Drone (2014) is a new documentary from Norwegian director Tonje Hessen Shei. This movie chronicles the CIA’s use of drone warfare against Pakistan and Waziristan that began in the mid-2000s and has become a significant counter-terrorist strategy for US. Shei’s fantastic documentary follows several threads and intercuts between these narratives seamlessly throughout the movie. Her list of interviewers includes ex-drone pilots, human rights activitis, Waziristani citizens, drone technology manufacturers, journalists, experts on drone warfare, and victims of drone attacks. Shei, in her Q&A after the screening at Hot Docs 2015, told the audience that she sent approximately 100 emails to the US government for this perspective on this troubling issue for this documentary but they didn’t respond. This will come as no surprise, but Shei’s documentary is an unabashed attack on drone warfare and a timely documentary that we all need to see again and again.
There are many paths toward condemning drone warfare and Shei takes nearly all of them in her expose. The first –and one of the most effective–road is questioning to the CIA’s role in drone attacks and the default secrecy that comes with that agency. If drone warfare was a US military operation there would –hypothetically–be much more transparency around these missions but because the drone attacks are CIA sanctioned operations there is no accountability or proper reporting done. This is a major assault to democracy in the US and undermines citizens’ ability to keep their government accountable. Furthermore, Shei easily demonstrated that the drone strikes are done as if they were US military operations so the amount of secrecy granted to these missions because of their association with the CIA is simply a new way to avoid transparency with respect to military operations.
A second path Shei takes in her critique of drone warfare is a look at the victims. Before seeing this documentary I assumed Pakistan was where the majority of drone strikes were happening but in fact it is Waziristan that has taken the most hits since the inception of drone attacks. This small nation sandwiched between Afghanistan and Pakistan is favorite spot for the Taliban hiding from NATO and US military. The rugged terrain has been a major obstacle for the US military in weeding out Taliban hiding in this area until the use of drone strikes. Shei follows a group of human rights activists working in this region with the victims. The majority of innocent people killed and injured by drone strikes far outnumbers the list of confirmed terrorists killed. The victims have no way to respond to the US except for painting large pictures of themselves and putting them on their roofs with the hope that the drone pilots will be deterred from bombing their homes. Without the power of international law or military might, the victims have no other option than to resort to using images of their faces as a last resort to appeal to the pilots pushing the button 10 000 miles away in a bunker.
A third path into Shei’s critique is an investigation into the effects of drone warfare on the pilots. Like every other form of war, drone warfare has left many soldiers with debilitating PTSD. Shei follows Brandon Bryant, an ex-drone pilot, as he struggles to deal with his guilt for the lives he has taken while working as a drone pilot. Bryant is the only US soldier to date that has spoken against drone warfare and Shei films him being interviewed by various US media outlets and his speech at the UN protesting drone warfare. The desensitizing effects of the screen through which he views his victims before pushing the kill button were not powerful enough for Bryant –and certainly other drone pilots–from experiencing serious trauma. The low-resolution images of potential terrorists he is ordered to kill appear like pixelated blobs from a computer game in the nineties. The face to face interaction from past wars is completely eliminated in drone warfare where potential enemies are reduced to vague squares on computer screen. Bryant’s trauma — a depressing sight to behold– is paradoxically a moment of hope because it signals to us that the mediating effects of screens in our world overly populated with screens testifies to the potential for humans to feel guilt even when face to face interactions are taken out of warfare.
A fourth path Shei takes is the way drone warfare is another way for private arms dealers to make money. The war on terror strategy extends the battlefield to the entire Earth, creating a seemingly infinite number of potential enemies (and the US’s efforts to eradicate terrorism has only increased it exponentially). The government is again fulfilling the role of the left-arm of capitalists by supplying arms dealers with an infinite demand for their product. Drone manufacturing is a booming business because the war on terror has extended the timeline for itself to forever. As long as the US are killing innocent people in Waziristan and other parts of the middle-East there will always be steady supply of terrorists being created to respond to these senseless acts of aggression. Shei’s coverage of this aspect accurately demonstrated how the Bush and Obama administrations are no different when it comes to the war on terror.
Drone takes on the utilitarian ideology of the US military and successfully shows that drone warfare is not making the world safer. The cons are far outweighing the pros according to her work but unfortunately there is no sign of anything getting better. Shei soberly ends Drone without hope because when we look at the world with utilitarian calculus there is nothing from stopping us from doing horrible things to each other. What we need is to break from this perspective and remind ourselves that killing is categorically wrong.