National Bird [subtitled in part]

National Bird is a documentary about U.S. drone bombing, wherein the American military uses unmanned planes to surveil from the sky and conduct targeted bombing to kill alleged terrorists and others deemed a threat to American interests, generally aimed at individuals rather than at the military of countries we are at war with. The film focuses on three former participants in the program that have turned against it and are now critical of it.

Whistleblowers of a sort, but not in the sense that they really tell us much if anything about the drone program that wasn’t already publicly available information; certainly they are very meticulous about not revealing classified information or telling anything that could get them into legal trouble. But they provide an insider perspective on what it’s like to bomb people remotely from thousands of miles away, and what psychological effect that can have on some of those tasked with doing what they did.

Indeed, that effect is mostly what National Bird is about, and it’s a reason I wasn’t as engaged in this film as I’d like, especially for the first half to two-thirds of it. I maybe came in primed for an exposé of the drone program, or an informed examination of its pros and cons, whereas this is more about how participating in warfare from a distance like this can still be emotionally overwhelming to a certain percentage of people and leave them with PTSD. I’m not saying that that human story about select American individuals is of zero interest to me, but for whatever reason it mostly didn’t draw me in here.

I was noticeably more into the film toward the end, though. In part maybe that was just a matter of spending more time with these three people and so feeling more connection with them and taking more of an interest in them. But it was probably more due to two other factors. One, we spend more time with some of the victims of drone bombing in Afghanistan, hearing their stories and seeing the effects it has had on their lives. And with all due respect, while I have empathy for those who say, “I feel really bad now that I bombed people,” it’s even easier to feel empathy for those who lost their legs in a bombing that killed all their kids. Two, while the film always has something to say about the merits of the drone program, which is what is more interesting to me, in the first half it’s maybe 90% about these three Americans struggling with the emotional aftermath of their participation in the program and 10% about examining the program on its merits, and in the second half it’s maybe more like 60%-40%.

So what are my thoughts on drone warfare?

The film draws our attention most to two main points of criticism. One, again, is that it can be hard on American participants in the program, leaving them with guilt and stress and the kind of PTSD we associate more with soldiers in the field getting shot at. Two, the drones don’t always hit what they’re supposed to hit, leading to the so-called “collateral damage” of killed and maimed civilians, children, etc.

Certainly any sane and humane assessment of the program will take these factors into account. But it feels like this documentary kind of dances along the periphery of the issue, certainly not digging deeply into it and addressing the reasons that could be cited in favor of the program.

I mean, I doubt many people inclined to favor the drone program, at least compared to conventional military action, would be swayed by this presentation of these two factors.

Maybe bombing people from afar can indeed be emotionally rougher on the participants than most of us realize. But surely the PTSD is not more common or more severe than what soldiers in the field in harm’s way experience.

Granted people other than the “bad guys” die in drone warfare. But is that something new in war? It’s a myth that you can ever limit yourself to purely “surgical strikes” that kill all and only armed people who would otherwise attack and kill Americans if they weren’t taken out first. Non-terrorist, non-military civilians will die too; that’s unavoidable. But surely meticulous targeting of individuals based on detailed surveillance in advance and precisely targeted bombs brings us closer to the pure surgical strike than does conventional war.

If you’re a pacifist, then maybe it’s enough to point out that drone warfare overlaps with regular warfare even if it has the bad stuff only to significantly lesser degrees, which the film certainly does with its personal tales of haunted ex-drone participants and hospital wards in Afghanistan full of amputees. But if you’re not a pacifist you may still be unconvinced that this price is too high in a world with Al Qaeda, ISIS, and the like looking to wreak as much havoc and kill as many of us as possible.

So, yeah, there’s the pacifist critique that participating in war in general is morally unacceptable, and that that includes the “war lite” that this kind of drone warfare constitutes. But beyond that, what is the case against it?

First, let’s think about this notion—reiterated by numerous generals, presidents, etc. in this film—that drone warfare is a very careful, limited war, intended to keep the death of innocents to a minimum even if it can’t guarantee to keep it at zero. If true, that would seem to set us apart from a lot of other bad actors in the world. It actually furthers the goals of terrorists to maximize the death and suffering of civilians, not treat them as unavoidable evils to be minimized. I doubt Osama Bin Laden or Hitler lost a lot of sleep over civilian casualties (except maybe concern that their forces had inflicted too few of them). And to avoid pro-American bias, I’ll even toss in the American political and military leaders calling the shots during the Vietnam War, attempting to break the enemy’s spirit through massive infliction of casualties.

But several potential lines of criticism could be explored here.

One would be to claim that these assurances are insincere, that the aim of the drone program is indeed to terrorize the targeted population into compliance by establishing that death and mayhem could be released from the skies at any time unpredictably on anyone, from an unambiguous terrorist to an infant.

A second would be to concede sincerity but to claim that we just aren’t doing as well at minimizing the unintended undesirable consequences as we could. Maybe the methodology could be different, maybe there should be more safeguards in place. The interviewees in this movie lament how those whose role was supposed to make them more of a check on the drone attacks were given too little of a voice and were consistently overridden by the more gung ho folks incentivized by a military culture that rewards a high body count, in Vietnam War fashion.

A third would be to claim that regardless of whether the powers that be in this country are sincerely trying to reduce the collateral damage of drone attacks to an acceptably low level, there’s no realistic way to make that happen. There’s always going to be very limited evidence available in deciding when and where to drop the bombs; there’s always going to be a lot of guesswork involved.

I think part of the problem too is that, ironically, drone warfare causing less collateral damage than conventional war leads to it being used more, which could lead to more collateral damage after all.

It’s kind of like what can happen when you give cops tasers. The hope might be, or even the formal policy might be, that the cops will use tasers in some situations where otherwise they would have used regular guns, with therefore fewer people being killed or permanently wounded in those cases. But even if that happens, there will be a great many other situations where the cops use tasers where in the past they wouldn’t have used guns at all, resulting in more total casualties in the long run. It’s more tempting for a cop to use a taser, precisely because they are not as high stakes.

Imagine a situation where the military would like to kill a particular bad guy such that with conventional bombing if they can get him at all, which in itself is quite uncertain, there’s a 99% chance they’ll kill and maim some innocent noncombatants with him, whereas with the use of all the modern drone technology, high tech surveillance cameras, smart bombs that can be targeted with pinpoint accuracy, etc., they can be almost certain to get him, and the likelihood of noncombatant casualties is only 10% or 20%. In the first case they’d likely pass up the opportunity, so in practice that 99% becomes 0%, while in the second case they’d likely opt to blow him away. Repeat that scenario dozens or hundreds of times, and the bodies pile up.

Drone warfare also makes warfare easier, and thus more likely to be chosen, because it lowers the risk so much for the only parties that most Americans care about. Because really the percentage of people—and I’m talking not just about within the military here, but mostly I have in mind the general population—whose conscience bothers them about massacring foreigners in a war is really small. What Americans care about is putting Americans in harm’s way.

I remember reading about this phenomenon in connection with the Vietnam War. Certainly there were antiwar leaders, activists on the left, etc. who put great emphasis on the unjust and criminal mayhem that was being unleashed on the Vietnamese people and attempted to rouse Americans’ moral outrage at what we were doing, and occasionally incidents like the My Lai massacre would generate a national debate on such matters, but really that kind of consideration never moved the needle all that much.

What gradually turned the masses against the war was year after year of seeing body bags filled with dead American soldiers arrive home from Vietnam. That’s the price people didn’t want to pay. They got tired of their kids, their friends, their neighbors, being put at risk (albeit a tiny risk relative to the risk of a Vietnamese person simply existing in their own country) for so long with no end in sight. When Nixon emphasized the air war, with increased bombing and less engagement of ground troops and therefore a substantially lower casualty rate for American soldiers, the public polling numbers on the war became considerably less unfavorable.

People tend not to dislike war in general all that much; what they dislike is losing a war, or waging it at the cost of too many of their own people being killed and injured.

With drones, Americans can sit back in comfortable chairs thousands of miles away and obliterate foreigners at no risk to themselves (beyond the psychological damage a few of them suffer, as we learn in this film). So however morally justified or unjustified drone warfare might be in the abstract, the public outcry against it is never likely to be all that great. When a tool like that is available, it becomes very hard for the military and political leadership not to use it.

Anyway, I’m just kind of thinking aloud about drone warfare and its implications. To an extent, obviously National Bird encourages that. However, as I mentioned, addressing such issues isn’t really its focus. It will provoke thought about them in many viewers, but primarily the film is about the narrower matter of how participating in drone warfare from the American side can be traumatic for at least a certain percentage of those exercising the power of life and immediate violent death over others. I found that narrower topic interesting, but for whatever reason it didn’t draw me in as much as I might have hoped.

One other thing I’ll mention, though, is I did appreciate some of the visuals and the way the film was put together technically. There are a lot of shots from the sky, like from a drone point of view, not just in Afghanistan and such where drones in fact are flying around and killing people, but wherever a given scene happens to take place (e.g., the city streets where the interviewees live). It gives you that eerie feeling of “Someone’s always watching you and could kill you whenever they choose” that people in countries that the U.S. military targets have to get used to as an always present part of their day-to-day life.

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