Grim Reapers

Grim Reapers

Drones have taken on a life of their own in popular culture.


Erik Parsons, a colonel in the US Air Force, and his wife, Jennifer, like to talk about Erik’s work commanding drone strikes out of a Nevada Air Force base almost as much as they like to rendezvous in their backyard hot tub with a couple of Heinekens. They talk about little else in Sting of the Drone, the new thriller by Richard Clarke. The former counterterrorism czar under Bill Clinton and George W. Bush has strong opinions about US drone policy and only a few hundred hyperactively paced pages in which to air them. The result is a self-confident political critique set against a backdrop of PG-13 action. “I’ll bring the brewskies, Flyboy,” Jennifer says, stripping naked for the hot tub, where Erik calmly assures her that his pilots are tracking down terrorists. “We’re finding them, Jen,” Erik says, pretending to be a monster. “We’re winning.”

But even thousands of miles from the action, it’s a tough fight. While he’s sampling a six-course tasting menu on the Vegas Strip, the colonel moans about work. A Reaper drone collided recently with a passenger plane over Somalia and then crashed into a refugee camp. Bruce, one of Erik’s ace pilots, accidentally “fried” a civilian, although he also eliminated “four bad guys.” Another of Bruce’s drones simply disappeared from the radar; Erik is still trying to figure that one out, “whether he clipped a mountain or what happened.”

Erik’s men are driving their cars drunk, asking for early transfers, divorcing their wives. Washington might send some therapists. Jennifer is a psychiatrist, and as she sips the restaurant’s best California chardonnay, she offers her professional opinion about her husband’s drone wing:

“There is a lot of stress in the program. Let’s face it, they kill people fairly often and then they walk out of their dark game-boy room and they’re in the blazing Las Vegas sun, where it’s perfectly safe, fun is all around. It’s hard to live in those two worlds simultaneously…. You don’t want them to think of their job as just a computer game. You want them to know there are real people at the other end. But then when you achieve that they also know that those real people are killed like fish in a barrel, they can’t fight back. It’s not really a fair fight, so your guys get guilty.”

Erik supports the use of armed drones by the United States, which has resulted in the deaths of approximately 4,000 people— suspected terrorists and civilians alike—in Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen. As a proponent, he eagerly participates in the heated debate taking place in the United States and abroad about the ethics and efficacy of twenty-first-century warfare. At dinner, in response to his wife, the colonel lays out some popular arguments in favor of drones, otherwise known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs):

“It’s not supposed to be a fair fight,” Erik shot back. “That’s the whole point. We have found a way of eliminating our enemies that does not put our people at risk. Military leaders have wanted that forever. That’s why they put men inside big metal tanks or had them fly overhead in bombers, but then those things got vulnerable, too. I don’t want it to be fair and to have one out of ten of my guys killed. I want none out of ten killed. And that’s what I got with the drones.”

The conversation continues, steered by rhetorical phrases like “trouble is” and “truth is,” and if the talk sounds familiar, that’s the point. Clarke may insist to his readers that Sting of the Drone is a work of fiction, but he offers that statement up as more of a wink than a disclaimer. Since unsuccessfully arguing for the use of military drones to kill Osama bin Laden, Clarke has been an outspoken critic of the “war on terror,” objecting more or less from the sidelines. Because it is fiction, Sting of the Drone gives Clarke the chance to bolster his theories with imagination, while insinuating throughout that his imagination could double as insight. In the author’s note that concludes the book, he even hints that he could have prevented 9/11.

Clarke, whose nonfiction book Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror was a national bestseller, has also struck a chord with Sting of the Drone. Since 2002, when the first targeted drone strike against Al Qaeda was ordered in Afghanistan, drones have been at the center of America’s national-security policy, operating in countries where we have been at war, like Iraq and Afghanistan, and in countries where we have officially not, like Yemen and Pakistan. In spite of growing questions about the ethics of drone strikes, and an initial optimism about the foreign policy of President Barack Obama, the drone program has been greatly expanded since 2004; in 2012, there were as many drone strikes in Yemen as during the previous ten years combined. Recently, Obama referred to the strikes in Yemen and Somalia as models for the use of force against militants with the Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria. Drones are a military mainstay and a national obsession.

To their proponents, UAVs are an exciting—and inevitable—technology. They enhance the US military’s ability to target foreign combatants while minimizing American and, ideally, civilian casualties. Their development has applications in nonmilitary fields such as science, medicine and retail (Amazon and Google tout the potential use of drones for same-day delivery service). And they are economical: an armed Predator drone costs a fraction of what it takes to manufacture and maintain a fighter jet.

Critics say the drone program violates the Geneva Conventions and other international treaties that the United States has pledged to uphold. Drones may increase the likelihood of war, in part because they reduce combat risk for American pilots; the perceived low threat, their comparatively small cost and US dominance in the field make the use of UAVs all too tempting. Furthermore, critics say, the very presence of drones—the buzz of their engines and the violence it portends—traumatizes whole communities. In Khashamir, in east Yemen, villagers attribute sudden deaths and miscarriages to trauma from the ever-present drones. Human-rights groups have published book-length collections of such testimonies. Drones, these statements seem to confirm, recruit more terrorists than they kill.

But for opposition policy-makers, journalists and activists, and even some supporters of drones, the most alarming aspect of the program is its secrecy, which not only obscures facts but also stokes paranoia—or complacency. It was only in 2012 that Obama publicly admitted the existence of the drone program while continuing to escalate the strikes, and Americans today are expected to reconcile the documented existence of drones with the official silence or denials on the subject. As a result, the debate on drones verges on the surreal, testing the limits of the American public’s connection to its own government as well as its influence over the waging of foreign wars. Emerging from this fog are fantastical political thrillers like Sting of the Drone.

* * *

In recent years, not just in novels but in movies, television, poetry, video games and the visual arts, drones have taken on a life of their own. As a character, they are menacing, melancholy or gallant; beastly, blind, snub-nosed, noisy and fast—Predators and Reapers in real life, “Helicarriers” in Hollywood. They are the oversize hook at the end of a joystick, a militarized, antiseptic video game characterized by precision; or they are a weapon system proliferating at a breathtaking rate, and leaving a trail of destruction behind. They show off the military talent of their users, or they are an expression of unbridled hubris. They represent protection or extermination—and they carry out both things at once.

In America, on whose behalf the vast majority of drones are deployed but where none of their missiles have been used offensively, the UAV is more a symbol than a weapon. Drones represent the thrills and pitfalls of ingenuity, as well as the tangled threat of terrorism. They embody our own vulnerabilities as a nation, and the complexities—or impossibility—of waging ethical warfare. What we don’t know about drones (which is by design a lot), we can imagine, and our fantasies are usually dark. “Well, look, they aren’t really just airplanes,” a member of Clarke’s fictionalized “Kill Committee” says. “People see them as Flying Killer Robots. And people have a deep fear of armed robots.”

“What’s most interesting to me about drones is not that they are changing the world, but that they are changing us,” Mike Maden, who has a doctorate in political science, told me. “They are very ironic machines.” Maden’s debut work of fiction, Drone, takes place in a lightly fictionalized near-future in which drones are used for good—such as monitoring the migratory habits of endangered humpback whales—and evil. Maden’s biggest apparent leap is the core plot, in which the US president argues that Mexican drug cartels are a threat akin to foreign terrorists and deploys drones across the border to hunt them down. In a series of blasts, drug kingpins are killed with ease and precision. When old-school efforts—boots on the ground—are used to combat the Mexican traffickers, they fail spectacularly, and within the gore is a message: “Human snipers contended with other variables, too,” Maden writes. “Stinging sweat, the need to breathe, beating hearts, nagging doubts, sick kids back home, lack of sleep, fears.”

Then the weapons turn on their maker: snatched by Iranian forces and emblazoned with American flags, the drones target an oil rig, an airport and a church. Some are meant to kill Americans, and others to ruin the reputation of the United States abroad. Amid the chaos, terrorism flourishes in the United States; in one pivotal scene, a Mexican ice-cream vendor unwittingly blows up Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. Maden exploits a fundamental worry about drones, one rooted in a strain of technophobia that appears in much of science fiction, from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to James Cameron’s The Terminator. Humans, by virtue of our boundless curiosity and intelligence, will eventually create a machine we cannot control. In Maden’s book, and in Clarke’s, that machine is the UAV, and it’s only a matter of time—and political miscalculation—before our drones attack us.

Maden takes pains to highlight nonmilitary uses of the technology, and he wants his arguments to be taken seriously. He assures readers that all the machines he describes in the book either already exist or are in development, and that the novel’s world is only vaguely futuristic. The president, elected after Obama’s second term, is a woman. “I joke that science fiction is dead,” Maden said. “You really can’t make this stuff up anymore.”

In these novels, the actual fiction is like lingerie—minimal, alluring. The same is true in Bloodmoney (2011), a novel by Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, which also presents itself as being based in reality. The doctor Omar al-Wazir becomes a would-be terrorist to avenge his family’s death by US drone. Like Colonel Parsons fretting over losing control of his drones in Clarke’s novel, the doctor’s transformation is a lesson for the reader. In one of the book’s early scenes, a Pakistani general ponders the situation: “The Americans were changing the rules of the game. They must think they were being clever in Washington, but they were walking into terrain where nobody could help them—not the general, not his agents, not their clandestine contacts…. They were the mischief-makers. They would get caught, and it would be their fault.”

Like Clarke, Ignatius has toured the news shows promoting his book, sometimes coyly, as an insider’s view on drones and governmental policy. With so little genuine information coming from the White House and the Pentagon, these books—and even television shows like 24 or films like Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which have both featured drone-heavy plots—do sometimes provide insight or spark debate. Discussing his novel on NPR’s The Diane Rehm Show, Ignatius broached ethical issues that policy-makers seem reluctant to touch. Drones “allow you to kill people from 10,000 feet,” Ignatius said, “which seems, to our public—I think wrongly—less bloody than if we did it right up close standing next to someone with a gun.”

And yet all these fictions, while diligently researched, are mostly far-fetched. It’s not necessarily the fault of their authors; drones take on the gloss of fantasy too well. Genuine expertise—a background in the military, government, political science or journalism—and plots intended to serve as warnings or political critiques do little to differentiate these drone entertainments from other, less topical science-fiction or technological thrillers. The genre conventions overwhelm the message.

In Sting of the Drone, Erik grows increasingly anxious about losing control of the weapons. “It’s like something’s shifted. Like the bad guys are figuring us out, like we’re not quite invulnerable anymore,” he tells Jennifer. This may be true to life. But in the novel, his cautionary words are less a comment on American hubris than a familiar literary convention: the rote speech delivered by a fictional hero in order to disguise the inevitability of his victory, purely for thrills.

* * *

“Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself. Pity. A signature strike leveled the florist’s.” Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole’s popular “Small Fates” series on Twitter compiles poetic, often darkly humorous, 140-character-or-less versions of Lagos’s more violent headlines. In January 2013, Cole turned his attention to drones. “Call me Ishmael. I was a young man of military age. I was immolated at my wedding. My parents are inconsolable,” he writes in one. The last of the seven tweets, which invokes the first sentence of Camus’s The Stranger, states, “Mother died today. The program saves American lives.”

The tweets received a lot of attention. Fans saw them as a fierce critique of US drone policy, much needed at a time when secrecy—and fading optimism about Obama—appeared to limit anti-drone activism. By embedding drones in the opening sentences of classic novels, Cole seemed to comment on the national mindset about them, one characterized more by distance and irony than by genuine fear or culpability. Months before, he had offered what appeared to be a thesis: “Each age has its presiding metaphor. Ours is aerial bombing.”

Adam Rothstein, author of the forthcoming book Drone, responded to Cole’s tweets on the United Arab Emirates–based website the State, calling fictional work like it of the “utmost importance.” Such writing, compared to the whirlwind of thrillers—which suffer, anyway, from a dearth of information—could have a profound reach, Rothstein thinks. Curating and writing about work that incorporates drones, as well as exploring the connection between drones and people beyond the offerings of science fiction or political thrillers, became his focus.

“Drones are very much a character, which we compile from the sources we choose, and those which we choose to believe,” Rothstein explained to me in an e-mail. “Look at the number of times people rely upon stock tropes to describe drones. ‘Killer robots,’ ‘terminators,’ ‘zombie drones,’ ‘flocking birds,’ ‘vampire bats’…. We really personify drones in ways that we don’t with cellphones or computers.” Rothstein added that “the problem with science fiction is that the drones are an aspect of speculation. Anything they do in the context of the work is immediately perceived as speculation, and not to be taken seriously.”

In the summer of 2013, Rothstein and Olivia Rosane launched “Murmuration: A Festival of Drone Culture.” They proposed a website that, for one month, would post “art, film, music, and writing inspired by the idea of the drone.” The result, a compilation of work tiled on a Tumblr page, explores the drone as an object and as an object of obsession. There are posters, videos, short stories, essays and Christmas gifts—all about drones. None of these projects command the kind of audience of a David Ignatius novel, but taken together, they better represent the impact that drone warfare, and speculation about that warfare, have had on the public imagination. “Drones are a complicated topic,” Rothstein told me. “Speaking louder is not necessarily better.”

On the “Murmuration” site, one can watch Heems, formerly of the rap trio Das Racist, perform a song about drones and dating. Photoshopped images depict Predator drones flying over present-day Dubai. A fluorescent poster advertises a horse-drone hybrid called “My Little Droney: Surveillance Is Magic.”

“Dronestagram,” one of the most compelling projects compiled on “Murmuration,” is a visual and cultural link between the Instagramming American public and the areas targeted by drones, as well as a method of compiling a death toll—a daunting task given the clandestine nature of most of these attacks. Beneath an aerial photograph showing the patchwork of flat roofs in a small Pakistani village, a caption provides the tally of people, both targets and civilians, killed or injured in the drone attack. In Tappi village, according to one “Dronestagram,” three to five people were reported killed, including one civilian, in a drone attack on October 24, 2012. “Three cows intended to be sacrificed for Eid were also killed,” it notes.

When a drone comes alive, in the world of “Murmuration,” it reminds us of the danger of taking refuge in fictions. Drones are not sentient; people are responsible for what they do. In the first panel of a short comic, the black silhouette of a drone flies against a light sky, and the text wonders if the all-seeing flying weapon would, if it could, think about what was happening on the ground below. If the drone truly had a mind or a conscience; if it could control its own movements and make its own plans; if it could take responsibility—would it consider what it was doing? “But it thinks nothing,” the artist decides finally. “After all, it is a drone.”

* * *

On April 17, 2013, two US drones killed a suspected Al Qaeda member, his driver and two of his bodyguards in Wessab, a village high up in the mountains of Yemen. A description of the carnage from the drone attack, as told to Human Rights Watch, reads like a scene from a novel:

“The fire was high; no one dared get close and the planes were hovering above,” said Ahmad Hamoud Qaed Daer, the driver’s father. “I couldn’t do anything…. It was dark and there was a lot of smoke. There was no moon and I didn’t even have a flashlight. I saw my son charred, in the front seat.”

People began to panic. Nowhere seemed safe—not in their homes, not on their roofs. “The planes [drones] were there until we buried them,” another villager said. “I swear by Allah, if we had had weapons, not a single plane would leave. We would take them down because they terrified the village.”

These testimonies are difficult to read. They are full of explosions, gore and personal, life-altering tragedies. Baraa Shiban, of the nongovernmental organization Reprieve, says that drones are indeed a Yemeni obsession; they are always overhead. Villagers fear the strikes and cling to evidence of them, knowing that their own government and the US government are prone to denying that the attacks ever took place. “People are very aware, even in remote areas,” Shiban said. “If you talk to very uneducated people, very simple people living in villages, they realize that it’s an American drone program. Sometimes they say that America is sending planes to kill us.”

In 2013, Reprieve held a drone-themed poetry contest. Writers throughout Yemen participated, and the event received plenty of media attention, even prompting a local pop singer to approach the NGO about turning the winning poem into a song. That poem, “Unrhymed Drone,” by Ayman Shahari, described the grim struggle of living with drones and the complicit Yemeni government:

Below us:
A furnace for tyrants
Above us, drones?

The friendly drones, the enemy
Which makes death fall
As though we are fields
And death our downpour.

“They were angry about the constant presence of drones over their heads,” Shiban told me. “A lot of them were addressing the fact that we have no other way to fight these drones. But we have our words, and expressing ourselves.” The prize for the winning poem was $600—or, as Reprieve pointed out, a mere 1 percent of the cost of a Hellfire missile.

In Yemen, poetry is a written and oral tradition that knits together a society otherwise composed of many disparate communities spread over a large and geographically diverse terrain. In recent years, drones have made their appearance in poems as well as in street art. In Sanaa, a well-known piece of graffiti depicts a child asking a drone, “Why did you kill my family?” The same artist also plastered images of drone victims on walls around the city.

But it’s in rural Yemen, beneath the drones, where the poetry has been sharpened into knives. Life for many villagers is now unbearable, and poetry is a way to convey that reality to a skeptical audience. The attacks have penetrated many layers of society in a reasonably short period of time. “Drones are, in many countries, the face of the United States,” Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and an expert on national security and counterterrorism, told me. “Drones are such a small part of the American government’s engagement with the world, but they are given such tremendous weight because of the infrastructure around their use. It’s the myth of covert action.”

Zenko is aware of the swirl of science fiction and techno-thrillers about drones: “Look at how the CIA plays a role,” he advised. “They have an entertainment-industry liaison.” But he’s more focused on drones outside of fiction and metaphor; the reality is alarming enough. “What people always get into at this point in the conversation is autonomous killer robots,” Zenko said. “I’m more interested in what’s happening on earth today. There are no civilians being killed by autonomous killer robots.”

Reprieve’s Shiban watched Captain America: The Winter Soldier, he told me with a little laugh, although he didn’t think that many other Yemenis had. Even Dirty Wars, the 2013 Jeremy Scahill documentary about the “war on terror,” has yet to be officially screened in Yemen, where much of it was filmed. Shiban sighed; as a Yemeni, he seemed accustomed to being the subject of discussion, whether in a documentary or a Hollywood movie, rather than a participant. “I think it’s interesting that drones are starting to impact even the American movies and American directors,” he said. “But there are limits. There is much more needed to be done to really address what is happening to the people here.”

* * *

This poem is by an unnamed Afghan woman:

May God destroy your tank and your drone,
you who’ve destroyed my village, my home.

The poem is a landay, folk poetry sung among Pashtun women along the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Traditionally, the twenty-two-syllable poems were performed over drumbeats at weddings and other gatherings, but decades of violence, and the Taliban’s oppressive rule, have made such performances rare. Today, landays are still collected and shared, but more privately.

Their content, too, has changed, “remixed like rap, with old words swapped for newer, more relevant ones,” writes poet and journalist Eliza Griswold, in the introduction to I Am the Beggar of the World, a collection of landays she has translated. This extraordinary book cuts to the heart of the US drone program. Much as they’ve entered the skies above scattered villages, drones have entered the landays, which, Griswold writes, often “reflect an exasperation with foreign occupation and a deepening terror of living under the threat of drone strikes.”

Over two years, Griswold and the photographer Seamus Murphy traveled through Afghanistan in search of landays. It took time and patience to gain the trust of women who value the poems, which deal frankly with sex and relationships, as their sole means of rebellion, but who also fear the repercussions of being named as their authors. What Griswold found was, in part, the scar tissue of permanent war—a war where the only things that change are the nationality of the occupiers and the types of weapons they use. Today, those weapons are drones. As in Yemen, poetry in Afghanistan is a way for disenfranchised, mostly rural populations to describe their real lives, and violence has seeped into the work. A 2014 report called “Impacts of the War on Terror on Pashto Literature and Art,” by the FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) Research Centre, a Pakistan-based NGO, determined that “Pashto literature is divided into two sections; one post-9/11 and the other…pre-9/11….”

I Am the Beggar of the World is a universe away from Sting of the Drone, despite the fact that both have armed drones and the “war on terror” at their core. It’s not just that Clarke is vastly different from the female singers of landays, which belong to a distinctly foreign literary tradition, or that he has very different goals (one of which, presumably, is to sell books). Drones are two separate objects in the American versus the Afghan imagination. In the United States, drones are all too often a metaphor, the indirectness made more profound by the literal distance between a vehicle and its pilot. Drones symbolize a lot but seem to do very little. However, the same drone in Afghanistan exists as a fact of life, one that embodies real tragedy. There, a drone is a drone.

“Mostly, when people sing these poems, they’re not looking to make a statement as much as they are talking about their lived experience,” Griswold told me. “Certainly, [drones] are a symbol of menacing power. But it’s much more literal. When a drone appears in a landay, it’s because it killed [the author’s] son.”

Griswold first listened to one of the landays in the book on the cellphone of a businesswoman in Jalalabad, far removed from the wedding where a woman named Chadana had originally sung it. Chadana’s son Nabi, a Taliban fighter, was reportedly killed in a US drone strike in 2011. Chadana uses the poem to mourn her son, and in two short lines manages to convey the impact that US drone strikes have had on her life with a force that evokes the attack itself:

My Nabi was shot down by a drone.
May God destroy your sons, America, you murdered my own.

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