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America's Drone Wars

Savant DVD Review

Unmanned: America's Drone Wars
Disinformation/Brave New Films
2013 / Color / 1:78 widescreen / 63 min. + 29 min. extras / Street Date January 14, 2014 / 19.98
Cinematography Edgar Sardarian
Film Editor Jason Gutierrez, Joseph Suzuki
Original Music Rob Himebaugh
Written by
Produced by Jason Genser, Jim Miller, Carl N. Oerke Jr., Robert Greenwald
Directed by Robert Greenwald

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Robert Greenwald's 2004 Uncovered: The Whole Truth about the Iraq War remains one of the most telling indictments of our invasion of Iraq, and the director's recent War on Whistleblowers: Free Press and the National Security State is an almost equally disturbing look at the punitive measures aimed at squelching journalistic challenges to our secret security establishment. The current cultural dialogue about the U.S. drone program was altered somewhat just last October with a series of Congressional briefings. Robert Greenwald's new documentary Unmanned: America's Drone Wars seeks to clarify the facts about an out-of-control policy that is creating yet more enemies determined to strike out at America.

Americans have seen plenty of cable-channel TV filler about the marvels of drone aircraft, which is now the fastest growing new industry in the military. Begun just a few years ago, various drone programs now fly sophisticated unmanned aircraft big and small over foreign air space, some armed with missiles. In operations facilities back in America, the pilots man the controls while watching real-time video feeds. It's remote-remote-remote control work, the ultimate in push-button warfare.

Drone Wars isn't about hardware, but about the cost in human lives destroyed by this grand military experimentation, and the evasions and prevarications of the men in charge, all the way up to the President. According to the evidence and testimony presented here, the U.S. military flies constant drone missions over Pakistan, blowing up individuals, vehicles and groups of people based not on reliable intelligence but on tips from questionable sources, and sometimes not even that. Because everything about the program is a classified secret, when information about suspected terrorists turns out to be false, nobody can be held responsible. The docu asserts that, as has been the case with some instances of wrongful detention and torture, civilians are sometimes targeted because a paid informant wants to keep the American $ dollars rolling in. Even worse, a former American drone operator-pilot tells us that he quit because it was not uncommon for his superiors to stretch the definition of 'identified terrorist' to include most anyone found out at night, or congregating in a suspicious manner.

Greenwald's film begins with the story of Tariq Aziz, a 16 year-old targeted and blown up by a drone strike. His relatives dispute the U.S. Military's blank assertion that he was a terrorist. The docu's seventy interviews, many with Pakistanis, paint a picture of a population afraid to leave their homes for fear of being slain from above. A great deal of coverage is allotted to a strike incident against a tribal council meeting called a Jirga. It was held out in the open in a large tent in the middle of the day, and the tribesmen informed the Pakistani military beforehand to avoid any misunderstandings. Twenty minutes in, the meeting was struck by four missiles, with many killed and wounded.

More galling than the innocent loss of life is the attitude of U.S. spokesmen that continue to insist that civilians are never targeted and that the tribal meeting was a terrorist gathering. This goes all the way up the chain of command, to top generals that parrot P.R. talking points about the way the program is conducted and boast about the efficacy of the strikes. Listening to them one would think that the combat was like an episode of TV's N.C.I.S. -- terrorists are on all sides but the vigilant drones are making a real difference. They might as well be paid shills for the drone industry. Drone Wars has more than one clip of President Obama coming forth with what this docu claims are the same evasive untruths -- that all the strikes are done with precise intelligence, and that the few civilian deaths have been tangential accidents. The disc extras state that there have been 340 drone missions since 2004, and 881 civilian kills.

The official story doesn't jibe with convincing testimony that the drone commanders shoot at almost anything that moves. Men carrying rifles aren't hunting, they're terrorists. Kids in a car at night are terrorists. Sealing the deal is the repeated assertion that drone strikes in civilian areas are often followed a few minutes later by a second strike. Assumed to have the purpose of killing the rescuers of the first strike victims, these are commonly called Double Tap Strikes. Non- U.S. sources insist that that drones are used for the indiscriminate killing of civilians. Are these outrageous Pakistani lies?

Experts also go on record with opinions of the effect of the drone program on America's image overseas. Observrers don't need much prompting to liken drone combat to a bad science fiction movie, with robots hovering above, killing people at will. The missions are creating thousands of recruits for whatever radical Islamic organizations promise to strike back against the United States. Back home, the drone programs are a win-win choice for politicians and the military. Because no American soldiers are harmed, the President's use of drone strikes has not been given heavy scrutiny -- grievous errors won't even make the front page of the paper. While the military falsifies a fantastic success record of enemy kills 1 , the American public is not likely to give credence to foreign reports of drone slaughter. We're instead debating whether to cover our own skies everywhere with Orwellian snoopers. Political cartoons make jokes about Amazon drones delivering books to our doorstep, while people living at a different Zip Code overseas must worry that Death From Above could be seconds away.

The show is technically clean, and almost all of the video is of a high quality. Greenwald's editors and designers sometimes apply a digital "forced shallow focus" look to some scenes, such as the tribesmen gathered in the Jirga (image above). Greenwald doesn't throw atrocity footage at us, but there is enough coverage from makeshift hospitals and mortuaries to drive home the point. The children we see look every bit as deserving as our own. The show encourages us to reassess media images we have of this part of the world, whether it be James Bond fighting arm-in-arm with Afghan rebels resisting the Soviets in The Living Daylights, or Tom Hanks' congressman in Charlie Wilson's War discovering that all Pakistanis are corrupt and duplicitous, save for those salt-of-the-earth Moujahedin fighters in the countryside. Drone Wars advocates the position that our 'surgically precise' unmanned strike force program is a similar pro-military fairy tale.

Disinformation/Brave New Films' DVD of Unmanned: America's Drone Wars is designed, like much of Robert Greenwald's documentary output, not to pull in a profit but to communicate information 'orphaned' by the mainstream media. The docu may still be available for online streaming for free.

The DVD contains informative extras not included on the web download. The extra Brave New Foundation (8 min) restates the arguments of the main docu in a straight human rights activist context, while Reprieve allows members of the London-based human rights organization, in particular Clive Stafford Smith, to speak about their anti-drone educational activities. Smith and Reprieve began by defending prisoner's rights in the USA, and moved on to defend the rights of detainees in Guantanamo.

Director Robert Greenwald provides a full-length commentary. Journalist Noor Behram and lawyer Shahzad Akbar are given separate interview pieces; Akbar's photos of the 178 children killed in drone strikes are presented as a montage of photos. The Legal Debate that Didn't Happen is a brief (5 min) set of statements by Barack Obama and other high-ranking officials, with terse rebuttals by Human Rights legal experts. The officials and even the President basically say, "trust us", but the counter argument is that Drone strikes are a black hole when it comes to accountability. A human rights lawyer states that Barack Obama ran for office on the idea that prisoners could not be kept indefinitely without trial. Disturbingly, the drone program has made a routine of killing people without trial.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Unmanned: America's Drone Wars rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Director Commentary, extended interviews.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English, Spanish
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 23, 2013


1. The docu by and large talks only about Pakistan. In other regions and countries, drones have apparently been more accurate in murder hits on specific 'identified enemies'. There no longer seem to be boundaries between the definitions of Terror, War and Murder.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2013 Glenn Erickson

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