Film review: National Bird (2016)

[Note: You can stream the film for free until May 15.]

The documentary National Bird directed by Sonia Kennebeck and released by Independent Lens looks at the US drone warfare program from the point of view of three former US Air Force (Heather, Daniel, and Lisa) whose jobs were to identify targets seen in the drone videos, and from the survivors of the infamous attack on February 21, 2010 on a convoy carrying a group of families that resulted in the deaths of 23 people, all civilians, and caused serious injuries to many others. All three of them have since left the Air Force. They all suffer from guilt at what they were part of, with Heather being suicidal and diagnosed with PTSD. Daniel is under threat of charges under the draconian Espionage Act and all three fear that the government will take severe action against them as it has with other whistleblowers.

These three people’s jobs in the program were not to pilot the drones or pull the triggers that unleash the missiles. They were the ones who analyze the video feed and try to identify targets and try to ensure that they were not civilians. Barack Obama made grand claims about how the highest standard was used to avoid civilian casualties because that is, of course, how ‘noble’ we are. But those statements were bald, self-serving lies and this documentary shows it.

“I made this film in part to highlight the repercussions of future governments holding these powers, but I don’t think many people realize how bad things already are under Obama,” says Kennebeck. “The whistleblowers in the film took great risks, because they felt that people need to know what is happening inside the drone program.”

“But, over the course of our shooting, the film ended up being as much about the consequences of whistleblowing as it did about the drone program itself.”

During the Obama administration, I would ask liberal Obama supporters, who excused his drone murders by saying that he was a ‘good’ person who would only use drones wisely and as a last resort, whether they would be happy if those powers that they were granting him were given to a future president such as Sarah Palin. They pooh-poohed that possibility. Well, here we are with Trump having at his disposal all the machinery of death that Obama has used and all of Obama’s justifications for their use.

These three analysts say that people in their position almost never knew for sure before the attack that one was hitting a clearly identified target and that one had to wait until after the attack to try and figure who had really been killed. And that too was not easy since these missiles literally blew people to bits, leaving the survivors and bystanders with the grisly task of collecting body parts and trying to identify the dead. But the US military would describe any male of ‘military age’ (i.e., above the age of 16) that was killed as a legitimate target, thus masking the true numbers of civilian casualties. And even that age limit was flexible. It seemed like if you were old enough to hold a gun (i.e., a teenager or even a pre-teen) you could be classified as a potential combatant whose murder was justifiable.

The documentary shows a re-enactment of the 2010 strike using transcripts of the conversations between the drone operators that were obtained by the Los Angeles Times and it is disgusting to listen to the glee of the drone operators at the prospect of killing people, their impatience with the ‘sensors’, the analysts who suggest that there might be civilians and children in the group. If a person in the video (who were often just moving blobs) was carrying anything that could even remotely look like it may be a gun, that was enough for them to unleash the missiles.

“That truck would make a beautiful target,” one of the operators says. The crew analyzes the convoy, debating whether children are present. “I really doubt that child call, man. I really fucking hate that shit.”

Under the watchful gaze of the drone crew, the families disembark from the convoy, stopping to pray at the side of the road. After a brief pause, they get back in their cars and continue their journey, still unaware that they are being stalked from above.

Members of the drone crew, satisfied they have a legitimate target in their sights, make the necessary preparations to use force.

As the cars trundle down the road, they open fire.

“And … oh … there it goes!” one of the pilots exclaims. The first car in the convoy, struck by a missile, disappears in a giant cloud of dust. Moments later, a second car explodes. People run out of the remaining vehicle, waving at the aircraft above to stop firing. They brandish pieces of cloth at the sky to try and indicate they are non-combatants. A woman can be seen holding a child.

“I don’t know about this,” one of the operators says. “This is weird.”

A total of 23 people were killed in the strike against the convoy, all civilians. An investigation by the military later found that drone pilots “ignored or downplayed” evidence that the convoy was a civilian one. A transcript of the drone operators’ conversation was later made public through a Freedom of Information Act request by the ACLU.

Heather wrote about her experience in an op-ed. In the film, she said that the drone pilots operating out of the Creech base in Nevada were always eager to kill people because the more they killed the better they looked in the eyes of their superiors. Or maybe they were just sociopaths who liked killing. It reminded me of the glee which the people in the helicopter gunships displayed when they gunned down people in the streets of Iraq in the Collateral Murder video that was leaked by Chelsea Manning through WikiLeaks and for which Manning was mercilessly hounded by the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Obama.

Lisa later went to Afghanistan as part of her effort to deal with her sense of guilt and while there talked to a woman whose husband, 4-year old son, and 7-year old son were killed in the 2010 attack and whose older son lost a leg. Lisa also visits a hospital that has to provide prosthetics to the large number of people who have lost limbs as a result of these attacks. It is heartbreaking to see the effects of the murderous war that the US is conducting on that poor, long-suffering country.

In the feature film Eye in the Sky about the drone program, the case was stacked in favor of the program in that there was no doubt about the fact that the drone operators had correctly identified the targets, that the targets were really evil and on the verge of carrying out a massacre, that only hitting them would prevent it, and the drone operators were extremely concerned that only legitimate targets be hit. The entire point of tension in the film was whether the risk of possible death to a child nearby was high enough to not strike, and the people giving the orders agonized over the decision and tried to minimize that risk.

But as this documentary shows, none of those factors hold true in real life. The drone operators don’t know for sure whom they are killing, there is rarely any imminent threat, the danger to civilians is treated cavalierly, and the decisions are made with much debate. Because the drones can unleash death without any risk to Americans, it has become a form of routinized, automated murder that is destroying the lives of poor people in distant parts of the world. As Lisa says at the end, imagine if on a bright, sunny day in the US parents were reluctant to send their children out to play because of the fear that they might get blown to bits by a missile delivered by an unseen, unmanned machine. How would we feel?

And we keep asking “Why do they hate us?” It is such a mystery.

This documentary is well worth watching. You can stream the film for free until May 15. Here’s the trailer.


  1. says

    I don’t ever get how people sign up to do something like drop high explosives on strangers, then … they feel guilty. No shit?! What did they expect? They’re killing people. It’s not a normal job.

  2. says

    Because drones don’t hold ground, it is almost completely pointless, from a strategic perspective. The drones are not furthering the US’ war aims at all. Congratulations drone pilot murderers! You killed innocent people for the flimsiest of reasons (basically: “I was just following orders”) you’re war criminals not heroes. And just think, if you’d gotten a job doing something else, you might feel better about yourselves. What the fuck is wrong with some people? It’s like they don’t think their actions have any consequences.

  3. springa73 says

    I suspect that a lot of people who sign up for this kind of thing do so because they believe the official line that they are waging war on enemies who want to destroy them and that every precaution is taken to avoid civilian deaths. By the time they realize that it’s isn’t true, they are sort of trapped.

  4. Mano Singham says

    None of them seemed to be aware when they signed up that they would be playing instrumental roles in killing civilians in distant parts of the globe. All the people who signed up did so because they thought they would be serving their country in some kind of heroic role. They also had few options other than the military. Heather wanted to get out of her small town and see the world. Daniel came from a working class family and this promised a good career.

    It was only later that the realization slowly dawned on them that what they were doing was wrong. Heather became depressed and her military psychologist recommended the she be transferred out to another division but her supervisor refused to do so because he needed her. She became suicidal and it led to her later diagnosis of having PTSD. Daniel is now in the antiwar movement. Lisa is trying to atone by making amends to the people of Afghanistan.

  5. says

    One has to be completely ignorant of US history to join the military while thinking they won’t get involved in a war. It’s what the US military does.

    I’m not willing to excuse this. Someone who wants to travel the world and see war? Join Medcins Sans Frontieres and you can see the US military at work close up, while still helping people.

  6. Pierce R. Butler says

    Marcus Ranum @ # 5: One has to be completely ignorant of US history to join the military …

    Twelve years of (most) US public schools, and less than half that much of watching US tv, can put one (or millions) in that state rather easily.

  7. says

    So is “I was ignorant” a better excuse than “I was just following orders?”
    You’ll note that the drone pilots are combining those:
    “I was ignorant and then I was just following orders.”

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