Arts & Events

National Bird: America's Symbol Is No Longer the Eagle

Reviewed by Gar Smith
Friday November 18, 2016 - 01:22:00 PM

Opens at SF's Roxie Theater on November 18

National Bird, executive produced by Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire) and Errol Morris (The Fog of War), is a slow, chilling excursion through the haunted lives of three US drone vets—two women, one young man. Director Sonia Kennebeck's presentation intentionally lacks razzle-dazzle and focuses, instead, on grim silences and intense, quiet monologs.

The film begins simply with a grainy black-and-white aerial video and a woman's voice. We watch as a man on the ground casually walks down a street in his Afghan neighborhood.

"We hover and watch for days," the voice recalls. "Sometimes we get intel that he's a 'bad guy' and we blow him up. Just drop a Hellfire missile on him."

The figure on the screen stops walking. He appears to sit down to rest. In the next second, he's gone—replaced by a volcano of smoke and dust and chared body parts scattered on the ground.

You've just seen the "tip of the spear" in Washington's so-called "War on Terror."

Cost to US taxpayer for this cowardly act of automated assassination? One $47,000 Lockheed/Martin/Raytheon Hellfire missile.

The cost of "counterterrorism" is neither cheap nor effective—drone attacks actually serve to "recruit" new enemies—but, if you're a "defense" contractor, it's damned profitable.




Kennebeck introduces us to three of the people behind the violence. Heather is an unlikely military vet who decided to escape her small-town fate by joining the Air Force. She would see the world and fight for her country by becoming "Big Brother and helping everyone out." Instead, she wound up helping to kill people by remote control. 

Daniel, a desperate young man without a job and homeless chose the military because he "had no other place to go." He wound up as a signals intelligence analyst with a security clearance at Fort Meade. Now a drone-war vet (with an Edward Snowden-like moral intensity), Daniel worries constantly about whether the government will "go after me" for publically criticizing the drone assassination program. 

Lisa is a Bay Area woman who became part of the government's covert drone program because "I thought I'd be on the right side of history but, today, I don't believe I was." 

It's no longer a matter of one individual sitting in front of a console and twisting a joystick to blow up an individual on the other side of the planet. Lisa says. "It's now a huge system. This is global. It's like borders don't matter any more and there's a huge system that spans the globe that con just suck up huge portions of your life, your personal data." 

All three feel constrained by the fear of their own government. Lisa has seen what the secret programs are doing but she doesn't feel free to speak out and warn the public. Lisa's discharge certificates salutes her for identifying "121 insurgent targets" during the course of her "service" in Afghanistan. 

These vets recall how the stress of being forced to kill people on a daily basis caused emotional and mental distress—and how the military refused their pleas to be reassigned. 

It's no easier once these drone-soldiers emerge from their secret world and try to return to civilian life. These stressed-out vets break down in tears and sobs but when family and friends rush to their sides and ask, "What's wrong?" all they are permitted to say is: "I can't talk about it." 

America's forgotten drone vets tend to be nervous, angry, and borderline suicidal. 

Obama Bomber 

Obama is shown defending the drone program by arguing "America was attacked on 9/11/." But the majority of the 9/11 attackers came from Saudi Arabia. So far, not a single Hellfire missile has been shipped to a US drone base within flying range of Riyadh. 

We hear Obama on the TV claiming that the US takes great pains to avoid killing civilians and only "targets those who want to kill us"—i.e., people who pose "a continuing and imminent threat to the American people." But this concern is belied by the increasing counts of dead civilians in foreign combat zones. 

And it seems disingenuous, at best, for the President to suggest that American civilians back in the "Homeland" are at risk of being harmed by individuals who are being secretly stalked by remote-controlled killing machines lurking in foreign skies—often in total violation of local sovereignty. 

Clearly, the only "American people" at immediate risk are the US soldiers who have been flown to distant countries only to be armed and ordered to police the "locals." 

Kennebeck's vets dispute the president's claim that US missiles strike only when there is a "near certainty" that no innocent civilians will be killed. There's always a degree of guesswork involved, we are told. It is "only in the aftermath" that the Pentagon is able to (sometimes) determine who they killed. 

The Rise of Drone-Think 

The drone vets can see where this will lead. These weapons potentially can fly anywhere in the world and kill anyone at will and do it without oversight, without regulation, without accountability. 

The Pentagon is training 18-24-year-olds to commit murder by remote control. 

Consider the euphemisms: "Surgical strike" suggests that the act of blowing someone to bits is somehow akin to providing life-saving medical attention. 

In 2013, Heather became one of the first insiders to publically criticize the Pentagon's secret drone war. But, when she wrote an article that was published in London's Guardian newspaper, she put herself at risk of being imprisoned under the 1917 Espionage Act. (Fearing legal action, the Guardian editors had to include a statement that the op-ed "does not possess any classified material." And Kennebeck, for her own protection, had to include a similar statement at the end of National Bird.) 

After her Guardian article appeared, Heather experienced a torrent of online abuse but what bothered her even more was the total lack of response from Washington's bureaucrats. Heather complains about the frustration of "having to try and stop your own people from killing civilians." 

What's the use, she weeps, if nobody really cares—cares about the victims, cares about drone vets like herself? And if someone knocks on her door some night and she is "disappeared," she agonizes: "What difference does it make?!" 

Lisa lives in the Bay Area. A week after meeting Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal at a Commonwealth Club book tour, she books a flight to Afghanistan to do humanitarian work. 

Haunted by the memories of watching the US deliver death-at-a-distance—after stalking potential victims from 20,000 feet—Lisa hopes to reclaim that part of her humanity that she lost during her time in the drone program by "seeing these people as part of humanity. It will be nice to just see [them] up close." 

America's Drone Victims Speak 

In Kabul, Lisa and the filmmakers hear from the survivors of a notorious February 21, 2010 Predator drone attack launched from Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. The attack killed 23 of their family members, including children. 

The attack was so onerous and unjustified that Gen. McChrystal was compelled to apologize on Afghan TV. He promised it would never happen again. 

(McChrystal ignored the fact that it had already happened before: In 2008, US air attacks killed 27 civilians at a wedding party in Nangarhar Province, at least 47 at a wedding party north of Kandahar, and another 90—including 60 children—at a funeral in the village of Nawabad. In 2009, a US airstrike on a village in Farah Province killed 147. ) 

During the meeting in Kabul, a little boy whose father was killed in the US airstrike, shows the stump of a leg he lost in the US drone attack. Two of his siblings—ages 4 and 7—were killed in the explosions. 

During the interview, a US helicopter flies by overhead. The women look to the sky, terrified. The little boy covers his ears, shuts his eyes and cowers. 

At this point—in a remarkable, and harrowing, match of cinema and reality—National Bird begins to shift between the stories of the wounded and traumatized survivors and the actual footage from the US drone that presided over the deadly attack. 

We watch the emotionless surveillance video, as it follows a convoy of three vehicles. We watch as the passengers stop by the roadside and emerge to pray. We hear the words of the drone operators as they speak disparagingly of the people on the ground turning towards Mecca to pray. 

When young children are identified in the group, the Americans (working in the comfort of their air-conditioned trailers near Las Vegas) begin to complain. At first they try to deny that any children are present. Then they provide excuses to justify an attack. "Teenagers can fight," says one operator. "Pick up a weapon and you're a combatant," says another. (Under US rules of engagement, any male older than 16 years is pre-determined to be a legitimate target.) 

The command comes back—It's party time!"— and swiftly missiles destroy three vehicles filed with unarmed Afghans. Survivors emerge, staggering from the wreckage, waving their arms. One raises the body of a child. 

Back in Kabul, the survivors present the filmmakers with a video that recorded the moment the bodies—wrapped in blood-soaked blankets—were returned to the village. Screams and wails break out as the blankets are pulled back and the remains of the dead are identified. 

Anyone who dares defend the US drone program should be required to watch this video—daily, for the rest of their lives. 

The Uncertain Fate of Drone Vets 

It's hard for drone vets to get treatment for the emotional damage and mental distress that comes with the work. The Pentagon does not consider these "console jockeys" to be "combat vets." An added complication: the vets are cautioned that they could face arrest if they speak to anyone—including mental health professionals—lest they reveal "privileged" details of their covert work. 

FBI and Pentagon agents contacted two of the whistleblowers to inform them that their names were now on a "terrorist kill list." 

Government agents warned Heather's step-dad that a "known terrorist gang" was searching for her. If she valued her security, Heather was warned, she would be well advised to tone down her criticism—no more op-eds and no more complaints on Facebook, Twitter, etc. 

On August 8, 2014, two FBI agents knocked on Daniel's door—backed by 20 combat-armed federal soldiers with weapons drawn. The government justified the raid by claiming Daniel was being investigated for espionage. Over that past 99 years, only 12 people have been prosecuted under the Espionage Act. Daniel could be the next. 

The film ends with a series of direct appeals from the Afghan survivors of US violence. Their message is simple and stark: "They [the Pentagon] apologized but then they continue to bomb us. We are saying to our American brothers: All we want is for the bombing to end." 

Throughout the film, Kennebeck intersperses the vets' personal stories with aerial shots of US neighborhoods. At first, these drones-eye views seem innocuous but, it slowly becomes a sinister insinuation of what our wars abroad could someday bring to our own streets and backyards. 

Other countries have been acquiring weaponized drone aircraft. Eventually, "terrorists"—as well as citizen militias and inner city gangs will acquire their own aerial armadas. Smaller, to be sure, but just as deadly. 

As Lisa observes darkly: "Imagine what it would feel like if this were happening to us." 

Also Worth a Look: 

Unmanned: America's Drone Wars--Brave New Films


(April 1, 2015) -- Directed by Tonje Hessen Schei and produced by Flimmer Film, Unmanned features former drone operators as well as people in conflict zones living under threat of drone attack.