Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Nov 21, 2016 7:30 pm 
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Killing with no consequence - for the government

Sonia Kennebeck's documentary takes as its subject the appalling new drone warfare pushed forward exponentially by the Obama administration, the worst that technology of modern warfare can provide, at least till robot soldiers come along (that's on the way). There is no turning back from the use of drones - but can it become less harmful? It is a system of universal surveillance and also a system of long distance killing by pushing a button. The killers (who usually wind up suicides or drunks or otherwise disturbed) only see little dots on a screen. They know they are always killing women and children; there is always "collateral damage." Obama has touted the targeted assassinations that have been a hallmark of "warfare" in his eight years as safe, precise, legal, and justified. They aren't any of these things. They are unsafe, imprecise, in violation of international law, and unjustified. They remove the humanity from warfare. They encourage people to see their war victims as dots on a screen and nothing more. The button-pushers ignore the visual evaluators' identifications of women and children - because they want to rack up kills.

Kennebeck chooses to tell her story primarily through following around and interviewing a handful of former participants in the drone program. Also heard from is whistleblower lawyer Jesselyn Radack. And not inappropriately, the film makes frequent use of its own drone camerawork, which, in this context, eerily makes ordinary American suburban landscapes look like potential military targets. The title "American bird" hints that the symbol of the USA now should not be the eagle but the drone.

Meet "Heather," an outspoken former drone imagery analyst. She joined the Air Force thinking unmanned aircraft sounded "totally badass." She became part of an Air Force Intelligence unit killing people with drones, an activity she found an " adrenaline rush" but ultimately draining, filling her with guilt. She worked with the Deployable Ground Station (DGS), spotters for the drone kill teams located elsewhere. She becomes one of the first participants in the drone program granted disability for PTSD. Meet "Daniel," a bright and articulate young man, a private contractor and former signals intelligence analyst who knew he was going to go against his beliefs in what he did but joined because he was desperate, homeless. He went to Fort Bragg and gets into Special Ops, then Fort Meade, NSA's HQ. Now he has become outspoken against the drone program. "Lisa" is a thoughtful and knowledgeable former technical sergeant on a drone surveillance system, who thought she was going to be "on the right side of history," but now thinks otherwise. She worked on a DDS, a drone worldwide data collection system. Her system in a two-year period "identified 121,000 insurgent targets." She points out the terrible danger of a system that can go anywhere in the world unimpeded "and blow stuff up," which "will promote war, not prevent it." As a civilian, she goes to do humanitarian work in Afghanistan, accompanying her Afghan neighbor, Asma, even visiting victims of drone warfare. Kennebeck traveled to Afghanistan to cover them.


Each of these people wants to speak out, but must stay within safe guidelines if they want to avoid prosecution. Heather spoke out in The Guardian. She shows her conflict about this - feeling it may be useless, counterproductive. This is complicated by the fact that the Obama administration has been unusually draconian in its prosecution of whistleblowers. The people followed here get pressure from the government. Heather is told she's on a terrorist organization watch list and should tone down her comments. Daniel is raided by the FBI and told he's being investigated for espionage. From then on he lives in continual doubt and uncertainty. Lisa stays clear, and enters junior college.

One of Kennebeck's real coups is intercutting footage of an Afghan family that suffered losses in a drone attack bombing of three civilian vehicles, along with the drone footage and a soundtrack of the self-congratulating, profane young American males' dialogue as they carry out the killing. This event killed 23 people including children. At the end there is the families' own footage of returning the bodies to the village. This is hard to watch. This event was so bad General McCrystal had to come in and apologize publicly to the Afghans for it. But as one of the victims tells the camera, there are just more atrocities committed. We get to see a center for prosthetic limbs. In Afghanistan there are a lot of men and boys with missing legs. And attacks on wedding or funeral processions in Middle East war zones by the US have been commonplace since 2003.

It's true that Kennebeck doesn't provide a full survey of drones and drone warfare or their benefit in protecting American troops or their some present and many future positive uses (though Daniel mentions these), but Jeannette Catsoulis of the NY Times is right when it calls this "an elegantly unsettling documentary." It creeps up on its subject quietly, and explores it from a wide range of viewpoints. Critical response has been positive (Metacritic rating 75%). .

Online, I found an interesting PDF file from the Secretary of Defense, entitled Unmanned Aerial Vehicles Roadmap, 2002-2027. It is the government's official outline of its drone warfare program, dense with information and 195 pages long.

The film was reviewed by Joanne Laurier on the World Socialist Web Site. As she points out, the film fails to challenge the legitimacy of the "war on terror" or point to the extent to which all these methods are carried out unbeknownst to the American people and without their consent.

National Bird, 92 mins., debuted at the Berlinale; at least eight other international film festivals including Tribeca, Zurich, Melbourne and Hamburg. US theatrical release (NYC) 11 Nov. 2016. Produced by filmmakers Wim Wenders and Errol Morris. Sonia Kennebeck was born in Malaysia but works out of New York.


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