#NotABugSplat: Art as effective resistance to drone strikes in Pakistan?

Freddie Neve

The #NotABugSplat installation as seen from a drone. Reprinted with permission from #NotABugSplat.

In a previous article for Future Foreign Policy, I discussed the psychological impact of drone vision – the imagery relayed to the drone pilot via drone camera – and what features of it renders killing-by-drone simultaneously simple and complicated. One aspect considered, was the bird’s-eye view drone cameras depict, and whether this imbues within drone pilots a ‘god complex’, which shelters them from the destruction inherent in their killing. The drone camera’s ability to remove drone pilots from conflict, and allow them to become voyeurs, provides them with a sense of omnipotence. At the same time, those beneath the drone camera’s gaze are rendered as pixelated and nebulous forms. This dehumanisation of those below assists in enabling drone pilots to kill their targets with apparent ease.

This article examines the #NotABugSplat art collective, which has adopted the above rationale, in an attempt to use artistic resistance to destabilise the ‘god complex’ that can be inculcated within drone pilots. In 2014, the art collective with members from Pakistan, France and the United States, produced a large-scale ninety-by-sixty foot vinyl portrait of an anonymous victim of drone warfare (see picture below). The young girl photographed reportedly lost her siblings, and was orphaned in a US drone strike. The portrait was then installed in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in North-Western Pakistan.

The #NotABugSplat movement was named after military slang for what targets resemble after being hit by a hellfire missile, the weapon predominantly deployed on the MQ-9 Reaper and MQ-1 Predator drones. The phrase ‘bug splat’ originally described a circle drawn by a computer program on the drone pilot’s screen, to estimate collateral damage. However, the term has evolved to include all subjects hit by a strike, i.e. the ‘bugs’ themselves. The term ‘bug splat’ is itself a symptom of the ‘god complex’ that can be imbued within drone pilots, and an example of how visual imagery can shape the operational culture of militaries and their soldiers. Analysts have often noted how militaries will refer to their enemy in dehumanised terms to lesser the burden of killing. By referring to potential targets as ‘bugs’, drone pilots can ignore their target’s humanity, and psychologically disconnect from the brutality of killing. Thus, it is not only the portrait that challenges the ‘god complex’, but the movement’s name itself. #NotABugSplat, attempts to viscerally remind drone pilots that there is a human aspect to drone warfare, and re-humanise those under the drone camera’s gaze.

The art collective hope the image “will create empathy and introspection amongst drone operators”, and potentially render them incapable of using their weapons, neutralising them. Commentators have suggested that one obstacle to killing in warfare, is whether soldiers can see the eyes or face of their enemy. It has been argued that seeing the enemy’s face or eyes, reveals their common humanity, and allows empathy to develop. If the soldier manages to kill face-to-face, this empathy may make them feel revulsion or trauma after the event. Thus, a potential reason why killing-by-drone is easier than face-to-face killing, or killing in close-quarters, is that the face, or even the human, is often absent in drone vision. Instead, #NotABugSplat radically re-configures killing-by-drone to resemble face-to-face killing rather than bird’s-eye-view killing. Rather than seeing anonymous pixelated and nebulous forms, drone pilots now see the assertive stare of a victim. The movement’s website explains; “now, when viewed by a drone camera, what an operator sees on his screen is not an anonymous dot on the landscape, but an innocent child victim’s face”. In short, #NotABugSplat use the portrait to fundamentally alter the geography, landscape and imagery relayed to the drone pilot, thereby challenging the ‘god complex’, drone pilots reportedly possess.

However, it should be noted that the ‘god complex’ #NotABugSplat challenges, is both a fluid and subjective concept. Drone pilots are diverse individuals, and not all drone pilots will operate under a ‘god complex’. Also, technological advances to imaging technology, and the drone camera, are working towards destabilising the ‘god complex’. Until recently, most drones have used the Multi-Spectral Targeting System (MSTS) Camera, which would often depict individuals as grainy pixelated shadows, particularly if there were datalink degradations, bandwidth limitations, or poor weather conditions. Newer and more sophisticated cameras and imaging technology, such as the ‘Gorgon Stare’ and ARGUS-IS, mean that drone vision is more often relayed to drone pilots in much greater, and more sophisticated detail. Whilst assisting drone pilots in avoiding collateral damage, these developments, transmit killing-by-drone in intimate detail. Drone vision now depicts humans as clearly human, rather than ‘bugs’. This humanisation of drone vision can be psychologically devastating, and is a potential reason why Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is becoming more prevalent amongst drone pilots.

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The local population assisted the art collective with installing the portrait. Reprinted with permission from #NotABugSplat.

Is #NotABugSplat merely aimed at Drone Pilots?

In many ways it is difficult to discern who the intended audience of #NotABugSplat is. Whilst drone pilots are obviously one target, we have established that the ‘god complex’ is not necessarily a universal phenomenon, and is being eroded as a result of technological improvements. Furthermore, if drone pilots were the target, then the portrait could have been installed in a more strategic location. Whilst US drones do operate above Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, before the portrait was installed, in April 2014, there had been only four drone strikes in the province, with 0-3 reported civilian casualties. A more strategic location for the installation could have been Waziristan, where US drone strikes are particularly concentrated, and where there have been far greater civilian casualties. In addition, as made evident in personal email correspondence with the art collective, it is uncertain how long the portrait was installed for. Indeed, the movement printed the portrait on recyclable material, so the the local population could eventually use the art work for roofing.

Thus, drone pilots are unlikely to have been the only targets of the installation. In reality, the movement probably intended for #NotABugSplat to capture the imagination of western audiences. Indeed, the art collective have stated that they hope #NotABugSplat, “will create dialogue amongst policy makers, eventually leading to decisions that will save innocent lives”. The utilisation of a hashtag in the movement’s title, indicates that those involved intended for the installation to be shared on social media. The nature of the installation meant that it could be summarised in one photo, and shared quickly across the international system, to remind global populations of the devastating impacts drone warfare can incur. On a budget of just $1500 the installation made 3.5 billion impressions online. By exposing the human cost of drone strikes, the #NotABugSplat movement have managed to foster negative perceptions of drone operations within western audiences. This factor raises the strategic effectiveness of the #NotABugSplat movement, as it could adversely affect the operations of drone pilots. Believing one’s mission has popular consent, is crucial for the morale and operational effectiveness of military personnel.

Indeed, the #NotABugSplat movement claims to have had a demonstrable impact on curbing civilian deaths from drone strikes within Pakistan. Between 2004–2014 there had been an estimated 1,050 civilian deaths. Since the campaign started, the number of civilian casualties has been between 2-5. Although civilian casualties are always difficult to accurately assess and monitor, this seems to be a significant reduction. It is also difficult to discern whether this decline is due to technological improvements to drone cameras, reduced emphasis on Pakistan as a strategically important country in the fight against terrorism, or whether #NotABugSplat has sharpened the US military’s awareness not to fuel unpopular opinion, and encouraged drone pilots wishing to avoid civilian casualties. Of course, it could be a combination of all three factors. However, what is certain, is that the #NotABugSplat movement demonstrates the potential power that art and creative expression can have within International Relations. Although the movement is now focused on art projects relating to education, they have indicated that they would return to protesting drone strikes if the situation demanded it.

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