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”.
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.
The 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.
When 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.
Two 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.
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.
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.
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.
Survivors 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.
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.
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.
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.