At the tender age of three, I shared bleachers with ranking military officers as witness to an Air Force ﬂirepower demonstration. Yes, it is exactly what it sounds like. Fighter pilots dropping bombs on sh**. My hometown was small enough that the military allowed civilians to attend as a kind of entertainment. There was some queue off in the distance, and the jets would scream past the bleachers one after the other. Sheets of ﬂre would ﬂll the air. Some drops would push billows of dust up from the desert floor creating a kind of dust devil lifting a wooden decoy tank, now splinters. Some passes were planes with machine guns mounted on noses, and others would drop paratroopers. I lived in a trailer, as did nearly everyone in the community. About a third of the targets were trailers that looked like my home, or at least one of the neighbors’. The images are etched into memory, and I am still frightened by explosions and ﬂreworks. And thunder.
The Air Force named their ambassador precision fight troupe the Thunderbirds. I witnessed their training literally thousands of times. The Air Force Thunderbirds are the mascot for my High School. They always performed the first air show of the season for us school kids. I sat in the cockpit several times. Later pilots would encourage us to sign up to serve. They were always articulate, sharply groomed, and good looking. Sometimes a rock band of similar blond crew cut men would come to school on the same day as the pilots. During my junior year, I watched three pilots follow the lead in an incorrect loop pattern and dive straight down to the desert pavement. The lead had had a problem with his steering yoke and had taken his hand off the command speaker button in the desperate attempt to fight the jammed control. The other pilots never heard his screamed orders to pull out of the maneuver.
Kill tactics and weapons have changed with the times. My hometown is still training America’s crackerjack killers. The jet is now a drone. Training and live mission control happen in the same place. The drone hovers over the desert where I grew up in the instance of a novice, but over Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, or Yemen in the case of a seasoned bomber.
I no longer live in that desert, but I went home and saw the practice passes. There is that cliché television moment when an adult man returns to his childhood home and things from his grand memory seem small and innocuous. Every pass of a drone triggered that sort of play on my memory. It is a small jet, even a cute jet, that drops small bombs. Perfect for killing a teenage girl in some place we aren’t at war. I imagine the video gamer and his pimples. Are Iraqi boys prone to acne? Are they too busy with guns and prayer to play with joy-sticks? I have to remind myself that my fantasy of cute small bombs is the perfect PR lie for the US military. The Iraqi boys are as likely trying to get food as they are engaged in military training or active operations. The jets are only marginally smaller than the bomber jets seen in my childhood. The weapons dropped by drones are very real, and only sometimes smaller firepower. They offer such a degree of distance and cover that the killing seems like a video game to us onlookers over here. Mistakes, collateral damage, and all the other horrors of dropping bombs are the same horrors bombs always bring. Distance always flattens an image; the unmanned bombers lose a degree of control and precision on the target end in exchange for the safety of the bomber.
Those marketing sub-military grade drones tell us the potential uses are many. They may be harnessed to drop mail or to carry a camera that will record a street transaction. Its lines are futuristic in a way that hovers rather than jets forward. There are promises that drones will be developed to deliver pizza. But right now, drones are the eyes of the city or the fed. And sometimes the muscle.
The drone commanded by Helmut is kinder and gentler. It is likely unfair to push a militant image into your consciousness. No promise of convenience, just the experience of a kind of party delivery service.
I take it back, don’t think of the police. But that’s like asking someone not to think of an elephant and then that’s all they can do. But that’s also the point, right?
Helmut Heiss would like to give special thanks to Philip Kaufmann, Kyle Cronan and Thea Moeller. Heiss’ work was generously sponsored by the Austrian Federal Ministry for Education, the Arts and Culture.