WOODSTOCK, NY — On the 12th annual Woodstock Volunteers Day, residents gather in the Andy Lee Field for home-cooked food, folk songs and recognition of “what is good about [their] community.”
Two volunteers tabling for the environmental group Scenic Hudson ask for signatures and email addresses at the park entrance.
Tarak Kauff, a member of the antiwar group Veterans For Peace, lends his name to the environmentalist cause.
When Kauff presents the volunteers with his own petition, they hesitate. The petition, written by a group of local activists known as Woodstock Peace Economy, asks aerospace and military contractor Ametek Rotron to switch over all its production to civilian use. The 70-year-old company is the largest employer in this town of about 6,000 residents.
The two volunteers seem to hide behind their table. “Rotron?” one asks. “I thought they only made fans.”
Kauff tells them about the campaign and about the fans’ essential role in the functioning of F-16 fighter jets, cluster bombs and predator drones.
They decline and continue asking for signatures, some of which likely come from Rotron employees.
In 2015 Ametek Rotron landed $2.6 million in Pentagon contracts. Compared to Lockheed Martin — one of the largest defense companies in the world with declared revenues of $46.1 billion the same year— this number is negligible.
But for a town that came to prominence as a haven for artists and later became synonymous with ’60s-era idealism and whose council declared it “drone free” in 2014 — any Pentagon dollars are incongruous.
So say activists affiliated with Woodstock Peace Economy who have recently renewed a long-running campaign against Rotron’s manufacture of weapons parts that dates back to the 1980s.
“Located in buildings just out of sight, off Rte. 375, Ametek Rotron makes high-tech fans, balls bearings and other essential parts for weapons used to terrorize and kill people the world over,” reads the group’s latest petition. “As most of us in Woodstock support peace and not war, the signers below request that Ametek Rotron explore how to convert its manufacturing facilities to support peace and not war.”
Route 375 is a main road into Woodstock — but before reaching the downtown, which trades on its image of a hippie haven — visitors must pass an inconspicuous white sign announcing the Rotron factory. While well established, it is unknown outside of the nearby Hudson Valley towns.
Founded in 1946 by Dutch engineer J. Constant van Rijn, the Rotron Manufacturing Company patented and developed high-intensity electronics cooling fans, which soon became critical for the burgeoning aerospace market of the 1950s.
By 1958 Rotron had developed the industry standard muffin fan, a powerful but quiet electronic cooling system. In tangent with his company’s success, Rijn became known as an arts patron in Woodstock. He is known for having contributed a heating plant to the Hudson Valley Repertory Theater so the famous playhouse could operate all year long.
He even “dedicated a statue of the buddha,” Woodstock Peace Economy activist, professor and longtime Woodstock resident Laurie Kirby told The Indypendent. “It’s the largest Buddha statue in North America.”
In 1961, the same year U.S. air and ground forces officially became active in Vietnam, Rotron developed and released the Mil-B-23071 standard for AC fans — the company’s first product strictly for military use.
The U.S. military uses an updated version of this fan to this day.
In the intervening years, as the United States has consolidated its position as arms merchant to the world, Woodstock’s largest employer has steadily increased its military business.
In 2015, Rotron secured 79 Pentagon contracts, its highest number ever, and logged record profits. On the whole, the U.S. armaments industry maintained its status as the largest in the world, accounting last year for 33 percent of global military exports, or $455 billion, according to the Defense Finance and Accounting Service (DFAS), the financial branch of the Defense Department.
Meanwhile, the company is reluctant to admit its weapons industry involvement, instead insisting that it is merely a supplier of nonlethal technology. But research conducted by The Indypendent and activists confirms the inextricable link.
According to public Pentagon contracts, Rotron produces centrifugal fans for F-16s, Milstar satellite systems, CV-22 Osprey helicopters, long-range navy radar and M1A1 tanks.
Ametek Rotron, in addition, is the main supplier of the fuel density probe, a critical component in the operation of Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) aircraft including the Predator Drone.
A leaked contract dated October 1, 2009, confirms Rotron supplied 50 fans to the Israeli Air Force that year.
The final destination of the fans remains unclear, but it is likely they operate in F-16s. In addition, a recently published Pentagon contract shows that Rotron provides a $7,365 motor to the Israeli Defense Ministry, confirming the company’s ongoing direct business with that country’s government.
Because numerous human rights organizations criticize the Israeli military for using F-16s, especially in consecutive assaults on the besieged Gaza Strip, activists insist Rotron is complicit.
A 2015 report from the human rights group Amnesty International claims “there is strong evidence that Israeli forces committed war crimes” in the 2014 assault “in their relentless and massive bombardment of residential areas of Rafah,” a town in Gaza.
The Israeli Air Force used indiscriminate force against civilians, hospitals and first responders, the report further states.
F-16s are also the aircraft of choice for Saudi Arabia’s U.S.-backed aggression in Yemen, where 10,000 people have been killed and three million displaced since March 2015 and half the population is on the brink of famine, according to a U.N. report. Recent U.S. retaliations on rebel-controlled areas of Yemen suggest the United States may be escalating its direct involvement in the war, beyond its current weapons sales, intelligence operations and refueling missions.
The Predator Drone, likewise, has been widely criticized for inflicting numerous indiscriminate civilian deaths in countries across the Middle East and North Africa.
According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism — one of the few organizations that tracks casualties as a result of Obama administration’s covert drone war — thousands of civilians in Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia and Afghanistan have been killed by drone strikes in just a few years.
Yet Rotron adamantly denies any involvement in foreign conflicts; divorcing its manufacture of parts from the end systems those parts are used in.
“Rotron does not manufacture weapons,” Marie Tynan, a Rotron spokesperson told The Indypendent. “Our fans and blowers cool electronics. We make air circulation and radar systems, both commercial and military.”
But when pressed on specific military applications, Tynan declined to provide further explanation.
A Debate Erupts
Rotron has historically been quiet about its Pentagon contracts, but sustained pressure from activists seems to have opened an indirect line of communication in the letters page of the local Woodstock Times.
In a letter published July 21, 2016, Peter M. Stewart, general manager of Ametek Rotron, sought to dispel claims that Rotron is involved in human rights abuses across the world.
“Since Rotron was founded here in Woodstock over 60 years ago,” Stewart wrote emphatically, “to the best of my knowledge, not a single individual has ever been killed by any of its products!”
Tarak Kauff responded in his own letter: “I guess by [Stewart’s] reckoning, because Rotron makes only essential parts for drones, missiles and cluster bomb delivery systems and not the totality of these weapons, ‘no one has ever been killed’ by one of their products.”
“The cold, hard and uncomfortable facts are, however, that Rotron does make essential parts of drones, fighter planes, tanks and other weapons of destruction, which have been responsible for many deaths, mainly civilians,” wrote Kauff.
Some Woodstock residents choose to emphasize the practical benefits of Rotron’s presence.
“Rotron has all the things you want for a career: pensions, healthcare and benefits,” a Woodstock resident named Sophia told The Indypendent.
Describing herself as a “typical Woodstocker,” Sophia, who declined to give her last name, added that Rotron not only makes the “fans in ambulance engines,” but it allows the local EMTs to park two ambulances and a fly car for the paramedic on duty at its facilities. Eleven of the 35 members of the ambulance squad work at Rotron.”
“Good-paying jobs are hard to find,” said Sophia, who suggested that those who object to Rotron’s weapons manufacturing must get a “dose of reality.”
Former vice president Stewart also addressed the jobs issue in his letter, warning that the jobs Rotron provides could easily be offshored, should the company terminate its lucrative Pentagon contracts.
“If Ametek Rotron no longer provided fans and blowers for military applications” Stewart wrote, “in all probability, the company would be relocated to Mexico or offshore due to cost considerations; and, Woodstock would lose a significant tax contributor, a good neighbor, a town supporter and hundreds of jobs.”
According to William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Project, a nonprofit that studies the effects of the armaments industry on human rights globally, “there is a general tendency within the defense industry to play the jobs card as a way to resist change.”
“Usually companies in this industry exaggerate the jobs impact and exaggerate how dependent they are on contracts as a way to kind of maintain the status quo, keep the contracts flowing, divert criticism and so forth,” Hartung told The Indypendent.
Reluctant to Criticize
That resistance to criticism can be found in Woodstock’s town council whose members, with one exception, are reluctant to speak out against Rotron. On more than one occasion, members have said they would vote against any resolutions requesting that Rotron switch to production for civilian use.
The only holdout is Jay Wenk, a poet, World War II veteran and member of Veterans For Peace. He has long been part of the Woodstock Peace Economy campaign, leveraging his position on the town board to this end.
“People don’t walk around the streets thinking and feeling how it’s the center of making parts for drones that kill innocent children and so forth. It’s the town of peace and love — it’s more comfortable to be thinking that way,” Wenk told The Indypendent. “Because the other way puts us into the position of being complicit.”
The current petition campaign is by no means the first time activists have raised this issue.
In 2009 they held the second ever “Woodstock Forum” to expose Rotron’s involvement in the weapons industry — among other social and economic justice issues — coinciding with the 40th anniversary of the famous Woodstock festival.
Organizers brought antiwar activists, writers, professors and artists such as Mary Beth Sullivan of the Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power in Space; Jeff Cohen, author, professor and founder of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR); and award-winning investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill to speak at the forum.
Activists, most of whom are still involved in the campaign today, printed and distributed a satirical newspaper chronicling what an end to Rotron’s weapons manufacturing might look like.
In the short term, members of Woodstock Peace Economy seek 600 signatures, the equivalent of a tenth of the town’s population, enough, they hope, to bring company executives to the table to discuss conversion. If company officials won’t budge, however, activists will escalate their campaign, which could include engaging in civil resistance and other more militant tactics.
Broadly, “I think it’s important to open up a conversation about the way the material bases of our tenuous prosperity are bound up with war, oppression and environmental devastation,” said Laurie Kirby.
Kirby stressed that the weapons industry is so entrenched in the American landscape, not even a place steeped in the mythology of peace and love is immune.
There is a military-contracted manufacturer in every single one of the country’s 435 congressional districts.
“It’s well known that the Pentagon makes sure that the largesse reaches all parts of the country,” Kirby said.
“Woodstock is really not special — Woodstock is really a microcosm of the world,” he lamented. “Despite what some people think about it being antithetical and whatever else, we’re just a typical community and every community has this.”
At $596 billion in 2015, the U.S. military budget is larger than the next seven countries combined, meaning the profit potential for private contractors like Rotron is immense.
In order to resist the Pentagon’s allure, “[Rotron] would need to see examples of peaceful production happening in other places because I feel like where they are now, they are probably making a lot more money making parts for weapons,” Sequoia Cohen, student and anti-drone activist told The Indypendent. “So they need to see that they can still be profitable making other things.”
Being for Peace
William Hartung noted that there is already precedent for lucrative defense contractors to convert their production.
“There’s been big waves like after Vietnam, after the Cold War, tens of thousands of companies had to reorient their business and some do and some don’t. But usually the ones who are successful think ahead a little bit about what their options may be,” Hartung said. “Not just dig their heels in and focus on getting more military contracts.”
In downtown Woodstock on a sunny August afternoon, Tarak Kauff continues asking locals and tourists for petition signatures.
A man in his 20s, garbed in peace signs and colorful beads, politely declines the petition, but not before saying he closely identifies with the antiwar movement.
This disparity between a peaceful lifestyle and actual peace, Kauff later noted, is a familiar response.
“You claim you’re for peace, so for peace we have to look at all the elements that go towards destroying the peace,” Kauff said. “It’s one thing to know the truth, it’s another thing to act on what you know.
“You can’t be for peace and do nothing to achieve it.”
INDY EXTRA: These Arms Are Not for Hugging
Saudi airstrikes killed 140 mourners and wounded 500 more at a funeral in Sana’a, Yemen, on Oct. 8. With U.S. support, the kingdom is waging a bloody air campaign across its border against Iranian-backed Houthi insurgents that began in March of last year. More than a third of the targets it has struck are civilian.
“U.S. security cooperation with Saudi Arabia is not a blank check,” said White House spokesman Ned Price, who expressed “serious concerns about the conflict in Yemen and how it has been waged.”
But the latest massacre comes less than a month after the U.S. Senate rejected a measure, 71 to 21, that would have blocked a $1.15 billion arms deal between the Obama Administration and the Saudis. The arms package follows a $1.3 billion deal in November of 2015. Both are part a $22.2 billion sales bundle authorized with Riyadh since the war began, most of which is still to be delivered.
While Price says the White House is reviewing its support for the Saudi campaign, documents published by the Reuters news organization this month show from the start State Department attorneys fretted the U.S. could be considered a “co-belligerent” actor in the conflict and be held liable under United Nations war crimes statutes.
Human rights organizations estimate 3,800 civilians have died as a result of Saudi bombardments, so far.
— Indypendent Staff
Living Under Drones By Elizabeth Henderson