Day 6

"National Bird": the U.S. drone program and the toll it took on three people who were part of it

Sonia Kennebeck's documentary National Bird had its broadcast premier this week. It tells the story of the U.S. drone program through the experiences of three people who were part of it. Each of them has come away from the experience riddled with doubt and scarred by how it has affected them.
Daniel, one of the three veterans profiled in National Bird, participates in an anti-war protest outside of the White House. (Torsten Lapp/FilmRise)

National Bird follows three whistleblowers who are veterans of the U.S. military's controversial drone warfare program. The film had its broadcast premiere this week on PBS, and it's raising new questions about the ethics of drone strikes — not just in the countries where they wreak havoc, but in the lives of the soldiers who unleash them.

Plagued by the guilt of participating in highly classified drone attacks on faceless targets, Heather Linebaugh, Lisa Ling, and Daniel (whose last name is not provided in National Bird) decided to speak out, giving harrowing accounts of their participation in attacks that left them scarred.

Sonia Kennebeck is the director and producer of the documentary. As she explains to Day 6 guest host, Rachel Giese, the drone program's effects on those who pull the trigger range from depression, to isolation, to being targeted by the FBI.


Killing from afar

According to the veterans profiled in National Bird, part of what makes an operator's involvement in a drone strike so traumatic is the physical distance between them and their targets. 

"You're in safety, but you're still participating in killing people," explains Kennebeck.

A reenactment of an airstrike on Afghan civilians, created based on an original radio traffic transcript. (Torsten Lapp/FilmRise)

In this account, taken from the documentary, drone program veteran Heather Linebaugh describes what it's like to watch the aftermath of a drone strike unfold, from the safety of American soil:

You can see, like, the body parts … You can identify, like, that could be the lower half of his body … and that could be a leg. And then sometimes you'll stick around and watch family come and get them or, like, pick up the parts and put their family member in a blanket. And a couple people hold onto a corner of the blanket, and carry him back to their compound.- Heather Linebaugh

Secrecy makes help hard to find

For veterans like Linebaugh, the intense secrecy that surrounds the U.S. drone program is part of what makes it so difficult to deal with the resulting trauma.

"Part of her journey in the film is one of trying to get help," says Kennebeck, adding that Linebaugh — who has been diagnosed with PTSD — has lost friends to suicide.

Sonia Kennebeck, Director and Producer of National Bird. (Torsten Lapp/FilmRise)

Secrecy is also what makes it so hard to blow the whistle on the aspects of the U.S. military's drone program that some soldiers find problematic. As Daniel explains in the documentary: "I have to be extraordinarily cautious about what I can and cannot say on camera."

But Kennebeck says that she and her crew took extreme care to make sure that none of the conversations they had with Heather, Daniel, or Lisa breached confidentiality.

"You can still expose wrongdoing and government misconduct without crossing the line."


A journey to Afghanistan

During the making of the documentary, Kennebeck and her crew travelled to Afghanistan with Lisa Ling, the last of the three whistleblowers profiled in National Bird. There, they observe the impact of routine drone strikes for people on the ground in affected countries.

Graffiti in Kabul, Afghanistan in Sonia Kennebeck’s National Bird. (Torsten Lapp/FilmRise)

Even people who have never experienced a drone strike are afraid, Kennebeck says. "Children are afraid of the sky."

I consider drones to be terror ... I don't believe we can fight a war on terror with more terror.- Lisa Ling

For Ling, the damage she witnessed firsthand — combined with conflicting reports on the numbers of civilians killed in drone strikes — led her to a conclusion she never thought she'd reach.

"I consider drones to be terror … I don't believe that we can fight a war on terror with more terror."

A shared experience

Kennebeck says that since National Bird was released, she's been contacted by other veterans who have had similar experiences to Linebaugh, Ling, and Daniel, who say that watching the documentary has helped them feel less alone.

Drone strikes seem to be escalating under President Trump, however, making the drone program one of the few areas where the incoming administration seems to align with that of Barack Obama, who struggled to defend the United States' escalating use of drone strikes until the very end of his tenure.

To hear guest host Rachel Giese's full conversation with Sonia Kennebeck, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.