Peace Movement Drones On and On: Wisdom from the U.S.S. Kitty Hawk

By Mike Ferner

During the Vietnam war, there was a vibrant, courageous resistance movement within the military itself.  Young men and some women did anything they could to end the killing.  They demonstrated, sabotaged military equipment, and fragged their officers.  They also published dozens of underground newspapers, one of which was put out by the crew of the carrier, USS Kitty Hawk, cheekily called Kitty Litter.

Going through some dusty files the other day, I saw the November, 1971 issue (“Cost: $PRICELESS”), which included the article “Indochina War Is Not Over.”  It examined Nixon’s “Vietnamization” strategy of replacing U.S. troops with South Vietnamese.  For the same reasons as today, raining death from above was a necessary part of the process.

Past Activism Mirrors Present Activism

The swabbie who wrote that article 42 years ago could have easily written the same thing today – word for word – and therein is serious food for thought for today’s peace movement.  (Emphases and spelling errors in the following excerpt were in the original.)

“It’s quite clear that no American government will ever again be able to put a large conscripted army in the field.  For years American troops have been in silent mutiny in Vietnam.  They are refusing to fight.  They have become aware that the government has lied to them, it has fooled them and tricked them and conscripted them to fight a war they intensely oppose.  As the soldiers saw what was happening in Vietnam, they realized that the Vietnamese were not their enemies.  They began to select enemies within their own ranks.  In 1970, 209 officers were killed by their own men.

“The message became clear to the Makers-of-War.  They could not commit massive ground troops to an unpopular war.  So, if you are a Maker-of-War, what do you do?  Do you say, ‘this country is based on democratic ideals and since 73% of the people want out of Vietnam, we are going to end the war now?’  Not if you are a Maker-of-War.

“You get other people to fight that war.  You give them the weapons and you train them and…replace the ground troops…as long as Mother’s sons are not coming home in plastic bags there will be no domestic opposition to continuing that war.

“In a special issue of the (Teledyne Ryan) Reporter, a trade magazine of the Teledyne Ryan Aeronautical Corp., was devoted to a discussion of the Remotely Piloted Vehicle (RPV).  Launched from an aircraft carrier, these aircraft, piloted remotely by technicians in the safty and comfort of the mother ship, can carry a variety of weapons and perform a number of functions.  Receiving data from electronic sensors dropped by other RPVs, the RPV can be guided automatically to a target.  Only the so-called enemy gets killed.  There are no POWs, and if a civilian, woman or child is its victim, there will be no warrior, conscience struck, to expose the murder to the American people.  It’s a way to fight wars without having to draft Americans, or to convince folks back home that the war is just, or, for that matter, even having to tell them much about what is going on.

“The advantage of this weapons system to the Makers-of-War is that a handfull of specially trained, highly paid technocrats can rain death on millions of people from sanctuaries 50 miles off shore.

“Teledyne Ryan is bold enough to say almost this very thing.  ‘In summary, the future of Remotely Piloted Vehicles is as bright as it has ever been.  The lower cost, political acceptability, low risk of life and versatile mission capabilities of RPVs make them very attractive candidates in a world of shrinking budgets and unpopular military operations.'”

Two generations later, some observations:

1) Drones are not new.

2) How far has the movement come in 42 years if we are once again focusing on the particular evils of drones?

3) Does this teach us anything about our strategy or lack thereof?

To be sure, drones are a malevolent manifestation of the Empire’s capabilities.  We revile them for all the right reasons.  Shining a light on them can be a good tactic.  I don’t argue we ignore them.

What Do Our Results Say About Our Strategies?

But what does it say about us, about our ability to work successfully for social change, if today we think we’re doing something significant by campaigning against drones, 42 years after they caught the attention of the G.I. resistance  movement?  If in the intervening decades since 1971 we had been more conscious and strategic about our organizing, might we be further down the road of social change by now?

In other words, over the last 42 years, what has been the “opportunity cost” of how we’ve worked for peace?

To address that question, I’ll assume the movement’s primary task is to change the values of society, from the bottom up, to eliminate war and militarism from our culture.  This assumption is significant.  It means we understand that change comes from the people.  It acknowledges the strength of the grassroots.

Unfortunately, our strategies have not kept pace.  We still devote the vast majority of our thinking, time, energy and money to reacting against a succession of various evils.

Without a conscious strategy “to change the values of society from the bottom up,” we will forever be reacting to the latest, most disgusting manifestation of Empire’s will.  Yes, there is educational value in opposing drones or depleted uranium or sending Special Forces into XYZ-land.  Maybe, over time, many of these “one night stands” might change society’s values.  If so, we should consider ourselves more lucky than smart.  And it’s not the best we can do.

More Grassroots Organization Plus Activism Equals More Results

To abolish war and militarism we need a conscious, coherent strategy and accompanying tactics that will allow us to work with the forces in society that the mostly white, middle class peace movement talks about working with but rarely does.  Specifically, I mean go beyond our typical confines to build solid relationships across lines of race and class.

That requires local grassroots organizing, not just activism.

Activism is what we do year after year, war after war, one evil after another.  We work long and hard with our usual circle to put together a rally, a talk or a conference.  For “outreach” we might send a few emails to churches or neighborhood groups asking them to “send somebody” to our event.  On a good day we might also make a few phone calls.

Organizing looks more like:

  • Methodically call and set up appointments and meetings with a wide swath of allied constituencies
  • Meet with the leaders and members, listen carefully to their goals and aspirations, explain ours, be open to working together on some issue beyond our usual horizon
  • Form an organizing or coordinating committee to determine the whole universe of people and groups to approach locally on some issue or campaign – say the local impact of the war economy.
  • Who might that involve?  Some obvious constituencies like education and health care organizations, unions and churches.  And some not so obvious like cities, counties, libraries, park districts etc. etc.
  • Dig up the readily-available numbers from groups like the National Priorities Project
  • Ask local public officials how state and federal cutbacks have pauperized their institutions, ask others how the war economy is working for them
  • Involve representatives from all the above to demand a local public hearing at which all testify, ordering the city or county to take specific action

All of these are simply examples.  Customize as needed.  Join in and help expand already ongoing efforts.  Start one if none exist.

If we want something significant for our labors, something that over time will turn society’s values away from war and militarism, we need to be more conscious and coherent in how we do our work.  Reacting to the evils of empire is necessary but if it’s the only thing we do it will forever be the only thing we do.

Just about everybody in the 99% wants very similar things that essentially boil down to a better life, the kind of life we deserve and can attain with the right priorities.  We all want to change society’s values from militarism, suffering, poverty and fear, to peace, abundance, democracy and sustainability.  The Occupy movement showed dramatically that many people understand and share these ideals.  Groups like do a brilliant job explaining where our democracy went and what becomes possible as we reclaim it.

How we do our work from now on will determine if, in another 42 years, we’re still talking about some vile, new weapons system or moving forward in the kind of life we deserve and can attain. Φ

Mike Ferner is an Ohio writer who served as a Navy corpsman during the Vietnam war, a member of Toledo’s city council and more recently as the president of Veterans For Peace.  Email him at

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