Zooming in on the Drone Warfare Ground Game: Drone (2014), directed by Tonje Hessen Schei

 

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Many people believe that lethal drones are good because they have been used to “take the battle to the enemy” while sparing the lives of US soldiers. CIA directors have long touted targeted killing using UCAVs (unmanned combat aerial vehicles) as an essential tool in the Global War on Terror. What more needs to be said?

Drone (2014), a documentary directed by Norwegian Tonje Hessen Schei, aims to dispel the impression that lethal drones are obviously a force for good. Like Unmanned: America’s Drone Wars (2013), directed by American activist filmmaker Robert Greenwald, Drone (2014) presents a kaleidoscopic collage of images of remote-control killing, juxtaposing close-range snapshots of the ecosystems of many of the various parties involved at different points along the “kill chain”.

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Perpetrators at the political, the business and the operator level offer their perspectives on what is being done. Victims at both the sending and the receiving end of Hellfire missiles provide moral insight into the homicides being committed abroad, and the fear caused to nonnationals in the name of the people of the United States. The overall effect of the film is to illuminate connections which may not be salient at all to the many people, including most politicians, who support the use of lethal drones in the seemingly endless quagmire in the Middle East, which by now has spilled into Africa as well.

InsituFounderThe impact of the drone industry boom on some smaller businesses and subcontractors is illustrated through footage of a man at the head of INSITU, a company which produces medium-sized surveillance drones. As a start-up in the 1990s, INSITU originally built drones to help tuna fishermen. Today they produce thousands of UAVs for use by the US government. Andy von Flotow, the company’s founder, observes that, although they have not weaponized their drones yet, he would have no qualms against doing so. His logic is that not giving soldiers what they need is like refusing to provide them with “underpants”. Like most of the populace, he accepts that drone killing is always and everywhere warfare, just as the US government has maintained since the dawning of the Drone Age.

Nuances such as the difference between contexts where force protection is at issue, and those where there are no “boots on the ground” to protect, tend to be ignored by supporters of targeted killing. Generally speaking, advocates of remote-control killing are inclined to accept that “battlefields” are the places where “warriors” have seen fit to deploy deadly weapons. The governing assumption is that the Global War, waged in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, covers every corner of the planet, so there’s no need to declare a new war every time a Hellfire missile is launched over another country.

Drone includes scenes of an arms fair where unmanned aerial systems are everywhere on display, with company reps standing by to extol their virtues. Alongside smaller companies such as INSITU, behemoths such as Boeing and Raytheon are said to be working hard to make sure that their drone production is as profitable as the bigger-ticket items which they and their shareholders grew accustomed to providing for the US government throughout the Cold War. The implication is that in the Drone Age, more applications for the use of drones must be found in order to justify the need to produce even more UCAVs, since individually they cost quite a bit less than the manned platforms of the past. Public companies have a duty to their shareholders to maximize profit. In the Drone Age, that will translate into more and more surveillance, and more and more targeted killing.

DroneSurviorsWhen civilians are destroyed at the targeting sites, they are perfunctorily written off as “collateral damage”, if acknowledged at all. Drone killing czar John Brennan exulted to an audience in 2011 that there had not been a single civilian casualty during the previous year’s drone campaign because of the “surgical precision” of the new technology. Drone makes graphically clear that there have been many victims in the drone campaigns, with survivors left bereft of their loved ones. Excursions are undertaken to tribal areas where missiles “splash” suspects, with plenty of footage of the grieving and traumatized family and community members.

BrandonMichaelTwo apostate operators, Brandon Bryant and Michael Haas, who now find appalling what they were persuaded to do under a pretext of national security, open a window onto a top-secret world about which most people know next to nothing. Bryant and Haas share intimate glimpses into what it is like to be at the launching end of a missile while having no way of knowing whether the intelligence being acted on is sound.

A number of other critics of targeted killing—lawyers and locals, journalists and retired military personnel, human rights advocates and scholars—express heartfelt concern and even alarm at what they take to be the brazen illegality of the US drone program. Alarm is indeed the appropriate moral response to a practice which undermines centuries of work to establish international law and defend human rights. Equally troubling is the abject inefficacy of this counterterrorism tactic viewed over time. The crimes being committed are leading to more crimes as people incensed with what has been done decide to join forces with extremist terrorist groups in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Libya, Syria, and beyond.

The flagrant evidence of the quagmire in the Middle East notwithstanding, the drone campaigns have been sold as a superlative success story by the mainstream media. Each time the US government relays that suspected militants have been slain somewhere by a lethal drone, the press dutifully parrots the text and rarely bothers to emend the report when it turns out that the victims were not the intended targets after all.

 

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The action of Drone takes place everywhere: in the tribal regions of Pakistan, at the UN General Assembly in New York City, in the desert in Nevada, in a gigantic gaming facility where hordes of adolescents are sitting at video consoles pressing buttons, their eyes glued to the screen in front of them. In one short segment, Air Force pilot mentors appear to be luring acne-faced youngsters into the world of drone killing, sharing their expertise on how best to home in on targets. Presumably this is all a part of persuading future recruits to opt for the profession of drone operator. Like retired officers Bryant and Haas, the young people who enlist will be called upon by their commanders to dispatch suspects by remote-control. All of this is happening alongside the widespread development of video games and apps such as Mobile Strike, which are being advertised all over the place (including on tv) and disseminated cost-free over platforms such as the Amazon Kindle.

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Drone illustrates how all of these subcultures are intimately connected to one another through a single new technology, the lethal drone, whether the people funding targeted killing are aware of this fact or not. The moral cost of remote-control killing is no news to the people on the ground, nor to the journalists and activists who have been traveling to the tribal regions where lethal drones have lurked above in the sky throughout most of the twenty-first century.

The human costs are invisible to most Westerners, but they are infinitely steep, in moral terms. The most plausible explanation for the widespread ignorance among US citizens about the use of lethal drones by their government is that, in unoccupied territories, the program has been run by the CIA. The shots, however, have been taken everywhere by Air Force personnel, a little recognized point which is shared during one of the interviews with Brandon Bryant.

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As various critics lucidly suggest in Drone, it looks as though the CIA cover was adopted precisely in order to be able to evade any and all accountability. Because the drone campaigns have been protected by State Secrets Privilege, as a CIA-run program under the authority of the executive branch of the government, the perpetrators have not been required by domestic law to report on the outcomes of the strikes, nor to share details of the individual missions.

This secrecy has served not to keep US citizens safe but to shield those in charge of the drone program from allegations of wrongful killing, not only collateral damage, but also in cases where innocent targets have been effectively convicted by state execution and written into history as EKIA or “enemy killed in action”. Drone makes it abundantly clear that the US government’s refusal to discuss both the evidence thought to implicate targets and the strike outcomes does not imply that there have not been any people wrongfully killed.

MuteSurvivorsSurvivors of drone attacks, especially in Waziristan, Pakistan, are allowed to speak freely for a few minutes. Unfortunately, and this is my only criticism of the film, there are no subtitles or dubbed translations provided for some of these people’s words. The effect may be to make them look as alien as they could possibly seem to average American suburbanites, the very people who need to be awakened to the truth about remote-control killing. From the likely perspective of the average white American moviegoer, the victims depicted in Drone have dark skin and wear funny clothes and hats. They hail from a foreign and backwards culture and speak an incomprehensible language.

I do not know whether the lack of subtitles to translate the very human emotions which these victims are attempting to express was a mistake or an oversight or an intentional omission. Whatever the reason, I consider it to be a flaw of the film, for without having any inkling of what some of the victims are saying, many monolingual Anglophones will not find them persuasive in the least. How can these people be sympathized with when they remain as incomprehensible as the perpetrators of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001?

There certainly are plenty of pictures of dead victims, which together with the words of lawyers and journalists help to tell these people’s horrific stories. But the reflexive soundbite “We are at war” and the cultural inurement to “collateral damage” ensure that champions of targeted killing are unlikely to switch sides upon exposure to images of victims. Drone program supporters already believe that remote-control killing is war, and “everyone knows” that with war comes the inevitable and regrettable “collateral damage”.

With no translation of their words, some of these people may be viewed not as full-fledged human beings with the same rights as American citizens, but as backwards tribesmen who might join up with Al Qaeda tomorrow, if given the chance.  Along these lines, the footage of protests, and specifically of a group of angry Pakistanis burning an effigy of a drone, waving anti-American banners, and yelling out in rage, may be interpreted by some as evidence that they are potential terrorist recruits.

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At this point in history, with the US government having already assassinated thousands of suspects, what needs to be subjected to intense scrutiny, before other nations step up their drone-killing games, is the very premise that these homicides are a part of warfare. In Drone, concern is expressed that the technology is moving faster than human beings’ capacity to philosophize about drone killing. In fact, that is false, as some among the interviewees articulate very well and quite clearly how this feat of technological progress has led to a regression in terms of international law. The fault lies not with the moral blindness of human beings in general, but of the drone warriors themselves, who have been allowed to write the last word on what they have done.

The experts on extrajudicial execution at the United Nations have repeatedly weighed in on the illegality of what is being done, but the US government has stubbornly refused to do anything more than issue empty reassurances. Examples are included in Drone, such as Barack Obama’s insistence that there hasn’t been “a huge number of civilian casualties,” and that the United States must be a “standard bearer” in the proper conduct of war. John Brennan, now the director of the CIA, is shown animatedly comparing Al Qaeda terrorists to a cancerous tumor which must be excised, and can be done, he insists, thanks to lethal drones, without harming the surrounding tissue.

Clearly Brennan and Obama need to watch Drone. It seems highly unlikely that either of them ever will, however, for they have already killed so many thousands of people that they could never face up to the enormity of their mistake. In this vein, the courage of former operators Brandon Bryant and Michael Haas should not be underestimated, for they have wrenched themselves out of the drone dream in which they were laboring for several years and are now attempting through speaking out to dissuade others from making the mistake which they now deeply regret.

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US drone program supporters will no doubt ignore this film, for they have already accepted “the official story” ceaselessly pumped out by the US government, according to which “We are at war with an organization that right now would kill as many Americans as they could, if we did not stop them first,” as Barack Obama claims in one of the speech excerpts. What remains is for more and more of the people of other lands, such as director Tonje Hesse Frei, whose governments have not yet been lured into the culture of lethal drones, to stand up, and denounce the slaughter of brown-skinned suspects on the basis of opaque criteria at the culmination of secretive proceedings to which only the killers themselves are privy.

There is also still hope for young people in the United States. Drone should be watched by anyone considering remote-control killing as a career path. They need to be warned that all is not nearly so noble and honorable as the recruiters would have them believe. If no one would agree to serve as a paid assassin for the US government, then the drone program would come to a lurching halt.

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Even people who do not care so much about the condition of the souls of human beings need to be made aware that the longer this madness continues on, the more brown-skinned young people will flock to the likes of ISIS in an effort to put a stop to the victimization of their communities by drone warriors. In addition to the mess in the Middle East, the recent killing sprees in San Bernardino and Paris should serve as a cautionary warning to those who have been blithely assuming that lethal drones are the answer to the problem of terrorism.

 

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“Chew ‘em up and Spit ‘em out”: The Drone Operator Edition

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Any sober look at the recent history of veterans in the United States can only lead one to wonder why men and women continue to enlist in the armed forces in the twenty-first century. There was Agent Orange in Vietnam, the effects of which were denied for decades by military administrators, despite an abundance of scientific evidence that many veterans’ illnesses were linked to exposure to the poison. Then there was the Gulf War Syndrome, a horrifying range of problems, many neurological, which arose among veterans subsequent to the 1991 Gulf War. Soldiers in that mission were told to bomb chemical factories, after which everyone on the ground was assured that when toxin alarms went off, they were malfunctioning.

During the protracted occupation of Iraq after the 2003 invasion, many troops were redeployed against their will and in spite of the fact that they had already been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Some of them took their own lives. National Guardsmen, who had enlisted to defend the homeland in the homeland, were sent abroad as well, and record percentages of them also committed suicide.

The problems suffered by veterans engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan persist. The PTSD victims continue to be plied with in some cases deadly cocktails of drugs officially intended to alleviate their psychological troubles but which have not in fact stemmed the tide of suicides. It is plainly written in black and white on the labels of many of the antidepressants and SSRIs being prescribed by the VA that such drugs lower the threshold to violence, yet possible connections between the drugs and the epidemic of veteran suicides are doggedly ignored.

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The latest episode in this scandalous chronology involves the young persons enlisted to work as assassins at a distance, lured in by generous salaries to kill people who never threatened them with death, under cover of what is dubiously claimed to be “just war”. There is currently a recruitment crisis in the drone program. Why? Because the US government cannot find enough people ready and willing to kill on command by pushing buttons on computer consoles on the other side of the planet from the so-called battlefields where the allegedly evil targets—suspected of possibly plotting a future possible terrorist attack—are said by anonymous analysts to hide.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: in Guantánamo Bay prison in Cuba, 86% of the detainees were eventually exonerated of any connection whatsoever to violent extremist groups. How many of the suspects dispatched under authorization by President Barack Obama, whose policy it is to “kill don’t capture”, have also been innocent? They are fingered by the same forms of intelligence: HUMINT and SIGINT. Bribed hearsay and circumstantial evidence. You do the math.

The government makes it sound as though the sole reason for the shortage of drone operators is that the job itself is taxing: the “long hours” and “fast pace” of the job are supposed to be the explanation for why remote-control killers are not re-enlisting once their initial contract term has expired. Needless to say, the government ignores claims to the effect that the true reason for some of these operators’ refusal to reenlist is that they have painfully learned what the job really entails and want nothing further to do with it. Some now claim that they wish they had never enlisted. If only they could travel back in time…

Thanks to the testimony of brave men such as Michael Haas, Stephen Lewis, Cian Westmoreland, and Brandon Bryant, future prospective drone operators have been warned in no uncertain terms: you, too, may later conclude that you made an irrevocable mistake in doing what you were persuaded to do by commanding officers under cover of “just war”. (Remember the Milgram experiments on obedience to authority?) Nothing is free, and if not now, perhaps later, the next generation of drone operators may, too, pay a heavy toll for acting against their conscience and suppressing the questions which arose in their minds before killing people who did not deserve to be summarily executed without trial.

Given all of this, each and every young person who is considering the career of professional killer in the service of the US government needs to view the below video before signing a contract which they may come later deeply to regret. Friends don’t let friends sign contracts which may burden their conscience for the rest of their lives:

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http://player.theplatform.com/p/2E2eJC/nbcNewsOffsite?guid=a_orig_dronepilots_151207

 

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For more information and related criticism, see We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age, Chapter 7: The Operators; Chapter 8: From Conscience to Oblivion; and Chapter 11: The Death of Military Virtue

A Letter from Four Former Drone Operators with Echoes from the Stimson Center Report

 

Former drone sensor operator Brandon Bryant has given interviews all over the world about his involvement in the US government’s drone program or “killing machine”, as it has been aptly labeled by some. He has not always met with sympathy from interviewers and commentators. I was especially struck by the antagonistic stance of one BBC reporter, Stephen Sackur, whose questions often hinged on questionable facts which he had accepted as the gospel truth. Here’s a YouTube video of the interview:

Where, for example, did the notion that Anwar al-Awlaki gave advice to the 9/11 attackers come from, if not from a myth fabricated for the public to rationalize the US citizen’s summary execution without trial in Yemen? For those who missed it, including Stephen Sackur, here’s what Anwar al-Awlaki said in an interview with National Geographic News on September 28, 2001:

“My worry is that because of this conflict, the views of Osama bin Laden will become appealing to some of the population of the Muslim world. Never in the past were there any demonstrations raising the picture of Osama bin Laden–it has just happened now. So Osama bin Laden, who was considered to be an extremist, radical in his views, could end up becoming mainstream. That’s a very frightening thing, so the US needs to be very careful and not have itself perceived as an enemy of Islam.”

 In an interview on October 31, 2001, by Ray Suarez for PBS, Anwar al-Awlaki said:

“Our position needs to be reiterated, and needs to be very clear. The fact that the US has administered the death and homicide of over 1 million civilians in Iraq, the fact that the US is supporting the deaths and killing of thousands of Palestinians, does not justify the killing of one US civilian in New York City or Washington, DC.”

It is possible, of course, that this was all a part of a grand and sneaky scheme on the part of Al-Awlaki to pretend to condemn the attacks which he “in fact” helped to orchestrate. It is also logically possible, I suppose, that the 9/11 hijackers attacked the United States because “they hate us for our freedom.” Far more probable—and logically tenable—is that 9/11 was blowback for the 1991 Gulf War and related US interventions, especially in Muslim lands, abroad.

Likewise, more probable than the conspiracy theory according to which Al-Awlaki was only pretending to denounce the attacks of 9/11 is the version of the story ably relayed by Jeremy Scahill in Dirty Wars: that the Muslim cleric was radicalized by the actions of the US government itself, which in aftermath of 9/11 did precisely what Al-Awlaki counseled against, by waging what could be reasonably interpreted as a war on Islam.

By executing Al-Awlaki, rather than indicting him and allowing him to stand trial, the US government effectively etched its own version of what transpired onto the tablets of history. Reporters such as Stephen Sackur simply assume that the US government version of the story is true, without doing so much as a cursory Google search to find out what Al-Awlaki was doing and saying back in 2001.

It is more than a little disturbing that so many journalists and reporters have uncritically parroted, replicated and disseminated whatever the US drone warriors say, even as they regularly contradict themselves and completely re-write the story of what they have done as circumstances dictate. Was Osama bin Laden armed when he was killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan? The initial official story was that he was killed by Navy SEALS in legitimate self-defense, armed as the mastermind was with an AK-47. Later versions—some from the US government—have offered very different accounts of what transpired.

The obdurate refusal on the part of mainstream journalists to go beyond the official stories shared (and often “leaked”) by the government reveals that the Fourth Estate has effectively forsaken its democratic raison d’être–just as surely as US congresspersons did when in October 2002 they renounced their right and responsibility to check the power of the executive to wage war at his caprice. The result? The 2003 invasion of Iraq, and everything to ensue, up to and including the ongoing ISIS-driven quagmire in Syria.

When brave men such as Brandon Bryant step forward to share the ghastly reality of what is being done in the drone program, they are naturally met with skepticism and sometimes ire. Why? Because if what they are saying is true—and there is no compelling reason for thinking that they lie—then the US government has gone morally awry in its politically driven effort to convince citizens that they are being kept safe through a concerted and wide-ranging program of “targeted killing” (formerly known as “assassination”) abroad.

In assessing the credibility of this witness, it is important to bear in mind that Brandon Bryant was not fired from his position. He quit his job and declined even to accept a generous bonus (aka “bribe”) for staying on. Why? Because he could no longer continue in good conscience to do what he had come to believe was wrong.

Here is a recent letter sent to the powers that be by Bryant and three kindred spirits, Cian Westmoreland, Stephen Lewis, and Michael Haas:

    
 
 (source: https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/2515596-final-drone-letter.html — Contributed by: Ed Pilkington, The Guardian)

 

It is worth pointing out that in the first paragraph of the letter these admirable souls have clearly articulated some of the very concerns aired by the Stimson Center task force in its US government-commissioned report of 2014. One rarely hears mention of it these days, but the administration agreed to subject the drone program to scrutiny by an independent group of academics, industry experts, and former military officers. Unfortunately, no one in power appears to have read the report, which, in addition to advising that lethal drones be taken out of the hands of the CIA, also clearly warns in its Executive Summary:

Blowback: Civilian casualties, even if relatively few, can anger whole communities, increase anti-US sentiment and become a potent recruiting tool for terrorist organizations. Even strikes that kill only terrorist operatives can cause great resentment, particularly in contexts in which terrorist recruiting efforts rely on tribal loyalties or on an economically desperate population. UAV strikes by the United States have also generated a backlash in states not directly affected by the strikes, in part due to the perception that such strikes cause excessive civilian deaths, and in part due to concerns about sovereignty, transparency, accountability and other human rights and rule of law issues.”

Sound familiar? Military and drone program supporters may dismiss out of hand the testimony of former drone operators—writing them off as PTSD victims, disgruntled employees, or simply “bad apples”. But can any of those terms be applied to the Stimson center committee, the members of which were appointed by the US government?

Perhaps Obama, Brennan & Co. (literally) were hoping for a report which would conclude by patting the drone warriors on the back and exhorting them to continue on in their quest to kill brown-skinned suspects wherever they may be said to hide, working from “evidence” furnished by privately contracted analysts with strong reasons of financial self-interest to generate longer and longer kill lists–as long as they can.