National Bird, a film directed by Sonia Kennebeck, received much less attention than Eye in the Sky, though both had US releases in 2016. One reason for this is that Eye in the Sky paints drone warfare as a positive development in human history, and its perpetrators as somehow noble, despite the risk of killing civilians which invariably attends this new practice. Another reason for the relative lack of attention received by National Bird is simply that documentary films, which tend to be more critical of their subject matter and far less entertaining, rarely get much coverage in the media, and those about drone warfare are no exception to the rule. Several films highly critical of the US drone program have been released, but unfortunately they have quickly fallen by the wayside and failed effectively to penetrate the collective consciousness of the citizens who fund the practice, new to the twenty-first century, of hunting down and killing persons suspected of complicity in terrorism, or of being in association with persons suspected of complicity in terrorism.
The administrators of the US drone program have succeeded resplendently in their promotion campaigns by persuading politicians and the populace to accept the official story, according to which assassinations carried out by uniformed soldiers stationed in trailers in the desert thousands of miles away from “the battlefield”, using remote-control launched missiles, are really “targeted killings” and legitimate acts of war. National Bird, like the documentaries which preceded it, calls into question this reigning dogma, and disputes some of the most basic “facts” being reported by the US administration. All of the documentaries produced to date on the topic of targeted killing examine some of the seldom-mentioned negative effects of the drone program upon not only the victims abroad, but also the young American recruits enlisted to serve as paid assassins under a guise of defending the homeland.
What is unique about National Bird is its deft illumination of three key aspects of the drone program, beginning with what is in effect the racial profiling of the unnamed persons being intentionally killed. The US administration has killed thousands of persons on suspicion of complicity in terrorism—or suspicion of association with persons suspected of complicity in terrorism—simply assuming all along the way that the military-age males killed are guilty until proven innocent. Such an inversion of the burden of proof is preposterous on its face, implying, among other things, that many of the journalists on the ground investigating these cases are themselves, by the same criterion, fair game for targeting.
National Bird homes in on some of the actual victims in Afghanistan, both mothers and fathers who have lost their children, and military-age males who have lost their limbs in US drone strikes. The men interviewed are obviously not terrorists, but if they had been killed rather than maimed, they would have been reported to the US populace as Enemy Killed in Action, or EKIA, along with the thousands of other unnamed persons killed by the drone “warriors” all over the Middle East.
The three former drone program analysts who share their experience in National Bird—Heather, Daniel, and Lisa—all insist that claims such as that by former President Barack Obama that strikes are not taken unless there is “near certainty” that no civilians will be killed, are in fact false. As they have worked within the program, they can confidently assert that this follows straightforwardly from the fact that the persons being killed are, in most cases, of unknown identity. When missiles are launched, the persons being targeted are thought by someone in the kill chain to be legitimate targets, but it is only in the aftermath of strikes that anyone can confirm who was or was not killed. In most cases, no effective confirmation is carried out at all.
Of course, demonstrating that an intended target was killed in a strike would not in any case establish the target’s guilt, only that the person suspected of being in complicity or in association with terrorists is now dead. The suggestion that state execution of a suspect suffices to demonstrate his guilt is a highly disturbing development in history, a huge step backwards in procedural justice to pre-Magna Carta times. But such concerns are ignored by the drone warriors, as they continually vaunt the success of their killing campaigns, even as the Global War on Terror (GWOT) expands like an amoeba to new and larger “battlefields”, a sure indication that terrorism is not in decline but on the rise. The angry survivors of drone attacks—fathers, sons, brothers, and friends of those killed—sometimes join forces with groups such as ISIS to fight back against the Westerners who continue to slaughter people throughout the Middle East with impunity.
Lisa Ling, one of the former analysts interviewed in National Bird, expresses concern that this new paradigm, which involves vacuuming up information from all possible sources in order to locate people to kill, implies that there are no limits to killing anyone anywhere at anytime, because there are no effective constraints on the killers.
Heather, a former image analyst, whose job involved distinguishing allegedly bad actors from obvious civilians such as women and children, laments that the push-button killers are trigger-happy, always seeking out opportunities to eliminate potential threats, even when concern has been aired that there might be civilians present. Heather explicitly articulates an extremely disturbing truth which drives the drone program forward: the killers are rewarded professionally for killing more, not fewer persons, because all of the dead are simply assumed to be dangerous terrorists until proven otherwise, which is rarely ever done.
Daniel, also a former analyst, points out that the lack of any sort of disciplinary consequences in the event of faulty strikes, when it later emerges that scores of civilians have died, makes it easier and easier for those in charge to approve the strikes. They are gambling with human lives, as happens in warfare more generally, but the difference in this case is that nothing will happen to the killers themselves when they make mistakes.
Ironically, the only persons in the kill chain who seem to be truly endangered by the drone program are the former operators and analysts who dare to speak out about what they have been lured into doing. They are investigated for possible violations of the Espionage Act, and even when they are not charged with crimes for boldly proclaiming that many civilians have died, and that claims by the administration about minimal collateral damage have in fact been lies, they are nonetheless quite effectively threatened by the specter of possible future prosecution.
Jesselyn Radack, an attorney with several whistleblowers numbering among her clients, points out that the persons pursued by the Department of Justice are often blacklisted from employment and ruined financially in the process of defending themselves from charges that they are spies, when, in fact, they have attempted only to expose what is wrong with the systems in which they were employed.
By looking at the plight of both bereft survivors on the ground and traumatized former drone program analysts, National Bird manages to highlight a third problem with the ongoing industry of remote-control killing. It is a matter of no small irony that both civilians on the ground and whistleblowers who attempt to speak out about what they believe to have been crimes are effectively terrorized by the very existence of the drone program, which was erected in order to fight terrorism. The threat of possible prosecution most likely has a chilling effect upon other former operators, who may decide not to talk for fear of the personal consequences of doing so.
At the same time, persons living under threat of death by lethal drones hovering above their heads have in some cases come to avoid public functions such as weddings and funerals, and they refrain from associating with people in other public places as well, for fear that they will somehow be pegged as “associates” of persons suspected of complicity in terrorism. It seems likely also that male journalists of military age may well avoid drone strike sites for fear that they might die next, while attempting to uncover the truth about previous drone strikes.
All of this shows that the targeted killing program is a gross affront to the very idea of democracy, causing people to fear for their life and well-being if they do what human beings have a right to do: to associate in groups, and to speak their mind and stand up for what they believe. These longer-term cultural effects of the drone program will play out only over decades, but they do not bode well for the future of civilization, and they certainly will not contribute to the democratization of lands where central government authorities are provided with the means to dispatch their political (and personal) enemies with the push of a button.
The moral turpitude of the drone program is so pervasive and so wide-ranging that it is difficult to know where to begin in criticizing it. But National Bird does a good job of highlighting some of the worst consequences of the highly regrettable normalization of assassination with impunity by persons with financial incentives to kill as many people as they can. In the process, young American soldiers are being transformed into assassins, having been lured into this profession in some cases only because they needed a job. Those who drop out of the program must suffer with their conscience for the rest of their lives. Those who stay in will rise in the ranks to become administrators who will follow the typical trajectory of lethal creep characteristic of corrupt actors more generally. The more they kill, the more they will seek out opportunities to kill, in order to prove to themselves that they were right to have done what they already did.