National Bird review – chilling film reveals truths about drones

Using the testimony of three courageous whistleblowers who worked on the US drone programme, this documentary uncovers some disturbing truths about modern American warfare

This is a disturbing documentary which, through the testimonies of three courageous whistleblowers, sheds some daylight on the USA’s secret military drone programme. Directed by Sonia Kennebeck and executive-produced by Wim Wenders, National Bird weaves together the stories of the air force veterans Lisa, Daniel and Heather, all of whom have worked on the drones programme, gathering intelligence and tracking targets to be killed.

Then National Bird moves to Afghanistan, where the maimed survivors of a mistaken drone strike on unarmed civilians in February 2010, which killed 23 people, describe what happened when they were attacked. The juxtaposition of the appallingly gung-ho attitude of the drone operatives, re-enacted from a transcript of the event, and raw footage of the dead bodies (some children) returning to their anguished friends and family, is heartbreaking and enraging.

Kennebeck juxtaposes Obama’s speeches about drones – in which he claims that they are able to take out insurgents without harming those around them – with the testimonies of those who know that this is untrue. Self-evidently, drones wreak widespread devastation, and the fact that a growing element of modern warfare involves studying dots on a screen and deciding on which to drop a bomb has frightening ethical implications. National Bird demonstrates that the nature of drone warfare makes some drone operatives trigger-happy, while others, like Heather, who analysed intelligence on warzones and wrote about her experiences for the Guardian, end up dehumanised and suffering from PTSD.

This is a documentary that shows rather than tells, ominously beautiful drone’s-eye tracking shots of ordinary American streets demonstrating the way the technology can be used against any community. The film kicks up a gear when signals intelligence analyst Daniel, who had worked with the NSA at Fort Meade, decides to blow the whistle on the drone programme and gets the full force of the government machinery dropped on top of him, including the raiding of his house by dozens of FBI agents and the threat of decades in jail for treason. His attorney Jesselyn Radack, who represents the other whistleblowers and did the same for Edward Snowden, makes clear that once you cross the military-industrial complex, your life becomes extremely difficult. At the end of the film, Daniel’s whereabouts are chillingly described as unknown.

Under the US 1917 espionage act, the film and the whistleblowers are severely restricted in what they can (or, in the case of the whistleblowers, would wish to) say, but certain sharp facts poke through the murk. Lisa shows a letter of commendation for helping to identify 121,000 insurgent targets over two years – as she points out, since the US has been at war in Afghanistan since 2001, the scale of casualties must be vast. No one will say, but it’s also pretty clear that the US is using drones in countries with which it is not officially at war. With stealth and elegance, Kennebeck brings these alarming truths into the light.


Alex Needham

The GuardianTramp

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