, at the least, want fewer drones and less war.  Libertarians who, at the least, want constitutionally limited war and drones.  In general, fans of this democratic experiment who, at the least, want to shed light on and then debate the merits of these drones.  People who, at the least, don’t want drones in the hands of Trump and now John Bolton.  We can come together like Mike Lee on the right and Bernie Sanders and Chris Murphy on the left did when they almost stopped fueling the Saudi war in Yemen.  People who aren’t sure what they think and who just want to learn more.  
It will take all these companions together—no longer strangers and sojourners.    

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