The Machines That Choose Death

Filmmaker Kari Barber on Humanity, War, and her New Documentary: Battles Beyond the Horizon

Telling the story of the United States’ clandestine overseas drone program is difficult by most measures. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that a minimum of 14,040 confirmed strikes have resulted in somewhere between 8,000 and nearly 17,000 deaths—with between 900 and 2,200 of those being civilians. Public disclosures of when strikes happen and who they target are notoriously difficult to parse, and the actions of these unmanned combat machines can feel detached from the “true” casualties of war in the minds of the American public—which is part of the program’s design.  

However, a team of journalists from the University of Nevada Reno have spent the better part of the last decade examining the future of U.S. unmanned combat—and bringing the story home for Nevadans especially.  

Kari Barber- image: Matt Bieker

Kari Barber and Nico Colombant are award-winning filmmakers whose past work has taken them all over the world, covering everything from Central African militias to the family dynamics of an Alaskan bakery. After meeting on assignment in West Africa, they eventually ended up marrying and moving to Reno, where they took jobs as teaching staff at UNR’s Reynolds School of Journalism. Turning their international lens to the local news climate at the time, they learned about the U.S. drone program’s center of operations at the Creech Air Force Base near Las Vegas, and how the pilots of these machines meant to keep them detached from the war in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan were still exhibiting the same PTSD symptoms that plagued soldiers with their boots on the ground. 

Image: courtesy of Kari Barber

Through interviews with military ethicists, protestors, and leading intellectuals in the field of unmanned combat and artificial intelligence over the past 8 years, the pair came away with a detailed and alarming portrait of the human costs—both the physical and philosophical—of what killing machines are capable of, and what the future of war might look like when humans no longer decide who lives and dies.   

So what is Battles Beyond the Horizon about? 

Sure, It’s about the U.S. drone program. But really more than that, because that’s just one specific piece of what’s happening in the military and war in the world. Drones are just a piece of how we get further and further from our actions in war. It begins with the bow and the arrow, you’re always getting further and further from the horrors of what happens in war. And drones are part of that—it’s a continuation of that—and I do think there are interesting ethical questions to be had. It’s about drones, artificial intelligence, and the future of war, and how I think there are a lot of things that are moving really fast and there’s not a lot of conversations about the ethics of what we think is right and wrong at this moment.

We interviewed experts from the U.S. and internationally. They’re sort of military ethicists and such, but visually, what we focus on are the protesters who go to Creech Air Force Base twice a year and intentionally go to get arrested for media attention—trying to break into the base, whatever they have to do to get arrested, and, essentially, try to bring attention to this issue. We followed them, their process for getting arrested, their kind of very artful displays against war, and then their trials. We’ve followed them, actually, for several years, but we kind of cover one year in the film.

Image: courtesy of Kari Barber

What was the impetus for the film and what did the process of making it look like?

We moved here and there were some stories coming out at that time, I think 2013, about the drone pilots and the various kinds of ways that their PTSD is affecting them and how it’s so strange because they’re in the middle of the desert, piloting these, like, cubicles north of Las Vegas, and killing people across the world. And there was this idea that it was a safer war, but they were experiencing all kinds of trauma.

At the same time, there was this arts professor at the time named Joe DeLappe who was at UNR, and he was doing protest art about drones. I think we started the film by interviewing him in maybe 2013 or 2014, and we interviewed him about his art career, kind of just trying to wrap our heads around what the story was, what was interesting, and what we wanted to do. He introduced us to Joseba Zulaika, a Basque studies professor with an anthropology background at UNR who was writing a book about, like, counterterrorism … which came out just about last year and actually got great reviews and big newspaper write-ups and stuff. … As soon as I interviewed him, I’m like, This is gonna be a good movie.

And so Joe DeLappe was building a life-sized Predator drone out of corrugated plastic in Fresno for an art exhibit where he would put the names of the people—children—who have been killed on this big display. We drove down twice, actually, to film this project. And while I was there one of the times I met Code Pink. These are women who are protesting things such as drone warfare all over the U.S. as a national group. And I met the San Francisco people because they were on the way to Creech Air Force Base to protest, … and they were, you know, older women, mostly, in their 60s or something. I was like, “Wow, That sounds good too. We’ll catch up.” And I think Nico flew down and caught up with them immediately. We’ve been down to Creech now to film out in the desert like four or five times over the course of the past eight years.

Image: courtesy of Kari Barber

It sounds like this has been an extensive process, why did you decide to release it now?

Well, that’s exactly why it wasn’t done before. It’s because we couldn’t figure out “When does it end?” You know, a great tip for anybody wanting to make a film is to make a film about something that has a clear ending. Sadly, violence and war are not one of those things. And that took me a while to realize—that there’s no ending. So we were trying to wait for the right time. We started when Obama was president and we felt like it was good timing because there were a lot of those conversations happening at that time. Then Trump was elected, and it didn’t feel like the right time for that conversation.

And then after Biden was elected and the withdrawal from Afghanistan, that just felt like the right time. When he announced this new plan for the U.S. war was, like, an over-the-horizon warfare policy … or something like that, which basically means, like, you’re hiding out in some other country, we’re gonna send stuff over to kill you. That’s what he meant by that. So we’re like, okay, now he’s saying this is our plan moving forward? So maybe it’s the right time.

Image: courtesy of Kari Barber

Looking at your’s and Nico’s individual and collective filmographies, the sheer range of subject matter you’ve covered is impressive. How do you decide which projects to take on and why did you feel like this film needed to be made?  

This was more different than my other work where, for Nico, it might be more similar, because it’s not unusual for him to do things a bit more politically aligned, or more about war, about politics—that sort of thing is definitely in his comfort zone. For me, I’ve done more kinds of historical and human interest, and more investigative. … I was having trouble thinking, you know, it’s an interesting topic, but what does it look like as a film? And then when we started spending time with the protesters, I got the visuals and I thought it was really compelling, what was happening, but that we needed that thread through what they’re doing and that passion that they’re exhibiting with this sort of discussion about the future, you know? And that’s kind of where it led to. 

Usually, how I pick a story, essentially, is like, you have to live in the film. You have to be with it for so long, so many years, your level of commitment has to be so high that I think that it has to be something that, like, bothers you so much that you can’t sleep at night. It chases you, you don’t chase it, I think. And so if it’s chasing you, sometimes the only way to make that stop is to make the film.

Police – Image: courtesy of Kari Barber

What was it about drone warfare that stuck with you so much that you felt like you needed to further the conversation about this? 

I think maybe I’m a bit of a Luddite [laughs] I have a bit of a fear of technology, or you know, not fear, I mean, I don’t know. I don’t love technology that much compared to some people perhaps. So anything that’s making us feel a little less human and a little more robotic, I kind of don’t love. But I’m also a realist and I realize you can’t—what do they say?—you can’t stand on the shore and try to stop the waves, right? I just think there has to be some kind of middle ground. So maybe it’s my anxiety about what technology is making us into, combined with an acceptance that it’s going to happen. But maybe we can think about ways to protect our humanity in all of this. What appeals to me about this story is: How do we stay human in all of this?

The information page you put together for the film seemed like funding came from a lot of different sources. With such a far-ranging subject as this one, what did some of the logistics look like for how this film came together?

I mean, initially, we paid for it ourselves, which is usually how it goes, you have to just fork out your own money in order to have enough to show people that then they’ll say, “Oh, yeah, I can see it.” Initially, we just used my, you know, Southwest miles I had, and I know Nico shared a motel room with Joseba Zulaika. And we slept in tents the first few times we were out there. 

… So initially, it was just us. But then the journalism school does some internal funding and we kind of started there to get some travel funds to be able to film some stuff. I was able to lobby to get some funding from the Osmond Institute for Global Studies, which is affiliated with UNR … And then I was able to, because of that, get a better sample to show Nevada Humanities which did the humanities grants. And then I had a final one from Nevada Arts. And these are all, kind of, modest grants, but you cobble it together to make it happen. These enabled us to film in Germany twice. We didn’t go, we hired people. It was much cheaper that way. But it enabled the film to become more of an international story rather than just a Nevada story.

Vera – Image: courtesy of Kari Barber

I was struck by how many Nevada associations wanted to have their hands in this, though. It’s no secret that Nevada is the home for these overseas drone programs, and plenty of industries and people in the state might be supported by it. Did you ever come up against those opposing political factors?

Yeah. I mean, that’s why we interviewed somebody who’s kind of a drone expert from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, and somebody who works as a military ethicist who’s based out of Case Western, because the goal of my films is never to be just speaking to one side or whatever. I’m not like that kind of filmmaker. I have no problem with people who are, I think it’s great to be an activist filmmaker, but I wouldn’t call myself [one]. My goal is always trying to find some middle ground we agree on. … Overall, what I found in this film is that, in the end, while there are certainly differences in approach, and there are certainly differences in what people think about whether drones are acceptable or not, or how they would be or would not be, the overall direction has everybody concerned.

Image: courtesy of Kari Barber

And what direction is that? What was the main conflict you identified in the film?

The military side would say people protesting [drones] are against any form of war. The drone is just another example, but it’s more just war of any kind. They [would say protestors] don’t believe there is just war essentially, right? … And maybe the person might say, “Yeah, that’s true. Exactly. We do believe there’s never a justification for it.” And on the other side, you know, we have military people who are researchers and ethicists who say there’s something called Just War Theory. There are, like, theoretical frameworks for deciding if it’s justified to be in this war or not, and drones are not outside of that. Drones are not inherently more evil than something else, they are just another tool that can be used in a justified war where the good outweighs the bad. So that’s kind of the two sides, basically, people believe now.

What’s happening is, we’re moving more and more towards where artificial intelligence isn’t just informing who will be killed by the drones, but eventually moving to a possibility where artificial intelligence makes the call—that a human no longer takes that information and makes the decision. It’s possible, as we’re talking about in the film, that we’re moving away from human involvement whatsoever. That’s the part where everybody says, “Maybe this is too far.” … If we don’t slow down and have these conversations, it’s close. Everybody says it’s right there.

Image: courtesy of Kari Barber

What were some of the most surprising things you learned in making this film and grappling with these philosophical questions about responsibility in war?

I have two actually. As I’ve sort of said, you know, I think, in the end, everybody’s sort of on the same page. I think that surprised me. I thought that when I spoke with people from, you know, military backgrounds or work with the military, I really thought they would be more defenders of some of the ways that these technologies are being developed. But I don’t think that’s the case. … I don’t think people with military connections have that much difference when they think about it more than anybody else. I don’t think this is actually that divisive of an issue, to be honest. I think if people think about it and talk about it, I don’t think it’s that divisive. I thought they would really defend some things and they didn’t. They said, “No, we’re concerned.” 

This one’s a little more bizarre, but some of the ways that military technology has been developed beyond what we delve into within this film I’ve sort of learned about. Like DNA testing and stuff like that on humans, to see if we can make humans that don’t get tired as much, that have more focus. And they’re doing it with animal testing to see if this is possible to do with humans, and we kind of learned as we worked on this film, the other kinds of things that are happening. Like I saw Spider-Man in the hotel one night. And then I have an ethicist off the record telling me about this, and I’m going “Oh my god, Spider-Man.” Like, it’s totally real. So, all of these sorts of scary things that we see in movies, they’re actually working on that. It’s not just artificial Intelligence deciding who to kill. It’s bigger than that.

Matt Bieker is an award-winning photojournalist and native of Reno. He received his degree in Journalism from the University of Nevada Reno in 2014, and is currently writing for the Sierra Nevada Ally, Double Scoop, Reno News & Review, and other publications.  Support Matt’s work for the Sierra Nevada Ally here.

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