The art of creating a bug splat

To humanise violence is violence. Will drone operators sympathise with an artistic rendition in the form of a huge poster with a child's face placed in a field? What did the artists have in mind? What does #notabugsplat mean, literally and figuratively? Here:

In military slang, Predator drone operators often refer to kills as 'bug splats', since viewing the body through a grainy video image gives the sense of an insect being crushed.

To challenge this insensitivity as well as raise awareness of civilian casualties, an artist collective installed a massive portrait facing up in the heavily bombed Khyber Pukhtoonkhwa region of Pakistan, where drone attacks regularly occur. 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.

Drones have targeted civilian areas, knowing well they were civilian areas. The artists assume some sort of innocence, but such attacks are not aimed at 'nothing'.

Assuming that they have information about terrorists in a particular area, would this poster dissuade them? In fact, now aware of the value of this child's face, the Taliban or whoever the drones want to finish off, might find this field a convenient place to gather in. It is unlikely to happen, but this is to draw attention to the ludicrous notion of how drones work.

What terrorists are the US drones flushing out and what purpose has it achieved? Has the Taliban left? On the contrary, it is stronger than ever in Pakistan.

In most war-like situations, there is always provision made for collateral damage. The operators are professionals doing a job, in the course of which they might lose all sense of ethics simply because one wrong move and their operation will fail.

According to The Atlantic:

In the last decade, drone operators have killed as many as 3,600 people in northwest Pakistan alone. Those people — they include as many as 951 civilians and 200 children — died without trial or jury. They were specks on the screen, and then they were dead.

It is not one area where drones attack, so this is a limited experiment, and experiment it is. There have been no proven results, and no precedent to go by.

Besides, the idea of humanising is quite dehumanising in this context. Apparently, the girl is not fictitious. She lost her parents and siblings in a drone attack.

She has been made the poster child of the power of drones and not the bestiality of such killings. All such manouevres are pugnacious. As it has become public knowledge, this could be seen as a visible example of victory.

On the other hand, if a drone does bypass this field, it is possible that the operators and their bosses will gloat about sensitivity and concern.

The artists are playing into this. They aren't humanising the victims, but the perpetrators of the crime. For them this is enemy territory.

Would it have made sense had they used an American child, instead? Would the message then have rammed into their head when their own is targeted?

I ask these queries because the emotive intent of this project is exploitative, and for this reason I wouldn't want any child, anybody anywhere, to become a replacement for specks of dust.

© Farzana Versey


  1. void *Al {return NULL;}15/04/2014, 01:38

    "The artists assume some sort of innocence, but such attacks are not aimed at 'nothing'.

    Assuming that they have information about terrorists in a particular area, would this poster dissuade them?"

    Well said, FV. In fact, drones target these civilian areas only because the terrorists know that hiding behind civilians is a good way to avoid drone attacks, given the kind of publicity it would draw (like this "art" work).

    Furthermore, most of these drone attacks act on the intelligence provided by none other than the same Pakistani army and ISI that refused to cooperate with these drone operator countries to target terrorist groups, when they had the chance. Instead they dragged their feet and played these drone operator countries for fools. Now it transpires that these terrorist groups are in fact hand in glove with the pakistani army that refers to them as the "good taliban", a differentiation that the rest of the world does not share with the pakistani army -- the real villians are the ISI and pakistani army, the ones that are responsible for all this bloodletting.

    But these artists need to attract eyeballs for a cause they no doubt sincerely believe (in their ignorance) with actually change anything on the ground.

    The term "bugsplat" is pretty offensive, but not surprising, knowing the overt machismo of the army that came up with such terminology. First step to getting normal men and women to do acts is to somehow dehumanize the targets...it has been that way in all acts of war.

    As the child in "Ender's Game" is made to commit genocide of an entire race of aliens by fooling him into thinking that he is playing a video war game before going into actual war....and the child's reaction in horror on being told that he was not actually playing a video game. (The book series is better than the movie, as usual).

  2. Al:

    I do not agree that the drones should have been there at all, irrespective of what the Pakistani army and ISI do or don't do.

    Indeed, bug splat is a horrid term, but as you imply the army dehumanises.

    Haven't read or watched "Enders's Game" but the premise is frightening and intriguing. The opposite of it would be 'Life is Beautiful' where the father makes his son believe that time in a Nazi concentration camp is a game, to protect his innocence and ultimately to hope.


  3. void *Al {return NULL;}17/04/2014, 20:00


    "I do not agree that the drones should have been there at all, irrespective of what the Pakistani army and ISI do or don't do."

    Well, the nature of power politics is that such things are done by entities because they have the capability to do it -- there are no ground rules or "international law" to govern such things, though a large number of stupid and ignorant civilians like to believe that countries are not abiding "international law". "International law" is just a convenient cover for paying power politics under the fig leaf of "playing by the rules" (that are meant for countries that did not make rules only). I am sure you can think of a dozen instance where this has been true in the past century.

    Summarily, the drones exist because other methods of playing power politics, as in this case, the USA and NATO failed to get the rentier state of Pakistan and its rentier army/government to get its population under control so that anarchy does not spill outside its borders , even though they paid a lot of money to the rentier government to do its bidding. So it is sending drones, which is not to say that such an act is morally defensible, but that morality and power politics (a.k.a. realpolitik) do not mix. Note that this only holds for international politics -- local politics within the boundaries of a state must adhere to constitutional morality, and the rules of engagement as defined in the constitution. There is no such constitution that holds beyond national boundaries, and so drones exist and civilians die because murderers and thugs use civilians as cover for their activities.

    Every side dehumanizes the other in a war these days -- one of the central problems posed in the Krishna/Arjuna conversation on the battlefield in the Gita/Mahabharata on the clash between morality and survival in the context of war. The ethical problem remains the same, the solution and mindset of dealing with it seems to differ depending on who you are.


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