Last night I was blown away, though happily not literally, by a brilliant stage performance at Page 73, a theater in Tribeca, in New York City, that often presents plays that have never before been produced in the city. Its current production is Grounded, a play written by George Brant that takes on America’s drone warfare program. It’s a one-woman show, acted by Hannah Cabell, who delivers a searing performance that left me stunned. She portrays a gung-ho, top-gun fighter-bomber pilot in Iraq and Afghanistan who, after becoming pregnant, is assigned to pilot remote drones at Creech Air Force Base outside Las Vegas.
At first reluctant to abandon “the blue,” Cabell’s character adapts to long days of boredom in front of a gray screen, days only occasionally marked by blowing up groups of “military-age males” in the Afghan desert. But as she tracks a “high-value target,” described in the play as a “Number Two”—a riff on the seemingly endless list of Al Qaeda Number Two’s killed since 2001—she finds herself unable to balance her day job with her incongruous role as a wife and mother back at the house to which she returns each day. I won’t reveal too much else about what happens, but do yourself a favor: if you’re in the New York area before the show ends its run on February 1, go see it. (And if you’re a theater producer elsewhere, make plans to put this on stage, with Cabell if she’s available.)
Google “drones“ these days and for every mention of President Obama’s policy of remote killing in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, Libya and elsewhere, you’ll get information on drones that might be used to deliver pizzas or online purchases and headlines like: “Berkshire realty company uses drones to film luxury estates.” Or about a bill, recently passed by New Jersey’s state assembly, to regulate the use of unarmed drones by state law enforcement agencies.
But the killing goes on. To be sure, the sheer number of drone strikes has been dropping in recent years, but that’s little comfort to the innocents killed or to the friends and relatives of targeted individuals who become collateral damage. (Such collateral damage plays a critical role in Grounded.) According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which tracks drone strikes, there were twenty-seven drone attacks in Pakistan carried out by the CIA in 2013 and thirty-eight more in Yemen, including the December 12, 2013, strike that bombed a wedding party, killing as many as fifteen civilians, injuring up to thirty more. (There were 127 strikes in Pakistan in 2010, seventy-four in 2011, and forty-seven in 2012, according to the BIJ.)
The declining pattern of strikes is welcome, but the very use of drones raises fundamental questions about US policy. Aside from the moral questions, there are also important issues concerning the usefulness of drones, according to Science Daily, which reports on a pair of studies published in a military journal called Dynamics of Asymmetric Conflict that challenge drones as a means of warfare. According to the site: