In Washington’s Drone Wars, Collateral Damage Comes Home
In a trio of recent action-packed movies, good guys watch terrorists mingling with innocent women and children via real-time video feeds from halfway across the world. A clock ticks and we, the audience, are let in on the secret that mayhem is going to break loose. After much agonized soul-searching about possible collateral damage, the good guys call in a missile strike from a U.S. drone to try to save the day by taking out a set of terrorists.
Such is the premise of Gavin Hood’s Eye in the Sky, Andrew Niccol’s Good Kill, and Rick Rosenthal’s Drones. In reality, in Washington’s drone wars neither the “good guys” nor the helpless, endangered villagers under those robotic aircraft actually survive the not-so secret drone war that the Obama administration has been waging relentlessly across the Greater Middle East — not, at least, without some kind of collateral damage. In addition to those they kill, Washington’s drones turn out to wound (in ways both physical and psychological) their own operators and the populations who live under their constant surveillance. They leave behind very real victims with all-too-real damage, often in the form of post-traumatic stress disorder on opposite sides of the globe.
“Sometimes I am so sad that my heart wants to explode,” an Afghan man says, speaking directly into the camera. “When your body is intact, your mind is different. You are content. But the moment you are wounded, your soul gets damaged. When your leg is torn off and your gait slows, it also burdens your spirit.” The speaker is an unnamed victim of a February 2010 drone strike in Uruzgan, Afghanistan, but he could just as easily be an Iraqi, a Pakistani, a Somali, or a Yemeni. He appears in National Bird, a haunting new documentary film by Sonia Kennebeck about the unexpected and largely unrecorded devastation Washington’s drone wars leave in their wake. In it, the audience hears directly from both drone personnel and their victims.
“I Was Under the Impression That America Was Saving the World”
“When we are in our darkest places and we have a lot to worry about and we feel guilty about our past actions, it’s really tough to describe what that feeling is like,” says Daniel, a whistleblower who took part in drone operations and whose last name is not revealed in National Bird. Speaking of the suicidal feelings that sometimes plagued him while he was involved in killing halfway across the planet, he adds, “Having the image in your head of taking your own life is not a good feeling.”
National Bird is not the first muckraking documentary on Washington’s drone wars. Robert Greenwald’s Unmanned, Tonje Schei’s Drone, and Madiha Tahrir’s Wounds of Waziristan have already shone much-needed light on how drone warfare really works. But as Kennebeck told me, when she set out to make a film about the wages of the newest form of war known to humanity, she wanted those doing the targeting, as well as those they were targeting, to speak for themselves. She wanted them to reveal the psychological impact of sending robot assassins, often operated by “pilots” halfway around the world, into the Greater Middle East to fight Washington’s war on terror. In her film, there’s no narrator, nor experts in suits working for think tanks in Washington, nor retired generals debating the value of drone strikes when it comes to defeating terrorism.
Instead, what you see is far less commonplace: low-level recruits in President Obama’s never-ending drone wars, those Air Force personnel who remotely direct the robotic vehicles to their targets, analyze the information they send back, and relay that information to the pilots who unleash Hellfire missiles that will devastate distant villages. If recent history is any guide, these drones do not just kill terrorists; in their target areas, they also create anxiety, upset, and a desire for revenge in a larger population and so have proven a powerful weapon in spreading terror movements across the Greater Middle East.
These previously faceless but distinctly non-robotic Air Force recruits are the cannon fodder of America’s drone wars. You meet two twenty-somethings: Daniel, a self-described down-and-out homeless kid, every male member of whose family has been in jail on petty charges of one kind or another, and Heather, a small town high school graduate trying to escape rural Pennsylvania. You also meet Lisa, a former Army nurse from California, who initially saw the military as a path to a more meaningful life.
The three of them worked on Air Force bases scattered around the country from California to Virginia. The equipment they handled hovered above war zones in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as Pakistan and Yemen (where the U.S. Air Force was supporting assassination missions on behalf of the Central Intelligence Agency).
“That is so cool, unmanned aircraft. That’s really bad-ass.” So Heather thought when she first saw recruitment posters for the drone program. “I was under the impression,” she told Kennebeck, “that America was saving the world, like that we were Big Brother and we were helping everyone out.”
Initially, Lisa felt similarly: “When I first got into the military, I mean I was thinking it was a win-win. It was a force for good in the world. I thought I was going to be on the right side of history.”
And that was hardly surprising. After all, you’re talking about the “perfect weapon,” the totally high-tech, “precise” and “surgical,” no-(American)-casualties, sci-fi version of war that Washington has been promoting for years as its answer to al-Qaeda and other terror outfits. President Obama who has personally overseen the drone campaigns — with a “kill list” and “terror Tuesday” meetings at the White House — vividly described his version of such a modern war in a 2013 speech at the National Defense University:
“This is a just war — a war waged proportionally, in last resort, and in self-defense. We were attacked on 9/11. Under domestic law, and international law, the United States is at war with al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and their associated forces… America does not take strikes to punish individuals; we act against terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people. And before any strike is taken, there must be near-certainty that no civilians will be killed or injured — the highest standard we can set.”Wait, before you go…
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