Charles Petzold

Drones on Screen and Stage

May 21, 2015

The ability to carry out targeted assassinations using Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (known better as drones) seems like an ideal solution to the problem of combatting terrorism. If a terrorist in a desert of Afghanistan can be identified from the sky, and his body blasted apart with the simple press of a button from a trailer on an Air Force base in the desert of Nevada, then potentially many lives can be saved with the elimination of just one. There is no danger at all to the soldier pushing the button, who can finish off a daily shift and immediately go back home to a loving spouse and kids, with a warm meal around the family table and a comfortable bed.

Killing one to save many is an exceptionally simple moral equation. But these drone strikes continue to be extremely disturbing, and somehow more morally suspect than conventional warfare. What is it? Is it the lopsided advantage of the drone operator, and the complete absence of danger or even fear? The eerie resemblance to a video game? Or is it the mechanized cold-bloodedness required to carry out a murder in complete safety against someone who is not at the moment posing any threat to anybody?

And how do these killings affect the people actually pushing the buttons? What is it like to stalk someone on a screen marked with crosshairs, decide on the ideal time for a strike, watch a silent bomb explode thousands of miles away, and then count up the bodies and body parts, all from the relative comfort of an easy chair?

Yesterday I saw both a movie and a play that explored these issues by probing the psychological repercussions of carrying out drone strikes.

Good Kill is a disturbing new movie by Andrew Niccol, best known as the writer and director of Gattaca. Ethan Hawke plays an Air Force fighter pilot who after six tours of duty is now living with his wife and daughter in the suburbs of Las Vegas and doing a daily shift in a glorified shipping container, where he watches a screen and launches missiles at suspected terrorists. "War is now a first-person shooter" his commanding officer says. He's spending more time than ever with his wife, but enjoying family life less and less, and compensating by frequently gulping down vodka.

The plot of Good Kill takes an interesting turn when the CIA rather than the Pentagon begins coordinating the drone strikes. The CIA favors signature strikes, where targets can be identified by a pattern of behavior rather than clear guilt. Collateral damage becomes less of a concern. The drone operators begin wondering if they are now committing war crimes, or becoming terrorists themselves.

Good Kill is perhaps the creepiest and most unnerving war movie ever made. The deaths that normally accompany any war movie take place in Good Kill thousands of miles away, seen only in gray shades on a screen, with bombs exploding silently in an instantaneous confusion of dust that slowly clears to reveal the devastation beneath.

Less than two hours after seeing this movie, I also had the opportunity to see Grounded at the Public Theater. This one-person play by George Brant has received a stunningly powerful production by Julie Taymor and stars Anne Hathaway as a pilot who is transferred from piloting an F-16 to the "Chair Force" after becoming pregnant and getting married. She puts in her shifts at Creech Air Force Base as a drone operator, and then goes home to her husband and daughter in the suburbs of Las Vegas.

Grounded is played out on a stage covered with sand onto which video projections alternately show us the screen of the drone console and the highway that the pilot daily drives to and from her work. But this is not a job she can leave at the office. Dressed in a flight suit and speaking in a southern accent that gradually shifts from brash to frantic, Anne Hathaway captures a slow disintegration into moral agony.

Neither the soldier in Good Kill nor the one in Grounded can quite articulate why the job of launching drone strikes is so shattering to their lives. Soldiers are not trained to express their feelings. Yet we in the audience can intuitively grasp at least a hint of the moral issues, and we recognize that these drone strikes are intrinsically different from any previous type of military activity, with quite different psychological effects.

We are reminded of the Stanley Milgram experiments on obedience to authority. By the very act of sitting at a console, the drone operator has ceded any kind of moral autonomy. The drone operator is told that a person on the screen is a terrorist, or is engaging in a pattern of behavior that indicates terrorist activity, and must rely on an external authority that pushing the button is the correct response. We know from these experiments and others that people engage in behavior they would otherwise find immoral as a result of obeying authority, yet also suffer extreme stress as a result. The simple inability to refuse to comply can be psychologically brutal.

The seemingly easy moral equation of killing one person to save many turns out to be not as simple as it seems. This is a variation of the famous trolley problem, and even in thought experiments, people discover in themselves a repugnance in taking an action that results in someone being killed, even if that action saves others. On one level, it is illogical, but (as David Hume noted), in questions of morality, reason and logic are (and should be) the slaves of emotion.

When we read about the Great War of a hundred years ago, we find ourselves condemning the governments of England, France, and Germany for the morally reprehensible act of sending millions of their young people to certain death in the trenches.

Today we send our young people not into trenches, but increasingly into “safe” jobs in easy chairs in front of a console with a trigger, where they engage in war as shift work, launching missiles at people who they are told should no longer walk the earth. They might knock off work still alive, and with all their arms and legs, but the experience can’t help but leave them psychologically damaged and scarred.

And for this we too must condemn our government, our military, and the Commander-in-Chief for policies that are likewise morally reprehensible.