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War Lies and Public Opinion

Screening Drone Warfare

Les guerres de drones à l’écran
Delphine Letort

Résumés

Bien que les films de guerre participent à la construction de la mémoire collective, peu d’entre eux abordent les changements qu’implique la guerre des drones. Les opérateurs de drones travaillent depuis des lieux éloignés et ne partagent qu’un seul espace : l’écran qui relaie les images filmées par des drones. Les possibilités d’inclure des scènes d’action sont trop limitées pour une mise en scène spectaculaire : Eye in the Sky (Gavin Hood, 2016) et The Good Kill (Andrew Niccol, 2014) ralentissent le rythme du récit en focalisant sur le pouvoir de surveillance des drones. La durée des séquences d’observation crée des espaces de réflexion pour des débats éthiques sur la stratégie militaire des frappes de drones. Des réflexions comparables sont abordées dans National Bird (Sonya Kennebeck, 2016) et Drone (Tonje Hessen Schei, 2014), deux documentaires construits à partir des témoignages d’opérateurs de drones. Cet article explore les questions posées dans ces films de fiction et de non-fiction en se référant à la littérature croissante sur les drones, développée en réponse aux arguments politiques en faveur de la guerre des drones.

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  • 1 Douglas A. Cunningham and John Nelson, A companion to the War Film, Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Blackwell, 2 (...)
  • 2 The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino, 1978), Coming Home (Hal Hashby, 1978), Apocalypse Now (Francis Fo (...)
  • 3 Susan L. Carruthers, Cold War Captives: Imprisonment, Escape and Brainwashing, Berkeley: Universit (...)

1By adapting war stories to the screen for U.S. audiences to learn about the past, American cinema takes an active part in the shaping of war memories. Historical cinema includes some influential war films, which however purport opposite messages: Second World War films often foster patriotic responses by celebrating “American exceptionalism and imperial might”1 by exploiting the visuality of war in scenes of battle with unexpected shot angles that place the viewers in the midst of action and extol the bravery of heroic individuals, whereas others (especially those made in the aftermath of the Vietnam War2) look at the soldiers’ traumatizing experience of war as a means of critique of U.S. foreign policy. The veteran, exhibiting the physical and psychological scars caused by a conflict that unfolds elsewhere, literally embodies the travails and horrors of war that many civilians would rather forget.3

  • 4 Rachel Somerstein, “We Can’t Remember What We Haven’t Seen: Media, War, and the Future of Collectiv (...)
  • 5 “Mass culture makes particular memories more widely available, so that people who have no ‘natural’ (...)
  • 6 Delphine Letort, “Looking Back into Abu Ghraib: Standard Operating Procedure (Errol Morris, 2008)”, (...)

2Films (both fiction and nonfiction) underpin the civilians’ perceptions of a war fought beyond the national borders. Rachel Somerstein observes that visual documents make it possible for citizens to learn of war and to feel sympathy for the victims when they are interpellated by what they see.4 This is a notion that Alison Landsberg defines as “prosthetic memory”, suggesting that the media have the power to share individual memories of traumatic events to the collective.5 The responses aroused by the Abu Ghraib photographs aptly illustrate this point: the horrid pictures that circulated widely across the media and became emblematic of military abuse during the Iraq war opened many people’s eyes to the suffering of others.6

  • 7 Jean Baudrillard, La Guerre du Golfe n’a pas eu lieu, Paris: Galilée, 1991.
  • 8 Jean Baudrillard, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, trans. Paul Patton, Bloomington: University of I (...)

3In counterpoint, Jean Baudrillard noted a shift in the style and representation of warfare during the 1991 Gulf War, which existed only as radar and television images of missile strikes launched into the night skyline of Baghdad and made viewers oblivious to the destructions of war. Baudrillard famously argued that “the Gulf War did not take place”7 because the media spectacle of precision strikes turned the enemy into “a computerized target.”8 These images of a war that shed no blood on screen have left no scar in collective memory, for there was no visible image of human disaster. In other words, the technologies of war obviously impact the images that make it possible for civilians to comprehend the stakes of conflict.

  • 9 Maarya Rabbani, “America’s Last Drone Strike in Afghanistan and the Necropolitical Language of Dron (...)
  • 10 Eric Schmitt, “US Carries Out First Airstrike in Somalia Since August,” The New York Times, Feb. 24 (...)

4This article aims to ponder the filmic images of drone warfare and to question the type of memories they create. Drone warfare modifies the material, temporal and spatial terms of warfare; it also affects how the experience of trauma it causes is registered. While the technological achievements of remote warfare are framed as progress because they allegedly limit the number of casualties, the visuality of drone warfare (sight as a social fact that involves the body and the psyche) is deeply traumatic on both sides of the screen. However, most drone operations take place in utmost secrecy and their impact remains invisible. Very little information filters through the mainstream media and the absence of televisual reports on the strikes occurring in Somalia or in Yemen make it difficult for U.S. citizens to realize that their country is still at war.9 Although drone attacks have dramatically fallen since President Biden took office in 2021, the use of armed drones is central to the post-9/11 U.S. foreign policy strategy aiming at defeating terrorist groups.10

  • 11 Lauren Wilcox, “Embodying Algorithmic War: Gender, Race, and the Posthuman in Drone Warfare,” Secur (...)

5Drone warfare transforms the “theater of war” as it redefines the whole process of waging war through the introduction of a complex data analysis system that prioritizes the use of algorithmic, visual and affective technologies over the embodied confrontation with enemy forces.11 This new form of war has entailed changes in the war film genre: new characters have appeared (such as the drone operators) in settings that convey the constraints of remote interventions in a manner that affects the viewer’s perception of the enemy designed as “targets.” Films illustrate the failures of conceptualizing drone warfare around customary war notions of war and peace, bravery and cowardice, by engaging with the trauma of drone killings. They create new memories of war by centering the narratives on the experience of war operators, some of whom have acquired a public voice.

Defining the Drone War Film

6Only two feature films have been produced on drone warfare: Eye in the Sky (Gavin Hood, 2016) and The Good Kill (Andrew Niccol, 2014) open up debates about the ethical concerns raised by remote warfare by focusing on the doubts nurtured by drone pilots about the acts of killing that they commit. The distance between operators and targets creates space and time for reflection by slowing down action: the reasons why a kill is ordered can be meditated and thought over – which survival instinct does not allow during ground combat. In Eye in the Sky, the drone pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) challenges the orders that he receives when drawing attention to a young civilian girl who might be killed if he launches an attack. His resistance to an order disrupts the military chain of command and raises doubt as to the fairness of a strategy that might cause the accidental death of an innocent child. In The Good Kill, Major Egan fails to reconcile his personal life as a family man with his military drone missions combining surveillance and killing. The emerging genre of drone warfare displaces the sense of suspense that characterizes the war genre, turning the fear of annihilation that soldiers face in battle into a mental struggle against the killings that happen on the screens that mediate warfare. Yasco Horman astutely remarks that both films delve into the ambiguity of drone warfare through a focus on the political and psychological dilemmas the fictional situations raise. The films evoke a visual and sound environment that recreates the confusion of decision-making during drone operations:

  • 12 Yasco Horsman, “Drone Bomb Me: cinema & warfare in The Good Kill and Eye in the Sky”, The Senses an (...)

For American soldiers (the focus of both films), the bodily experience of engaging in a drone strike is depicted as being subjected to a disjointed and framentizing attacke on the human sensorium, a confrontation with a series of images, sounds and data that cannot be stitched together into a sense of coherent, meaningful experience, and so leaves the films’ characters and its spectators bewildered.12

7Drone war films (be they fiction or nonfiction) enhance the solitude that plagues the members of the drone community, all of whom carry out their work from different places and are bound by secrecy. The drone operators of Eye in the Sky and The Good Kill pull the lethal trigger but their agency is limited, for the decisions to kill are made elsewhere. This disconnection between acting and deciding turns them into witnesses of the assassinations they must perform and observe on the drone monitors. Time drags on as a few seconds may elapse between the moment when the operator presses the button to launch a rocket and the moment it hits the ground, once again slowing down the passage of time and opening up space for doubt. The two films enhance the moments of inaction when the operators wait for their actions to translate into images that are proof of an attack. The difference in scale between one gesture (pressing a button) and its impact (large-scale destruction) increases the visual shock for drone operators who stare at the monitors.

  • 13 Caroline Holmqvist, “Undoing War: War Ontologies and the Materiality of Drone Warfare,” Millennium (...)

8Drone warfare relies a division of labor that separates the individuals involved in the same mission, pointing out their isolation in different places.13 U.S. General Stanley McChrystal depicted the drone operation management as follows:

  • 14 Stanley McChrystal, “It takes a Network. The New Front Line of Modern Warfare”, Foreign Policy, Feb (...)

The idea was to combine analysts who found the enemy (through intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance); drone operators who fixed the target; combat teams who finished the target by capturing or killing him; specialists who exploited the intelligence the raid yielded, such as cell phones, maps and detainees; and intelligence analysts who turned raw information into usable knowledge.14

  • 15 Madeleine Clare Elish, “Remote Split: A History of U.S. Drone Operations and the Distributed Labor (...)
  • 16 Ibidem, 1113, 1116.
  • 17 “The pilot has very little say-so in what happens. Yes they pull the trigger and they will sometime (...)

9While such labor organization may have proved efficient in identifying the ramifications of a geographically dispersed network of individuals implicated in terrorist conspiracies, its growth into a technological matrix has also proved detrimental on several levels. The “remote split paradigm” undermines the sense of belonging that characterizes the military: while the trio of pilot, sensor operator and mission commander work from a ground station base in the U.S. (the most known being Creech Base in Nevada), information analysts can be located anywhere in the U.S. (including in private firms where the military has outsourced part of its missions), whereas technicians maintain and launch the drones from bases located in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, or Qatar.15 This organization has led to centralizing command and control by the CIA,16 reducing the Air Force pilots’ role to mere executants cast in a subordinate role – aptly signified by the “monkey switch” phrase.17 Chad Bruton, a Special Forces former member flying missions in Afghanistan and Yemen, testified about the lack of communication that objectifies drone pilots:

  • 18 Cited in Chris Woods, Sudden Justice, American’s Secret Drone Wars, Oxford: Oxford University Pres (...)

Sometimes you’d get a really good one that would really tell you what was going on and would give you a brief of what they had done on this target previously, and what specific kind of stuff they were looking for, what the higher objectives were. Then you have other ones who didn’t feel like sharing anything.18

  • 19 Yasco Horsman, op. cit., 307.

10This operative mode of drone warfare, especially the operators’ invisible engagement on the ground, significantly weakens the importance of military rituals. The drone operators in Eye in the Sky and The Good Kill express a sense of frustration at the lack of meaning of their mission – although their storylines eventually resolve the crisis by reconciling decision-making with human agency: the drone operator kills the Taliban fighter who repeatedly rapes a woman whom he spares further abuse in The Good Kill, whereas collective mourning brings closure to Eye in the Sky by depicting the aftermath of the attack which kills by the drone. Horsman argues that both films incite a pensive state that is close to mourning, thereby using empathy to compensate for the lack of meaning.19

  • 20 Jeremy Scahill and Glenn Greenwald wrote a page on The Intercept website on February 10, 2014: “The (...)

11The mechanization of warfare and the remote split paradigm deprive work of meaning and connection. By removing the decision-making process from the pilot who will launch the Hellfire missile, by relying on the metadata that provide a pattern-of-life used by analysts to determine someone’s likelihood of being a terrorist (in the case of a “signature strike”),20 the drone matrix fails to build connections in the kill chain. This distribution of labor underlies the mechanization of death, which Gidieon analyzed as indifference to destruction when visiting a slaughterhouse in Chicago in 1967:

  • 21 Sigfried Giedion, 1948, quoted in Daniel Pick, War Machine: The Rationalisation of Slaughter in th (...)

What is truly startling in this mass transition from life to death is the complete neutrality of the act. One does not experience, one does not feel; one merely observes. [...] This neutrality toward death may be lodged deep in the roots of our time. It did not bare itself on a large scale until the War, when whole populations, as defenseless as the animals hooked head downwards on the traveling chain, were obliterated with trained neutrality.21

  • 22 Derek Gregory, “From a View to a Kill: Drones and Late Modern War”, Theory, Culture & Society, vol (...)
  • 23 Remote warfare relies on “setting apart oneself and the crime one commits; not establishing the co (...)
  • 24 Joseph Pugliese, op. cit., 501.

12Derek Gregory observes that “the kill-chain can be thought of as a dispersed and distributed apparatus”,22 reinforcing the parallel with the mechanization of death. The creation of a drone matrix that relies on the division of labor aims to weaken individuals’ moral agency by setting the people involved in the decision to kill apart from each other, apart from the drone shoot, and apart from the “target”.23 Drone images significantly perpetuate an image of the Other as black clad figures that are dehumanized; their being labelled “targets” (“blobs”, “dismounts” and “squirters”) testifies to the objectification of the people who are denied individuality and subjecthood (both on screen and behind!). Joseph Pugliese contends that the geographical position from which drone operators fulfill their mission being removed from the places where the killings occur generates a “type of causal disconnect”24, preventing empathy between operators and their targets. This disconnect, however, opens the door to ethical considerations as regards the “war on terror.”

  • 25 Grégoire Chamayou views the drone as “a hunter advancing on a prey that flees or hides from him.” G (...)
  • 26 “We’re at war in a different kind of war. It’s a war that requires U.S. to be on an international (...)

13Eye in the Sky and The Good Kill challenge the dehumanizing process of the drone operation by portraying male operators who refuse to obey orders unquestioningly because what they see through the drone’s camera does not reconcile with the military narrative crafted by their superiors. This conflict cannot be completely resolved for the films to offer some closure and each drone operator eventually bears the burden of assassination alone. Quite significant is the fact that no drone pilot has yet been given the honors granted to ‘war heroes’ – those men and women whose bravery is awarded a purple medal in acknowledgement of their deeds. While the drone operators may feel the power of omniscience as “eyes in the sky”, the battlefield vanishes into a screen that both extends and restricts the field of vision. Drones do provide continuous feeds 24/7 – an avalanche of data to be deciphered –, but they also limit the scope of vision to the perception of sensors. The introduction of drones – whose names (the Reaper, the Predator, the Black Hawk) evoke birds of prey and death – has changed the role and the job of the military. French philosopher Grégoire Chamayou ironically gives sense to the drone mission by comparing it with man hunting,25 a metaphor used by President George W. Bush himself in 200326 to place emphasis on the notion of surveillance and hint at the drone’s superior power – its high-level, high-resolution imagery providing a visual advantage over the ground bound enemy. Eye in the Sky and The Good Kill focus on drone operators’ daily tasks of surveillance and attack in order to question the ethics of drone warfare.

The Ethics of Drone Warfare

14Two documentaries, National Bird (Sonya Kennebeck, 2016) and Drone (Tonje Hessen Schei, 2014), serve as whistleblowers by giving voice to former personnel involved in drone programs – including Heather Linebaugh (an imagery analyst officially diagnosed with PTSD), Michael Haas (a drone operator with a six-year long career in Creech Air Force Base in Nevada), Brandon Bryant (a “drone warrior” in the words of Matthew Power to whom he delivered his confessions)27, and Daniel (a former NSA signals intelligence analyst-turned-whistleblower who faces charges of treason on suspicion of espionage). Each of them testifies about the sense of guilt that keeps haunting them months after leaving their drone stations, looking back at their experience in the drone matrix with a critical intent. Although their testimonies echo each other, each of them seems to bear the weight of the trauma on their own, there is no Winter Soldier (1971) gathering allowing them to share their memories of war. The interviews are edited together in a narrative that underscores resonances between the related experiences, but each interviewee speaks from the intimacy of their homes where they seem to hide. They do not communicate with each other and seem to have no support around them when divulging details about secret operations that may cause them to be seen as traitors.

  • 28 Douglas A. Cunningham and John Nelson, op. cit., 72.

15Drone warfare confines war efforts to individual memory, isolating soldiers in their missions – whereas the army used to endorse solidarity and fraternity and so did the films.28 The drone operators mentioned above all break the rules of military secrecy and the documentaries create a sense of danger around them. Accused of espionage because they are denouncing drone strikes as “war crimes”, the drone operators retrospectively comment on the killings they committed with regrets. While they hope to have an impact by breaking the silence around drone operations, their very words betray the dehumanizing effects of their jobs: Heather Linebaugh calls the victims that she helped identify as “objectives” to kill, whereas Lisa G. Ling remembers the number of attacks she took pride in helping to carry out. Returning to civilian life has obviously increased awareness of the part they played in the deaths of innocent people, but the films allow them to claim back their humanity by testifying about their own plight and thus arouse sympathy for themselves. The courage they did not show in the drone missions comes out through their whistleblowing.

  • 29 Original italics. James, Virtuous War, Mapping the Military-Industrial Media Entertainment Network (...)
  • 30 Elke Schwarz, “Prescription Drones: On the Techno-Biopolitical Regimes of Contemporary ‘Ethical Kil (...)
  • 31 Grégoire Chamayou, op. cit., 189.
  • 32 Paul Kahn, “The Paradox of Riskless Warfare, Philosophy & Public Policy Quarterly, vol. 22, no. 3, (...)

16Few drone pilots have testified about their experience in the ‘trailers’ where they carry out their ISR missions – following the chain of command that runs through a comprehensive apparatus of Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance operations –, which might lead to a lethal mission in the face of identified high-value targets. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles have been the weapon of choice since NATO and the Pentagon used the Air Force Predator to collect intelligence about the movement of Serbian forces in Kosovo in 1999. The drone has since then been extolled as the tool of “virtuous wars”, which James Der Derian defines as “the technical ability and ethical imperative to threaten and, if necessary, actualize violence from a distance – with no or minimal casualties.”29 Pro-drone advocates point out the great precision of drone attacks, which they contend limit and even reduce the rate of casualties,30 whereas others like Chamayou contest the mythology of a “clean war” by elaborating on the necroethics of drones that may spare American lives from combat thanks to so-called “surgical strikes” but continue to produce “collateral damage”. He contends that the necroethics of drones relies on four false claims: “a reduction of the political cost associated with the loss of national lives, a reduction of the economic costs associated with armament, and a reduction of the ethical or reputational costs associated with the perceived effects of the violence that is committed.”31 In other words, the achievements of technology are framed as progress promoting “riskless warfare”. This is yet another notion of which law professor Paul Kahn is critical, examining the terms of the debate through a moral angle. Kahn underlines that drone power creates an asymmetrical relationship between the two warring parties. “The pursuit of asymmetry undermines reciprocity,” he explains, arguing that “riskless warfare, which increasingly characterizes U.S. military policy, pushes up against the limits of the traditional moral justification of combat.”32 Drone warfare challenges the principles of war and combat engagement, which Carl von Clausewitz defined as follows:

  • 33 Carl Von Clausewitz, On War (1832), Auchland: The Floating Press, 2010.

We are not interested in generals who win victories without bloodshed. The fact that slaughter is a horrifying spectacle must make U.S. take war more seriously, but not provide an excuse for gradually blunting our swords in the name of humanity.33

17Should we interpret the fact that drone warfare minimizes slaughter as a sign of more humanity? Michael Haas dwells on the conflicts of conscience that he was able to deny for a while in the documentary Drone. However, he argues that he could not repress the feeling of guilt emerging from an asymmetrical relationship with the enemy, who are denied the possibility to fight back or even resist an aerial attack:

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.

  • 34 President Obama, Speech at the National Defense University, May 23, 2013.
  • 35 Ibidem.

18The ethical debate is easily evinced by politicians who boast the effectiveness of drone strikes against “terrorists who pose a continuing and imminent threat to the American people, and when there are no other governments capable of effectively addressing the threat.”34 President Barack Obama praised the U.S. counterterrorist efforts to “dismantle networks that pose a direct danger to us, and make it less likely for new groups to gain a foothold, all the while maintaining the freedoms and ideals that we defend.”35 In the same speech delivered on May 23, 2013, he declared that “We are at war with an organization that right now would kill as many Americans as they could if we did not stop them first. So this is a just war – a war waged proportionally, in last resort, and in self-defense.” Expressing respect for jus adbellum (the right to wage war), President Obama however eschews reflection on jus in bello (an equal right to kill each other). Endowing the U.S. military with a moral duty to pre-empt further terrorist acts has actually broadened the so-called theater of war over borders and weakened the frontiers between the military and the civilian spheres. The post-9/11 rhetoric underpins a power relationship with the other, opposing the civilized world to an “axis of evil” identified by President George W. Bush in his 2009 State of the Union speech.

  • 36 Chris Woods, op. cit., 6.
  • 37 Car Von Clausewitz, op. cit., 122.

19While the presidential rhetoric conveys a clear-cut view of international geography, the controversial conduct of the war in Iraq shifted perception of the U.S. from “victim to villain”. Chris Woods’s Sudden Justice, American’s Secret Drone Wars accounts for this backlash by examining how President Obama endorsed the steep escalation in secret drone operations that expanded the war front from Pakistan to Yemen and Somalia. With funding by the London-based not-for-profit Bureau of Investigative Journalism, Chris Woods investigated the use of armed drones over a 30-month period and examined allegations of CIA war crimes. Woods evokes Afghanistan president Karzai’s critiques against drone strikes that killed civilians when targeting Talibans, resulting from “unilateral military operations by arrogant and oppressive troops on our people.”36 Hamid Karzai accused the imperialistic intent behind American interventions and blamed the American government with minimizing the value of civilian lives. This question was of particular concern as President Trump was reported to have launched at least 161 strikes in Yemen and Somalia during his first year in office (according to BJI’s data), more than triple the number carried out the year before. Drones may have the ability to pierce through the “fog of war” that used to metaphorically evoke the uncertainties that arise from combat, “those aspects of active service that amaze and confuse him [the soldier] when he first comes across them”37, by resorting to metadata that seems to support objectivity. However, blind belief in the drone technology creates another type of confusion. In National Bird, Heather Linebaugh expresses uncertainty surrounding some operations about which she was not given the necessary information to fully comprehend the impact of her mission. Her inability to establish with certainty the identity of her target contradicts the idea that drone warfare dispels the fog of war:

They don’t report to U.S. who we killed. Maybe we killed our objective, maybe we killed a guy who we thought was our objective. We don’t know. […] I don’t know how many people I’ve killed.

20In The Drone Papers, Jeremy Scahill quotes from a source that points out the sense of muddle inspired by attacks that might cause more collateral damage than planned:

  • 38 Jeremy Scahill, op. cit., 22.

Anyone caught in the vicinity [of a target] is guilty by association. When a drone strike kills more than one person, there is no guarantee that those persons deserved their fate… So it’s a phenomenal gamble.38

  • 39 Elke Schwartz, op. cit., 65.

21Drone operators have drawn attention to the failings of a technology that claims to “outperform the human in the task of war” by flying long hours without suffering from pilot fatigue.39 While mechanization downplays the role of each individual in the kill chain by shifting responsibility for the decisions to be made, the new distribution of labor splits responsibility for the final kill. The advocates of drone warfare fail to consider the moral implications of this collective decision, resulting from a chain of intelligence gathered by different people, all of whom take part in the kill chain. In National Bird, Heather Linebaugh confesses her sense of guilt as an image analyst who used to provide the necessary information to justify a killing: “I do not push the button. I just identify what needs a button pushing.” In the same documentary, Lisa G. Ling speaks about the impact of her image analysis, which helped identify 121,000 insurgents – some of whom have probably been killed, even though she retrospectively doubts her own interpretations of the recorded imagery. Overwhelmed by the ideology of numbers that encouraged her to identify more threats, she explains that she no longer saw her targets as human beings. “I lost part of my humanity working in the drone program,” she confesses. These testimonies suggest that drone warfare generates new types of trauma, for the drone operators cannot reconcile their acts with their consciences.

Drone Trauma

  • 40 M. Cooper Harriss, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology, New York: New York U.P., 2017, 190.
  • 41 Rachel Somerstein, op. cit., 14.

22Contrary to wars that became living-room spectacles, remote warfare makes the realities of the conflict invisible – including through the linguistic metaphors used to downplay its violence. The notion of “collateral damage” euphemistically “obscures the human reality of killing innocents” by rendering their deaths invisible.40 The dominant discourse has privileged the technocultural success of drone operations to the detriment of human interventions, thereby separating individual from public and collective memory. Remote warfare undercuts the possibility of sharing war memories by erasing visual evidence of U.S. military intervention outside conventional war zones. The lethal actions of the 17th Reconnaissance Squadron (operated by the CIA) leave no visual trace but the video feeds transmitted to sensor operators, drone pilots, and analysts – all of whom are bound by an oath of secrecy that limits their freedom of speech. Rachel Somerstein explains that “[t]he way we’re fighting (and failing to report) our wars supports, instead, collective amnesia – a black spot whose silence in this generation will almost certainly carry to the next.”41 Unmanned Aerial Vehicles have no windows from which to look at, no cockpit sheltering a human soul; their plain and blank body shows that they are blind to a human environment that sensors fail to capture. Because war operators risk no visible wound, the indifference of civilians to the ongoing war isolates the soldiers in a sham life. This is the revelation of The Good Kill as Major Thomas Egan (Ethan Hawke) moves from the monotony of everyday family life to the stress of the trailer where he has to perform his killings. Enshrouded in the silence of secrecy, his missions remain untalked about and the passing of time increases the distance between the ordinary humdrum of daily life and the tension of drone assassinations. The duality of his routine leads him to withdraw from family engagements and to develop PTSD symptoms which the drone operators talk about in the documentaries.

  • 42 Derek Gregory, op. cit., 198.

23The MQ-1 Predator and the new MQ-9 Reaper, both armed with missiles and bombs, may be the most iconic “killing machines”; however, they do not operate without human intervention. They only make it invisible. Derek Gregory argues against the cold, distanced, morally detached gaze from above by referring to the immersive power of video games with which drone operations are often compared.42 The physical proximity of the screen and the long hours of surveillance prior to an attack create a familiarity with a landscape and individuals that cannot be subdued. One of the main differences between drone commanding and video game playing concerns the identity of enemies; Gregory remarks that the legal rules of war differ, for there is no room for ambiguity in video games:

  • 43 Ibidem. The author quotes from The Defense Science Board Summer Study: “Enemy leaders look like ev (...)

The video feeds from UAVs reveal a much more complicated, inhabited landscape in which distinctions between civilians and combatants are intensely problematic. The existence of so many eyes in that crowded sky – commanders, controllers, analysts and, significantly, military lawyers – is a (pre)caution that the presence of civilians is a constant possibility. 43

  • 44 Joseph Pugliese, State Violence and the Execution of Law: Biopolitical Caesurae of Torture, Black (...)

24This confusion between civilians and combatants extends to the ordinary routine of drone operators, where military life blends into civilian habits (and vice versa). Joseph Pugliese observes that remote warfare “normalize[s] war as something that is effectively part of the civilian continuum of everyday practices”.44 While compartmentalizing the reality of war from the civilian routine may be a strategy that soldiers adopt to cope with the constraints of their jobs, this division may also be a source of discomfort and questioning as regards one’s mission. Colonel Cluff, commander of the U.S. Air Force’s 432 Wing at Creech Air Force notes:

  • 45 Christopher Drew & Dave Philipps, “As Stress Drives Off Drone Operators, Air Force Must Cut Flight (...)

Having our folks make that mental shift every day, driving into the gate and thinking, ‘Alright, I’ve got my war face on, and I’m going to the fight,’ and then driving out of the gate and stopping at Walmart to pick up a carton of milk or going to the soccer game on the way home – and the fact that you can’t talk about most of what you do at home – all those stressors together are what is putting pressure on the family, putting pressure on the airman.45

  • 46 Joseph Pugliese, op. cit., 505.
  • 47 Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitariansm, San Diego, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979 [1951], 45 (...)

25Compartmentalization may fail as the state of war pervades the civilian sphere. Not only are the cubicles where operations are conducted difficult to identify as military bases, but the “idyllic simulation of a pastoral setting”46 in Nevada makes it even harder to distinguish civilian from military areas. The secrecy surrounding drone operations creates a taboo that ultimately leads one to question the military strategy behind a killing order. Hannah Arendt tried to understand the banality of evil in a totalitarian state and she observed that one step toward total domination was “the murder of the moral person in man […], the destruction of conscientious or moral agency.”47

  • 48 “The five most commonly endorsed symptoms (items 9, 10, 13, 14, and 15) on the PCL-M (for both dron (...)

26Because American society is no totalitarian state, because the military cannot preclude the civilian influence, I would suggest that part of the malaise expressed by drone operators is related to this intertwining between civilian and military identities and duties. Pugliese notes that “telewarriors are in a state of perpetual deployment” if they do not manage compartmentalization, which may be difficult considering the time span of each mission. Psychologist Wayne Chappelle conducted a study among drone operators and diagnosed PTSD symptoms among U.S. Air Force personnel due to long exposure to war imagery:48

  • 49 Wayne Chappelle, On killing remotely: The Psychology of Killing with Drones, New York, Boston & Lo (...)

Psychological screening for PTSD among USAF drone operators presents a conundrum in that they are continually “deployed” in garrison with no definitive boundaries to the deployed experience. Furthermore, defining combat or trauma exposure for this population is complex. Drone operators provide around-the-clock, real-time support to ongoing military operations worldwide, requiring sustained situational awareness and hypervigilance to threat.49

27The confusion between the military and civilian spheres also reflects a situation that pilots and analysts observe through the sensors, when “banal civilian practices such as using a mobile phone or simply going to the market” may place a person’s life at risk. The vulnerability of the target might well reawaken the vulnerability of post-9/11. Trauma used to connote the sense of being “shell shocked”, when men and women who feared for their lives on the battlefield felt haunted by a permanent fear of death; the various testimonies given by drones operators and analysts to the media seem to redefine trauma as rooted in a visual sensation; drone operators are haunted by the spectrality of these killing images. Heather Linebaugh wrote about the lingering effect of images that repeat themselves with every kill:

  • 50 Heather Linebaugh, op. cit.

How many women and children have you seen incinerated by a Hellfire missile? How many men have you seen crawl across a field, trying to make it to the nearest compound for help while bleeding out from severed legs? When you are exposed to it over and over again, it becomes like a small video, embedded in your head, forever on repeat, causing psychological pain and suffering that many people will hopefully never experience.50

  • 51 Khalid Raheem, op. cit., 81.

28These testimonials suggest that drone trauma is tied to a guilty conscience, to the impossibility of reconciling one’s deeply held beliefs and actions. The unity felt after 9/11 dwindles down as one finds oneself taking part in operations that do not reflect cherished American values – including the constitution-inscribed right to the pursuit of freedom and happiness. On the contrary, drone victims bespeak the same sense of trauma as terrorist victims. Testimonies collected by the Stanford Law School in “Living under Drones: Death, Injury, and Trauma to Civilians from U.S. Drone Practices in Pakistan” show that drone attacks survivors are traumatized as they feel threatened by an invisible threat that reflects the terrorist menace Western countries are confronted with: “God knows whether they’ll strike U.S. again or not. But they’re always surveying us, they’re always over us, and you never know when they’re going to strike and attack.”51 Drone operators are made to embody the unpredictability of this power, which destroys the meaning of their mission and causes PTSD. While the films that focus on drone warfare open up discussion on the ethics of drone attacks, their main concern is about the mental health of American soldiers and not the unpredictability of living under the drones.

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Notes

1 Douglas A. Cunningham and John Nelson, A companion to the War Film, Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Blackwell, 2016, 352. Kenneth D. Rose, Myth and the Greatest Generation: A Social History of Americans in World War II, New York: Routledge, 2008, 61.

2 The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino, 1978), Coming Home (Hal Hashby, 1978), Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979). See Linda Dittmar and Gene Michaud, From Hanoi to Hollywood: the Vietnam War in American film, New York: Rutgers University Press, 1990.

3 Susan L. Carruthers, Cold War Captives: Imprisonment, Escape and Brainwashing, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009, 448.

4 Rachel Somerstein, “We Can’t Remember What We Haven’t Seen: Media, War, and the Future of Collective Memory”, Afterimage (2013) 40 (4), 10-14. DOI: 10.1525/aft.2013.40.4.10.

5 “Mass culture makes particular memories more widely available, so that people who have no ‘natural’ claim to them might nevertheless incorporate them into their own archive of experience.” Alison Landsberg, Prosthetic Memory, The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture, New York: Columbia University Press, 2004, 9.

6 Delphine Letort, “Looking Back into Abu Ghraib: Standard Operating Procedure (Errol Morris, 2008)”, Media, War and Conflict, Volume 6, Issue 3, December 2013, 221-232. <http://mwc.sagepub.com/content/6/3/221.abstract>, accessed May 2, 2022.

7 Jean Baudrillard, La Guerre du Golfe n’a pas eu lieu, Paris: Galilée, 1991.

8 Jean Baudrillard, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, trans. Paul Patton, Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1995, 62.

9 Maarya Rabbani, “America’s Last Drone Strike in Afghanistan and the Necropolitical Language of Drone Warfare”, March 4, 2022. <https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/mec/2022/03/04/americas-last-drone-strike-in-afghanistan-and-the-necropolitical-language-of-drone-warfare/>, accessed May 1, 2022.

10 Eric Schmitt, “US Carries Out First Airstrike in Somalia Since August,” The New York Times, Feb. 24, 2022. <https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/24/us/politics/somalia-shabab-us-airstrike.html>, accessed May 1, 2022. The last drone strike in Afghanistan happened on 29 August 2021 and mistakenly killed 10 civilians.

11 Lauren Wilcox, “Embodying Algorithmic War: Gender, Race, and the Posthuman in Drone Warfare,” Security Dialogue, vol. 48, no. 1, Feb. 2017, pp. 11-28. DOI: 10.1177/0967010616657947.

12 Yasco Horsman, “Drone Bomb Me: cinema & warfare in The Good Kill and Eye in the Sky”, The Senses and Society, 15:3, 302. DOI: 10.1080/17458927.2020.1820192.

13 Caroline Holmqvist, “Undoing War: War Ontologies and the Materiality of Drone Warfare,” Millennium: Journal of International Studies, vol. 41, no. 3, 541.

14 Stanley McChrystal, “It takes a Network. The New Front Line of Modern Warfare”, Foreign Policy, Feb. 21, 2011. <https://foreignpolicy.com/2011/02/21/it-takes-a-network/>, accessed May 1, 2022.

15 Madeleine Clare Elish, “Remote Split: A History of U.S. Drone Operations and the Distributed Labor of War”, Science, Technology, & Human Values, vol. 42, no. 6, 2017, 1104. <https://www.jstor.org/stable/26580327>, accessed May 15, 2022.

16 Ibidem, 1113, 1116.

17 “The pilot has very little say-so in what happens. Yes they pull the trigger and they will sometimes have to say if there’s a problem with the bird. If it’s going to crash that’s kind of their responsibility to make sure it doesn’t”, one former intelligence for JSOC told the author. Madeleine Clare Elish, op. cit., 1115.

18 Cited in Chris Woods, Sudden Justice, American’s Secret Drone Wars, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015, 12.

19 Yasco Horsman, op. cit., 307.

20 Jeremy Scahill and Glenn Greenwald wrote a page on The Intercept website on February 10, 2014: “The NSA […] often identifies targets based on controversial metadata analysis and cell-phone tracking methodologies. Rather than confirming a target’s identity with operatives or informants on the ground, the CIA or the U.S. military then orders a strike based on the activity and location of the mobile phone a person is believed to be using.” <https://theintercept.com/2014/02/10/the-nsas-secret-role/>, accessed October 26, 2021.

21 Sigfried Giedion, 1948, quoted in Daniel Pick, War Machine: The Rationalisation of Slaughter in the Modern Age, New Haven and London : Yale U. P., 1993, 185.

22 Derek Gregory, “From a View to a Kill: Drones and Late Modern War”, Theory, Culture & Society, vol. 28, no. 7-8, 2011, 196.

23 Remote warfare relies on “setting apart oneself and the crime one commits; not establishing the connection between the two” (Weil 2004, 348).

24 Joseph Pugliese, op. cit., 501.

25 Grégoire Chamayou views the drone as “a hunter advancing on a prey that flees or hides from him.” Grégoire Chamayou, Drone Theory, trans. Janet Lloyd, London: Penguin, 2015, 32.

26 “We’re at war in a different kind of war. It’s a war that requires U.S. to be on an international manhunt. We’re on the hunt. It’s a war that causes U.S. to need to get the enemy on the run. We got them on the run. And it’s just a matter of time we bring them justice.”

27 <https://www.gq.com/story/drone-uav-pilot-assassination>, accessed May 1, 2022.

28 Douglas A. Cunningham and John Nelson, op. cit., 72.

29 Original italics. James, Virtuous War, Mapping the Military-Industrial Media Entertainment Network, New York & London: Routledge, 2009, xxi.

30 Elke Schwarz, “Prescription Drones: On the Techno-Biopolitical Regimes of Contemporary ‘Ethical Killing.’” Security Dialogue, vol. 47, no. 1, Feb. 2016, 60, DOI: 10.1177/0967010615601388.

31 Grégoire Chamayou, op. cit., 189.

32 Paul Kahn, “The Paradox of Riskless Warfare, Philosophy & Public Policy Quarterly, vol. 22, no. 3, 2002, 2.

33 Carl Von Clausewitz, On War (1832), Auchland: The Floating Press, 2010.

34 President Obama, Speech at the National Defense University, May 23, 2013.

35 Ibidem.

36 Chris Woods, op. cit., 6.

37 Car Von Clausewitz, op. cit., 122.

38 Jeremy Scahill, op. cit., 22.

39 Elke Schwartz, op. cit., 65.

40 M. Cooper Harriss, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Theology, New York: New York U.P., 2017, 190.

41 Rachel Somerstein, op. cit., 14.

42 Derek Gregory, op. cit., 198.

43 Ibidem. The author quotes from The Defense Science Board Summer Study: “Enemy leaders look like everyone else; enemy combatants look like everyone else; enemy vehicles look like civilian vehicles; enemy installations look like civilian installations; enemy equipment and materials look like civilian equipment and materials”, ibid., 154.

44 Joseph Pugliese, State Violence and the Execution of Law: Biopolitical Caesurae of Torture, Black Sites, Drones, London & New York: Routledge, 2016 [2013], 503. An anonymous drone operator testified: “You have some guy sitting at Nellis and he’s taking his kid to soccer. It’s a strange dichotomy of war.” Peter Warren Singer, Wired for War, New York: The Penguin Press, 2009, 331.

45 Christopher Drew & Dave Philipps, “As Stress Drives Off Drone Operators, Air Force Must Cut Flights”, The New York Times, 16 June 2015. <http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/17/us/as-stress-drives-off-drone-operators-air-force-must-cut-flights.html>, viewed Mays 10, 2022.

46 Joseph Pugliese, op. cit., 505.

47 Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitariansm, San Diego, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979 [1951], 451.

48 “The five most commonly endorsed symptoms (items 9, 10, 13, 14, and 15) on the PCL-M (for both drone operator groups) were “feeling distant or cut off from others,” “trouble falling and staying asleep,” “feeling irritable and having angry outbursts,” “having difficulty concentrating” and, “loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed.”

49 Wayne Chappelle, On killing remotely: The Psychology of Killing with Drones, New York, Boston & London: Little, Brown & Company, 2021, 481. “For the population assessed in this study, we defined exposure time as time allotted to surveillance of real-time battlefield operations; any operator assigned full time would therefore experience 30 – 50 h per week of exposure to war-time imagery (i.e., potential traumatic events).” Brandon Bryant also told NPR Radio: “It was horrifying to know how easy it was. I felt like a coward because I was halfway across the world and the guy never even knew I was there. I felt like I was haunted by a legion of the dead. My physical health was gone, my mental health was crumbled. I was in so much pain I was ready to eat a bullet myself.” Joe Schoenmann, “Former Nellis AFB Drone Operator, On First Kill, PTSD, Being Shunned By Fellow Airmen”, NPR, June 9, 2015. <https://knpr.org/knpr/2015-01/former-nellis-afb-drone-operator-first-kill-ptsd-being-shunned-fellow-airmen>, accessed May 2, 2022.

50 Heather Linebaugh, op. cit.

51 Khalid Raheem, op. cit., 81.

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Delphine Letort, « Screening Drone Warfare »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], vol. 20-n°53 | 2022, mis en ligne le 20 juin 2022, consulté le 25 juin 2022. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/lisa/14015 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/lisa.14015

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Delphine Letort

Delphine Letort is Professor of film and U.S. studies at the University of Le Mans (France). Her research focuses on the intertwining of history and politics, analysing the power of cinema to shape memorial processes by producing or revising historical narratives and stereotypes. She has published Du film noir au néo-noir : mythes et stéréotypes de l’Amérique 1941–2008 (L’Harmattan, 2010) and The Spike Lee Brand: a Study of Documentary Filmmaking (SUNY, 2015). She has co-edited L’Adaptation cinématographique : premières pages, premiers plans, 2014; La Culture de l’engagement à l’écran, 2015; Social Class on British and American Screens. Essays on Cinema and Television, 2016; Women Activists and Civil Rights Figures in Auto/Biographical Literature and Film, 2018 and is the editor of two thematic issues for the CinémAction series (Panorama mondial du film noir, 2014; Révoltes armées et terrorisme à l’écran, 2019). She serves on the advisory editorial board of Black Camera (Bloomington, Indiana) and as editor-in-chief for Revue LISA/LISA e-journal (https://journals.openedition.org/lisa/). She is the director of the 3L.AM research center – Langues, Littératures, Linguistique des Universités d’Angers et du Mans (http://3lam.univ-lemans.fr/fr/index.html).

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