Of all the futile missions my scout platoon and I conducted in Iraq — and there were more than a few — my mind often returns to the night of the fallen drone.
Sometime in those dark, nebulous hours between midnight and dawn, an RQ-7 Shadow crashed into a sleeping Iraqi neighborhood northwest of Baghdad. We were sent out from our outpost to retrieve it. Problem was, the surveillance drone in question could’ve landed on about a hundred different roofs, or in a hundred different yards. It certainly felt like we woke up a hundred frustrated locals, none of whom had seen the “robot with wings,” the description our interpreter settled on for translation.
“If it has wings,” one grandmother said, sleep still on her face, “Just tell it to fly home.”
I’d found her words unhelpful at the time, but the question of home rages at the center of two new drone-centric works, the play Grounded and the film Good Kill. Though the two differ widely in scope and narrative, both concern an American drone pilot’s journey through the bleak remoteness of postmodern conflict. They seek to humanize their respective protagonists, and explore the moral and ethical dilemmas inherent to drone warfare. Ultimately, though, both leave viewers with only keyhole snippets, stories of American homefront trauma with little reckoning of life on the receiving end of the unmanned aerial campaigns.
A one-person drama starring Anne Hathaway at the Public Theater in New York City, Grounded follows a pregnant fighter pilot to her reassignment as a drone operator on the outskirts of Las Vegas. It’s a feast of an experience. Partly due to the play’s structure and partly due to the nature of theater, the suspension of disbelief is natural, smooth. The war and the drones aren’t so much the focus as are the effects of them on Hathaway’s nameless character. A line about video games having color, while the life and times of drone-operating only occur in gray, especially resonated for me. Fair or not, I’d walked into the play still holding onto a ground soldier’s sensibilities and stereotypes. I recalled the fallen drone in the Iraqi neighborhood, but then forced myself to remember the other times, when aerial recon helped, perhaps even saved.
When it’s at its best, Grounded, which is written by George Brant and directed by Julie Taymor, plays at the traditional war story arc and then subverts it. Hathaway’s character may not be quite “one of the boys,” but she’s bona fide, an independent and fully realized soul. Her disappointment from losing her cockpit privileges is palpable; her transition from skeptic to proponent of drones mirrors that of many contemporary service members. If her slow, slippery decline into post-traumatic stress feels familiar, that probably means the play got it right, or something close to it. And her growth into adulthood and family, and the complexities that stirs within her chosen profession, is a dichotomy as old as combat itself. To paraphrase the Vietnam novelist Karl Marlantes, there’s a reason we send our teenagers and 20-somethings to kill on our behalf, and it’s not just because they’re at their physical peak.
The play’s devotion to military verisimilitude is admirable: the patches are in all the right spots; the raw, stunted lingo rings genuine; Hathaway’s pushups more than meet military regulation. I found myself wishing the play had devoted the same care to setting as it had to martial culture. Why did the protagonist, from Wyoming, speak in syrupy Texan? Why was “Nevada” pronounced like it had been put through a phonetical washboard? Where were the parallels between the vast nothingness of the desert surrounding Vegas and the vast nothingness of the drone lands?
American West gripes aside, I left the play empathizing with those carrying out our brush-fire wars from the safe confines of home, and impressed by the creative vision that brought it about. No, drone pilots aren’t grunts. But it wasn’t that long ago that bomber and helicopter pilots, and before that snipers, were mocked and jeered for their separateness from battle. Those are normal things in war, now, at least for countries such as ours. A dystopian thought, really, that our children might someday consider drones and drone bombs an ordinary method of killing other human beings.
Good Kill lacks the subtlety and nuance of Grounded, though it has much in common with it. Ethan Hawke’s Major Thomas Egan is also a fighter pilot turned operator of an armed Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle. He also struggles to deal with the intersection of drone war, Vegas and family. And he finds himself identifying with the silhouettes on the other side of the drone feed, fuzzy though they may be. Despite his rank, Egan’s a sort of military everyman, torn by the nature of service and the intricacies of being a human being on this planet. His wife (played by Mad Men’s January Jones) spends most of the film trying to engage him in a conversation that lasts longer than a minute, whatever the subject. All the while, Egan broods over the fundamental stupidity of the war while concurrently longing to return to it — something that rang true to my ears and will ring true to many Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.
However, whereas Grounded was freed by the indulgence of its artistic conceit, Good Kill suffers from trying to be too much all at once — character study, war drama, political commentary, and so on. The film’s overarching messages about the dangers of disconnected violence and the endlessness of a war on terror are important, agreeable even, but this doesn’t make those messages any less ham-handed. The film’s antagonist is nothing more than a sinister voice “from Langley,” a CIA bogeyman who operates under shadier rules of engagement than the Air Force does. A distant voice over the radio ordering subordinates to do something insane, unwise or both is certainly a staple of modern war, but the film uses it as a source of conflict so many times it dries up all the interest and tension in that conflict.
The questions of drone warfare — where, when, why, how much — have become intrinsically linked to American foreign policy and tethered to the legacy of the Obama administration. For books, plays and films to be made about the program feels right; targeted killing for national security, even when justified, deserves our collective scrutiny. But for all the (deserved) grief American Sniper received for being singularly focused on the toils of Chris Kyle, thus wholly unconcerned with Iraq or Iraqis, Grounded and Good Kill wallow in a similar muck. All three are character studies of (brave, stoic, white) Americans traumatized by what their citizenry has allowed them to do in the name of country. Iraqis and Afghans are there to serve as backdrops, things to snipe or things to bomb or things to lament. But things aren’t sniped or bombed or lamented. People are.
As Americans funding the largest war machine the world has ever known, it’s not just about us, even when we’re the ones pulling the trigger on the ground or pressing the joystick in Nevada. It’s also about them, because they are the ones living with the consequences of what our post-9/11 wars have wrought. Perhaps ironically, perhaps not, recent creative work produced by veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, such as Maurice DeCaul’s play Dijla Wal Furat and Elliot Ackerman’s novel Green on Blue, recognize this. We’re well past time the rest of America recognizes it, too.
Matt Gallagher is the author of the Iraq memoir “Kaboom.” His novel “Youngblood” is forthcoming from Atria/Simon & Schuster.
Photo: Joan Marcus