The U.S. National Bird Is Now a Killer Drone by David Swanson

Death from Above / Drones

Image by AK Rockefeller via Flickr

by David Swanson
Writer, Dandelion Salad
Let’s Try Democracy
October 27, 2016

Officially, of course, the national bird of the United States is that half-a-peace-sign that Philadelphia sports fans like to hold up at opposing teams. But unofficially, the film National Bird has it right: the national bird is a killer drone.

Finally, finally, finally, somebody allowed me to see this movie. And finally somebody made this movie. There have been several drone movies worth seeing, most of them fictional drama, and one very much worth avoiding (Eye in the Sky). But National Bird is raw truth, not entirely unlike what you might fantasize media news reports would be in a magical world in which media outlets gave a damn about human life.

The first half of National Bird is the stories of three participants in the U.S. military’s drone murder program, as told by them. And then, just as you’re starting to think you’ll have to write that old familiar review that praises how well the stories of the victims among the aggressors were told but asks in exasperation whether any of the victims of the actual missiles have any stories, National Bird expands to include just what is so often missing, and even to combine the two narratives in a powerful way.

Heather Linebaugh wanted to protect people, benefit the world, travel, see the world, and use super cool technology. Apparently our society did not explain to her in time what it means to join the military. Now she suffers guilt, anxiety, moral injury, PTSD, sleep disorder, despair, and a sense of responsibility to speak out on behalf of friends, other veterans, who have killed themselves or become too alcoholic to speak for themselves. Linebaugh helped murder people with missiles from drones, and watched them die, and identified body parts or watched loved ones gather up body parts.

Even while still in the Air Force, Linebaugh was on a suicide watch list and had a psychologist recommend moving her to a different sort of job, but the Air Force refused. She has episodes. She sees things. She hears things. But she’s forbidden to discuss her work with friends or even with a therapist who doesn’t have the proper “security clearance.”

We let Daniel down even more than Heather. He says he actually opposed militarism but was homeless and desperate, so he joined the military. We could have given him a house for much less than we paid him to help murder people at Fort Meade.

Lisa Ling worked on a database filled by drone surveillance that compiled information on 121,000 “targets” in two years. Multiply that by a dozen years. With 90% of victims not among the targets, add up how many people would die in the targeting of the whole list. That’d be over 7 million. But it’s not numbers that have poisoned the souls of these three veterans; it’s children and mothers and brothers and uncles lying in pieces on the ground.

Ling travels to Afghanistan to see the place at ground level and to meet with drone victims. She meets a little boy who lost his leg and his 4-year-old brother and his sister and his father. On February 2, 2010, drone “pilots” at Creech Air Base murdered 23 innocent members of one family.

The filmmakers have voices read the written transcript of what the drone operators said to each other before, during, and after sending in the missiles that did the damage. This is worse than Collateral Murder. The people whose job it is to identify children and others who should not be murdered have identified children among the group of people being targeted. The “pilots” at Creech are eager to reject this information and to get onto killing as many people as they can. Their lust for blood drives the decision process. Only after they’ve killed 23 people do they recognize children among the survivors, and the lack of guns.

We see the bodies brought home to bury. Those injured describe their suffering, physical as well as mental. We see people being fitted with artificial legs. We hear Afghans describe their perception of drones. They imagine, just as many Americans may imagine, and just as viewers of Eye in the Sky would imagine, that drone operators have a clear, high resolution view of everything. In fact, they have a view of fuzzy little blobs on a computer screen that looks like it was created in the 1980s.

Linebaugh says there is no way to distinguish the little “civilian” blobs from little “militant” blobs. When Daniel hears President Obama claim that there is always near certainty that no civilians will be killed, Daniel explains that such knowledge is simply not possible. Linebaugh says she was often on the side of the conversation telling the “pilots” at Creech not to murder innocents, but that they always pushed for permission to kill.

Jesselyn Radack, attorney for whistleblowers, says in the film that the FBI told two whistleblowers that a terrorist group had put them on a kill list. She said that the FBI has also contacted Linebaugh’s family and warned her that “terrorists” have been searching for her name online, suggesting that she fix this problem by shutting up. (She had written an op-ed in the Guardian).

The FBI also raids Daniel’s house, arriving with 30 to 50 agents, badges, guns, cameras, and search warrants. They take away his papers, electronics, and phone. They tell him he is under investigation for a possible indictment under the Espionage Act. This is the World War I-era law for targeting foreign enemies that President Obama has made a routine of using to target domestic whistleblowers. While Obama has prosecuted more people under this law than did all previous presidents combined, we probably have no way of knowing how many people have been explicitly threatened with the possibility.

While we should be apologizing to, comforting, and aiding these young people rather than denying them the right to speak to anybody and threatening them with decades in prison, Lisa Ling did manage to find some kindness. Victims of drone strikes in Afghanistan told her that they forgave her. As the film ends, she’s planning another trip to Afghanistan.


David Swanson is an author, activist, journalist, and radio host. He is director of WorldBeyondWar.org and campaign coordinator for RootsAction.org. Swanson’s books include War Is A Lie. He blogs at DavidSwanson.org and WarIsACrime.org. He hosts Talk Nation Radio. He is a 2015 Nobel Peace Prize Nominee. War Is A Lie: Second Edition, published by Just World Books on April 5, 2016. I’ll come anywhere in the world to speak about it. Invite me!

from the archives:

Bush-Obama Powers Will Pass to Next President by David Swanson

Top 10 Reasons Why It’s Just Fine for U.S. to Blow Up Children by David Swanson

The Democratic War Platform by David Swanson

Jeremy Scahill and Glenn Greenwald: The Assassination Complex: Inside the Government’s Secret Drone Warfare Program

Jeremy Scahill: Drone War Exposed + Secret “Kill Chain” + Afghanistan: The Longest U.S. War

“Collateral Murder” Video allegedly shows US forces killing two reporters and six others By Daniel Tencer

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11 thoughts on “The U.S. National Bird Is Now a Killer Drone by David Swanson

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  8. Superb review from David S. Raw truth indeed.

    Barack Obama I regret to say, is really a contemptible hypocrite. In fact, the preposterous despotic cult of back-scratching narcissists he fronts, has spun forth a near picture-perfect cautionary tale of how not to ‘run the world’ ~ unless their intentional mission is actually to run it off a virtual cliff.

    It is a simple enough but ‘necessarily’ suffocated moral fact ~ so often buried beneath anaerobic trash-mountains of self-serving, gilded sophistry by tenured imbeciles ~ that the solipsistic harm we do, damages the perpetrator most.

    As the French statesman George Clémenceau is reputed to have observed with poignant irony, ‘America is the only nation in history which miraculously has gone directly from barbarism to degeneration without the usual interval of civilization…’

    Also attributed to him, worthy of pragmatic meditation: ‘Liberty is the right to discipline ourselves in order not to be disciplined by others.’

  9. The country has lost its way. The “We The People” need to take it back from the corporacy which is creating ill will worldwide, and there is no question but that will come back to haunt us. How many 9/11’s do we have to endure before we wake up to what our government is doing around the world in our name?

    • You forgot the many killings like JFK and his brother. Sincerely, only a civil war will end the crimes commited on American people’s name. The World is asking when all this will end. Never forget the half million children that died in Iraq because of US Corporation sanctions. Gee, it is just too much for normal human beings to endure.

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