As drone warfare becomes a more familiar concept in American life, anxiety about its ubiquity—and what it means for humankind—is being explored in film, theater, and music.
For as long as humans have been gathering in groups to kill each other, other humans have watched, whether from the front line or the sidelines, and made art about it. The impulse is a natural one—to document the most dramatic events of the time, and to make those who give their lives in the service of their country immortal—but it also allows for some understanding of the particular anxieties associated with war in different eras. As much as there are common threads, there are also distinct ones: The Iliad illuminates the grisly ramifications of wounded pride and incompetent leadership, while Picasso’s Guernica is an unflinchingly graphic depiction of the self-destruction that comes with civil war. Conflict is bloody, reports art, conflict is futile. (“The Trojans never did me damage, not in the least,” says Achilles to Agamemnon, a sentiment echoed in Tennyson’s “Theirs not to reason why/ Theirs but to do and die.”) But conflict is also specific to time and place in a way that makes cultural interpretations of it valuable excavations of the era.
Modern war—as fought primarily by drones, with 41 percent of U.S. military aircraft in 2010 being unmanned aerial vehicles—and modern renderings of it, is specific in that it is surgical, efficient, detached, and entirely inequitable. One side has the technology to target isolated military-age males from a trailer 7,000 miles away, and the other doesn’t even have a functioning air force. In his 2013 cover story for The Atlantic, Mark Bowden cited the story of David and Goliath as a parable about technology, concluding that, “David’s weapon was, like all significant advances in warfare, essentially unfair.” The fact that the odds might be stacked in the battle between “good” and “evil” might not immediately seem of primary concern, but as the endless cultural portrayals of war will testify, no side ever gets away completely unscathed.
As drone warfare takes on an increasingly prominent role in contemporary conflict, it’s filtering into popular culture, distilling fears about agency, power, ethics, impotence, and technology all at once. In Andrew Niccol’s new film Good Kill, Ethan Hawke plays a fighter pilot relegated to a trailer in the Las Vegas desert. In George Brant’s play Grounded, running through May 24 in a production directed by Julie Taymor at the Public Theater, Anne Hathaway plays a fighter pilot who’s assigned to the same trailer (not literally) after she falls pregnant. And in the upcoming Muse album Drones, a nameless character is indoctrinated into a world of killing machines before finding his own autonomy and defeating his oppressors.
Drones have been hovering at the outskirts of the cultural zeitgeist for several years, but this is the first time they’ve been so explicitly addressed outside of the journalism and documentary worlds. Grounded debuted at the Edinburgh Festival in 2013 where it drew immediate critical acclaim, and has been staged at more than 30 theaters worldwide since then, but the current production, thanks to the star power and creative talent of Hathaway and Taymor, gives the work a new level of notability.
The play is narrated entirely by the unnamed pilot, a fearless, swaggering adrenaline junkie whose identity is shattered when she falls pregnant and is assigned to the “chair force”—the colloquial (and not entirely complimentary) term for the pilots who fly drones in 12-hour shifts from the safety of an air-conditioned trailer in the Nevada desert. “I kiss her goodbye and go to war,” the pilot says, referring to her daughter, but while the initial promise of war and peace somehow coexisting seems appealing—having a house, and a family, and the other totems of the American Dream while getting to fight terrorists by day—it soon becomes clear that the two worlds are fundamentally at odds. How do you fight a war and then go home to read bedtime stories? How do you kill others when you yourself are in no imminent danger?
“This is a story that I knew nothing about, and I was slightly ashamed about it,” says Taymor. “Telling a story about a drone pilot is a very new thing for America, but it’s going to be a topic now, as we start to engage with it. It takes a tremendous toll on somebody. What the play tells you is that it’s actually easier on the mind in a certain way to be far away with your fellow soldiers than it is to spend 12 hours a day killing people and then go home to your husband.”
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The stories of Grounded and Good Kill are remarkably similar, with each focusing on the unique suffering of a pilot—whose identity is wrapped up in the act of flying itself, and the thrill of it—who’s removed from a plane and then given the incomparably difficult task of having to watch the havoc s/he wreaks in HD, in real time. “One of the things that grabbed me so much about the film was that Tommy’s ethical crisis starts not because he has problems with the war, or problems with what the government is doing,” Hawke says. “It has to do with his lack of agency in it. He misses flying. He’s omnipotent in some sense, but then impotent in his actual life. He’s totally defanged.”
Tommy Egan, Hawke’s character, is a Major in the air force with a wife (January Jones) and two children, living what initially appears to be an idyllic existence. “I killed six Taliban in Afghanistan today, and now I’m going home to barbecue,” he tells a dubious liquor-store clerk in one of the film’s earliest scenes. But as with Grounded’s pilot, the chasm between his two worlds starts to become harder and harder to mentally cross. Taymor viscerally illustrates this distance with light and sound projections showing her pilot’s hour-long drive across the desert each day, past the simulacrum of the Las Vegas strip, and along a seemingly endless stretch of road. Good Kill focuses on the minutiae of life inside the trailer: the rows of screens, and the joysticks, and the various controls that feel more akin to video-game consoles than the inside of an F-16. “We are killing people,” says Lieutenant-Colonel Jack Johns (Bruce Greenwood), in a lecture to new pilots. “This isn’t fucking Playstation.” This, even though the rookies have been recruited via shopping malls and multiplexes thanks to their gaming skills.
Both Tommy and Hathaway’s pilot become attached to the flight suits they wear, seeing them as a symbol of an identity that’s rapidly being scraped away. And both are ultimately haunted by the new reality of having to stick around and watch after the bombs hit the ground. “Linger,” Hathaway says, describing her orders after a strike. “Linger.” Charles Lindbergh worried about the consequences of new military technology in the earliest days of the United States Army Air Forces, comparing fighting wars from the sky to “listening to a radio account of a battle on the other side of the earth. It is too far away, too separated to hold reality.” Then, as now, Americans were embracing a new technology that gave them enormous power without forcing them to be on the receiving end of the destruction. But the reality of being a drone pilot is different again—you’re removed from the conflict but forced to watch it on clear, high-definition screens long after people are reduced to dust and ashes.
“Tommy doesn’t put his own life at risk,” says Hawke. “It’s a very different feeling to take someone’s life when your life is threatened. There’s an integrity to it. But for Tommy, and this whole generation that’s being asked to do it, it’s a completely different things to be making mortal decisions from the safety of a Winnebago. It’s a different kind of ethical crisis.”
“When he was in an F-16,” Niccol adds, “he could drop his bomb and fly away. Now he drops the bomb and stays there, and watches the destruction he caused.”
This ability to watch the aftermath of a battleground from the comfort of a U.S. base was depicted in the first episode of the fourth season of Homeland, in which Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) orders an air strike on a house in Pakistan after tip from a source reveals that a terrorist leader is hiding there. The strike ostensibly kills the terrorist, but also 40 civilians who’d gathered at the house to celebrate a wedding. Later, Carrie watches as a lone survivor stares up at the sky, and as bodies are pulled out of the debris. Before this is revealed, the team celebrates the strike by giving Carrie a birthday cake decorated with the words “The Drone Queen.”
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A sense of anxiety about drones becoming autonomous forces in the fight against terror—fertile and powerful organisms rather than worker bees—is present in Good Kill and Grounded, even if it’s secondary to the concerns about how drone wars are affecting the Americans being asked to fight them. But it’s fully explored in Muse’s Drones, which sees drones not as a reality so much as a metaphor. The album tackles issues of agency and independence and coercion within relationships as much as it acknowledges warfare and an imagined totalitarian force that needs to be overcome, but the image of unmanned robots wielding power from the sky is always present. Muse’s Matt Bellamy told Rolling Stone that he came up with the idea for the album after reading Brian Glyn Williams’ Predators: The CIA’s Drone War on Al Qaeda. “I didn’t know how prolific drone usage has been,” Bellamy said. “I always perceived Obama as an all-around likable guy. But most mornings he wakes up, has breakfast, and then goes down to the war room and makes what they call ‘kill decisions.’”
The album sweeps between lyrics about killing and dictating orders and rejecting hope. “Your mind is just a program/ And I’m a virus, I’m changing the station,” Bellamy sings in “Psycho.” “And I’ll improve your thresholds, I’ll turn you into a super drone/ And you will kill, on my command/ And I won’t be responsible.” The song, a bass-heavy, soaring act of aggression, was released in March as a single, with an accompanying lyric video featuring a drill sergeant barking orders, and a recruit screaming, “Aye sir,” in response. “I’m gonna make you/ A fucking psycho,” the chorus goes. “Your ass belongs to me now.” Later, the song “Mercy” references a “puppeteer,” and “men in cloaks” who operate the “ghosts and shadows the world just disavows,” while “Reapers” disavows subtlety altogether to draw parallels between shady government forces and a cruel lover.
You rule with lies and deceit
And the world is on your side
You’ve got the CIA babe
And all you’ve done is brutalize
War, war just moved up a gear
I don’t think I can handle the truth
I’m just a pawn
And we’re all expendable
Incidentally, electronically erased, by your
As a work of art, Drones is less about overtly exploring the consequences of drone warfare than it is about making heavy-handed use of drone imagery to express feelings of isolation and rage. But it does tap into the anxiety expressed in other works about the long-term consequences of giving so much power to machines. In Grounded, this fear emerges as a suspicion directed by the pilot toward security cameras in a shopping mall, and a sense that she, too, is being tracked by the cameras she uses to monitor the movements of people several thousands of miles away. “We’ve lost privacy,” says Taymor. “She’s saying that we are being watched, and the idea that we’re not going to be watched by drones in the future is ridiculous. Drones are going to be delivering Amazon books and pizzas, but you will have no privacy. They will be able to find you anywhere.”
“Am I nervous about it?” Niccol says. “It’s a fact. There’s a new step in drones, a thing called ARGUS, that has a 1.8 billion pixel camera. With two of those on drones, they could watch the whole of Manhattan.”
Good Kill’s final shot tracks Tommy Egan’s car from an aerial camera—the first time the movie gives a sense that he’s also being watched. “I really think that if you took this exact film and released it when [Niccol’s 1997 sci-fi film] Gattaca came out, it would have felt more dystopian and far-fetched,” says Hawke. “From Vegas, they’d be running these flights? Bombing a poor country like Afghanistan? The city of sin casting judgment? It would have felt too overtly metaphorical.”
It’s notable that both Grounded and Good Kill explore the ways drone warfare affect the Americans participating in it, rather than the people on the other side of the world who are actually being bombed. Most cultural treatments of war tend to pick a side and stick with it, simply because it’s easier and more emotive than trying to understand the experiences of people who are projected to be the enemy. But with drones, the consequences felt by the Americans engaging in war aren’t inflicted by an enemy. They’re the product of a type of technological advancement whose benefits outweigh its unknown psychological ramifications. In Afghanistan, drones are so much a reality that they’re cropping up as designs on carpets. In the U.S., they’re still very much an abstract idea to most people.
“I remember, before I read the script, I felt hungry for it,” says Hawke. “I felt grateful, because before Bin Laden was killed there was all this talk of drones scouring the skies, and I didn’t know what it meant—was it a guy with a remote-control device a hundred yards away, was it a guy two miles away, was it a satellite feed? I didn’t know what it meant, and I had no vocabulary to understand it. I didn’t even know how to ask a question.”
As drones take on a increasingly prominent role in American warfare, so too will culture try and find ways to understand it. Often, this means interpreting the opaque language—the talk of good kills and splashes and double-taps and preemptive self-defense—as much as it does deciphering the more thorny ethical questions in play. “The population of America still thinks that drones are a great thing because they can’t put themselves in the shoes of an Afghani,” Taymor says. “They can’t reach out and have empathy and compassion for people far away. Americans have this need to identify in order to be moved to action.” Making art out of the complex realities of a new kind of warfare is a step forward, even if the stories seem to be focusing, for now, on the side with all the power.