National Bird: A New Film Raises Alarming Concerns about Military Drones
National Bird follows the dramatic journey of three whistleblowers who are determined to break the silence around one of the most controversial current affairs issues of our time: the secret US drone war. At the center of the film are three US military veterans. Plagued by guilt over participating in the killing of faceless people in foreign countries, they decide to speak out publicly, despite the possible consequences.
Their stories take dramatic turns, leading one of the protagonists to Afghanistan where she learns about a horrendous incident. But her journey also gives hope for peace and redemption. National Bird gives rare insight into the US drone program through the eyes of veterans and survivors, connecting their stories as never seen before in a documentary. Its images haunt the audience and bring a faraway issue close to home.
(April 17, 2016) -- This is a disturbing documentary which, through the testimonies of three courageous whistleblowers, sheds some daylight on the USA's secret military drone programme. Directed by Sonia Kennebeck and executive-produced by Wim Wenders, National Bird weaves together the stories of the air force veterans Lisa, Daniel and Heather, all of whom have worked on the drones programme, gathering intelligence and tracking targets to be killed.
Then National Bird moves to Afghanistan, where the maimed survivors of a mistaken drone strike on unarmed civilians in February 2010, which killed 23 people, describe what happened when they were attacked.
The juxtaposition of the appallingly gung-ho attitude of the drone operatives, re-enacted from a transcript of the event, and raw footage of the dead bodies (some children) returning to their anguished friends and family, is heartbreaking and enraging.
Kennebeck juxtaposes Obama's speeches about drones -- in which he claims that they are able to take out insurgents without harming those around them -- with the testimonies of those who know that this is untrue.
Self-evidently, drones wreak widespread devastation, and the fact that a growing element of modern warfare involves studying dots on a screen and deciding on which to drop a bomb has frightening ethical implications. National Bird demonstrates that the nature of drone warfare makes some drone operatives trigger-happy, while others, like Heather, who analysed intelligence on warzones and wrote about her experiences for the Guardian, end up dehumanised and suffering from PTSD.
This is a documentary that shows rather than tells, ominously beautiful drone's-eye tracking shots of ordinary American streets demonstrating the way the technology can be used against any community.
The film kicks up a gear when signals intelligence analyst Daniel, who had worked with the NSA at Fort Meade, decides to blow the whistle on the drone programme and gets the full force of the government machinery dropped on top of him, including the raiding of his house by dozens of FBI agents and the threat of decades in jail for treason.
His attorney Jesselyn Radack, who represents the other whistleblowers and did the same for Edward Snowden, makes clear that once you cross the military-industrial complex, your life becomes extremely difficult. At the end of the film, Daniel's whereabouts are chillingly described as unknown.
Under the US 1917 espionage act, the film and the whistleblowers are severely restricted in what they can (or, in the case of the whistleblowers, would wish to) say, but certain sharp facts poke through the murk. Lisa shows a letter of commendation for helping to identify 121,000 insurgent targets over two years -- as she points out, since the US has been at war in Afghanistan since 2001, the scale of casualties must be vast.
No one will say, but it's also pretty clear that the US is using drones in countries with which it is not officially at war. With stealth and elegance, Kennebeck brings these alarming truths into the light. 'The PTSD Stems from This Dirty Work':
New Film Documents Regretful Drone Pilots The Guardian
Speaking at the Berlin film festival, documentarian Sonia Kennebeck discusses her Wim Wenders-produced film National Bird, which reveals widespread post-traumatic stress disorder among employees of the US's drone division.
(February 15, 2016) -- We've all seen this film before: the grainy black-and-white shot with a crosshair on top. Dark blobs moving across the screen. Then, a pause, an explosion and dust. A few moments later you can make out the bodies. Sometimes you'll see the injured, dragging themselves out of the wreckage.
Whatever your take on drone warfare, watching video of a strike is an upsetting experience. Now a documentary, National Bird, seeks to describe the traumatic effect that planning and executing these strikes has had on some military personnel.
Director Sonia Kennebeck's first feature, National Bird brings us character studies of three former United States air force personnel, Lisa, Daniel and Heather, who wanted to share their experience of seeing people die, live.
Executive produced by Wim Wenders and Errol Morris, and following on from the 2014 documentary, Drone, Kennebeck's film explores how fighting a mechanised, remote war from a trailer in Nevada has affected her subjects.
Lisa travels to Afghanistan to meet a family who lost children to an airstrike. Daniel has become an anti-war campaigner. Heather, a former drone imagery analyst, is diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and becomes the first veteran from the drone programme to receive state support for her treatment.
"They talk about how difficult it is to be in the US and be deployed and fighting, while still being at home in safety," says Kennebeck. "I think the human mind has an issue dealing with that, because you go into this secret environment and you're in a real warzone: you're killing people. Then you go home and sit at the dinner table with your family. It's schizophrenic in a way, to work like that. Your family doesn't have a clue and you're not allowed to talk to them about your experiences."
Much of the detail of the US military's drone programme is classified. During National Bird's filming, the FBI raided Daniel's home and searched for secret documents with a view to making him the 13th American ever to be charged with espionage.
He's one of the clients represented by Jesselyn Radack, a former ethics advisor to the US Department of Justice who appears in the film and now works as an attorney, often defending whistleblowers. Edward Snowden is also a client.
The term PTSD was originally associated with ground troops who had survived the Vietnam war. Because of this there is still some debate over whether drone operators and analysts do suffer PTSD in a traditional sense, but it's clear that part of the problem in analysing any effect that drone warfare is having on servicemen and women is the secrecy around the programme.
Demand for drone teams is soaring across all branches of the US military, yet, according to leaked documents, USAF drone pilots are quitting in record numbers.
"They're having such a high burnout rate in the air force that they're outsourcing it to private contractors," says Radack. "Then there's no way to keep track of them, as they're not subject to freedom-of-information requests."
Heather, who has written for the Guardian on the euphemisms used to hide the true nature of modern war, brings National Bird a furious energy. The language of this new war -- "surgical strike", "precision kill" -- infuriates her. They are political terms, part of a military lexicon that defines anyone killed in an attack (even those not targeted) as "enemies killed in action", until posthumous evidence proves otherwise.
The idea that drone strikes are precise is ridiculous, she says. The figures bear her opinion out. One leak revealed that in one operation nearly 90% of people killed were not the intended targets.
"I think the PTSD stems from being part of this dirty work," says Radack. "There's a lot of addiction issues, a lot of depression. My guys talk about drunk droning [akin to drunk driving], sniffing bath salts [US slang for various designer drugs] because they won't be detected on drugs tests. They have to anaesthetise themselves in order to be able to do this.
"I asked them how many people in the trailer had addiction problems and they said: 'Everybody. We had three domestic violence problems, we had two drink-driving problems, six people were alcoholics.' And we're talking about a group of 12 people in one trailer. And it's typical, because you hear the same stories from clients in different trailers in different places. It's the same story. Total dysfunction."
In National Bird, Heather says three of her former colleagues have committed suicide. Psychiatric treatment for drone operators and analysts is not always readily available, partly because most therapists don't have the security clearance necessary to talk to their patients about the job. Heather is, in a sense, at the vanguard of post-combat treatment, in that hers is an old condition stemming from a new type of war.
National Bird includes its own drone footage, a re-creation of the killing of more than a dozen innocent people by drone operatives who mistook them for insurgents. In the film, the pilot and the operating crew are voiced by actors. If they sound a little unconvincing, it's partly because we are now worryingly familiar with the real thing. Life as a Drone Operator: 'Ever Step on
Ants and Never Give It Another Thought?' Ed Pilkington / The Guardian
In a secluded room at an airbase in Nevada, young men hold the power of life and death over people thousands of miles away. Former servicemen tell their story
NEW YORK (November 19, 2015) -- When Michael Haas, a former senior airman with the US air force, looks back on the missions he flew over Afghanistan and other conflict zones in a six-year career operating military drones, one of the things he remembers most vividly is the colorful language airmen would use to describe their targets.
A team of three would be sitting, he recalls, in a ground control station in Creech air force base outside Las Vegas, staring at computer screens on to which images would be beamed back from high-powered sensors on Predator drones thousands of miles away.
The aim of the missions was to track, and when the conditions were deemed right, kill suspected insurgents. That's not how they put it, though. They would talk about "cutting the grass before it grows out of control", or "pulling the weeds before they overrun the lawn".
And then there were the children. The airmen would be flying the Predators over a village in the tribal areas of Pakistan, say, when a series of smaller black shadows would appear across their screens -- telling them that kids were at the scene.
They called them "fun-sized terrorists".
Haas is one of four former air force drone operators and technicians who as a group have come forward to the Guardian to register their opposition to the ongoing reliance on the technology as the US military's modern weaponry of choice. Between them, the four men clocked up more than 20 years of direct experience at the coalface of lethal drone programs and were credited with having assisted in the targeted killings of hundreds of people in conflict zones -- many of them almost certainly civilians.
As a senior airman in the 15th reconnaissance squadron and 3rd special operations squadron from 2005 to 2011 -- a period straddling the presidencies of George W Bush and Barack Obama -- Haas participated in targeted killing runs from his computer in Creech that terminated the lives of insurgents in Afghanistan almost 8,000 miles away.
He was a sensor operator, controlling the cameras, lasers and other information-gathering equipment on Predator and Reaper drones as well as being responsible for guiding Hellfire missiles to their targets once the pilot sitting next to him had pulled the trigger.
Haas, a 29-year-old, in a Notre Dame baseball cap and Chicago Blackhawks ice hockey jersey, looks too youthful to be burdened by such enormous issues. Yet the existential sensation of killing someone by manipulating a computer joystick has left a deep and lasting impression on him. "
Ever step on ants and never give it another thought? That's what you are made to think of the targets -- as just black blobs on a screen. You start to do these psychological gymnastics to make it easier to do what you have to do -- they deserved it, they chose their side. You had to kill part of your conscience to keep doing your job every day -- and ignore those voices telling you this wasn't right."
Haas was relatively lucky, in that his team directly launched only two missile strikes during his 5,000 hours of drone flying. The first of those incidents, in January 2011, involved a group of insurgents in Helmand province, Afghanistan, who were exchanging gunfire with US troops on the ground and were duly eviscerated.
"No-doubters", the targets were called in the cold vocabulary of the military drone business, indicating certainty about their enemy status. Such certainty rarely existed, Haas said.
He has also been spared the burden of knowing the overall number of killings in which he played a part as a cog in the wider machinery of drone warfare. When he left the air force, Haas was given a report card that revealed the tally, but he chose to ignore it.
"They handed me a closed envelope with the number in it, but I never opened it. I didn't want anything to do with it," he said.
Brandon Bryant, a staff sergeant who worked with US air force Predator drones between 2005 and 2011 as a sensor operator and imagery analyst, did not get away so lightly. He knows for a fact -- he saw it on his screen -- that he was directly involved in the deaths of 13 people in five separate Hellfire strikes, one in Iraq and the rest in Afghanistan.
Bryant, 30, his head shaved and tattoos covering the backs of his hands, carries himself like a leader and seems to be driven by a determination to own a personal responsibility for the drone campaign he was involved in for five years and five days.
His first "shot", as the former drone operators call the strikes, was in Afghanistan, where Bryant helped guide in F-16 fighter aircraft to kill three individuals who he was told were reinforcements coming to join anti-US Taliban forces. But when he "got eyes" on the targets, it was obvious to him from their body movements -- they were hunkering down, gesturing, looking around -- that they were terrified, suggesting to him that they were unlikely to be trained fighters.
After the strike was completed, when Bryant was back with his squadron, there were high-fives all round. He was celebrated for having "popped his cherry" -- he had broken his drone virginity with a killing.
In the fourth of the Hellfire strikes in which Bryant directly participated, his team was called in to take out a group of five tribal individuals and their camel who were travelling through a pass from Pakistan to Afghanistan. They were said to be carrying explosives for use in attacks on US troops.
Bryant, together with a pilot and mission coordinator who formed the other two members of his team, tracked the group for several hours from their computers outside Las Vegas. They flew the Predator drone out of sight and beyond earshot of the targets at about 20,000 feet and a distance of about four nautical miles from the group on the ground.
He was puzzled during that time, because there was no sign of any weapons on the men or in the baggage carried by the camel. The drone team patiently waited for the men to descend the valley and bed in for the night, before they let rip with the Hellfire.
Even then, there were no secondary explosions, which made Bryant think that his hunch had probably been right -- five men and a camel had been reduced to dust for no apparent reason.
"We waited for those men to settle down in their beds and then we killed them in their sleep. That was cowardly murder," he said.
These direct incidents were harrowing enough for Bryant. But then, when he was honorably discharged from the air force in 2011, he made the mistake of doing what Haas had refused to do: he opened the envelope with the report card in it that itemized the number of killings in which he had played some assisting role.
The number was 1,626.
The impact of such knowledge, and the myriad other stresses of sitting in a tin box in Nevada tracking individuals for potential assassination on the other side of the globe, has taken a heavy toll on Bryant and other drone operators. Studies have found similar levels of depression and PTSD among drone pilots working behind a bank of computers as among military personnel deployed to the battlefield.
The psychological effect can hit personnel in unexpected ways. Cian Westmoreland was a senior airman based at Kandahar Air Field in Afghanistan, working as a technician to set up the communications infrastructure that acts as the backbone of the drone system.
Though he never pulled the trigger or used a joystick to guide in missiles, the lethal nature of his work was driven home to him when his superior came to his unit one day and said: "We are killing bad guys now, boys."
Westmoreland was troubled by the disclosure, and from 2009 to this day has been disturbed by recurring nightmares: "I'm in the radio unit flipping switches, with my boss yelling at me to get it up and running. Then all of a sudden it does start working and I realize with a jolt what I've done.
"I run out of the control station and now I'm in a village in Afghanistan and the whole place is burnt out and there's a woman on the ground covered in soot and a child crying over her. I go up to help the child, but half of her face is blown off and there's nothing I can do."
The four former drone operators who talked to the Guardian described the various ways in which they and their peers would try to cope during shifts of up to 12 hours. Airmen would show up to the control station drunk; others would sleep on the job, read comic books or play video games on their secure computers.
Despite the load they were carrying, they were disparaged within the wider air force. "We were looked down upon, because we were wearing flight suits but not sitting in the cockpit of an actual aircraft. Drones were like a joke in the military," Bryant said.
Toward the end of his service, Haas switched to training new recruits in the technology of drone warfare. That shocked him anew, as he discovered that many of the younger intake were gung-ho about the power they wielded at their fingertips. "They just wanted to kill," he said.
He remembers one training session with a student in which they were flying live over Afghanistan. The student said that a group of people on the ground looked suspicious.
Why? Haas asked. Because they look like they are up to no good, the student replied.
Would you act on that? the instructor asked. Sure, the student said.
Haas immediately pulled him from his seat, took over the mission himself, and promptly failed the student. "I tried to get the students to understand that preservation of innocent life had to take priority."
Because he failed the student, Haas was later rebuked by senior officers. They told him that they were short of bodies to keep the drones flying, and they ordered him to pass students in future so that there would be a sufficient number trained and ready to go.
Unmanned: America's Drone Wars Brave New Films
(April 1, 2015) -- Drone premieres theatrically in North America on Friday in New York. Directed by Tonje Hessen Schei and produced by Flimmer Film, it features former drone operators as well as people in conflict zones living under threat of drone attack.
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