IWM London: Mahwish Chishty’s Drone Paintings

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Reaper Drone; Gouache & gold flakes on paper; 30″ by  20″; 2015 (Mahwish Chishty)

Art is a useful lens through which to introduce children and teenagers – and adults – to painful and difficult issues – to help them make sense of the images they see on screens and to help them understand global conflict. The IWM Contemporary series at IWM London is dedicated to providing a platform for cutting edge art on current conflicts and has previously featured artists such as Omer Fast, Hew Locke, Imogen Stidworthy, Rosalind Nashashibi, Nick Danziger and Edward Barber.

From Wednesday 19th October 2016, IWM London will be showing an exhibition by US-based, Pakistani artist, Mahwish Chishty, who uses the Afghan/Pakistani folk art tradition to depict US/British armed drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).  The exhibit will include sculpted painting on wood, painted drone models and works on paper.

It was after a visit to Pakistan in 2011 that Chishty began her drone art series to examine and raise a discussion on the cultural, psychological and physical impact of the foreign drones that hover over areas of Pakistan. In Chishty’s exhibit, the lethal drones which are used to carry out the US/British extra-judicial assassinations programme in Pakistan – with some Pakistani government collusion – become colourful, intriguing works of art. Her work has been described as “resistance through beauty.”

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MQ-9/ Predator; Gouache & tea stain on paper; 12″ by 24″; 2011. (Mahwish Chishty)

Chishty uses her training in traditional miniature painting, notable in her use of tea staining, to produce  intricate, symbolic artwork inspired by the art used by drivers of haulage trucks to decorate their vehicles in Afghanistan and Pakistan. By reinventing the foreign drones, she is bringing attention to them and the stories we are told about them – but doing so in a symbolic way with “truck art.”

IWM London’s “Visions from Above and Below,”Gallery 2, features another artist’s depictions of drones. On display is a series of ink drawings by Alison Wilding, a British renowned for her sculptures. Whilst Chishty has mythologised drones with traditional Pakistani art, Wilding’s depicts them as sinister, bird-like entities.

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Drone 4; drawing in acrylic inks, 2012 (Alison Wilding)

 

The British government has sanctioned its own drone strikes in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and, recently, Syria. Moreover, it has been revealed that Britain works closely in the US’ wider assassination programme by providing a base in North Yorkshire, likely intelligence support and lending its own operators, thus linking itself closely to the US drone programme and strikes in Pakistan.

Drone assassinations are carried out without any judicial process. The decision-makers in the US and British government and military act as judge, jury and executioner. A litany of falsehoods have been made to disguise the programme, from initial US claims that no civilians were killed by drone strikes, that only Al-Qaeda operatives and affiliates who posed an imminent threat to the US homeland were targeted, to the US casualty figures themselves, which the US massages with its presumption that all military aged men killed in a strike zone are terrorists, unless posthumous evidence proves otherwise..

The strikes are not surgically precise as has been claimed by our governments and have killed hundreds of innocent people. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that the civilian death toll in Pakistan is between 424-966 since 2004. Sometimes the attacks occur on the basis of suspicious activity in so-called “signature strikes.” The identity of the target may not be known. Other times, “double tap” strikes occur which hit first responders and others going to help the victims of the first hit. The devastating effects has served to psychologically damage, as well as to radicalise populations against the US and Britain, furious at the loss of loved ones.

Unmanned drones are just one part of the arsenal of bombing campaigns. Piloted airstrikes inflict immense damage – as we are currently seeing from the Russian-backed Assad campaign in Syria and the US-backed Saudi Arabian campaign in Yemen. In December 2009, a US Tomahawk cruise missile, fired from a US Navy vessel, struck a village in South Yemen, al Majala, killing 41 civilians. That day, 22 children died and, reportedly, 5 women who were pregnant.

Remotely operated drones, however, are increasingly popular for governments because they do not directly risk the livelihoods of pilots or operators. Last year, David Cameron announced that Britain would double its fleet of armed drones to 20 so-called “Protectors”. As long as the deaths of the targets and people in the vicinity and the mental illness and terror inflicted on the target population living under their shadow remain secondary to our concerns, then drone warfare will be seen as PR friendly. Mahwish Chishty’s exhibit at IWM London is a way to open up the discussion for all of us, young and old.

More

Book a place to hear Mahwish Chishty in discussion with photographic artist, Lisa Barnard and IWM researcher, Clare Carolin at IWM London on Thurs 20th October 2016.

Analysis – “DroneART: a Product of Surveillance Criticism” by Anna C. Natale & Dolores Cristina Gomes Galindo.

“In the painting MQ-9/Predator, the sheet appears to have the same texture as homemade recycled paper, the tonal changes are visible, resembling the color of earth and sand grains, but also nullifies the track of time, there is no way to know the age of this work.”

Interview with Islamic Arts Magazine, 24th May 2013.

“It’s something that I didn’t hear much about here in the US. Pakistani people feel bitter and angry towards the American government because of their use of drones near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border as it is affecting a lot of civilian lives.”

“I grew up in Saudi Arabia and I felt like my knowledge of Islam was so limited. I learned in school that music and dance are haram (forbidden) in Islam but then I came to discover that a branch of the same religion celebrates and connects with God using music and dance. A dervish twirls and swirls with the beat of music to a point where everything around him blurs and takes him to a state of mind where he feel more connected to the One.”

Interview with Mother Jones, 24th June 2013.

“It’s kind of a folk art. It’s a tradition, a culture. People who drive these trucks basically live on those trucks, sleep on those trucks. They kind of make that into their mobile home and they decorate it into something that’s eye pleasing. They’re extremely beautiful paintings. They spend so much time on it and they don’t get any funding. This is something that they do, just a personal interest. It has no reason whatsoever other than just an aesthetic sense. I always thought that it was not given any importance in the art world back home, and I wanted people to think maybe what would happen if these drones were friendlier looking, instead of such hard-edged, metallic war machines.”

Preview  of the exhibit at IWM London by Asian Voice online, 30th August 2016

“Mahwish Chishty is a contemporary artist combining new media and conceptual work with her traditional practice as a painter. Chishty has exhibited her work nationally and internationally at venues including Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MOCADA), Brooklyn NY; University of Technology (UTS Gallery), Sydney, Australia; University of Michigan, Maryland Art Place, Baltimore, MD; and Canvas Gallery, Karachi, Pakistan. Her works are held in both public and private collections. This will be the first time that the artist’s work is shown in the United Kingdom.”

– Mahwish Chishty’s website.

Coming Soon: Military Drones and Pakistani Folk Art by Mahwish Chishty

Recent revelations have put Britain further to the centre of the US-lead drone assassination programme that targets multiple countries, including those where they are not officially at war. This makes timely IWM London’s showing of an art exhibition combining drones and Pakistani traditional art by Mahwish Chishty running from 19 October 2016 – 19 March 2017.

IWM is partially funded by the government, receives large donations from weapons manufacturers BAE Systems and Boeing and has worked closely on exhibitions with the Ministry of Defence. Nearly all of the Museums’ trustees come from the upper echelons of the corporate, security and military sectors. Therefore, the Museum’s coverage of drone surveillance and assassination, particularly, British involvement, will be a test of its editorial integrity and independence.

It has recently been reported, thanks to leaked documents from Edward Snowden, that the US National Security Agency (NSA) conduct intelligence gathering for lethal drone strikes from British soil. Menwith Hill, near Harrogate, North Yorkshire, has been an NSA base since the Cold War and its modern activities have been secret. The British government has refused to answer questions on what goes on but has insisted that operations have their “full knowledge and consent” according to The Intercept’s exclusive report.

From the leaked documents, we now know that Menwith Hill is used by the US to capture foreign satellite communications and to, also, capture wireless communications with the help of satellites orbiting over foreign countries. This information has been used in capture or kill operations, not just in Afghanistan and Iraq but, also, in Yemen and, likely, in Pakistan and Somalia.

Jemima Stratford QC, a British human rights lawyer, advised Parliament in 2014 that British collusion in drone strikes outside of conventional warzones could give rise to charges of murder. “If the U.K. government knows that it is transferring data that may be used for drone strikes against non-combatants … that transfer is probably unlawful. An individual involved in passing that information is likely to be an accessory to murder.”

It is known that Britain has conducted its own lethal drone strikes in Afghanistan and Iraq, first from a US base and, then, from Britain. Recently, a British drone killed three alleged members of ISIS in Syria, in what the UK government justified as self-defence against the threat of ISIS.

Britain has also been involved in the US’ drone assassination programme – British drone operators have been “embedded” with the US and assisted in conducting their strikes.  Ben Emmerson QC, who lead a UN drones investigation, told Parliament that it was “inevitable” that Britain was giving the US intelligence for drone strikes, given the close intelligence sharing relationship between them.

The new Snowden leaks reveal that British participation in the US drone assassination is even stronger, with British soil being used to help collect intelligence for attacks. The ties could go further, given that around 600 staff from UK agencies, including GCHQ, work at the site – perhaps, verifying Ben Emmerson’s QC’s strong suspicion that the UK is working with the US on gathering intelligence for US drone strikes.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimate that between 424-966 civilians have died in Pakistan from US drone strikes since 2004. 573-833 Yemeni civilians are thought to have been killed since attacks started in that country in 2002.

Lies and secrecy have been the hallmark of the drone programme, creating a mythology that Mahwish Chishty’s paintings of drones tap into. In 2011, the US’ counter-terrorism chief, John Brennan, falsely claimed that in the previous year there had been no “collateral” deaths from US drone strikes. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism found there to be 40 civilian deaths – and these were only the individuals that they could verify by name.

It is still not known why the US targeted and killed in Yemen 16 year-old US citizen,  Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, in 2011. He died, along with his 17 year old cousin and several other people in the vicinity of the open-café where they ate. Abdulrahman’s father, Anwar al-Awlaki was a radical preacher accused of being an al-Qaeda operative who the US killed by drone strike two weeks before killing his son. However, Abdulrahman had no connection to terrorism. Senior Obama re-election advisor, Robert Gibbs, suggested that the 16 year old should have had “a more responsible father”.

The US’ figures for civilian deaths from drones has been consistently lower than those from independent sources. A significant reason for this is that the US have the policy of treating any military aged male in a strike zone as a ‘terrorist,’ unless posthumous evidence reveals otherwise. Given that it is difficult for investigators and journalists to reach remote tribal regions in Pakistan or Afghanistan where a strike might occur, the US’ policy ensures that civilian deaths will be routinely hidden.

The US is known to have conducted “double tap” drone strikes, whereby a strike is followed up by another. As a result, first responders, passers-by, friends and family coming to the aid of victims, have been struck and killed.

There have been incidents of drone strikes targeting social gatherings, such as weddings and funerals, where innocent civilians are sure to injured or killed. The threat of such indiscriminate strikes have inhibited targeted populations from participating in normal cultural and community activities that involve gatherings. People have also become reluctant to go to the aid of victims in fear of a follow-up strike.

The very presence of drones in the sky is a constant and traumatising presence for communities in the north-west tribal areas of Pakistan. A joint investigation by the law schools of Stanford University and New York University, found mental health illnesses in targeted populations, including insomnia, anticipatory anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder linked to the presence of drones in the sky.

One interviewee, Haroon Quddoos, a Pakistani taxi driver who was injured in a strike, told the investigators: “We are always thinking that it is either going to attack our homes or whatever we do. It’s going to strike us; it’s going to attack us . . . . No matter what we are doing, that fear is always inculcated in us. Because whether we are driving a car, or we are working on a farm, or we are sitting home playing . . . cards–no matter what we are doing we are always thinking the drone will strike us. So we are scared to do anything, no matter what.”

Inevitably, drone strikes are turning populations against the US, as Yemeni activist Farea Al-Muslimi described of his village which was struck by a drone strike: “Now, however, when they think of America, they think of the terror they feel from the drones that hover over their heads, ready to fire missiles at any time. What the violent militants had previously failed to achieve, one drone strike accomplished in an instant.”

IWM’s Drone Test

IWM London’s first exhibition on military drones ran in the summer of 2014. “5,000 Feet is Best” by Omer Fast was a video installation focused on the psychological effects of working as a drone operator. The title referred to the ideal height for a drone.

As I outlined in my review of that exhibition, whilst it is important that IWM began to address this relatively new weapon and the judicial process-free assassination programme, the real victims are not the operators.

Glenn Greenwald, writing for Salon argued,  “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.”

To make an informed decision on the drone programme and British involvement, the public must know the impact on victim populations. The raw, painful but important photography of Noor Behram, who visits the aftermath of strikes in Pakistan and takes pictures of the effects, including the injured and the dead, provides us real evidence of what the British government is participating in.

Mahwish Chishty’s upcoming art exhibition at IWM London is a positive step, for it gives a platform for a Pakistani artist with family and friends in that targeted country to express herself on the matter. Her art in this exhibit draws from traditional Afghan/Pakistani “truck art” – intricate artwork that truck drivers cover their vehicles with – is multi-faceted and suggestive, inviting us to reconsider what we think we know about the drone assassination programme and its impact on countries like Pakistan.

Update: Al Jazeera reports on Karim Khan’s legal case against the CIA for the drone killings of his son and brother in Pakistan.

http://players.brightcove.net/665003303001/4k5gFJHRe_default/index.html?videoId=5141147944001&autoplay

Are We Ready to Hear from the Drone Victims?

Syed Wali Shah killed in August 2009 by a US strike on the village of Dande Darpa Khel. Photo by Noor Behram, 2009 via Wired

IWM London’s forthcoming video art exhibition, ‘5,000 feet is the best’ by Omer Fast, will present the functioning and psychological suffering of drone operators killing remotely. Is it not right that the British public is also given the chance to view the other perspective – that of the people who live with the terror, night and day, of being murdered or maimed by drone missile?

Noor Behram is a Pakistani photojournalist from the remote tribal region, North Waziristan, who has spent several years capturing images of Pakistani drone victims, particularly, children. The US has been firing drones in the remote regions of North West Pakistan for nearly ten years as part of what White House spokesman, Jay Carney, described “as exceptionally precise, exceptionally surgical and exceptionally targeted” counter-terrorism operations.

The photographs of murdered Pakistani children captured by Noor Behram, like the investigations by the British-based, Bureau of Investigative Journalism, undermine the US claim. In nine years, an estimated 411-884 civilians in Pakistan have been killed and up to a total of 1,472 people injured. The remoteness of the region, its lawlessness and Taliban presence means that verifying the figures is difficult and the figures could possibly be higher.

In June 2011, the US’s counter-terrorism chief, John Brennan, falsely asserted that “in the last year, there hasn’t been a single collateral death.” He claimed that, “if there are terrorists who are within an area where there are women and children or others, you know, we do not take such action that might put those innocent men, women and children in danger.” Investigations by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism discovered 40 civilian deaths that year – the Bureau’s count only including individuals they could verify by name.

Noor Behram has worked with Shahzad Akbar, a Pakistani lawyer representing families of drone victims, and the British charity, Reprieve, to get his images out to a wider international audience. Behram’s photographs have featured in Wired.com, the Huffington Post US, the Guardian, in Robert Greenwald’s documentary, “UNMANNED: America’s Drone Wars” and been previously exhibited in the UK at the Beaconsfield in an exhibition titled, “Gaming in Waziristan“.

If the British public is to be genuinely informed about the consequences of it’s government’s support for the US drone assassination campaign, they must hear and read the stories of the drone victims. Perhaps, the public will decide that they approve of drone assassinations against the terrorist threat, despite the civilian terror inflicted, despite the radicalising effect and potentially counter-productive nature of the strikes and, their use in indiscriminate “double-tap” follow-up strikes that hit rescuers and funeral-goers.

It might be argued that Behram’s pictures of dead children and destroyed homes are exploitative propaganda. Before publishing a selection of the images, Wired.com, undertook investigations to verify their authenticity to justify the feature but warned: “We don’t know for sure if the destruction and casualties shown in the photos were caused by CIA drones or Pakistani militants. Even Behram, who drives at great personal risk to the scenes of the strikes, has little choice but to rely on the accounts of alleged eyewitnesses to learn what happened.”

Nonetheless, Wired, like the Guardian, MSNBC Rachel Maddow Show and the Huffington Post, concluded in deciding to publish that many of the images were authentic depictions of civilian casualties of US drone attacks. One photograph showing Pakistani children holding fragments of an apparent drone was examined by three US ordnance experts who concluded that the pieces belonged to a Hellfire missile, fired from US drones and helicopters, according to Wired.com

Behram and his supporters have an agenda, Wired warned, however: “Also be aware that (they) came to us with an agenda: discrediting the drone war. ‘I want to show taxpayers in the Western world what their tax money is doing to people in another part of the world: killing civilians, innocent victims, children,’ Behram says.”

This is the agenda of all true war journalists, to produce authentic evidence and reporting of the consequences of war. An exhibition of Behram’s photographs of death and destruction needs to be contextualised, of course. We need to put it alongside the claims made by the US and British government about drones – as well as the findings made by individuals and entites such as the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and the law schools of New York and Stanford universities.

We cannot go on without looking at the full spectrum of evidence on drone attacks if we are to understand what is being done in our name. Noor Behram’s photography would be ideal for a slot in “IWM Contemporary”, the Imperial War Museum’s upcoming art programme.

Residents of Datta Khel, Pakistan, hold up wreckage from a US strike which killed 6 people. Photo by Noor Behram, 2010 via Wired.

‘5,000 Feet is the Best’ by Omer Fast: IWM tackles drone operation

Fictional Former Drone Operator from Fast’s film (art-agenda.com)

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.

IWM’s Drone Test

RAF’s earthbound Pilots (telegraph.co.uk)

Update 1 below

IWM insists that it has complete editorial independence from its funders. Therefore, the £10,000 or more annual donations and event hire contracts accepted by IWM from arms manufacturers BAE Systems and Boeing UK will not influence their work. Nor, by the same logic, will the £20 million or so annual grant from the British government sway IWM to favour British military actions.

A test of this policy will be IWM’s approach to covering drone warfare. The arms industry is increasingly involved in the manufacture of sureveillance and armed drones. In 2009, 1 in 20 missiles fired by Coalition forces in Afghanistan came frome a drone. In January 2013, it was 1 in 5. Chemring Group, a company involved in producing munitions and pyrotechnics, supplies chemical explosives for Hellfire missiles fired from US drones. Chemring is the most recent sponsor of the “Annual Defence Dinner” staged at the Imperial War Museum’s main branch in London.

If IWM is truly unbiased it will frankly examine the “huge implications” of killing “remotely from a leafy suburb in your own country…” as Lord West of Spithead, former security minister and current IWM Trustee put it, in a call for international regulations on drone warfare.

Britain is stepping up its use of armed drones, otherwise known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in Afghanistan; At the end of April, the MOD announced that for the first time, missile-carrying Reaper drones have been operated from the UK, using the newly built RAF Waddington base in Lincolnshire.

The British military has had armed drone capability for five years and has been operating them from the Creech airforce base in Nevada, US. The Stop the War coaltion reports that 350 British drone weapons have been fired in Afghanistan, including Hellfire missiles. Now these Reaper drones, along with a further five purchased by the RAF, can be operated directly from the UK.

Britain has also been partnering with US drone strikes actions in Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan by “embedding” pilots with the US to fly US armed drones. ‘This muddies the waters completely, risks turning the people of Afghanistan against us, and creates a joint liability for both the UK and US governments,’ Rehman Chisti, Conservative MP for Gillingham and Rainham said.

Drone warfare is often presented as a no-brainer option for the military, saving soldiers’ and civilian lives through clinical strikes against known terrorists. The evidence contradicts this. Drones have been used to assassinate mere suspects, rather than known terrorists. Sometimes, the suspicion is based on suspicious behaviour, rather than identity, in what are known as “signature strikes” carried out by the US (and, possibly, embedded British pilots).

The US has conducted follow-up strikes which have struck at rescuers and mourners of the initial victims. The inevitable outcome is mass civilian casualties and injuries. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates civilian deaths in Pakistan, where CIA drone strikes in the last decade have been most intense, may range between 411-884, with over 1000 injured.

Naturally, drone attacks and their “collateral damage” are radicalising populations. “The resentment created by American use of unmanned strikes … is much greater than the average American appreciates. They are hated on a visceral level, even by people who’ve never seen one or seen the effects of one,” according to General Stanley McChrystal, former ISAF commander in Afghanistan, in charge of US drone warfare.

British officials insist that their drones are used predominantly for surveillance in Afghanistan; and where they are fired, it is in support of British troops fighting the Taliban. Such claims come free of concern, let alone evidence of the effects, psychological and physical, for the lives of civilians who cower whenever their hear a drone flying overhead. Moreover, British claims rarely discuss the currently unclarified role they play in the US’ targetted assassination campaign in a number of countries, including Afghanistan.

Lord West claims that repatriation of British drone operations to Lincolnshire will enable better control over them. However, he said: “The same issues of legality, authorization and appropriate levels of decision-making remain.”

If the Imperial War Museum is to fulfil its public duty of recording and informing on the course and consequences of war, unedited by funders, then it would seriously examine the drone war issue.

Update 1

Since writing this piece, I have learnt that when IWM London partially re-opens, on 29th July 2013, it will be showing a video art piece from the perspective of a former US drone operator entitled “5,000 Feet is the Best“. The film, created by artist Omer Fast, is the first showing in IWM’s new ‘IWM Contemporary’ arts programme. Embedded below is a 10 minute excerpt from the 30 minute film.

Having watched the excerpt and read two online reviews (by Lucia Simek and Alex Chatelaine) it seems quite clear that, whilst it is to be welcomed that drone warfare is on IWM’s radar, this artistic piece does not tell the full and necessary story of US and British drone warfare.

The first thing to note that is that it is an artistic piece, not a factual documentary. Using an interview thread, it splices together fiction with reality. It is from the point of view of an apparently real former US drone operator who refuses to talk about ‘live fire’ missions, instead, focusing on technical aspects – and a fictional operator who, filling the gaps, does discuss more, but in the form of parables.

Crucially, the film does not give a voice to the real major victims of drone attacks – civilians who have been murdered and maimed. The focus of the film, the reviews would suggest, is the pain inflicted on the drone operator. As one of the reviews says: “The stress suffered by these pilots is often frowned upon seeing as they are in no actual danger. The fact of the matter is, even though they are no danger, they live, feel and participate in the same war as the other soldiers. They see death and bring it to the enemies and sometimes to harmless civilians (unintentionally). These pilots are put through the same things as any other foot soldier who travel to these war zones. The risk of death is lower which may decrease the intensity of their PTSD, but nonetheless, they are put through and deal with a great amount of stress and fear.”

And, Lucia Simek’s review: “He (the former drone operator) 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.”

Even when the film does depict murdered civilians (in a fantasy world where the strike occurs in the US) the actual drone strike is shown to have been aimed at genuine terrorists – in a far away place where definite terrorists with guns are planting, it is suggested, an IED. The civilians were, sadly, just in the wrong place at the wrong time as the drone operator struck at the bad guys.

The reality is that drone strikes strike homes and target people who are far from proven terrorists. As mentioned above, US “signature strikes” attack suspects on the basis of mere suspicious activity – their names need not be known. All drone assassinations violate any number of legal principles, not least, when they hit the intended target, the right for individuals to receive a fair trial. One of the most notorious drone assassinations carried out by the US was the murder of 16 year-old US citizen, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki in Yemen, in 2011. He was the son of a radical Islamic preacher, Anwar al-Awlaki, also killed by US drone in Yemen. The assassination of the father was controversial but the killing of the son went further, for no evidence has ever been presented that Abdulrahman al-Awlaki held any extremist views whatsoever. The US continues to refuse to explain the killing.

Again, it is a small step forward that IWM is considering the heinous effects of US and British drone warfare. But it is obliged to go beyond Omer Fast’s piece and critically consider Britain’s role and the impact on the victim populations of Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan. They are the major victims, not drone operators.