Life as a US drone operator: ‘It’s like playing a video game for four years’
Artist Omer Fast looks at the military staff who fly drones from Nevada in a film commissioned by the Imperial War Museum
“It is a lot like playing a video game,” a former Predator drone operator matter-of-factly admits to the artist Omer Fast. “But playing the same video game four years straight on the same level.” His bombs kill real people though and, he admits, often not the people he is aiming at.
The remarkable insight into the working life of one of the most modern of military operatives is provided in a 30-minute film that will be shown at the Imperial War Museum in London from Monday, the first in a new programme of exhibitions under the title IWM Contemporary.
The project is something of a departure for the museum in one way, although it has been commissioning and showing artists since the first world war. “The idea behind this strand is to present a consistent offer so people do identify us with contemporary art because it sometimes does get a bit lost,” said Sara Bevan, a curator in the art department. It will also allow the gallery to perhaps be more provocative and more reactive to contemporary events.
The work by Fast, an Israel-born artist who lives and works in Berlin, is called 5,000 Feet is the Best, which takes its name from the optimum flight altitude of a Predator drone.
Drones are pilotless aircraft operated remotely. According to data published by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism last December, there have been almost 1,200 drone strikes on suspected terrorists by US and British forces in the past five years on targets in Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq, Yemen and, by the CIA, in Pakistan.
Estimates as to how many have died vary, although a Republican senator, Lindsey Graham, said in February: “We’ve killed 4,700. Sometimes you hit innocent people, and I hate that, but we’re at war, and we’ve taken out some very senior members of al-Qaida.”
The subject engenders fierce debate and the artist attempts to capture its complexities.
What Fast’s film does brilliantly is evoke the weirdness of people in Nevada endlessly trawling foreign countries for “bad guys”, whom they then get permission to fire on.
Fast interviews a former US air force drone operator who admits to making mistakes. “You see a lot of death,” he says before pondering why he carries on – perhaps because if it was not him then it might be some “new kid doing it badly”.
Bevan said Fast’s film was “a visually stunning piece of work”, which she got more out of every time she watched it, as she hopes visitors will, too.
Fast advertised online for drone operators, although the ad was subsequently shut down by the FBI and rather fewer operators came forward.
One was willing. Some of his testimony in the film is the real man, blurred. Elsewhere, an actor plays the operator talking to a journalist in a Las Vegas hotel room.
Bevan said one reason the Fast piece was chosen as the first commission was because drone warfare is such a “pressing, current issue”. The plan is to have three shows a year with two documentary photographers scheduled next.
“Contemporary art is a really good way of dealing with lots of issues around contemporary conflict, such as issues to do with conflict not being confined to geographical boundaries,” she said. “Art can deal better with the more intangible issues.”
The opening of IWM Contemporary coincides with the partial reopening of the museum itself, which has been shut for six months for major internal works including the building of new first world war galleries.
Although the main display spaces and atrium remain closed, the art galleries will reopen on Monday along with a Horrible Histories show on spies, A Family in Wartime display, the Holocaust exhibition, and Lord Ashcroft’s Victoria Cross gallery. The IWM is scheduled to open fully in summer 2014, coinciding with the centenary events marking the outbreak of the first world war.