Vassar students share insights from drone conference

On Nov. 15, 2013, 12 Vassar students drove down to Washington D.C., joining 400 others in attending CODEPINK’s Drone Summit, “Drone Around the Globe: Proliferation and Resistance,” organized in part by Vassar Alum Noor Mir ’12 who is CODEPINK’s anti-drone campaign coordinator.

The summit included a protest and march from the White House to General Atomics’ headquarters. The following day featured a number of panel discussions such as, “Legal Challenges to Drone Strikes,” and “View from Yemen,” to name a couple. There was also a film screening of “Wounds of Waziristan,” by Pakistani filmmaker Madiha Tahir. Associate Professor of Geography Joe Nevins was also present, and spoke on the “Domestic State of Drones” panel about the use of drones on the US-Mexico border. The students who attended were all profoundly impacted and driven to share this experience. Here are their accounts:

Americans must be aware that drone use in Pakistan and Afghanistan prevents the wars that we have waged in both countries from coming to an end. Even if we are to take every last soldier out of those countries, our presence will remain within their borders and war will rage on, if only from a distance. Drone use currently legitimizes the idea of a global war that has no limits on geographical space or time. This is a concept that has no standing and is utterly inconceivable under international law, which was born out of the horrors of World War II, which disposed it towards a general prohibition on the use of military force. Thus drones are inherently oppositional to International Law. They are enabling military presence to become ever-present in the lives of those already victim to American imperialism. Drones have already killed innocent civilians in the name of freedom, when these very civilians were supporting our campaign against Al Qaeda in their home states.

—Caroline Stanton ’14 is an American studies major.


Drone warfare is supposedly justified because drones “save lives” and prevents the use of American “boots on the ground.”  We are told that drone attacks are pinpointed, strategic strikes that, for the most part, kill Islamic militants. In reality however, drone strikes kill innocent civilians on a daily basis. The blast from a drone attack strikes a wide radius, and most attacks kill groups of people rather than individuals. All males between the ages of 16 and 60 located in a zone of suspicion are considered combatants until proven to be civilians posthumously. Racism, Islamophobia and the rhetoric of American exceptionalism enable U.S. leaders to conduct drone attacks without acknowledging the humanity of those who are killed. Rather than combat terrorists, the U.S. drone program constitutes state terrorism.

—Naomi Dann ’14 is an independent major in peace and justice studies.


Fundamentally, drones are a human rights violation, immoral and counter to American ideals of democracy as well as international law. The deaths of innocent people are horrifying. Some say as many as 30 civilians die for every “target” killed. While this causes me great pain, the perspectives shared at the conference gave me equal sympathy for those left behind: the family of victims left to hear the constant buzz of the drones over their houses and the psychological repercussions for soldiers involved in this removed killing culture. The domestic impact of drones is terrifying; as Geography Professor Professor Nevins puts it, they shape policy and people, perpetuating the border industrial complex and promoting a war against racially and socioeconomically marginalized people.

There are currently 10 drones in use as surveillance on the border and there are plans to increase this number dramatically in the near future. What’s next? This tragedy requires each and every one of us to be radical, to get up and speak our truth.

—Emily Landsdale ’14 is an international studies and education double major.


Drone surveillance leaves lasting psychological traumas in the towns they surveil. An adolescent Waziristani boy speaks about how his baby sister and other members of his family were killed in a drone strike. He says he has lost all motivation to work in school and is filled with anger. Drones have been successful in galvanizing hatred and radicalizing young people, creating more terrorists than they are killing.

—Theo Pravitz-Rosen ’14 is a sociology major.


To the American public, drone warfare too often registers as little more than an extension of the United States’ military-industrial complex. Most of us understand enough to know that U.S. drones are killing people abroad, however in an age of constant military engagement, where for the past ten years we have turned on our TVs nightly to hear reports of three, six, eight more dead in the wars we wage in the Middle East, death by drone strike begins to feel like just another casualty of war. What we must learn to grasp, and to grasp quickly, is that drone warfare is not business as usual—even for the United States military. Drones introduce an inequity of warfare that enables the U.S. military to enter, kill and leave without risking American lives. We must ask what it means when we are willing to take the life of the enemy combatant, or more probably of the “enemy civilian” without simultaneously considering the other possibility of losing an American life.

The American public’s distance from the horrifying impacts of drones for both victims and survivors is enabling a dangerous empathy gap to form between Americans and American-made atrocity abroad. We must see that drones are being used by the United States to terrorize innocent civilian populations in so-called enemy nations, and until we as a public can empathize with the Yemeni, or Pakistani, or Afghani publics to recognize the fear and sorrow created by drones, we as a public will remain complicit and implicated in the American reign of terror. If we know the toll drones take on the innocents of the world and still do not dissent to the actions of our government and military, our compassion as a society has surely failed.

—Emma Burke ’14 is an international studies major.


As discussed by other attendees, the use of drones abroad and along the US-Mexico border is immoral, illegal and fear-inspiring. Looking into the future, without widespread oppositional action, use of drone technology will only be expanding. As noted by one Yemeni presenter, use abroad is the test run for use at home. Drones thoroughly redefine surveillance and policing, potentially drastically stifling dissent and actions of civil disobedience. It is important during this time, when soundly positive uses for drones such as natural disaster relief and firefighting are being discussed alongside commercial, police and government use, to proactively create laws at home defining what, if any, drone use is acceptable.

—Rocky Schwartz ’15 is a science, technology, and society major.


One of the arguments for drones is that it keeps US army personal safe from harm. While it is true that being a drone technician generally keeps you safe from being shot at (at least compared to the soldiers who are on the ground), it does not necessarily spare you of the psychological and emotional effects of participating in war. The US military has realized that some of its drone operators are experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder. For regular soldiers, PTSD has been attributed to the dangers that these soldiers face when they are in combat situations. For drone operators, this stress cannot come from the dangers that they face. Maybe there is something about remote control killing, or even more simply about killing in general, that messes with the heads of those who do it.

­—Muriel Bruttin ’14 is a political science major.


It’s still unbelievable the lack of restraint with which we fire missiles at crowded houses, weddings, and restaurants. That we call drone strikes surgical while we fire not just at crowds of people, but also at those who gather in the aftermath to help the victims, is crime in and of itself.

—Robert Ronan ’15 is a math major.

If you’d like to be involved in anti-drone organizing at Vassar, contact Those students who had attended the conference are planning a movie screening and some form of informational meeting later this semester.

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