One of the most memorable passages in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five involves World War II played in reverse. Bombers flying backwards rebuild cities, and the dead become high school students and babies, and everything ruined is made as good as new, as if none of this ever happened.
It’s a beautiful bit of undoing, but it also emphasizes the ugly and irreversible reality of war–we can’t go backwards after something has happened; the dead are still dead, the cities are still obliterated, lives are still ruined, and time will run forward through the 20th century and beyond.
Drone strikes should help mitigate that damage in 21st century warfare, at least that’s the theory, but theory and practice are rarely the same. Sonia Kennebeck’s chilling documentary National Bird is all about the ugly practice and the lives, both foreign and domestic, that it leaves in ruins.
Director: Sonia Kennebeck
Release Date: TBD
We’re introduced to three American whistleblowers involved with drone warfare in Afghanistan–two women and a man–each of them haunted by their role in the U.S. Air Force program. There are supposed to be checks between various operatives in charge of a drone strike, and yet something is bound to go wrong. We’ve all read or watched stories about innocent victims of this type of warfare, and in the most disturbing and important moment of National Bird–maybe the primary reason the documentary exists and is essential–we watch actual footage of a drone strike mistake.
Targets enter vehicles and they drive down a road in no particular rush. They stop somewhere to pray. They drive again. Prior to this tense situation we’re told that the Air Force trains their people to distinguish between civilians (particularly women and children) and actual terror suspects, but from so high up they’re just black and white blobs. Two voices recreate the conversation between operatives, who receive incentives to strike rather than show discretion. They’re like sadistic children waiting above a trail ants with magnifying glasses. There is no human regard in their words.
We watch the strike and its aftermath. The explosions are like a futurist nightmare, and victims rush away waving for mercy. Cutting from the cameras in the sky, we go to cell phone footage on the ground of the murdered men, women, and children. The images are from their relatives. The up-close footage is thankfully grainy, and the bodies are difficult to discern in the digital noise, but you can easily make out the wails of grief and rage from their loved ones. There were 23 deaths in this strike, none were militants.
According to a report from The Intercept, the United States killed more than 200 people using drone strikes between January 2012 and February 2013; only 35 of them were the intended targets. These tragedies are common, and given the increased reliance on unmanned warfare, they tragedies may become even more common. Even U.S. optimistic numbers suggest that innocent civilians are killed between 10% to 15% of the time.
Despite the power the film achieves in its final half, I can’t help but think there’s a structural flaw in National Bird. Kennebeck spends a long time with the whistleblowers in the United States first, introducing their issues with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and overwhelming guilt for their role in the deaths of civilians. Yet in many ways the film doesn’t really begin until we get to the sequences in Afghanistan. It’s Afghan innocents that ground the film since its their tragedy that drives the three whistleblowers to speak out. The last half of the movie lends the first half some much needed weight, but I wondered if there was a way to braid the stories of drone-strike victims with the whistleblower narratives rather than saving the Afghan side of the story for later.
At one point of National Bird, we watch dozens of Afghani amputees getting fit for prostheses. Many of them are victims of drone strikes and the other hazards of war. Back in the United States, one of the whistleblowers talks about her depression and PTSD, and she breaks down in uncontrollable sobs. Kennebeck sends a camera drone over an American suburb, and in those images of houses laid in a grid there’s a hypothetical implication: someday someone might use drones to attack people within the United States.
The technology is there, and time moves forward. The fear is the reality: we can’t go back.