The Human Impact of Drone Warfare

Daniel Hautzinger
An aerial view of a family compound in Afghanistan. Photo: Torsten Lapp
"The perception is that drones are very small, that they can only kill one person," says Sonia Kennebeck. Photo: Torsten Lapp

Like a drone itself, the conversation about drone warfare seems to hover just out of sight, barely visible but always lurking high up in the sky. National Bird, a documentary that aired on Independent Lens Monday, May 1 at 10:00 pm, aims to change that. National Bird is available to stream until May 16.

“My background is in investigative journalism, and my goal as a journalist is to bring transparency to the issue,” says Sonia Kennebeck, the director and producer of the documentary. (Errol Morris and Wim Wenders are Filmmaker Sonia Kennebeck. Photo: Torsten LappSonia Kennebeck, director and producer of 'National Bird.' Photo: Torsten Lapp executive producers.) “I think this is so necessary with the drone program, because in so many ways, a lot of things about it, especially the human impact, have not been out in the open. We’re still missing a lot of information.”

According to a report by The Intercept, the first drone strike outside of a declared war zone was carried out in 2002. During Barack Obama’s presidency, targeted drone strikes drastically increased, to a total of some 563 air strikes over his two terms, many by drones. That’s more than ten times the amount of air strikes under George W. Bush. But much of the information about drones is classified and difficult to pin down.

“Towards the end of his presidency, Obama did release some information,” says Kennebeck. “But it is very, very limited. I don’t think it’s sufficient at all. Also, the Administration would always release information when there was public pressure – news articles, new information, films. That’s why I think the work of investigative journalists, and also whistleblowers, is incredibly important in our democracy.”

An Afghan survivor of a U.S. air strike with his son. Photo: Torsten Lapp"The part that really impacts people is Afghanistan, and the emotion and moving statements of these survivors." Photo: Torsten Lapp National Bird focuses on the human impact of drone warfare: the operators piloting the drones from afar and the victims of strikes. “For me, the human side was the part that had not been shown yet,” explains Kennebeck. “In the papers, you could read experts and pundits and professors discussing the use of the weapon on a theoretical level, but what you didn’t see were the people impacted by drones. The impact of these military drones goes far beyond just killing a civilian. It has a very, very big psychological impact on a whole society in these countries, and on the US troops operating them.”

The documentary profiles three people who were involved in the drone program, exploring their need to speak out and the psychological damage wrought by killing someone from afar without being able to tell anyone about it.

“When I first met one of the participants, Heather, she had lost three friends from the drone program, fellow airmen, to suicide,” Kennebeck says. “In the film you see Heather, who has so much pain in her face. Lisa, who is taking a risk traveling into war zones to understand what is happening on the ground. Daniel, who gets investigated for espionage, which has such a destructive impact on his life. You really see in people’s faces the pain and the struggle. Then the part that really impacts people is Afghanistan, and the emotion and moving statements of these survivors. You have these raw human emotions in a character-driven documentary that makes it so moving and impactful.”

Drone whistleblower Heather. Photo: Torsten LappHeather has lost three fellow airmen from the drone program to suicide. Photo: Torsten Lapp Digging into these stories poses problems, however, as much of the material is classified. “People who work in the drone program usually have top-secret clearances,” explains Kennebeck. “You have to be careful in what you report on, so I worked with First Amendment and whistleblower attorneys to reduce the risk as much as possible.”

But bringing these issues to light is necessary and important. Many people misunderstand drone warfare, leaving the conversation around it to languish behind more high-profile issues. Kennebeck believes much of the confusion comes from a successful use of rhetoric. “The politicians have done a really good job in making the drone war seem so clean and surgical, that drones save lives,” she says. “People seem to think that there is no one operating drones. People are surprised by how large these drones are. The perception is that drones are very small, that they can only kill one person, more like a sniper, instead of groups of people.”

With National Bird, perhaps those perceptions will begin to change, and drones will lower into view.