Military Review English Edition November-December 2015 - Page 80

operator, removed from both risk and fear, and sitting at a computer’s controls surrounded by joysticks and buttons, is disconnected from the scene of battle and its concomitant dangers. War is allegedly transformed in the imagination of the cyber warriors into a virtual landscape, removed from the brutal reality of death, and its moral implications. According to Walje, “Killing through a computer screen sterilizes and dehumanizes the act, and seems to create a cavalier attitude toward their [drones’] use by both their operators and senior leadership in the U.S. government.”16 The video game quality allegedly makes violence easy for the perpetrators, who become desensitized to it, and who can imagine they are playing in a death-delivering video game. In his 2010 “Study on Targeted Killings,” Philip Alston, then United Nations special representative on extrajudicial executions, made the parallel between operating a drone and playing a video game. He wrote, “Because operators are based thousands of miles away from the battlefield, and undertake operations entirely through computer screens and remote audio-feed, there is a risk of developing a ‘PlayStation’ mentality to killing.”17 In this scenario, drone warfare is the worst form of violence, the encouragement of aggressiveness robbed of gravitas and sacrifice. In this context, the debate concerning a service medal for drone pilots is interesting. In 2012, the Pentagon decided to create the Distinguished Warfare Medal specifically for drone pilots. The war medal reflected the changing nature of war in the twenty-first century, then Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta explained. In fact, the proposed medal ranked above the Purple Heart and other decorations earned in direct combat. Yet, the opposition to the medal was strong. A petition on the website Change.org opposing the medal quickly gathered thirty thousand signatures. One of America’s largest veterans groups, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, vocally and publicly opposed the medal, as did others such as the American Legion and VoteVets.org. In 2013, a bipartisan group of twenty-two U.S. senators pressed the Pentagon to reconsider the medal. In a letter to new Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, they wrote, We believe that medals earned in combat, or in dangerous conditions, should maintain their precedence above noncombat awards. Placing the Distinguished Warfare Medal above the 74 Bronze Star and Purple Heart diminishes the significance of awards earned by risking one’s life in direct combat or through acts of heroism.18 Forty-eight members of the House of Representatives also wrote Hagel, questioning the new medal. The main point voiced was that drones may be important to modern American warfare, but controlling them does not involve gallantry, risk, or valor—the conditions that make a great warrior. This shows there is political ambivalence towards the figure of the drone operator as warrior. Hagel canceled the medal soon after replacing Panetta.19 Good Kill? Good Kill, the first Hollywood feature film about a drone pilot, was released in the United States in May 2015.20 Unlike American Sniper, which came out six months prior, the film has not become a blockbuster hit or received extensive media coverage.21 Nonetheless, Andrew Niccol’s Good Kill is an interesting film from a political perspective because it brings to life many of the tropes that circulate in the academic literature and in the press concerning drones. Many reviews of Good Kill discuss drones as a symbol of our cultural decay. Anthony Lane, writing in The New Yorker, claims that the drone is “almost too convenient an emblem of alienation.”22 Stephen Holden writes in the New York Times that the “movie makes a persuasive case that our blind infatuation with all-powerful technology is stripping us of our humanity.” He claims that Good Kill is “a contemporary horror movie about humans seduced and hypnotized by machines into surrendering their souls.”23 Ethan Hawke, who stars as Maj. Thomas Egan, believes that the drone symbolizes a larger drama we all face: “It’s not a huge jump from what’s happening to these pilots to what’s happening to all of us,” he said. “More and more of our intimacy, what used to feel real and tangible, is now automated, [and] is now from a distance. We’re avoiding … [things that were] difficult, war being one of them.”24 The idea is clear. Drone technology strips us of our humanity, increases and displays our alienation, and destroys our ethical center. The movie, said to be based on actual events, follows Egan, an experienced F-16 fighter pilot who has served six combat tours but is now stationed in Las Vegas as a drone pilot. Therefore, the film does not take place in Pakistan or Afghanistan, but rather in a bunker, a suburban November-December 2015  MILITARY REVIEW