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

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“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 theImperial 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.

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