Leah Bolger

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I am frequently asked some variation of the question:  “How did you turn from a warrior to a peacenik?”  The answer is that my transition from career U.S. Naval officer to antiwar activist was not the product of an epiphany or personal combat experience, as it is for many members of Veterans For Peace, but rather a gradual understanding of American history.   I am the product of the Missouri public education system, which never taught me the factual history of U.S. imperialism and militarism, and certainly didn’t challenge me to think critically about U.S. foreign policy.  I was taught that WWII was a “good” war, and that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki actually saved (American) lives because it brought the war to an end.

When I joined the Navy In 1980, I needed a job.  We were in the midst of the Cold War, so I didn’t have to consider whether or not I could be part of something that was killing people.  Even when the U.S. entered the first Iraq war in 1991, it still seemed like an abstract concept to me.  I wasn’t afraid for my life, and neither were my friends or family.  It never crossed my mind that there was even a possibility that bombs would be dropped on the U.S.; war was something that happened “over there,” and that was reinforced by the  dramatic “shock and awe” pictures we saw on our televisions.

One lesson that the Pentagon learned from the horrendous Viet Nam war, is that public support for war is directly related to the number of American fatalities.  As long as war is out of sight, it is also out of mind.  When drones started being used by George W. Bush in 2001, it seemed they had found the perfect weapon…No risk to Americans, inexpensive, impersonal, and remote with no accountability for civilian deaths.  Leon Panetta called them the “only game in town.”  Their use increased 10 times by the Obama administration, and 10 more times by Trump and will continue to be increasingly used by the Biden administration.

I have never been in favor of any war, but I didn’t actively oppose them until 2005 when I joined Veterans For Peace and formed the Corvallis chapter.  I was the chapter president for a few years until I was elected to the national VFP board, serving first as the vice-president, and in 2012, president (the first woman!) 

But I did have an experience that moved me to become an ardent activist, and that was the American Friends Service Committee’s exhibit “Eyes Wide Open.”  https://www.afsc.org/campaign/eyes-wide-open  The exhibit consisted of pairs of army boots spaced out as if they were in formation, or as if they were headstones.  Each pair had the name of an American soldier who had been killed in the Iraq war and many also had dog tags, photos, and other personal items.  As the deaths grew, the exhibit got bigger and had to be divided up by states.  I went to see the exhibit when it was in Eugene, Oregon.  Surrounding the formation of boots, were civilian shoes…sandals, dress shoes, children’s shoes, sneakers, etc., which represented the Iraqi victims.  The exhibit had a visceral effect on me.  I was just sobbing and I felt like someone had physically punched me in the gut.  I think the exhibit had such a profound effect on me because the shoes and boots were such an intimate representation of a human.  I left the exhibit with a sense of responsibility to work as hard as I could to end the Iraq war.

Sadly, the lack of intellectual curiosity, or willful ignorance that I used to have is more the norm than the exception.  Americans don’t think about war because they are completely detached from it.  The Pentagon doesn’t use the word “war,” or “combat.”  They say, “Overseas Contingency Operations.”  Congress passes “Authorizations for the Use of Military Force,” they don’t declare war.  Many people don’t even think that the U.S. is at war now—drone strikes aren’t really war, are they? 

In 2012, I was part of a delegation to Pakistan, organized by Code Pink, (codepink.org) to meet personally with victims of U.S. combat drones.  The delegation was formed shortly after the release of “Living Under Drones: Death, Injury and Trauma to Civilians from U.S. Drone Practices in Pakistan,” a report by Stanford, and New York Universities.  The report brought light to the tragedy of the victims, the vast majority of whom were civilians.  It also revealed other violations of international law, like the use of “double tap” strikes wherein a second missile is launched after first responders have arrived to attend to the wounded.

In September of 2012, a Pew report said that 75% of the Pakistani people thought of the U.S. as an enemy even though the U.S. was not at war with Pakistan.  Our delegation was warned by the State department that it was unsafe to go, and after we arrived, we met with the acting ambassador, who tried to dissuade us from traveling to Waziristan.  Why did the Pakistani people hate the U.S. to the point that it was unsafe for Americans?  Answer:  The extrajudicial assassinations of Pakistani citizens by drone strikes.

Our delegation met with several men whose family members had been killed by drone strikes.  One man, Karim Khan,  lost his brother and son in the same attack, both of whom were teachers.  The next day the U.S. media said that two extremists were killed.  Karim said that it was excruciatingly painful to have two family members killed, but having them labeled as terrorists made it even worse.  The truth is that the U.S. doesn’t know who, or how many people they are killing with drone strikes.  An American vet from Afghanistan told me that the answer to the question “How can you tell if someone is a terrorist?” is “If he’s dead.”

Besides killing people, drones cause incredible damage in many other ways too.

Imagine having up to 6 drones circling overhead 24 hours a day, making an incessant, constant buzzing sound.  The sound the drones make creates a deep-seated psychological fear—a sort of emotional torture.

Most of the Pakistani victims are Pashtuns and are killed in North and South Waziristan, a very undeveloped area with few services.  This has a communal society, whose families of 60 to 70 people live in the same compound.  The women cook together, the families eat and sleep together.  Weddings and funerals are huge gatherings of friends and family—or at least they used to be.  Now, everything has changed.  Children aged 5 to 10 no longer go to school.  Men are afraid to gather in groups of more than 2 or 3.  Weddings, which used to be joyous affairs with music, dancing, and drumming, are now subdued events with only close family members present.  And most sadly, since funerals have been the target of drone attacks, they are now small gatherings as well.

Because of cultural norms, the deaths of women are not reported.  It is considered offensive to discuss the names, or take photographs of women, yet one stalwart journalist, Noor Behram, has risked his life repeatedly to try to document the deaths of women and especially children.  He believed that as of October 2012, 670 women have been killed by drone strikes, and has taken photos of more than 100 children.  Their bodies are often unrecognizable as human after the strikes.  He showed us one photo of a man holding torn pieces of a woman’s dress that he found in the trees, in an attempt to document his wife’s death.

The Waziris are now raising a generation of children with psychological and emotional scars without an education.  The use of Xanax is startling high, and suicide, which is a societal and religious taboo, is shocking.  As of October 2012, seventeen Waziris have killed themselves due to the emotional terror of the U.S. drone program.  This is something that is unheard of in this culture.  Families are becoming displaced and moving to more urban areas in an attempt to avoid popular “strike areas.”  The Pakistani Army has moved in and won’t allow them to cross into Afghanistan to visit their relatives there, though the entire region is Pashtun, and part of their cultural and historical heritage.

I was profoundly affected by my time in Pakistan, and I think that is because I was able to talk directly with victims.  Karim Khan told me the names of his son and brother and showed me their school identification cards.  I could hear anguish in his voice when he said that he believed that the U.S. didn’t think of his people as human beings.  I don’t think anyone could hear that and not be moved.

When I came home, I wanted to do something to educate the public about the truth of drone warfare, and I wanted to find a way to memorialize and recognize the human beings behind the death count.  As I noted before, the U.S. doesn’t know exactly who it is killing—they are considered either militants or collateral damage, but the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (thebureauinvestigates.com) has been keeping track as part of their “Naming the Dead” project.

Reminiscent of the “AIDS quilts,” I decided to use quilt blocks to honor and recognize the victims.  I used the list of names from the Naming the Dead project and asked individuals to make one quilt block, each with the name of a victim and to add their name as well as another connection of humanity.  After the blocks were finished, they were mailed to me and I turned them into quilts.  At the beginning I sent the idea out to other members of the Pakistan delegation, and to activist groups like Veterans For Peace and Code Pink.  It wasn’t long before I started receiving individual blocks in the mail and began making quilts of 36 blocks each.  Just like the “Eyes Wide Open” exhibit, I intended for the quilts to become part of a traveling exhibit, and created several informational panels to be displayed along with the quilts, and also created some fact sheets, resources, and ideas to take action handouts that viewers could take with them.  Eventually 13 quilts were made, so the project was able to be displayed in more than one location at the same time.  I always urged hosts to have some sort of presentation or event in conjunction with the exhibit.

The first time the Drones Quilt Project was on exhibit, was the 2013 Veterans For Peace convention in Madison, Wisconsin, and it has been at every VFP convention since then until 2020 which was a virtual conference.  The project has been shown in dozens of locations across the U.S. and Germany, and have been used in protests, as backgrounds for musical performances, displayed in galleries, libraries, state courthouses, peace centers, churches, and even a bank.  They have been hung from stands, taped to walls and strung on clotheslines.

As Americans, it is very easy to live our lives without ever thinking about war, or its victims.  The Drones Quilt Project has been a great educating tool, but more than that, it seems to really touch people in the way that I hoped it would–as a reminder of our humanity.

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