Diary of a Drones Developer in ‘Think Tank’

Writer Matt Hawkins couldn’t have chosen a more appropriate time to introduce Dr. David Loren and Think Tank, a new black and white monthly comic from Top Cow. Loren works indirectly for the US government in Think Tank, operating under contract through the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a real-life entity that has been has been assisting the Department of Defense since 1958. Amid the real world’s active drone strikes and the physical and psychological trauma left to unravel in their wake, Hawkins’s choice of an actual contractor for his comic — and direct references to technologically advanced weaponry that Dr. Loren is charged with developing for them — ensures a compelling theme for this series, even in its infancy.

Through Think Tank‘s first-person narrative voice, Dr. David Loren characterizes himself as an outcast. He’s deliberately slacked on finishing a “wish list” of warfare technology, fed up with being tasked to “willingly create instruments of death.” Loren gets a miserable visit from the top brass at his living quarters in the first issue that owes entirely to his attitude — it’s time to shape up the kid whose apparent “algorithms for the Predator drone continue to work well in the field.” Artist and co-creator Rahsan Ekedal styles the military-like compound so that it’s believably cold and hard on the page. He stirs up an air of anxiety that’s thick enough to choke on in certain sequences, but shines in the script’s more frenetic corners, with unconventional page composition and framing volatile face-offs inside free-floating, off-kilter panels.

It’s an interesting juncture for Matt Hawkins to have conceptualized Think Tank, and to have introduced a character who works for a real defense contractor. While Dr. Loren concludes that he’s pulling out of the weapons development industry, Think Tank‘s chief scientist has superior officers with alternate plans. For one, Loren has impressed some people with his considerable improvements for drones, the unmanned aerial vehicles that the U.S. Air Force and CIA have been deploying for decades, but have never before been as common a component of our foreign policy than they are in 2012.

Michael Hastings wrote about “the increasingly central role that drones now play in American policy” in a 2012 article for Rolling Stone. President Obama’s closely guarded drone program “amounts to the largest unmanned aerial offensive ever conducted in military history,” reports Hastings. Under the current administration, there have been 294 drone strikes to date, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Hundreds of civilians have been killed or wounded as a result of these strikes, but because the White House now counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, the “official” number of civilian casualties is driven lower, allowing for spokespersons to package the drone campaign as “precise” and “exact.” This policy’s creative use of language affords White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan the opportunity to speak publicly about drones, as he did in April, calling the possibility of related civilian deaths “exceedingly rare.” Recent investigations of drone strikes demonstrate an altogether different account, however.

In Think Tank #2, following a prescient quote from Albert Einstein, Dr. Loren imagines an instance of accompanying infantrymen in a field experiment. He’s a bit more direct than he’d been previously: “I make stuff that kills the enemy without endangering our soldiers’ lives…I mean, we’re the good guys… or so I’ve been told.” Human rights activist Rafia Zakaria writes in Dissent Magazine about the language that military figures use when discussing drones: “Terror is a problem, and drones are being sold as the neat, sterile solution to all of its bloody ambiguities and sinister secrets.” Loren’s conclusions in Think Tank about what we’ve all been told about modern warfare technology is more sarcasm than self-reflection, and reminiscent of Matty’s inner monologue and the representation of post-9/11 civil liberties infringements in Brian Wood’s DMZ. But Hawkins’s lines for Dr. Loren aren’t always noncommittal: a couple of pages later, the scientist alludes to tangible, global concerns related to the drone campaign, such as the notion of “creating future adversaries.”

A heavily footnoted September 2012 report called Living Under Drones from the International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution Clinic at Stanford Law School and the Global Justice Clinic at NYU School of Law highlights the anti-American sentiment that drone technology is generating across the Middle East. “Evidence suggests that US strikes have facilitated recruitment to violent non-state armed groups, and motivated further violent attacks,” the researchers conclude. A Pew Research Poll cited in the report notes that 94% of the people polled about drones in Pakistan (where High Commissioner Wajid Shamsul Hasan calls CIA drone strikes a “violation of the UN charter”) believe that the attacks kill too many innocent people.

The first drone strike under the Obama administration occurred in January of 2009 and took the lives of between seven and 11 civilians: “(M)ostly of one family and including one child, reportedly died,” according to TBIJ. For the Los Angeles Times, reporter David Cloud reconstructed a horrific tragedy that transpired in Afghanistan in early 2010. Although a team of US drone pilots, camera operators, and more couldn’t clearly identify any weapons amid a convoy of civilians one February morning, an air strike was ordered anyway, killing “15 or 16 men” and wounding more than 10, a woman and children included.

In a recent interview with CNN, President Obama somewhat openly discussed the drone program, but downplayed its lethal impact: “Our preference has always been to capture when we can because we can gather intelligence,” he said. The assessment in Living Under Drones, rife with accounts of strikes that killed rescuers, civilians at funerals, or people worshipping at mosques, indicates otherwise. As of earlier this year, when Michael Hastings filed his drones piece with Rolling Stone, President Obama had ordered five times as many strikes as George W. Bush had in office, and drones had “been used to kill more than 3,000 people designated as terrorists, including at least four US citizens.”

Matt Hawkins’s absorbing exposition for Think Tank is two-tiered — it’s built partly on a sarcastic reaction to gluttonous defense spending and weaponry development, but mostly on authentic regret from a main character for his prominent role in the industry. The first issue’s reference to Predator drones is singular in its specifics, but it’s tied to palpable uneasiness about one individual’s hasty contributions to the American war machine. We’re at a point now where we can tell ourselves that the official narrative is the one with the accurate civilian body count, that the men on TV have a point about the need for “precise” defense in their war on terror. Or maybe we look at this for what it is, the unpredictable and catastrophically dangerous technology that David Loren is scrambling to leave behind him in Think Tank.

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