Former U.S. Air Force drone technician and human rights activist Cian Westmoreland, who made the news in 2015 when he spoke out against the use of military drones in combat, spoke at the University of Oregon this Thursday. The talk was part of a five-city “Whistleblower Tour” through Oregon.
Westmoreland helped to construct a relay system that sent aerial footage to drone operators when he was stationed on a U.S. Air Force base in Kandahar, Afghanistan. He has since called it a “sword of Damocles over the Afghan panopticon,” that hurt innocent people. After leaving the Air Force, Westmoreland became a human rights activist and has spoken publicly about the dark side of modern warfare.
Though Westmoreland was a communications technician, (“our motto was no comms no bombs,” he said) he saw the destitution of war up close — Both as a child living in Armenia as his father was stationed there, and as a soldier on the Kandahar Airfield. In one story he told, Westmoreland said a father and son came by the base each day to ask for water, but Westmoreland and his fellow soldiers were not allowed to grant the request.
“Looking at a child’s eyes who is asking for water, sitting on a fence where behind me, you have a McDonald’s, a Tim Horton’s and all this stuff — these creature comforts of Kandahar,” he said. “That’s something that has stuck with me to this day.”
According to Westmoreland, the rule had to do with the fear that local children would be used as tools to lower the guard of the soldiers. In some cases, children have even been used as suicide bombers.
“In my mind, I’ve incurred a lot of negative karma with what I did,” Westmoreland said. “At the end of my tour, I received an enlisted performance report that said I assisted in 2,400 close air support missions and 200 plus enemy kills. I was a technician, those were human lives reduced to numbers.”
A military child, Westmoreland said he initially joined the military out of a sense of duty and obligation, following in the footsteps of his father. After he spent time contributing to the war, he said, he came to realize the human cost of modern warfare and knew he had to do something else.
“There’s a quote from a book I picked up in Afghanistan. It was a book called Cloud Atlas,” he said. “Our lives are not our own. We are bound to others, past and present, and by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.”
The message stuck with Westmoreland. Later, he left the military, burned his uniform and hitchhiked from Germany to Beijing. Even on that journey, he was confronted with violence: He travelled to Kyrgyzstan, a country which had seen large scale violence two months earlier.
“I saw mass graves. I saw burnt out houses and baby dolls hanging out of windows,” he said.
Throughout the talk, Westmoreland retold several other anecdotes of the war torn world he had seen first hand. At several points, he had to pause and gain his composure, leaving the room in contemplative silence.
“I think about the people in Afghanistan, I think about how they don’t have running water. I think about the people in Iraq and the fact that we bombed their irrigation system, we bombed their sanitation systems. There were numerous consequences of that bombing that aren’t fully recognized in the number [of kills] that we have presented,” Westmoreland said.
Westmoreland described rooms full of men dictating bombing orders to faraway airplanes, using a computer interface bearing an outline of Afghanistan covered in little dots.
“Every bomb you drop, it rips apart something in the social fabric of that society. People stop trusting the sky,” Westmoreland said. “I want you to sit here and close your eyes, and imagine there is a drone with weapons flying over us right now, targeting somebody in this room,” he continued. “Every day you have to go through this. Every day you have this power from the sky with names like ‘Predator’ and ‘Reaper.’ ‘Hellfire’ missiles, dropping ‘hellfire’ on you.
Westmoreland said it became increasingly difficult over time to feel that he was contributing to a righteous cause.
“They told us we were saving lives. They often people that we are saving lives. We were saving our troops’ lives, but I don’t think we were meant to be there in the first place,” Westmoreland said. “There’s kids that we are fighting now that weren’t even alive when 9/11 happened. The majority of the people in the country didn’t even know what the twin towers looked like,” he said.
Westmoreland advocated for the removal of weapons from drones, arguing that the ability to kill someone on a computer screen across the world leads to detached, empathy-free warfare: the implications of which are not yet fully understood.
“You have people that are administering strikes that have no fucking idea what the culture is like on the ground,” he said. “They have no idea what they are doing, what that line of thinking has created around the world. The only way we are going to fix this is with love.”
Westmoreland now lives in Tijuana, Mexico and works as a human rights activist. His work involves raising awareness about the reality of modern warfare, as well as assisting refugees and deported veterans.
“I feel privileged to be able to clean their floors,” he said, referring to a refugee center run by non-profit Al Otro Lado where he helps in Tijuana. “I feel privileged to be able to wash their dishes in a place like that. A place that is helping people instead of hurting people.”
Westmoreland works alongside two men from Yemen. What they don’t know, he said, is that he worked alongside people who bombed their country. Westmoreland, however, has chosen to move forward and attempt to make up for the violence he once helped create.
“We all have our own autonomy, and we all have the ability to act,” he said. After a pause, he added: “That’s all I got.”