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Killer drone opera crashes and burns

Killer drone opera crashes and burns

‘Grounded’ highlights important veterans’ issues but fails to ask deeper questions about the nature of conflict.

Analysis | Military Industrial Complex

Can an opera about drone warfare sponsored by a weapons maker ever really be considered “antiwar”? The head of New York’s Metropolitan Opera certainly thinks so.

Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, said earlier this year that he feared a growing “misperception” that the new opera “Grounded” fails to provide a nuanced take on the costs of war. If that view took hold, Gelb lamented, “the work would be somehow tainted before anybody ever got a chance to see it.”

When I first saw Gelb’s comment, I admit that I took it to heart. I had helped spin up an online controversy with a piece that slammed “Grounded” as militarist propaganda. My (brief) argument relied on two facts: The show’s main sponsor was weapons contractor General Dynamics, and its primary advertisement was teeming with blithe comments about its “hot shot” pilot lead who, after having a baby and being relegated to the role of a drone operator, “tracks terrorists by day and rocks her daughter to sleep by night.”

The Washington National Opera, which is putting on the show’s first production on the Met’s behalf, responded by toning down the ad and highlighting that General Dynamics — the maker of main character Jess’s beloved F-16 fighter jet — was the sponsor of the season, not just the show, and had no direct input on the production.

I couldn’t help but wonder if I had unfairly skewered a well-meaning attempt at conveying the horrors of war, so I took Gelb’s warning as a challenge and secured a media ticket, promising myself and my editors that I would give the show a fair shake. (If you plan to see the opera, beware of spoilers ahead.)

I’ll start with the good. The show, which was composed by Jeanine Tesori and written by George Brant, featured massive, high definition LED screens that streamed captivating visuals of the view from a drone’s camera and the desert road that Jess drove home from her base near Las Vegas. The vocal performances, to my ear at least, were excellent, led by an outstanding Emily D’Angelo in the role of Jess.

“Grounded” is at its best when it details the very real and very under-recognized trauma that drone operators experience through their work. When Jess kills a group of militants who were planting an improvised explosive device (IED), her confidence wavers when she sees their charred remains and slowly watches their heat signature disappear from her camera’s view — something she never had to do in her fighter pilot days.

Jess’s worlds gradually collapse upon each other as she tracks a sedan that looks eerily like her own, and the line blurs between her world and the war, with any visible camera liable to set off a bout of paranoia that she is next on the kill list. The performance destroys the myth that drone warfare is more of a video game than real combat, and in so doing gives voice to the pain that drone operators often experience as a result of their service. As the program notes, drone operators are diagnosed with PTSD as frequently as their fighter pilot colleagues.

But, in focusing narrowly on the personal struggles of a drone operator, “Grounded” dodges more profound questions about America’s endless wars, which continue today in Niger, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and whichever other countries the Pentagon would rather not say it’s operating in. (For those keeping score at home, this is the start of the “bad” section.)

Like much supposedly “antiwar” work, “Grounded” falls short by restricting its critique to the conduct of war rather than its very nature. As Samuel Moyn has written in these pages, each side of the debate over U.S. military interventions “bicker[s] over how far to go in making ongoing war more humane, against the background of ongoing American militarism — even as questions about whether, where, and how long war is fought are relegated to the margins.”

In fact, “Grounded” goes further at times by suggesting that Jess’s work as a fighter pilot was in some way more moral — or at least less psychologically tortuous — than her days as a drone operator. This suggestion will come as a surprise to the many American pilots who have returned from the frontlines of the Global War on Terror with PTSD, as well as the innocents who were all too often killed in the crossfire.

Much like the film “American Sniper,” the show urges us to sympathize first and foremost with the person whose finger rests on the trigger. “Grounded” reaches its climax when, after tracking a high-value target for days, Jess is ready to fire on him until his daughter suddenly emerges and runs toward him. Our “hot-shot” friend panics when she sees the girl’s face — in implausible HD — and crashes the Reaper instead of taking the shot. The child in the crosshairs only becomes human when compared to Jess’s own daughter, who earned a life free from fear of random immolation the old fashioned way: being born in America.

These shortcomings are in part explained by the fact that the opera is an adaptation of a one-woman show, which by its nature would focus closely on the emotions of its protagonist. But the operatic version of “Grounded,” which is twice as long as its predecessor, still struggles to find a place for the inherent humanity of civilians caught up in far-off killing fields.

Even Jess’s tragic ending — a court martial that will no doubt lead to a long sentence for destroying an expensive drone — fails to strike a resounding antiwar note. In the end, the show devotes far more energy to showing the eeriness of war than any of its deeper flaws and causes.

Some shots of sleek Reaper drones verge on war porn. “Grounded” is peppered with long, fawning descriptions of the drone’s cameras and missiles, which seem designed to make the audience salivate over the cutting edge tech that will finally — finally! — make war a moral endeavor.

And while the special effects are remarkable, they felt tailored toward another great myth of American militarism: the so-called “revolution in military affairs,” which allegedly made it possible to conduct war with made-for-TV precision. We’re asked to believe that Jess knows exactly what she is firing at and chooses not to — far less disquieting than the reality, in which drone operators often shoot at vaguely understood targets that all too often contain civilians.

In other words, “Grounded” musters an interesting critique of the hagiography of American warfare, but, by spending most of its time describing that idealized view, the show never bothers to imagine an alternative to endless war.

Prior to the performance, an ad above the stage thanked General Dynamics for its generous sponsorship of the opera season. As I walked out, I couldn’t help but wonder if General Dynamics was thanking them back.

Photo credit: A scene from "Grounded" in the Kennedy Center Opera House. (Scott Suchman)
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