In sight, in mind
Baghdad, July 2007. The sound of gunfire coming from U.S. Apache attack helicopters echoes in the streets. They have sighted what appear to be insurgents. The helicopters target them from the air. A few seconds later, as the dust and smoke clear from the scene, the aircrews comment on their work.
Oh, yeah, look at those dead bastards.
Eight people lie on the ground, some dead, some dying. The helicopters keep circling the area, and soon spot a van approaching. Men exit the van and start loading bodies into it. The pilots interpret this effort to take the wounded to a hospital as an attempt to hide insurgents and their weapons. So the Apaches shoot again, firing more 30mm cannon rounds into the van and surrounding area.
No one is left standing.
I think we whacked ’em all.
Ground troops arrive and assess the damage. Then they peer into the van.
Roger, I’ve got uh eleven Iraqi KIAs [Killed In Action]. One small child wounded. Over.
Roger. Ah damn. Oh well.
The exchange between the soldiers and pilots continues.
Well it’s their fault for bringing their kids into a battle.
Footage of aircraft targeting buildings, vehicles, and people has existed in films, documentaries, and the Internet for decades. But WikiLeaks’s release of “Collateral Murder,” a previously censored video of this particular incident in Iraq, changed things. “Collateral Murder” afforded the public a new intimacy into America’s “war on terror.” Viewers could see what the pilots saw in their crosshairs and hear what the pilots said over the radio. The world witnessed the events as pilots mistook cameras for weapons and attacked the men on the ground. The cameras belonged to two Reuters reporters, killed as part of the first group of ten and soon followed by the two men in the van. Two children were wounded. It was shooting until no one popped up again.
Death from a distance
In the four years since their release the scenes of death, punctuated by the gruesome commentary of the aircrews and ground personnel, have marked a new era in the popularization of real combat footage and the accompanying thoughts of the people peering through the scopes.
But what was changing for the public was also changing for the military. With the advent of armed drones and their growing usage in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and beyond, U.S. pilots were no longer hovering over battlefields and flying combat missions in person. From specialized sites in the continental United States and in bases across the world, pilots were now flying their aircraft through remote control. They were thousands of miles away from combat, but only a click away from unleashing weapons on their targets.
War had changed, but its tragic consequences remained. People in a growing number of countries — including civilians — continued to suffer the consequences of a war that had run astray. At the same time, drone pilots had to confront their actions in vivid detail, as their eye-in-the-sky systems gave them the ability to observe limbs torn off a person in the aftermath of a missile explosion and the grief of the relatives who arrived at the scene.
Initially, observers of the drone program feared that war had become a videogame, reproduced on a screen observed from an office chair. John Yoo, the attorney who provided the questionable logic behind President George W. Bush’s “enhanced interrogation techniques,” asserted that drone killings were “kind of antiseptic. So it is like a video game; it’s like Call of Duty.” Pilots might launch missiles, but the consequences were not there for them to see, hear, or smell from close range; it was as ethereal as obliterating competing players on an Xbox server.
To some, that was indeed the case. A former drone pilot likened the experience of playing a videogame to that of flying a combat mission for a drone: the sight of blood pumped his adrenaline and surged his excitement. Even before drone strikes, in preparation for the 2003 invasion of Iraq the U.S. Air Force devised a computer simulation system to model the effects of bomb explosions. Through it, battlefield commanders could estimate and prevent collateral damage. The Department of Defense named the program “Bugsplat” because of the evocative shape the target area took on the screen.
Military slang successively adopted the name of the simulator to indicate a person killed by drone strike.
Drones to civilians, and civilians to drones
In that moniker, the dehumanization of victims and the trivialization of death are apparent. Artists have teamed up with advocacy groups to challenge this, targeting both Western civilians and drone operators as their audiences.
Starting in 2012, British artist James Bridle began to trace the outlines of drones on city streets to nudge passers-by into thinking about the hidden pervasiveness of those weapons. Bridle’s series, “Under the Shadow of the Drone,” has populated sidewalks in Istanbul, Washington, D.C., London, and Brighton, England with the silhouette of the killer aircraft to make it as permanent a fixture there as it is in Middle Eastern skies. Bridle even released a “Drone Shadow Handbook” to share the ability to create drone “shadows” to anyone who might be interested. These outlines foreshadow the use of aerial surveillance returning from the battlefield and being adopted by law enforcement agencies domestically. Bridle’s art complements the necessary reflections on drones entering the daily lives of civilians in the West.
In Pakistan, where drones already saturate the atmosphere, local and international human rights activists and artists work in the opposite direction. While Bridle’s project makes visible on the ground something invisible in the air, the project in Pakistan serves to re-humanize people on the ground for those watching from the sky. The project, titled “Not a Bug Splat,” placed on a field a 100-by-70 feet picture of a young girl who survived a drone strike in which her parents and a sibling had been killed. Clearly visible from aircraft and even satellites, this installation returns a human face to the victims of drone attacks. As drone operators peer at the ground from their screens they will now see those below looking back at them.
A parasitic insect
These initiatives aim to rebalance the uneven relationship between victims, perpetrators, and those in whose name the killing is done. These artistic installations challenge the dehumanization of drone targets and of drone pilots — the former to be struck and struck again until the last terrorist or insurgent has been eliminated, the latter turned into machines trained to guide their aircraft unquestioningly on their missions of death.
Above all, however, projects like “Under the Shadow of the Drone” and “Not a Bug Splat” underscore the reality of the situation, one whose consequences are much more dire and widespread than those of even the most gruesome videogames. Many drone pilots may never have second thoughts about their actions, while others develop severe psychological conditions or commit suicide. Around them, citizens of the U.S. and its allies see their governments violate international law and their taxpayer money put to use in military missions of questionable security returns that sap democracy and human rights. Across the world, thousands have lost a loved one to a drone strike. Tens of thousands more live with the permanent soundtrack of the buzzing aircraft, a feature that has been shown in Pakistan and Yemen to cause rampant depression and anxiety in what are already severely disadvantaged communities.
Drones have parasitized U.S. foreign policy. They are a relatively cheap and effective means to eliminate undesirable individuals at no direct risk to American lives. They have become an ingrained component of the U.S. military, with conspicuous investments in the coming years and an ossifying logic that will leave future policymakers unable not to adopt them as their foreign policy tool as well. Under their veneer of aseptic efficiency and detachment from consequences, it is easy to appreciate all the advantages of drones and forget their costs.
Despite the unfortunate names the U.S. Air Force uses for its simulation software or the comments made by some military personnel, war is not and cannot become a videogame. No amount of distance or technology can sever us completely from our actions: remarking on the experiences of a drone operator, Mark Bowden of The Atlantic noted, “flying a drone, he sees the carnage close-up, in real time — the blood and severed body parts, the arrival of emergency responders, the anguish of friends and family. … War by remote control turns out to be intimate and disturbing.”
Whether we whack with a hammer or with a Hellfire, the results of our actions on the people we treat as moles — and on ourselves — are evident. Civil society ought to begin restoring the humanity stripped from drone victims and operators alike by over a decade of blundering war. Violence on a screen translates to real-life loss, and new artistic projects are raising the curtain to reveal the truths behind the drone wars: apathy and dehumanization.
The article originally appeared in the Harvard Political Review on May 11, 2014. It was co-authored by Yacoub Kureh.