Yesterday, I wrote about the necessity for the Imperial War Museum to address the issue of drone warfare; Britain is stepping up its use of both armed and surveillance drones. By 2030, the MOD plans for a third of the RAF’s aircraft to consist of pilotless drones. And, yet, the civilian casualties and terror wreaked by armed drones, particularly by US drones in their global assassination campaign, has been condemned widely as being legally and morally doubtful and threatening international stability.
I’ve learnt that IWM will at least start to address armed drones when IWM London partially re-opens on Monday 29th July. As part of the new art programme, ‘IWM Contemporary’, the Museum will be showing a video art piece by Omer Fast called, ‘5,000 Feet is the Best.’ You can watch a 10 minute segment of the 30 minute film online (Vimeo clip embedded below) and there are also a number of online reviews of the film from prior screenings.
The film is not a documentary that seeks to discuss the true story of drone warfare; it is a piece of art which primarily explores the perspective of US drone operators. Two central characters are interviewed, an apparently real former US drone operator who talks technical and a fictional one who talks in allegories.
The film, to its credit, does, in at least one segment, attempt to consider the perspective of the victims of drone warfare when it imagines an apparently American family being struck in an imagined occupied US. But, as this particular review reiterates, the story is always told by one side – the former drone operator: “He speaks at length about the details he could see on his targets, even at a height of 5000 feet—the kind of shoes a person was wearing, if they were smoking a cigarette, their posture. Indeed, despite the distance between him and his targets, the pilot struggles to convey his own war wounds in light of witnessing the personalities of the people he killed.”
The part that is omitted are the true stories of the major victims of drone warfare – the innocent “bug splat” (a military slang for drone victims). This includes the civilians massacred, maimed, dispersed and, generally, terrorised in several countries, from Pakistan to Somalia by US and, to some extent, British armed drones. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports an estimate of 411-884 civilians killed in Pakistan by drones (168-197 dead children) and 1,173-1,472 injured.
As Glenn Greenwald, writing for Salon explained, this is the real terror: “I don’t doubt that some drone attackers experience some psychological stress from knowing that they are eradicating human beings with their joysticks and red buttons (though if it’s only “bugs” who are being splattered, why would the stress be particularly burdensome?). But that stress is nothing compared to the terror routinely imposed on the populations in numerous Muslim countries who are being targeted with these attacks.”
The true story of drones involves US and British governments acting as prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner – drawing up secret kill lists and going after individuals without having to justify, explain or report themselves. A recent documentary called “Dirty Wars” considered the unexplained 2011 assassination by the US of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, a 16 year old US citizen in Yemen.
Contrary to the claims of drones being focused and clinical, their application has been brutally indiscriminate. The US has, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, targeted rescuers and funeral goers in follow-up strikes: “Up to 5,000 people attended Khwaz Wali Mehsud’s funeral that afternoon, including not only Taliban fighters but many civilians. US drones struck again, killing up to 83 people. As many as 45 were civilians, among them reportedly ten children and four tribal leaders. Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud escaped unharmed, dying six weeks later along with his wife in a fresh CIA attack.”
According to a report by Stanford and New York universities’ law schools, the presence of armed drones, “terrorises men, women, and children, giving rise to anxiety and psychological trauma among civilian communities. Those living under drones have to face the constant worry that a deadly strike may be fired at any moment, and the knowledge that they are powerless to protect themselves.”
The study goes on to doubt the productivity of the drone campaign: “Publicly available evidence that the strikes have made the US safer overall is ambiguous at best … The number of ‘high-level’ militants killed as a percentage of total casualties is extremely low – estimated at just 2% [of deaths]. Evidence suggests that US strikes have facilitated recruitment to violent non-state armed groups, and motivated further violent attacks … One major study shows that 74% of Pakistanis now consider the US an enemy.”
Such claims reiterate those made by some senior former officials, such as Michael Boyle, former security adviser to Barack Obama. He said that drones are “encouraging a new arms race that will empower current and future rivals and lay the foundations for an international system that is increasingly violent.”
5,000 feet might be the best height for a drone strike but 5,000 feet is not the best, to state the obvious, to establish the full story of US and British drone warfare. Omer Fast’s film seems to have merits, including sympathy for “bug splat” victims but we need to hear the stories, voices and faces of the true victims of drones to understand the truth.