Sometimes an idea is so juicy, so hot, so ripe for the picking that people who don’t know each other dream it up at the same time. For example, those two films about Truman Capote, those two musicals based on The Wild Party, or those several people who discovered electricity.
Such is also the case with two one-person shows about female drone operators which happen to be performing in New York City right now: Grounded, about a fighter pilot reassigned to the “Chair Force,” opened yesterday at the Public Theater starring Anne Hathaway, while Unblinking Eye, my piece about a teenage woman who finds herself in the same job right out of high school, is having public readings at Lucid Body House. Both plays were written without knowledge of the other, both are direct-address monologues and both dramatize a crisis of conscience at the controls of this new form of warfare.
I sat down with George Brant, the author of Grounded, to discuss this coincidence and what drew the two of us to bring such similar stories to the stage. What is it that makes drone warfare attractive for writers and for theatrical representation in particular? (Side note: The film Good Kill, in which Ethan Hawke plays a male drone pilot, opens in May.)
“I was reading the news reports on drone warfare and wanted to know what moral precedent we were setting,” Brant says. “Similar to nuclear arms, we are the first to use this technology militarily.” Could it spark a new arms race, he wondered? Would it lead other countries to build drone programs to spy—or fire—on us? In his first three months in office, President Obama ordered drone strikes in Afghanistan three times more than Bush did in his entire eight years in office. “I voted for Obama, so when I read that,” Brant says, “I wanted to know what I had voted for—and if there was a play in there.”
I, too, was reading those news stories, but what caught my attention was the age of the operators. Unlike Brant’s pilot, who goes into the job after working as a fighter pilot and taking a pregnancy leave, about 50 percent of drone operators do the job right out of high school or college; the Air Force aims to raise that number to 80 percent by 2020. Why? What effect could such a job have on minds that are still forming? Even more importantly for me, why is it that so many of my generation have fought or are fighting in these wars in the Middle East, but so few are talking about it?
Post Traumatic Stress (PTS), Brant and I both discovered, had a lot to do with the answer, and a lot to do with what got us writing. Brant was very moved by frank accounts of drone pilots’ struggles with PTS in articles in Stars and Stripes magazine. He learned that they face PTS as much, if not more, than fighter pilots. I was similarly moved by accounts from young operators like Brandon Bryant and Heather Linebaugh, who talked openly about the serious psychological problems they faced as a result of drone combat.
But neither of our pens truly got flowing until we knew our protagonists would be female.
“We’ve heard the war story for 1,000 years from the male perspective,” Brant says. “I wanted to see something different, and when you marry the relative newness of women in combat to this new technology, it allows people to see the old war story in a new way.”
I could not agree more. In my own research, I discovered that drone warfare has more than doubled the number of women who see combat in the Air Force. I wondered: While remote piloting technology keeps operators’ bodies out of the line of fire, allowing more women to take on the role, does it keep their minds safe, or does it in fact expose them to even greater risk?
Brant also pondered this. “The fact that drone pilots ‘go to war’ and ‘come home from the war,’ not once every six months or year but every day seemed a new and bizarre thing, a new step.” (The pilot of Grounded quips at one point: “It would be a different book / ‘The Odyssey’ / If Odysseus came home every day.”)
Indeed, the core conflict in both of our plays is the increasing proximity between war and the domestic sphere that drone technology makes possible. Brant’s pilot wears her flight suit to family dinner, and confuses people in her video feed with her own family members. In Unblinking Eye, my teenage operator can’t leave the guilt and paranoia of work behind, and experiences mundane things—shopping at Target, disagreements with her mom—like kinetic combat. Female soldiers attracted us, I think, because they more vividly embody this impossible marriage between waging war and living family life than do male soldiers.
Most of all, this subject intrigues writers because of its invitation to the imagination. The fact that Creech Air Force Base, where most of the drone program got started, sits next to Las Vegas thrilled Brant.
“A fake Paris, fake New York, and fake pyramid right next to a program for ‘fake’ combat—I couldn’t resist,” he says. Our protagonists both struggle with separating the real from the virtual, and our plays take weirder and weirder turns as a result. Brant’s pilot impulsively makes a graveyard of trash in the desert on her drives home, and can’t tell if the car she is tracking through the desert on her screen at work is an insurgent’s or her own. My operator suffers hallucinations, believing a childhood toy is talking to her and that her reflection wears a burqa.
Flights of fantasy aside, the people in the program with whom Brant and I talked are unanimous in saying that the combat they experience is very real for them. It is not a video game. They watch some targets for weeks, or longer—watch them play with their dogs, fight with their spouses—before they strike. They watch the aftermath to confirm the kill and see family members discover the bodies, mourn and hold funerals. This kind of intimacy with war is new for soldiers. The job isn’t all adrenaline-pumping excitement, either: Long stretches of it are 12-hour surveillance shifts, leaving operators exhausted and bored.
One myth worth debunking is that the Air Force is totally secretive about this program. While the program is officially “secret,” the Air Force has been fairly cooperative with both my and Brant’s curiosity. I visited Holloman Air Force Base and met with several young people flying these missions. Hathaway did the same at Creech and Nellis Air Force bases. Airmen, current and veteran, have given their wings, helmets and flight suits to actresses playing Brant’s pilot in various productions around the U.S. in appreciation for their performances. “They appreciate that someone cares about their story,” Brant says. “So they tend to look over any details that might make them cringe.”
I’ll confess that I was initially upset to learn about Grounded, thinking it would steal thunder from my play’s prospects. But Brant’s and my stories are quite different in the end and, with the ethical questions of drone combat still white-hot, more attention on the subject is inarguably a good thing.
Grounded runs through 24 at the Public Theater; Unblinking Eye will have a reading on May 2 at 8 p.m. at Lucid Body House.