This is program note for Grounded dir. by Kelly Kitchens at Seattle Public Theatre.
“The real advantage of unmanned aerial systems is that it allows you to project power with projecting vulnerability,” explained Gen. David Deptula, former Air Force officer and current Dean of the Mitchell Institute of Aerospace Power Studies. The phrase “project power” obscures the unrivaled capability of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or UAVs. Destruction and near-constant, complete, unseen surveillance are the hallmarks of the age of military drones in which we find ourselves.
The use of drones has grown exponentially since the United States first starting using them with frequency in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars; the number of patrols by American armed drones increased by 1200% from 2004 to 2012. Proponents of drone warfare tout its virtues: officers have more intelligence with which to make decisions, attacks can be made with precise geographical targeting, and above all, as the Pilot tells us, “the threat of death has been removed.”
Critics argue that drone attacks and surveillance violate international law and human rights. Groups object to the lack of transparency regarding where drones are deployed and whom they strike without due process. A 2010 United Nations statement reported: “If other states were to claim the broad-base authority that the United States does, to kill people anywhere, anytime, the results would be chaos.”
Combat drone attacks rapidly increased in frequency when Congress granted the president broad powers to seek and strike groups connected to the 9/11 attacks. These broad powers remained through both the Bush and Obama administrations, and are still in place today.
Critics warn that the Obama administration set a dangerous precedent in how civilian causalities are tallied—any “military-aged male” is presumed a combatant—and in how drone laws have been interpreted since 2009. Drone strikes are not as precise as promised in practice: in most situations, they have an “effective casualty radius” of 200 feet.
The U.S. military officers who operate combat drones face a unique set of psychological challenges. As Grounded depicts, they work long shifts in dim, air-conditioned trailers. The work can be tedious: men pass whole days and nights in front of screens, eating junk food and waiting for moments of mayhem that justify their vigilance.
After their shifts, the operators go home to their families, experiencing what some Air Force officials call a “whiplash transition”. “On the drive out [there], you get yourself ready to enter the compartment of your life that is flying combat," retired Col. Chris Chambliss, who previously commanded drone operations at Creech Air Force Base told the L.A. Times. "And on the drive home, you get ready for that part of your life that's going to be the soccer game." Drone operators can share little of what they see and do with their families—much of their day is classified.
Combat drone operators sit with the destruction they cause in a way in which many of their overseas counterparts do not. Unlike a fighter pilot dropping a missile in flight, drones, and by proxy their pilots, linger and observe the dead, or review footage of attacks repeatedly to compile reports. Drone teams often spend days, weeks, or longer tracking targets of “personality strikes”—hovering over weddings, funerals, prayer, and daily life until the call to the kill comes over the headset.
These factors take their toll. While data varies on the number of drone operators diagnosed with PTSD, it’s clear that for some pilots and their teams, the work is straining. According to the Drone Center at Bard, PTSD is a result experiencing a physical threat, and so the term “moral injury” was recently introduced to describe “the psychological damage incurred by witnessing or being exposed to acts that violate an individual’s conception of right and wrong”. “[RPA crews] have more of an existential conflict,” said Col. Hernando J. Ortega, an Air Force surgeon. “It’s more of a guilt feeling, perhaps, or a ‘did I make the right decision’?” The idea of “moral injury” offers a more inclusive, broad understanding of long-term psychological impacts of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, without implying a medical diagnosis.
Grounded asks us what citizens’ complacency means for U.S. foreign policy and ethics, and more immediately, for the people who dedicate their lives to our defense. What happens when the cost of warfare is made both immediate via high-definition imaging and a wholly removed to the other side of the world? What are the consequences when technology evolves ahead of national ethics? What is the price of living in a world of exponentially expanding surveillance?
“[The playwright] Brant raises questions about moral responsibility that compel me and leave me conflicted,” says director Kelly Kitchens. “It’s a play full of ideas with which we must wrestle because we are implicated in the fight.” Grounded offers no solutions; only prompts our intellectual and emotional engagement. We are culpable. And now we know it.