War from thousands of miles away

December 10, 2015

Rooney Hassan reviews Drone, a new documentary with a timely message: that the main weapon in the U.S. "war on terror" is itself a form of terror.

IN HIS positive review of the new documentary Drone, New York Times film critic Neil Genzlinger worries that "this isn't the best moment to find a receptive audience for a film that questions the American use of drone strikes in the war on terror."

That may or may not be true, but in light of the recent attack in Paris and the rush to war underway in European capitals--the rush never slowed in the U.S., of course--this is a very good moment to critique the legality and immense collateral damage that drone warfare has produced.

Directed by Norwegian director Tonje Hessen Schei, Drone opens with testimony from a former drone operator, Brandon Bryant, about the alienation of the experience of sitting in a dark room for 12 hours at a time, examining the next target without their knowledge or consent. "We're the ultimate Peeping Toms," Bryant says. "Nobody's going to catch us. We have orders to take their lives".

Drone doesn't introduce information that wasn't already available to the public--thanks especially to The Drone Papers, a cache of secret documents obtained by The Intercept.

The documentary Drone shows pilots in training
The documentary Drone shows pilots in training

Rather, the movie condenses that information into a visual compilation piece, exploring the creation and effects of drone warfare by telling the stories of two drone operators and their victims in Waziristan, a region in Pakistan that has seen hundreds of drone strikes over the past decade.

Creating a holistic approach to an otherwise linear program, Tonje Hessen Schei highlights how the war damages the livelihood of civilians and the mental health of its operators, while those who profit off the military-industrial complex are left untouched.

Drone highlights the effects of the vast distance--physical and psychological--between a triggerman in the U.S. and his victims in Mogadishu. Drone operators obey orders to kill people with no prior knowledge of who they are and why they are being targeted.

IN THE U.S., officials hail drones as being precise tools for attacking "extremism," but their effect on the regions they target is devastating: creating orphans, killing civilians, bypassing international laws and national sovereignties, destroying local economies, and breeding intense animosity toward the deadly birds in the sky and the invisible pilots who maim the ants below.

Review: Movies

Drone, directed by Tonje Hessen Schei, produced by Lars Løge and Jonathan Borge Lie.

"Tell me how we're winning when we kill four and create ten?" asks Lawrence Wilkerson, chief of staff to Colin Powell when he was George W. Bush's Secretary of State. Wilkerson's question is a perfect snapshot of how U.S. wars have only creates further violence.

This is an inconvenient truth that Barack Obama failed to address during his address to the nation after the San Bernardino, California, shootings that left 14 dead at the hands of a married couple that apparently sympathized with ISIS.

In his speech, the president urged American Muslims to speak out if they see, hear or notice "radicalization" happening to family members or friends. Obama made no mention of the Planned Parenthood shooting that took three lives, including that of a police officer.

Clearly the message is that white, Christian terrorism isn't as much of a threat to American lives, especially when it comes to reproductive justice.

After he won the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, Obama justified his country's ongoing wars by claiming that the U.S. is a "standard bearer in the conduct of war."

Drone reveals the emptiness of Obama's words by juxtaposing his Nobel speech with footage of a nearly empty Capital Hill hearing room where drone victims testified about their stories. Perhaps members of Congress didn't want to have to face Pakistani schoolchildren talking about how they hoped for grey skies because drones don't fly on cloudy days.

Like other forms of terrorism, drones make the entire world a battlefield. Drone closes with a scene of Bryant, the former drone operator who has become a prominent critic, walking around in a cosmopolitan square where a virtual billboard plays an Army television ad. The Orwellian imagery feels appropriate.

Further Reading

From the archives