By Stuart F. Andrews
The Scandinavians came out in full force at Hot Docs 2015 with three of the most politically adventurous films I caught at the festival: Pervert Park, Warriors from the North and the one I’m discussing here — Drone — which opened theatrically in Canada and the U.S. on November 20th. It was directed by Norwegian filmmaker Tonje Hessen Schei and executive produced by one of Canada’s great documentary advocates, the late Peter Wintonick, co-director of the landmark 1992 doc Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media.
Drone contemplates one of the most tragic manifestations of Obama’s continuation of the War on Terror, the targeted killing program that sends unmanned, armed aircraft into sovereign air spaces throughout the Muslim world to blow the hell out of not only any so-called terrorists but any innocent civilians who happen to be in the vicinity as well.
It’s a science fiction horror nightmare made real; far worse than anything conjured up in our wildest techno-dystopian fantasies, worse than the robot from Metropolis, worse than the rape machines in Tubeway Army’s Replicas — even worse than this picture of Celine Dion sucking the brains out of an African baby’s skull!
At least the deadly droids in The Terminator look cool. By comparison, the CIA’s utilitarian drones are strictly functional in their design — cold, inhuman killing machines devoid of a face. They could at least throw a fake window on the front, if only to make the innocents they routinely obliterate feel closer to their executioners.
But there’s an amazing dichotomy that lies at the core of this: On one hand, we’ve got a monstrous manifestation of flying deathbots that more than anything, serve as a rude reminder of how far we’ve stumbled into the dark forests of the 21st Century. On the other, it’s a reality most North Americans seem largely unconcerned with, if they have any knowledge of the situation at all. I suppose it’s not difficult to understand. There’s a mythology about drones that’s easy to swallow; that there’s a solid list of bonafide bad guys and rather than risk putting boots on the ground, we send in drones to execute precise, surgical strikes; thus minimizing the possibility of collateral damage. Sounds great!
So having satisfied ourselves with this particular flavour of Kool-aid, we’re now free to safely obsess over Charlie Sheen’s sex life without the arrival of body bags forcing us to confront the horrors we’ve exported overseas.
Unfortunately, the little kids of Waziristan don’t have the luxury of our blissful ignorance. As revealed in Schei’s doc, when it’s sunny outside and there’s hardly a cloud in the sky, rather than do what kids wanna do and go out to play, they stay indoors — because that’s when the drones strike.
According to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, between 172 to 207 kids have been killed by U.S. drones in Pakistan since 2004. Think about that for a minute — 207 kids! Killed by flying deathbots piloted by the American air force.
Imagine how we’d react if Pakistan flew drones into the United States to destroy 207 kids? Without question, we’d declare it a national tragedy. America would come to a complete stop. Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel wouldn’t go on TV that night although they’d no doubt come back in a couple of days to defiantly claim that if they didn’t do their shows, they’d be letting the terrorists win! Then we’d applaud them for their outstanding bravery; for going back on the air to make money for their sponsors.
But if Pakistan killed 207 American children with drone missiles, it’s an event we’d mourn for generations. We’d never forget it. We’d never get over it. Yet somehow we expect the people of Pakistan to magically endure the same form of terrorism without complaint. What are they supposed to do? Just ‘suck it up’ as a harsh reality of their daily, miserable lives? They don’t get the honour of having Dan Rather show up on the Letterman show to blubber on their behalf.
The question we need to ask ourselves is — how many children do we have to kill before Americans feel safe?
What’s also amazing is that the U.S. isn’t even at war with Pakistan, or with many of the places where the drone murders are taking place — countries like Yemen, Somalia, Algeria, Libya and even Iran. So why are they allowing it to happen? Why isn’t there more of an outcry?
These are all good questions but I think the answer is fairly obvious: America has the world by the balls! Possibly the only people who could put an end to this escalating insanity are the American people themselves but they’ve been rendered so clueless, so anesthetized, so hopelessly dedicated to perpetual war, they’re seemingly more upset about Ben Affleck being the next Batman than what happens when a bunch of kids get blown to bits in Pakistan. After all, who cares about Pakistan, right? Aren’t they all just terrorists there anyway? Or as Mr. Rather himself might eloquently put it — they’re the ‘losers of the world.’
In December of 2012, a wedding party in Yemen was tragically transformed into a funeral procession when twelve civilians were annihilated by a drone strike. Presumably, there was a bad guy at the party and it was the only time we could get him; although no-one present had ever heard of the guy and he wasn’t one of the victims killed. As for the merry-makers who gathered to celebrate the union of two souls joined together in holy, matrimonial bliss? Fuck ’em! If ‘collateral damage’ wasn’t acceptable, we wouldn’t have such a tidy, technical term for it.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports that 2,500 people have been killed in the Drone Wars since Obama took office. That’s 2,500 people under Obama’s watch! And this coming from a President who had the audacity to run on an ‘anti-war’ platform, who was ‘criminally’ awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2008 and who in 2007, promised to shut down Guantánamo Bay if he was elected into office.
Instead of rounding up more prisoners for Guantánamo, Obama just blows them up! By the thousands. Women and children too. It’s amazing he gets away with it. You gotta think, Bush Junior’s approach of torturing them and throwing them in jail for years on end seems infinitely more civilized by comparison.
Incidentally, about 107 prisoners still remain in Guantánamo Bay; another instance of Obama failing to make good on one of his many campaign promises, not that anyone should be surprised.
So who the hell are these 2,500 drone victims and how did we decide it was okay to blow them up?
As revealed in Schei’s documentary, the NSA compiles intelligence on terrorist suspects, the CIA puts together a ‘kill list’, Obama signs off on that list and then the U.S. Air Force sends in drones to do the dirty work. They’re not obligated to publicly reveal their reasons for the killings; we just have to blindly trust their ability to accurately select targets, all 2,500 of them to date.
But as these are the same people who rounded up the Guantánamo prisoners, how much faith can we possibly have in their ability? In 2009, Lawrence B. Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Colin Powell during the Bush administration admitted that most of the detainees in Guantánamo were innocent.
And if you’re not familiar with the story of Sami Al Hajj, check out his interview on Democracy Now from 2013. He was an Al Jazeera cameraman who got arrested in Pakistan in 2001. They were looking for another guy named Sami who’d shot an interview with Bin Laden. After giving him all the usual torture treatment, the Americans realized they got the wrong man and so offered him a deal. They’d let him go if he’d return to Al Jazeera to operate as a double agent for the U.S. government. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? But as a man of integrity, he refused to comply with their request (apparently, they abide by some strange concept known as ‘journalistic ethics’ over there). So what happens next? They throw him in Guantánamo and leave him to rot for six long years.
And all of that in the face of widespread dissent from the American public!
Of course, I’m kidding about that last part. There was no dissent for Sami for the simple reason that we don’t actually give a fuck about what goes on in Guantánamo Bay — yet for some strange reason, they continue to resent us in the Middle East. Go figure.
So applying the Guantánamo logic to the drone situation, would it be crazy to imagine that a high percentage of those targeted are also innocent, and not just the women and children who get obliterated as collateral damage?
Of course not! Especially considering The Intercept recently published The Drone Papers, a series of leaked government documents that reveal how up to 90% of all people killed by drone attacks were innocent.
This makes a mockery of Obama’s previous claim that we’ve been doing “very precise, precision strikes against al-Qaeda and their affiliates.”
It’s maddening to endure his non-stop procession of bullshit, isn’t it? It’s okay if you have the brains of a guppy and you’re happy to blindly swallow what’s served to you without question, but for those of us still in reasonable possession of our faculties, it’s very tough to listen to this crap 24/7.
The brutal truth is that drone warfare represents an industrialized killing program, a campaign driven by the demands of the weapons industry more than any consideration of national security.
There’s a disturbing graph shown in the doc that reveals the frequency of drone strikes from 2008, where there was a relative trickle of them, to 2015 which is represented by an almost solid black line of seemingly endless bombardments. To add insult to injury, the Pentagon recently revealed plans to increase the frequency of drone attacks by 50% by 2019.
So why are we allowing this to happen?
I don’t watch any of the corporate-funded television news programs but I’m assuming the subject of ‘drone murders’ goes largely under-reported. I’d like to think my fellow North Americans would care more about this issue if they knew about it, but as I get older and more cynical, I have to wonder. Are we a fundamentally decent but misinformed society or a culture of willfully ignorant, consumer slaves complicit in whatever miscarriages of justice are carried out in our names as long as they don’t interfere with our video game playing and Netflix binges?
Let’s be honest, most of us live in a bubble of ignorance where any compassion for our fellow planetary citizens has been thwarted by a mass media (and Donald Trump) induced xenophobic hysteria. A look at the widespread disregard we’ve exhibited for the welfare of the Syrian refugees makes this abundantly clear. But as it’s a situation we helped to create, it’s only right we help clean it up.
This pathological lack of empathy extends to Pakistan as well, to the children who are routinely obliterated by our flying deathbots. We don’t care about them because they’ve been rendered as the other, pigeonholed as little more than future terrorists hellbent on destroying the West.
Of course, there’s a few in America who care about the situation but not nearly enough or else the program wouldn’t be allowed to proliferate as it does with virtually no congressional oversight.
As pointed out by John Hanrahan over at ExposeFacts, “There are many brave souls around the country who regularly protest and get arrested at military drone sites and drone contractors’ facilities — but there is no mass movement. With only a relative handful of people protesting — the policy isn’t likely to change. Not unless and until a critical mass of well organized citizens rises up in revulsion and anger at these cowardly killings and endless wars being carried out in our name.”
But speaking of video games, who do you think are piloting these mechanical monsters? Turns out it’s a bunch of young men holed up in a Nebraskan Air Force bunker eating potato chips and blowing up bad guys on their computer screens — sorta like Call of Duty but with crappier graphics. (Alright, I made up the part about the potato chips but incredibly, the rest of it is true.)
There’s a disturbing scene in the doc where commanders from the U.S. Air Force are seen patrolling through a gaming convention on the hunt for future drone pilots. As mentioned in the film, unlike Tom Cruise in Top Gun, the next wave of hotshots for the War on Terror aren’t your athletic naval aviators, they’re your average video game nerdles.
But let’s stretch all reasonable bounds of the imagination and pretend for a ridiculous minute that the drone ‘kill list’ includes only the names of bonafide baddies who pose a severe risk to the health and safety of the United States. Putting aside the women and children obliterated as ‘collateral damage,’ how effective are these strikes as a tool in combating terrorism?
First of all, without deluding ourselves further, let’s begin by condemning the War on Terror (or more accurately, the War of Terror), for the miserable failure that it is. According to Adam Curtis in his 2004 documentary series The Power of Nightmares, the guys who planned and executed 9/11 were a relatively small group of operatives associated with Bin Laden. Most of the jihadists in Afghanistan weren’t focused on the United States at all; they were training to overthrow corrupt leaders in the Arab world whom they believed were the real traitors of the Muslim faith.
Nevertheless, we responded by declaring a global War of Terror on jihadists everywhere. This set up the necessary context in 2003 for the invasion of Iraq, a country that was in no way a threat to the United States; and despite how intensely the mass media brainwashed the American people, there were no weapons of mass destruction there and Saddam Hussein had nothing at all to do with 9/11. Just the opposite — Bin Laden hated him. Saddam was the leader of exactly the sort of corrupt, secular regime the jihadists sought to overthrow.
In an interview on C-Span’s In Depth series in 2003, Professor Noam Chomsky, citing the CIA’s own intelligence reports on the matter, revealed that the invasion of Iraq would only inspire more recruits for al-Qaeda. These reports went completely ignored by the Bush administration and it’s quite chilling to listen to the comments today because we’ve seen with our own eyes how a relative handful of extremists has grown to the size of a small, nation-state, exactly as the CIA and Chomsky predicted.
I suppose this is one of the many rewards the War of Terror has reaped, an explosion of recruits for extreme jihadist groups hellbent on destroying the United States and its corrupt Western allies. As pointed out in Schei’s film, for every one of them we annihilate, we create six more — kinda like trying to kill Gremlins with a water pistol!
But if we turn the tables, it’s not hard to understand the principle. Imagine if Pakistan sent a drone into the United States to blow up a wedding party in Indiana? Without hesitation, Americans would rightfully come out in droves to demand the annihilation of Pakistan or any country foolish enough to attempt such a thing.
I know if a drone killed one of my loved ones, I’d do anything possible to strike back at those responsible. Like Arya Stark from Game of Thrones, I’d go to bed every night repeating the mantra of everyone I planned to exterminate. And I think that goes for most of us. Just look at how we reacted to the Paris attacks and how hungry we are for retribution and war. Well, this is how a great many Muslims feel about America right now. We’re seen as the infidels — hellbent on the destruction of the Muslim faith. So surely the idea that we’ve fuelled an appetite for vengeance is not such a difficult concept to grasp ?
In a 2014 International Gallup poll of 68 countries, the United States was voted by a huge margin as the biggest threat to world peace. A great many North Americans are probably oblivious to this but the fact remains — this is how the rest of the world sees us. And it’s a critical reason why recruitment for radical Islamist groups has skyrocketed. As reported back in 2007 by Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank for Mother Jones, “our study shows that the Iraq conflict has greatly increased the spread of the Al Qaeda ideological virus.”
As Jihadi John himself states in the murder video of Steven Sotloff, “I’m back, Obama, and I’m back because of your arrogant foreign policy towards the Islamic State. Just as your missiles continue to strike our people, our knife will continue to strike the necks of your people.”
Because of the horrific acts associated with that video message, we never got much discussion about the content of Jihadi John’s comments; for perfectly understandable reasons, nobody wanted to legitimize them. Nevertheless, his statements underscore another crucial point made by Chomsky in that 2003 interview; that behind these horrific terrorist acts, as inexcusable as they may be, lie some legitimate grievances with the West that need to be dealt with, for the very simple fact that they are legitimate.
Of course, talk to some poor sod who’s been inundated with nothing but Fox News and CNN as their primary source of information on world events and you’ll likely hear the endless reiteration that jihadists despise us because of our freedoms (or something); yet clearly in those ISIS videos, there’s no talk of freedoms. Instead, they seem pissed about missiles striking their people.
So what deep-seated, collective character flaws do we suffer from that prevent us from recognizing, even on a basic human level, how our constant and unwelcome bombardment of other countries will inevitably be met with some level of resistance?
This isn’t a conventional war of tanks versus tanks and platoons versus platoons; it’s the strong pummelling the weak and the weak hitting back with a crudely manufactured slingshot. How do you go up against planes, drones, missiles and all the other products of a multi-trillion dollar defence budget when you’re running on nothing more than charity donations, stolen oil supplies and (weirdly enough) hijacked American weapons? Simple — you do what anyone does under brutal repression and foreign occupation, you resort to terrorism and suicide bombings.
So despite the myth of hi-tech drone warfare being an effective method of beating terrorists without endangering American lives, the blowback from these campaigns will be severe, and has been severe, as recent events in Paris and elsewhere demonstrate.
But all of this was highly predictable for anyone paying even a sliver of attention to events over the last 14 years. In the murder video of American hostage Peter Kassig, Jihadi John issued an ominous threat to Obama, that “with Allah’s permission … the Islamic State will soon … begin to slaughter your people in your streets.”
With that in mind, it’s not hard to believe that another attack on American soil is imminent. If a handful of extremists can bring about the devastation of 9/11, one can only imagine what a small nation state of Saudi funded, Islamic fundamentalists with a pathological hate-on for the United States is planning.
If anything, Paris was a trial run.
As for our politicians being able to realistically counter these threats, they hardly inspire confidence. They’re little more than the well-compensated caretakers of a corrupt system driven by private interests and lucrative military and intelligence contracts. It’s hard to take them seriously; it’s certainly hard to put much trust in a situation where so many dubious parties stand to make so much dirty money from so many dodgy decisions.
Look at 9/11. Does it not seem a bit far fetched that a group of maniacs could pull off a spectacular attack like that without so much as raising a couple of eyebrows? I’m not implying in any sense that it was an inside job (don’t worry, I haven’t gone full-on looney tunes just yet) but I suspect the government is so busy bullshitting us with invented threats to national security that that when a legitimate one comes along, they can’t see it coming.
And that troubles me.
So what’s the answer? More drone killings? More invasions? More imprisonment? More torture?
In response to the Paris attacks, The United Nations Security Council has unanimously adopted a resolution that effectively declares World War III against ISIS. Is that the way to go? More war? Based on what we’ve generated with 14 years of Operation Enduring Freedom, it’s hard to be so easily convinced.
It’s not difficult to fly drones over Syria and Iraq to bomb the snot out of any areas under control of ISIS warlords but keep in mind, we’re not just fighting armies over there, we’re fighting ideologies; and as these ideologies have demonstrably grown in direct proportion to our imperialist aggressions, it doesn’t require a mathematical genius to predict that by increasing our imperialist aggressions, we’ll also be increasing the very ideologies we desperately want to wipe out.
Of course, ISIS is a monstrosity that needs to dealt with, but what about exploring diplomatic, non-military solutions? Are there ways to cut their funding, their supply lines, their ability to coordinate operations? Are there ways to address any of the legitimate grievances that gave rise to this madness in order to ensure that the sickness doesn’t spread? I mean, is anyone even thinking about this stuff or listening to anyone who is? Of am I certifiably insane for even posing it as a question to ponder?
I highly doubt anyone’s interested in a diplomatic solution because let’s be honest, it’s not as profitable to solve the problem with peaceful measures as it is to continue waging perpetual warfare. It’s the same principle why drug companies like to treat symptoms rather than underlying causes; because keeping patients perpetually sick is more healthy for the bottom line of the shareholders than it is to eradicate the causes of disease completely.
So how do we deal sensibly with threats from ISIS and Islamic jihadists? Well, there’s one method that will severely reduce the problem. To quote Chomsky again, “Everyone’s worried about stopping terrorism. Well, there’s a really easy way. Stop participating in it.”
This sentiment was recently echoed by one of the central characters in Drone, former Airman First Class Brandon Bryant, an Air Force whistle-blower who’s been speaking publicly about his experiences as a drone pilot. Bryant claims to have killed 13 people with drone strikes and now struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Along with three other Air Force whistleblowers, he published an open letter to Obama warning that the drone war has “fuelled the feelings of hatred that ignited terrorism and groups like Isis, while also serving as a fundamental recruitment tool similar to Guantánamo Bay.”
And if a bunch of former drone operators risking their freedom by speaking out doesn’t convince you, pay close attention to what Richard Clarke, former counterterrorism czar under Bush has to say — he’s the father of the program itself who’s now an outspoken critic of Obama’s weapon of choice.
Back in 2000, he tried to convince the Air Force to send armed drones after Osama bin Laden as opposed to using the much more destructive cruise missiles. They didn’t listen to him. After 9/11, they did. He eventually resigned in 2003 over Bush’s decision to ‘illegally’ invade Iraq.
Speaking to Democracy Now last year, he admitted that under Obama, “the [drone] program got out of hand.” He went on to confess that “we do know that innocent people were killed, as recently as the attack in Yemen — that blew up a wedding. And, you know, when you do things like that, you cause enemies for the United States that will last for generations.”
And so the great tragedy of the Drone War is revealed by the very counter-terrorism czar who helped initiate it in the first place. While these merciless, flying (indiscriminate) deathbots are being deployed under the pretence of protecting Americans against ISIS, al-Qaeda, al-Nusra Front, the Taliban, the insurgents or whatever else they’re peddling at the time (making the world safe for democracy I suppose), the program has been so carelessly mismanaged and abused that rather than combating radical Islamists to any practical degree, we’re only planting the seeds for future generations of jihadists to come.
Simply put, fighting terrorism with Obama’s drones is like trying to cure lung cancer by smoking cigarettes.
Drone is currently playing in New York, Toronto and Los Angeles. For more information, visit the website, the Chonebook page or follow them on Twitter.
About Stuart F: Andrews
Stuart Andrews has been a radio journalist for over twenty years. He’s the host of the Cinephobia Radio podcast which aired on CHRY 105.5, CKLN 88.1 and Radio Regent in Toronto and contributes documentary film reviews to the Ward and Al Show on Sirius XM Canada. Along with his collaborators, he was a four-time Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Award winner for his work in horror radio and has written numerous articles and reviews for notable horror publications, including the legendary Fangoria Magazine. As an EPK Video Producer, he’s worked with Red Shirt Pictures, Anchor Bay Canada and the Academy Award Nominated director Deepa Mehta. His experimental short State of Fear (co-directed with Scott McLaren) screened at the Images Film & Video Festival in 1997 and he was part of a team of writers for the sketch comedy series Dead Air which played on radio stations all over Canada in the 90’s. He currently lives in Toronto with his girlfriend Nicola along with memories of their dearly departed cat Bill and an occasional swarm of fruit flies who appear just as suddenly as they mysteriously disappear.