Fall 2015

Wednesday 01/06/2016

Jonathan Zawada. Street View/Road to Mecha, 2013; screen shot, Brooklyn, NY. Photo: Amelia Rina.

Daily Serving’s Best of 2015 – “Street View/Road to Mecha” by Jonathan Zawada, and “Drone” directed by Tonje Hessen Schei

Today’s selection for our Best of 2015 series comes from editor Deanna Lee, who says, “Amelia Rina views a documentary film and interacts with an online artist project that address the dehumanizing effects of drone warfare on its operators and its chilling similarity to video games. This resemblance has been discussed by others, but Rina’s account of her experience with the project provided a glimpse into a medium that may be less familiar to some and brought the topic much closer to home.” This review was originally published on April 9, 2015.

O bitter is the knowledge that one draws from the voyage!

The monotonous and tiny world, today,

Yesterday, tomorrow, always, shows us our reflections,

An oasis of horror in a desert of boredom!

—Charles Baudelaire, Le Voyage (1861)1

Despite the seemingly endless portrayal in the media of increased violence around the world, statistical analysis suggests that, as a species, humans have become less violent.2 I wonder, however, if, instead of moving toward more peaceful tendencies, we have just gotten better at killing. The advancements in military weaponry in the past century cannot be overstated; several of the world’s superpowers, such as the United States, the United Kingdom, and Russia, are leaving behind conventional ground forces in favor of robotics and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), or drones.3 Since the 2001 Al-Qaeda terrorist attack on the United States, the US government has used drones to find and kill militants linked to the terrorist group, primarily in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and Afghanistan, though the success of these missions remains inconclusive.

The US government asserts that drones allow for unprecedented sophistication and accuracy: “It’s this surgical precision, the ability, with laser-like focus, to eliminate the cancerous tumor called an Al-Qaeda terrorist while limiting damage to the tissue around it.”4 Drone, the recent documentary directed by Tonje Hessen Schei, presents a powerful contradiction to the US government’s support of drone warfare. Through interviews with former military and government officials, Pakistani citizens, as well as human-rights activists, journalists, and writers, the film illuminates the devastation occurring abroad.

The documentary opens with sound bites of people lauding the efficacy of using drones, followed by the voice of Brandon Bryant, a former drone operator in the US Air Force: “I didn’t really understand what it meant to kill at first. It was horrible.”5 Bryant continues, describing the operating centers as rooms lit by little more than the glow of the computer monitors, on which they watched pixilated people living thousands of miles away. “We are the ultimate voyeurs, the ultimate Peeping Toms. No one’s gonna catch us. And we’re getting orders to take these people’s lives.” Though Drone presents information highlighting the benefits of using drones—precision, accuracy, and increased time for analysis—the film makes clear the traumatic psychological effect drone warfare has on operators, as well as the tragic effects it has on civilians in strike zones. Interviews with drone-strike survivors in the Waziristan region of northern Pakistan—an area that reportedly receives several drone strikes on some days—paint a devastating picture. A young man describes how he used to enjoy blue skies, but now he fears them and favors cloudy weather because drones cannot fly in overcast skies. The Pakistani citizens express a feeling of helplessness: their loved ones are murdered but no one is accountable. Drone follows the efforts to bring justice to innocent civilians through the lawsuits filed by Shahzad Akbar—a cofounder, legal director, and trustee of the Foundation for Human Rights—and the human-rights activist group Reprieve against the CIA and the Pakistani government.

In addition to citing several issues surrounding the US government’s lack of transparency regarding documentation of drone usage, Drone also raises the point that no warfare technology remains proprietary. Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, the former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell, insists, “There’s never been any technology of warfare that isn’t ultimately adopted by your enemy or enemies…Shall I say it’s only a matter of time until we have a drone over New York City, looking down on Manhattan, and it isn’t ours?” In addition, a stateside manufacturer featured in the film has a tenuous grasp on ethics. Andy von Flotow, founder of Insitu, one of the original drone producers, exhibits a sinister nonchalance; whistling around his workshop, Flotow justifies the brutality of war with a “boys will be boys” attitude. Whether or not Flotow is correct that a destructive impulse lies in the hearts of all young men, the US military makes a concerted effort to encourage such a drive toward violence through its involvement with the video-game industry, by investing in games and recruiting gamers.6

Drone also interviews Michael Haas, a former drone operator, who was recruited as an eager nineteen-year-old. Haas recalls, “I thought it was the coolest damn thing in the world…‘I get to play video games all day!’ And then the reality hits you, that you may have to kill somebody.” The psychological distance enhanced by the machine allows the operators to behave in a detached manner, without sympathy for their targets: “They’re not people, they’re terrorists” says Haas.

Through his online project, Street View / Road to Mecha (2013), the Los Angeles–based artist Jonathan Zawadacollapses the sympathetic distance experienced by video gamers and drone operators alike. To experience this work, I spent an hour wandering around my neighborhood in Brooklyn, using the interface Zawada created, which superimposes the first-person cockpit view from various combat games onto Google Street View. As a MechWarrior, I clicked through streets and pointed a grenade launcher at my apartment building. The immediate psychological affect was chilling. Instead of interacting with a fictional, anonymous world of a video game, I encountered people I see on the streets every day. The violence implied by my mechanical point of view became palpably ominous to me. Zawada’s choice of MechWarrior—a giant, humanoid battle vehicle—mimics the unusual perspective of the Street View cameras. The civilians captured by Google’s cameras are almost the same as those recorded by drone surveillance: they are people going about their lives, not necessarily aware that they are being watched. The main difference is that, if you are in Pakistan, this invisible watching eye might kill you.

Toward the end of Drone, the filmmakers document one of the projects facilitated by Reprieve: members of the activist group print giant banners featuring the faces of children killed by drones and mount them to the rooftops of buildings, to confront the drone operators with the faces of the innocent civilian lives taken by the strikes. This act of humanizing the anonymous and pixilated bodies far below the unmanned aircrafts is a reminder of the highly imbalanced state of war. The United States military certainly has lessened its number of killed soldiers through the use of robotics and unmanned aircraft, but its drones are not fighting other drones. Allowing for—and even encouraging—the operators’ psychological detachment from the civilian casualties, deeming them collateral damage, cannot remain acceptable. Instead of distancing ourselves further, we need to work toward sympathy—and even empathy—and realize the consequences of treating the world like a video game.

1. Charles Baudelaire, Selected Poems of Charles Baudelaire, New York: Grove, 1974.

2. Ben Schiller, “Despite What Seems Like A Lot Of Violence, The World Is Actually Getting Safer Every Day,”Co.Exist, March 13, 2014, accessed April 3, 2015, http://www.fastcoexist.com/3027220/despite-what-seems-like-a-lot-of-violence-the-world-is-actually-getting-safer-every-day.

3. Simon Rogers, “Drones by Country: Who Has All the UAVs?” Guardian, August 3, 2012, accessed April 2, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2012/aug/03/drone-stocks-by-country.

4. John O. Brannon, “The Ethics and Efficacy of U.S. Counterterrorism Strategy,”Wilson Center, Washington, DC, April 30, 2012, accessed April 3, 2015, http://www.wilsoncenter.org/event/the-efficacy-and-ethics-us-counterterrorism-strategy.

5. Unless otherwise cited, all quotes are from the film.

6. Hamza Shaban, “Playing War: How the Military Uses Video Games,” Atlantic, October 10, 2013, accessed March 21, 2015, http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/10/playing-war-how-the-military-uses-video-games/280486/.

From the Daily Serving online posting by Amelia Rina (Class of 2015) on December 22, 2015.