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“I Refuse to Serve as an Empire Chaplain”: U.S. Army Minister Resigns over Drone Program

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An unlikely voice has emerged challenging the drone warfare program: former U.S. Army Reserve Chaplain Captain Chris Antal, who spent time based in Afghanistan. In April, he wrote an open letter to President Obama detailing his reasons for leaving the U.S. Army Reserves, citing his opposition to the administration’s use of drone strikes, its policy on nuclear proliferation, and what he calls the executive branch’s claim of “extraconstitutional authority and impunity for international law.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: During a commencement speech on Thursday, President Obama defended his foreign policy, including targeted assassinations and drone warfare. Obama made the remarks at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: As commander-in-chief, I have not hesitated to use force unilaterally where necessary to protect the American people. Thanks to our military, intelligence and counterterrorism professionals, bin Laden is gone. Anwar Awlaki, a leader of the al-Qaeda affiliate in Yemen, is gone. Ahmed Abdi Godane, the al-Qaeda leader in Somalia, he’s gone. Ahmed Abu Khattala, accused in the attacks in Benghazi, captured. Mohammad Mansour, the leader of the Taliban, gone. Leader after leader in ISIL—Haji Mutazz, their number two; Mohammed Emwazi, who brutally murdered Americans; Abu Nabil, the ISIL leader in Libya—all gone. Abu Dawud, a leader of their chemical weapons program, captured. The list goes on, because if you target Americans, we will find you, and justice will be done, and we will defend our nation.

AMY GOODMAN: That was President Obama delivering the commencement speech at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs on Thursday. With only a small number of U.S. Special Forces on the ground, Iraq and Syria have become new fronts in the global drone war that has launched thousands of strikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia. The exact number of civilians killed by drones is unknown, because the program operates in secret.

We turn now to an unlikely voice challenging the drone warfare program: former U.S. Army Reserve Chaplain Chris Antal, who recently resigned his post in protest. In April, Reverend Antal wrote a letter to President Obama detailing his reasons for leaving the U.S. Army Reserves, citing his opposition to the administration’s use of drone strikes, its policy on nuclear proliferation, and what he calls the executive branch’s claim of “extraconstitutional authority and impunity for international law,” unquote.

This is not the first time Reverend Antal has voiced his concerns. In 2012, he delivered a sermon in Afghanistan and anonymously [sic] posted the text on a Unitarian Universalist website. At the time, he identified himself only as an Army chaplain in Afghanistan. The sermon read in part, quote, “We have sanitized killing and condoned extrajudicial assassinations: … war made easy without due process, protecting ourselves from the human cost of war. We have deceived ourselves, … denying the colossal misery our wars inflict on the innocent.” Reverend Antal’s superiors discovered the sermon, and he was reprimanded, nearly losing his job. Then, mid-April, he decided to voluntarily resign over his continued concerns about drone warfare. In doing so, Reverend Antal forfeits benefits that otherwise would have accrued to him through his eight years of service in the U.S. Army Reserve.

Reverend Chris Antal joins us now in our New York studio. He is a minister for the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Rock Tavern, New York, and a founder of the Hudson Valley, New York, chapter of Veterans for Peace.

Reverend Chris Antal, welcome to Democracy Now!

REV. CHRIS ANTAL: Amy, thank you. I’m glad to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re still in the Army, is that right?

REV. CHRIS ANTAL: I’m on my way out, but the paperwork hasn’t been completed yet.

AMY GOODMAN: But you have resigned.

REV. CHRIS ANTAL: I’ve submitted my resignation, but the Army is a big bureaucracy, and it takes time to get all the signatures.

AMY GOODMAN: So, really, you’re still a U.S. Army chaplain.

REV. CHRIS ANTAL: I am. I can’t speak from that capacity on this program, but on paper, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: So talk about your decision. How long did you serve as an Army chaplain, and where did you serve?

REV. CHRIS ANTAL: Sure. I served for five years—eight years in the Reserve, five years as a chaplain, and most of that time was as a Reserve chaplain. I did spend about two years on active duty, and altogether, about six months in Afghanistan.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about your decision to leave.

REV. CHRIS ANTAL: Sure. Well, before I can talk about my decision to leave, I need to say why I got in in the first place. As a minister, I was driven by compassion to care for the wounded; and as a citizen, driven by a sense of civic duty to carry my fair share in our nation’s wars. I think I did both of those things during my time in service, but eventually began to feel a role conflict between my role as a military officer and my role as an ordained minister. And I couldn’t reconcile that role conflict, so I decided to resign.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the speech I just quoted from. Where did you give that speech?

REV. CHRIS ANTAL: Sure. Well, it was a sermon. And it was never anonymous, as you said. When I posted it, I identified myself. I gave that sermon on Veterans Day, which was on a Sunday in 2012, at Kandahar Airfield to a gathered—a community gathered for worship in my tradition, a Unitarian Universalist service. And that was about six weeks into my deployment. When I had witnessed drones, I had learned about practices that violate my sense of what is right. And I decided it was my prerogative as a religious leader to address that in the context of a religious service, a form of lamentation, a confession. And that is what I did in my sermon. And because I think the issues I raise are of concern for a larger audience, for the whole nation, I made that available through a church website that is sponsored by my denomination.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about what happened then. How was it discovered, and what was the response by the military?

REV. CHRIS ANTAL: Well, two days after it appeared online, I was contacted by an Army lawyer who had read the post. He forwarded it to my commander. I was summoned to the commander’s office. He told me that my message doesn’t support the mission. He told me that I make us look like the bad guys. He asked me to take it down, which I did, and immediately. Nevertheless, I was subjected to an investigation. It’s called an Article 15-6 investigation. I had to get a trial defense lawyer in Afghanistan, that was provided to me by the Army. And that process drew out for about two months, and it ended with what’s called a general officer memorandum of reprimand. I was handed an official reprimand that said I had made politically inflammatory statements, and I was, on that basis, released from active duty in Afghanistan, sent home with a “do not promote” evaluation, which is really a career killer in the military.

AMY GOODMAN: You quit in a very public way, with a letter to President Obama, your letter of resignation. And in it, you said, “I resign because I refuse to serve as an empire chaplain.” Explain.

REV. CHRIS ANTAL: Well, sure. For me, democracy is about checks and balances. Democracy is about due process. These drone wars have blown due process up in smoke. They’ve blown checks and balances up in smoke. And democracy is also about no establishment and free exercise of religion. We have in our nation an established religion. It’s not Christianity. Jeremy Gunn calls it American National Religion. It has—consists of the unholy trinity of governmental theism, military supremacy and an understanding of capitalism as freedom. And as a religious leader, I feel it’s my prerogative to differentiate myself from this state-sanctioned religion and speak from my authentic tradition in a way that resists these national policies. And that’s what I’ve done in offering my resignation and stating quite clearly that I will not serve as an empire chaplain. I will not lend religious legitimacy to this state-sanctioned violence.

AMY GOODMAN: Have you received a response from President Obama, since that’s who you wrote your resignation letter to?

REV. CHRIS ANTAL: I have not.

AMY GOODMAN: You also have become a shareholder of Honeywell?

REV. CHRIS ANTAL: I am a shareholder of Honeywell, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Is this how you plan to support yourself now?

REV. CHRIS ANTAL: Well, I’ve never been a shareholder before of anything, and I only own one share. And the reason why I became a shareholder is because I was frustrated with the lack of progress through legislative advocacy, and I believe what we are facing in our country is not just a military-industrial complex, that Eisenhower wrote about, it’s a military-industrial-congressional complex. And we cannot do legislative advocacy without doing shareholder advocacy and confronting some of the corporations that are profiting and that are lobbying our elected officials in order to influence the militarization of U.S. foreign policy.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about attending the Honeywell shareholders’ meeting and what you did?

REV. CHRIS ANTAL: Sure. I’ve been to two shareholder meetings now, the first one in 2015, where I addressed the CEO, David Cote, on their profiting from armed drones proliferation. This year, I went, as I did last year, with my fellow veteran, Nick Mottern, and he addressed the drone profiting, and I chose to address Honeywell’s profiting from nuclear weapons. So I asked Mr. Cote how much Honeywell is profiting from the administration’s investment of trillions of dollars in the modernization of our nuclear arsenal. I asked him how much Honeywell is profiting from the administration’s decision to launch a new airdropped nuclear cruise missile. And I asked Mr. Cote if he’d ever been to Hiroshima, because I’ve been there twice, and whether he had faced the horror that this technology produces.

AMY GOODMAN: Your wife of 18 years is Japanese?

REV. CHRIS ANTAL: Yes, I’ve been married 18 years, and we have five children.

AMY GOODMAN: And what was your response to President Obama just last week going to Hiroshima?

REV. CHRIS ANTAL: Well, I was glad and proud of our president for visiting Hiroshima; however, I am disappointed that although he talks the talk of nuclear abolition, the actions of his administration are not consistent with what he’s saying. I agree that Hiroshima calls for a moral revolution, a revolution of consciousness, and an awakening of America. And I hope, and I remain hopeful, that the administration will cancel plans for the new airdropped nuclear cruise missile and take the thousand nuclear warheads off launch-on-warning status.

AMY GOODMAN: Reverend Chris Antal, can you talk about how those you’ve ministered to have responded to your resignation? Who did you serve in Afghanistan?

REV. CHRIS ANTAL: Well, I served as an Army chaplain. And as an Army chaplain, I’m responsible for the soldiers in my assigned unit, but also soldiers in my area of operations, as well as contractors and servicemembers from all branches. And I served all of those people during my deployment to Afghanistan. I can say that when I preached the sermon that led to my reprimand, I had the full support of the community of faith that attended that service. When I appealed the letter of reprimand, I appealed with more than 30 letters of support from everyone in that congregation, as well as concerned clergy, chaplains and citizens across America. So I have had a lot of support.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to get your response to this presidential election. I want to turn to Democratic presidential candidate former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In 2014, The Guardian columnist Owen Jones questioned her about the use of drone warfare.

OWEN JONES: You’re a loving parent. What would you say to the loving parents of up to 202 children who have been killed by drones in Pakistan in a program which you escalated as secretary of state?

HILLARY CLINTON: Well, I would argue with the premise, because, clearly, the efforts that were made by the United States, in cooperation with our allies in Afghanistan and certainly with the Afghan government, to prevent the threat that was in Pakistan from crossing the border, killing Afghans, killing Americans, Brits and others, was aimed at targets that had been identified and were considered to be threats. The numbers about potential civilian casualties, I take with a somewhat big grain of salt, because there has been other studies which have proven there not to have been the number of civilian casualties.

AMY GOODMAN: And last October on NBC’s Meet the Press, Chuck Todd asked Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders about his position on drones.

CHUCK TODD: What does counterterrorism look like in a Sanders administration? Drones? Special Forces? Or what does it look like?

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Well, all of that and more.

CHUCK TODD: You would—you’re OK with the drone, using drones as—

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Look, drone is a weapon. When it works badly, it is terrible and it is counterproductive. When you blow up a facility or a building which kills women and children—


SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: —you know what? It not only doesn’t do us—it’s terrible.

CHUCK TODD: But you’re comfortable with the idea of using drones if you think you’ve isolated an important terrorist?

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Well, yes, yes, yes.

CHUCK TODD: So, that continues in a Sanders administration.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Yes. And look, look, we all know, you know, that there are people, as of this moment, plotting against the United States. We have got to be vigorous in protecting our country, no question about it.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Senator Bernie Sanders and, before that, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

REV. CHRIS ANTAL: Yeah, what they’re not saying is the numbers. And the Bureau of Investigative Journalism released just two days ago that there have been 7,142 people killed with U.S. drone strikes, most of those in Pakistan. Now, my question is: Where is the necessity? Where is the imminent threat to my family, to our families here in the United States, when we kill people halfway around the world with a drone strike?

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“I Refuse to Support U.S. Armed Drone Policy”: Army Chaplain Reads Resignation Letter to Obama

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