America’s Deadly New ‘National Bird’

Officially, America’s “national bird” is the eagle, but it is fast becoming the hovering, deadly drone that kills with missiles fired from half a world away, reports Dennis J Bernstein about Sonia Kennebeck’s documentary, “National Bird.”

By Dennis J Bernstein

In the new anti-drone film, National Bird, you meet courageous military drone resisters speaking out against America’s forward-fighting drone program and the civilian killing and devastation it is causing all over the Middle East and North Africa.

National Bird “gives rare insight into the U.S. drone program through the eyes of veterans and survivors,” says its director, Sonia Kennebeck, “connecting their stories as never before in a documentary. Its images haunt the audience and bring a faraway issue close to home.”

You see these soldier technicians struggling to balance their secret lives as long distance assassins with their everyday lives as parents and spouses. Talk of suicide is rampant among these drone workers. And several have already taken their own lives.

A Predator drone firing a missile.

Dennis Bernstein: Welcome Sonia Kennebeck. … Why did you decide to do this film?

Sonia Kennebeck: Well, when I started out with my research, and that was in early 2013, there was really not much public information out there. And there were a lot of people commenting about the drone war, you know, pundits, experts, journalists. But we didn’t have a lot of information and that’s what I wanted to provide with the film.

I wanted to bring information out about the drone war, transparency, accountability. But, also, really bring the humanity back into this technological war. My film is really about the people, the people who… the veterans … who had been fighting this war. But also the people in the target countries, who are most affected by the drones.

DB: Was [there a] moment in this process where you decided, “Wow, this is definitely the right film at the right time”? Talk a little bit about that process of discovery.

SK: Well, the more access I got to people, to the veterans who worked in the drone program, the more I realized how important this film was, and is. One of my first characters, or actually the first protagonist, who I found for my film was my subject Heather. In our very first talk, in our very first conversation (and she had just left the military), she told me that she lost three of her fellow airmen–three of her friends–to suicide. And that was something that I had not heard before. The people who worked in the drone war, or part of the drone program, would be so distressed by their experiences that they would commit suicide. So, this was really one of the first things… one of the first information that I heard about that.

DB: … And are you sure … that these suicides occurred in the context of the drone program? Were they talking with these soldiers who ended up committing suicide? How do they know it’s that direct link?

SK: Well, Heather, one of the subjects of my film, she actually talks about how she herself was on a suicide watch list. And how her psychologist at that time recommended that she should do a different job. And [the psychologist] said something that did not involve seeing people die all the time. And she was kept in her job because they were undermanned. Heather was really good in her position. And so she actually had that experience herself. She had it and she’s sharing it with us.

Military personnel analyzing drone imagery.

And so, let me just explain what she was doing. Heather was an imagery analyst, meaning that she was analyzing the live video feed coming from the drones. And she had to make a call, judging the video feed and saying, “What I see on this video is this person is either a terrorist or a civilian”… and that is a very responsible position. And … a decision that could eventually lead to the killing of a group of people. And that experience, for her, was very traumatizing.

DB: And … does Lisa [another subject of the film] or Heather know if they actually killed people? Do they have any idea what people they might have helped to murder?

SK: They all participated in killing people. The problem is that it’s not exactly clear how many. And that’s what all of the three whistleblowers, in my film, are criticizing. They rarely got any feedback. And also, when you drop a bomb… and these military drones, they are large enough to carry 300 – 500 pound bombs.

And so, when you drop a bomb on a building, do you really know who’s inside? And that’s one of the things they are all criticizing about the program, that it’s not exactly clear who is being killed, and how many people are being killed.

DB: And, in that same vein, is that what makes this an especially sort of troubling experience, that you are engaged, you are killing people, and then all of a sudden you are done with the day and you are out at the mall with your kids? Is there something specific about this kind of way of being, if you will, a bombardier?

SK: Yes. Yes. I think you’re mentioning a very important point. And no one wants to compare the experience people have fighting the drone war to the experience of combat soldiers. And, it’s a very different experience.

But I think what the people are doing in the drone program is traumatizing in its own way. One of the things is what you were just mentioning, going into this secret environment, fighting a war, being part of a war, and being part of killing people.

And then, after your 12 hour shift, leaving this secret environment, going home to your kids, going home to your families, not being able to share your experiences, the traumatizing experiences that you had with anyone, because of the secrecy surrounding this program.

And, also, Lisa is talking about this, just living your normal life, here in the United States, going to Starbucks or Walmart, and people are talking about T.V. shows. And … people like Lisa, people like Heather and Danielle, they just came from fighting a war. So, there’s something very schizophrenic about this experience.

An unmanned aerial vehicle (commonly known as a “drone”) flying over the Yuma Proving Ground outside of Yuma, Arizona. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Benjamin R. Reynolds/Released)

And, another thing Lisa has been talking about … and Lisa had an over-20 year career in the U.S. military and she actually had been deployed to combat zones, so she can compare the experience. And she says the problem that she had with working a drone program was that you were actually not under threat. So you’re never really defending yourself, or the people left and right of you. And that’s what she was struggling with. You are still killing without actually being in danger yourself.

DB: And so, they really can’t talk to their kids about their day job. So, this is a huge wall between this kind of killer pilot and everyday life.

SK: Yes. Yes. Absolutely.

DB: I wonder if the powers-that-be… they must be reading this, in terms of the people running these programs, they must be very clear about what’s happening here. Are they taking precautions? Whether they’re counseling or threatening… has that become a part of the drone program? … The way in which they have to keep people in line?

SK: I think there’s more awareness for the trauma caused by working the drone program now than when I started my research, my work, 3, 4 years ago. But I think it’s still developing. We still need a lot more research. I think research in this area is important.

This is a new weapon. It’s a fairly new technology. And it hasn’t been used for such a long time, just over ten years. I think the first armed… the first military drone strike that has been reported was in October in 2001. So, I think it’s still developing. We need more research, we need more transparency, and we definitely need more help for the pilots and the analysts. But there’s more awareness. People are leaving the program, too.

DB: … We don’t know about Trump yet, but do we know how many innocents Obama murdered?

SK: That is really the problem.

DB: We don’t know.

SK: This information is missing. We don’t know how many civilians are being killed. We don’t know how many people have been killed by drones over all. And so, it’s really difficult for us to judge and compare, also, this weapon: unmanned aircraft to conventional aircraft.

Dennis J Bernstein is a host of “Flashpoints” on the Pacifica radio network and the author of Special Ed: Voices from a Hidden Classroom. You can access the audio archives at www.flashpoints.net.

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21 comments for “America’s Deadly New ‘National Bird’

  1. Heman
    March 12, 2017 at 09:52

    The interview focuses solely on the assassins who pull the trigger. It really is an telling commentary. You might also call them hit men and women. The article is not ethno centered, simply showing one dimension of the drone war.

    But the questions about steps to treat the psyche of the assassins or operators is ghoulish, in some way. It suggests helping the assassins be good citizens after they leave their posts. Akin to caring for the psyche’s of torturers so they can best do their jobs and return to “normal”.

    Not to criticize the article but to note we have a real problem with empathy, of any feeling for the lives lost and wrecked by the monstrous killing machines we have created and sharing with others to kill.

    I remember several instances that reflect this. One was a drone killing of someone they thought was Obama Bin Laden because he was tall like Bin Laden. Just a passing note, we got the wrong guy, so what. Keep trying.

    Another was Bush’s satisfied statement about killing a terrorist along with fellow passengers in a car, some speculation it was his family.

    Examples of this callous disregard for life other than our own are too numerous to mention, although Albrights comment about the deaths of Iraqi children puts it in a neat package.

  2. March 10, 2017 at 19:01

    Just read an article on US military’s term for civilian casualties killed by drones, viewed by drone operators in grainy footage, bodies referred to as “bug splat”. Cannot be other than a psychopath that would originate such a term. Poor dupes in need of a paycheck who carry out the orders.

  3. Jerry
    March 8, 2017 at 21:04

    It has been well known since Vietnam, if not before then, that the exceptional and indispensable nation goes abroad not to slay monsters but to slay innocents in the service of the overweening greed of the Military Industrial Complex. The innocents include Americans and foreigners.

    Anyone who considers joining the armed forces should take the trouble to learn a little about what they actually do. Upon learning that, they should consider the wisdom and morality of participating in it.

  4. Joe Tedesky
    March 8, 2017 at 17:10

    If only there were away with tax season coming to an end, that we Americans could withhold paying our taxes, and quit funding our nation’s terrorism.

    • Dr. Ibrahim Soudy
      March 8, 2017 at 17:18

      What America does cannot be wrong….America is “EXCEPTIONAL”………….It is another way of saying that America is GOD ON EARTH………It decides who lives and in what condition and who dies……..

      • Joe Tedesky
        March 8, 2017 at 22:25

        Your sarcasm is not loss on this sites comment board, but sadly some Americans would say how right you are. This American syndrome of exceptionalism is truly a threat to all of mankind. You know all too well I’m sure how many Americans believe that life in America is like no other to be found on planet earth. In reality we Americans are literally fooling ourselves with our self proclaimed indispensability, and by doing so we leave ourselves open to failure.

        Thank you Dr. Ibrahim Soudy I always look forward to reading your comments….Joe

  5. March 8, 2017 at 13:12

    These Drone Murderers do not deserve our sympathy.
    This interview almost made me sick. And it’s extra-disgusting
    that WOMEN are doing this Dirty KILLING Work!!!
    What a Feminist Abomination ! In the words of Joseph Conrad:
    “OH THE HORROR ! THE HORROR !

    • D5-5
      March 8, 2017 at 15:06

      You forget the pressures military are under to follow orders. The alternative in becoming a CO is a difficult choice, let alone all the considerations of right-wrong needed. Look at the horror Manning underwent. Your anger is understandable but ought to be directed at the authorities using this program, in my view.

      • March 8, 2017 at 20:55

        humans must be accountable for their choices,whether to be a doctor, teacher or paid murderer.

    • BART GRUZALSKI PROF. EMERITUS
      March 8, 2017 at 16:34

      orwell,

      I think you are being much too judgmental about what she was doing. As she told us, initially she thought it was a good thing—helping to stamp out terrorism. It’s only after she realized what was going on that she:

      1) had the courage to help make this important film;

      2) had the courage to quit, likely giving up any benefits.

      Those who deserve your ire are those who stay in the program and either don’t feel anything (though the suicides tell us a lot of folks do) OR actually enjoy it.

      The woman in the film is very courageous and I, for one, am indebted to her for telling us what we knew was going on but being willing to go on the big screen.

      Have you done ANYTHING to prevent drone warfare? Broken into a drone base? Been arrested for protesting? Or are you one of those sleazy academic types who just post your “politically correct” judgments.

      WHAT ARE YOU? WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO HELP????

      Dr. Bart Gruzalski, Professor Emeritus, Philosophy, Northeastern University, Boston, MA—at least I’ve written books on our great Peace President and have also spoken publicly against drone warfare (e.g., at the Ohio State University called “Miami University”)

      • March 9, 2017 at 10:27

        one may note that humans are accountable for their actions, patriotic murderers are not exempt, without ire, it is simply stating the law of the universe. for every action there is a reaction. one is responsible for one’s own wisdom and actions regardless of ones culture. Quantum physics states that a mere observation of an event effects the event. of course the sum of your actions produce the sum of your liabilty.

  6. Josh Stern
    March 8, 2017 at 12:05

    Some of the drone cases give one the distinct impression that the goal is to spend a lot of $$$ on killing rather than to get a guy who is hard to contact or any kind of threat in the first place: https://theintercept.com/drone-papers/the-life-and-death-of-objective-peckham/

    Various agencies come up with independent estimates of casualties: https://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/2016/07/01/opinion-official-estimates-show-civilians-likely-killed-cia-drones-us-air-force-actions-reality-likely-far-worse/

  7. Tom Welsh
    March 8, 2017 at 11:50

    ‘And she had to make a call, judging the video feed and saying, “What I see on this video is this person is either a terrorist or a civilian”… and that is a very responsible position. And … a decision that could eventually lead to the killing of a group of people’.

    Yes, “the killing of a group of people”. By a nation (the USA) that is technically not at war – although it is currently killing people on an industrial scale in half a dozen nations on any given day, give or take one or two.

    Even more appalling, the deliberate killing by the US government of a group of people in a foreign country with which the USA is not at war. Although no war has been declared, that is an act of war. It is also the launching of an unprovoked war of aggression, defined by the (American-dominated) Nuremberg Tribunal as “the supreme international crime”. It is deliberate, cold-blooded mass murder on a wholesale basis.

    ‘And that experience, for her, was very traumatizing’.

    My heart just bleeds for the poor woman. Although I imagine the people she helped to kill – rather, the people she selected for killing – might have found it even more “traumatizing”. Not to mention their bereaved families, relatives, and friends.

    • BART GRUZALSKI PROF. EMERITUS
      March 8, 2017 at 16:25

      TOM WELSH,

      Great comment

    • Typingperson
      March 9, 2017 at 01:36

      Yep. So traumatizing to murder innocent people thousands of miles away in cold blood.

  8. March 8, 2017 at 10:32

    I have read that Israel is the seed source of drone technology. That nearly $4 billion USA gives to Israel annually is well spent, no?

    • Dr. Ibrahim Soudy
      March 8, 2017 at 13:59

      The money is home because it is now “The United States of ISRAEL”………

    • BART GRUZALSKI PROF. EMERITUS
      March 8, 2017 at 16:21

      JESSICA,

      the answer is obvious.

      n n oooo
      n n n o o
      n n n o o
      n nn o o
      n n oooo

      Thank you for a good comment and thanks to Parry for a great article which I will post on Facebook (I’ve seen the clip and I already posted that).

      Dr. Bart Gruzalski, Professor Emeritus, Philosophy and Religion and Public Policy, Northeastern University, Boston, MA–my second book on Trump (“Why Christians and Peace-Advocates Must Vote for Trump”) is deeply relevant to this and even more horrific stuff (Clinton’s wanting to go to nuclear war with Russia).

      • BART GRUZALSKI PROF. EMERITUS
        March 8, 2017 at 16:24

        Jessica,

        Those n’s and o’s spelt “NO” but clearly got lost in the process of posting.

        NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO

      • March 9, 2017 at 02:27

        like Dawn replied I’m shocked that someone able to profit $8730 in a few weeks on the
        internet . see more,….. http://www.easy-review1.com ?????????????????????

    • Lisa
      March 8, 2017 at 18:00

      The billions sent to Israel are, if I’ve understood correctly, earmarked to be used for purchasing arms from US companies. Good deal, right?

      What do you say, isn’t this documentary worth the next Oscar? Too much to ask….

Comments are closed.