Early in 2005, after all the background checks and fitness tests had been completed, I went into my Army recruiter’s office and found two contracts on her desk. One, for becoming an infantryman stationed in Europe, I had requested. The other, for becoming an “Unmanned Aerial Vehicle” pilot stationed in Hawaii, she had drawn up herself. She urged me to take the UAV job, insisting that flying remote-controlled drones on a tropical island would be more rewarding than being a grunt in rural Germany.
I begged to differ. I remember thinking, “But what’s the point of joining up if I don’t become a real soldier?” Because in my mind, if you weren’t in a combat specialty and directly taking fire and physically closing in on the enemy, you simply weren’t a real soldier. I wanted my blue cord. Where is the honor in killing a man from an air-conditioned trailer with a joystick in your hand?
Jump cut to 12 years later and the advice of my recruiter seems delphic. The question of whether anyone who pilots a UAV (although there are fewer and fewer such people these days) should be considered a “real soldier,” or airman, seems less like an anachronism and more like a riddle that we’re still solving. The question is obviously tied to our notions of martial values—Can you be heroic while remaining physically safe? Should military honorifics be bestowed on servicemembers for piloting drones when civilians (contractors and the CIA) are performing almost the exact same mission?—and whether those values themselves are changing in response to the tectonic technological shifts in how our wars are conducted. The uncertainty of who counts as a warrior and what honor might be act as stand-ins for the countless other half-articulated queries we have about our diffuse state of semi-permanent war.
Informing these questions and giving them context, however, are the reported experiences of the folks who actually make our drone wars possible—especially the image and data analysts, lawyers, and victims. This vitally important testimony is what forms the core of Sonia Kennebeck’s new documentary National Bird. The film, available for download today and on DVD in April, is a beautifully shot, hauntingly intimate portrait of three Americans who have first-hand experience in the drone wars.
National Bird counts legendary directors Wim Wenders and Errol Morris as executive producers and is nothing if not well-made. Torsten Lapp’s shots, occasionally mimicking the perspective of a drone gliding over the rooftops of suburban America, provide a stunning visual counterpoint to Insa Rudolph’s elegiacally minimalist compositions. The documentary floats through time, moving mostly chronologically, but with a weird bubble of temporal distortion allowing us to linger on a rear-view mirror, the folded hands of a grieved parent, or the reflection of a face in a computer screen. The pacing of the film is distended enough to allow time to be presented as we experience it. To paraphrase the Spanish novelist Javier Marias, time is given enough time to be time.
The way the documentary slowly unfolds helps to cultivate a sense of intimacy with the subjects. The focus is primarily on three: Daniel, the young private contractor and former signals-intelligence guy who eventually gets accused of (but not charged with) espionage; Heather, the former Air Force image analyst who dedicates herself to exposing the psychological risks that drone operators run and who eventually gets diagnosed with PTSD herself; and Lisa, the former Air Force tech sergeant who returns to Afghanistan in order to come to terms with the role she played by personally apologizing to victims of drone attacks. Each is dissatisfied with the drone program in their own way, and each responds by searching for redemption in their own idiosyncratic way.
In National Bird, the by now well-known criticisms of the drone war are personalized in intimate portraits of each subject. Daniel is a frail, haunted-looking young man whose life is turned inside out because of, so we’re meant to believe, government overclassification and Obama’s heavy-handed methods in dealing with whistleblowers. He seems tragically sympathetic when he talks about being homeless before joining the Air Force and how he comes from a long line of ne’er-do-wells. He has the lost appearance and soft-spoken sensitivity of a camera-ready victim.
Heather isn’t much different. Meant to showcase the emotional toll of witnessing people being killed nine-to-five, she is a vibrant, attractive young woman from Pennsylvania with a supportive family and aspirations to become a masseuse. The camera lingers on her expressions when she talks about having suicidal ideations and being misunderstood in her crusade to show Americans the real personal toll of the war being waged in their names. They don’t seem to want to listen.
Lisa, the subject with the least clear backstory, actually takes us to Afghanistan to reconcile with innocent victims of drone attacks. There is no narration. The camera lets the subjects speak for themselves, to narrate their own experiences and provide their own commentary. It’s not often that the American public gets so visceral a sense of this subject, which is normally addressed only in dry headlines and empty rhetoric.
But as we’ve learned from the drone war itself, every strength can be a weakness. For all of the intimacy of National Bird, the documentary is limited by that same inwardness. The interviews are interesting and often moving, but they also mark the hard borders of what the film is able to explore. Some of the most important aspects of the drone wars are the abstract things that require analysis, not testimonials.
To be able to keep drones perpetually flying and attacking in far-flung countries requires the coordination of a complex framework. Vast amounts of data, for one. And although illegal governmental data collection is mentioned in passing, how that program works is never fully explored. Nor is the way that whistleblower laws and overclassification contribute to the protection of those data-collection programs. Nor are the “lily-pad bases” that allow our drone program to spread into Africa, or how the kill chain actually works (or doesn’t).
And besides the logistics, there are the real political dilemmas that remain left unexplored. Obama haunts this film like a specter. At one point, as Daniel listens to the news in his apartment, Obama’s voice can be heard in the background affirming that we do everything we can to make sure drones don’t hit civilians (something the evidence in the film would tend to disprove)—but since National Bird limits itself to the subjects directly in front of the camera, we’re unable to dive very deeply into Obama’s role in presiding over the drone program. Which is unfortunate, since this is really a film about his legacy. He didn’t just order more drone attacks, but helped to fundamentally change the structure of government in order to accommodate unending war abroad and unending espionage domestically. The moment calls for something with a polemical bite.
That said, National Bird does give us something that’s sorely missing from the public gaze—the experiences of people directly involved in our wars. As the civilian/military divide continues to widen, these personalized accounts of our new way of war accrue more value. Like Studs Terkel’s voices from Depression-era America, this film will become a living history of some of the most dramatic military and technological shifts America, or any country, has ever experienced seen through the eyes of people on the front lines of those changes.
Scott Beauchamp is a veteran and writer based in Portland, Maine.