Obama’s admission last week that a U. S. drone attacke had killed two innocent hostages, one of them an American, in a suspected Al Qaeda compound on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border could hardly be taken as real contrition, the President’s graying hair, somber demeanor, and condoling tone notwithstanding. The appearance of remorse for this attack stood in contrast to the lack of it in response to the documented murder of so many children in the drone war.
In an attempt to dampen the public relations fallout from the collateral killing of the two aid workers, Warren Weinstein and Giovanni Lo Porto, the administration promised a review of the guidelines for lethal drone strikes. But just how unshakeable the policy has become was illustrated a few days later by the contortions of presidential candidate and one-time drone opponent Rand Paul sympathizing on Fox News morning show with Obama’s supposed dilemma. Drone death is now so firmly anchored in the mainstream of American politics that even Paul must oar his dingy over to this moral and geopolitical wreck and lash his meandering craft to it its gunwales. When the whole thing capsizes Paul will gone down with it.
Premonitory recognition of the unshakeable dominance of droning in American policy came with the television campaign launched in early April by the Veterans Democratic Club of Sacramento County and the Sacramento chapter of Veterans for Peace. Lasting only fifteen seconds, the first of these “Please Don’t Fly” ads puts forward the groups’ morally exigent position with drone-view shots of the destructive power of hellfire missiles followed by on-the-ground images of noncombatants—most horrifyingly, children—killed by these instruments of “precision” warfare.
From these unsettling pictures of the dead the ad cuts to the shadowy silhouette of an Air Force technician loading a hellfire missile into a Predator, thus driving home the point that individuals are actively engaged in these killings even if all American personnel are far removed from the targets. This Grim Reaper engaged in the banal workday duties of drone death is then obliterated by a black screen with white letters reading: “Drone Killing Violates Law and Morality.” This statement then gives way to a still photograph of a young boy holding a framed photograph of his infant sibling, eyes closed and head wrapped in what seems to be a burial garments. A stentorian voice intones the text printed above the infant’s photograph: “Drone Pilots Please Refuse Fly: No one has to obey an immoral law.”
Produced by Know Drones, the campaign was seen as necessary by its creators given the complacency and ruthlessness of military and political structures leading all the way up to the President. Know Drones coordinator Nick Mottern described the strategy as a kind of last resort: “We reached a point where we understand the president and Congress are not going to stop these attacks, which we consider to be illegal and immoral.” Thus the ad urges pilots stationed in command trailers in far-flung locales such as the Nevada desert, to defy orders and not press the kill button at their deadly play stations.
Increasing numbers of drone pilots have been asking to be transferred from their positions, or have left the military altogether. Since 2011 the U. S. Air Force has recognized that these “smart warriors” can suffer from PTSD even without ever have been directly involved in a battle make. Moral suasion exerted by Know Drones could indeed encourage internal resistance to drone policy.
The case of former U. S. Air Force drone pilot Brandon Bryant, who has told his story on Democracy Now!, the BBC and elsewhere, further suggests that such a campaign might meet with success. Bryant left the military because he began to doubt the precision of the drones and of the military intelligence that generated the targets he was responsible for destroying. Difficult but unavoidable was the realization that the majority of the 1,626 people he had been “credited” with killing could not have been terrorists.
At only fifteen seconds duration, the Know Drones spot has no time to dally with its message: the pacing of the cuts is necessarily fast. The viewer has chance only to glimpse the swollen, bruised face of a dead child or the dismay of a family picking through the remains of their house while frantic voices call to one another in the aftermath of the attack. In the ad, the realism of the devastation is contrasted with the technical abstractions of computerized drone schematics and pixilated blast footage taken by the Predator drone.
The film editors commissioned by Know Drone clearly believe that the images and their juxtapositions should speak in concert with the voice-over calling for military operatives to do the right thing. There is no time in the short segment for the tragic and distended sonorities of something like Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, used most famously, and oppressively, in Oliver Stone’s Vietnam movie, Platoon. Rather, the anti-drone spot seeks to hit its target through realism and categorically imperative utterance. The only attempt at amplifying meaning through added sound comes with the start of the concluding voice-over: an echoing electro-acoustical undercurrent troubles the low frequencies, like a massive anchor pulling the conscience down to the bottom of the sea. This sonic message hardly counts as subtle even though it barely edges over the threshold of the subliminal. These sounds evoke the moral aftershocks that seemingly depersonalized military actions have on the persons that enact them—the pilots themselves.
Before deploying these images on television, Know Drones had held protests at a UAV assembly plant in San Diego as well as outside the home of James Blue, CEO of the Predator manufacturer, General Atomics. A comparison of the compact anti-drone commercial just described with General Atomics’ six-minute industrial advertisement released in 2012 for its Predator C Avenger is instructive on the disparity between the reality of the drone war and the make-believe of “precision counter-terrorism raids.”
In the General Atomics film computer animated images of “enemy” terrain and the drone itself are intercut with a row military pilots at high-backed swivel chairs in front of banks of screens. Throughout the various episodes dramatizing the surgical excision of enemy targets, a voice-over praises the company’s rapidly developing technology with phrases such as “Plug & Play”’ and “Persistent Integrated Presence” appearing below shots of drones soaring above the twilight cloud cover.
No people, computerized or real, are seen to be destroyed, but instead only rocket launchers, improvised military installations, or enemy planes and missiles. There is no sign of human death. After the U.S. missiles or bombs explode in some generically rendered Middle Eastern desert, an actor in battlefield camo back in the command center surveys the screens, nods, and utters a line like: “Target destroyed.”
The images are the stuff of video games and so is the continuous soundtrack—John Williams’s Imperial March on amphetamines. Incessant synthesizer chords and techno snare drums urge the Predators and its operators on towards mission’s completion. The music is dark and inexorable, and it is strangely difficult to discern whether these strains are meant to characterize the supposed good guys or the bad—or both. This ambiguity seems to crescendo as rockets are launched and race towards their target. Suddenly the music stops and there is the split-second of hushed anticipation just prior to the blast. Then we cut back to the control center where a pilot says “target captured!” — that is, blown to smithereens. When the commanders affirm success there is no music to distract from their message of victory.
The artful and insidious General Atomics music is meant keep drone operators and the purchasers of these weapons enthralled in a futuristic, fantastical war. The soundtrack helps assure them that their efforts are taking place on the screen not in the world. As in the massive multiplayer games that first trained many of these pilots, the exhilarating music is meant to keep them focused and unquestioning through long hours of joystick and touchscreen combat.
What is most to be feared by the makers and users of these drones is not the explosion but the stretches of silence that will resound long after it.