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Eye in the Sky and the Propaganda of Drone Warfare
by Martha and Marty Roth
Reviewed in this essay: Eye in the Sky, directed by Gavin Hood. Bleecker Street Media, 2015, 103 minutes.
THE NEW drone-kill film Eye in the Sky mobilizes major star power and technical virtuosity to persuade its viewers of a number of unlikely things: that the Western war machine has the intelligence and technology to efficiently prosecute its war on terror (if only democratic sensibilities didn’t get in the way); that intelligence is freely shared by the U.S. and its allies; and, most persistently, that the West has a heart (and tear ducts) as large as Texas.
If you buy that, you probably fell for the old story about the WMDs in Iraq. But if, like us, you don’t believe a word of it, there’s little nourishment in Eye and little to admire save the glories of Helen Mirren (Colonel Powell) and the late Alan Rickman (General Preston), and the energetic performance of a Somali agent (Barkhad Abdi, the actor who played the terrorist leader in Captain Phillips).
Our Western hearts and tear ducts are meant to be engaged by the core narrative: In a carpeted conference room, sitting around a polished table, U.S. and British military brass and high-level politicos direct a drone strike planned to eliminate some top targets on their terrorism hit list, but they suspend this action because a young girl is selling bread too close to the kill zone. The strike is taking place in Kenya, a neutral country, and two of the targets are U.S. and British citizens; the rules of engagement (ROEs, in the film) start yo-yoing out of control as each participant tries to get his or her superior to come to a decision, and each superior tries to cover their ass — so that Eye at times resembles a screwball comedy on the order of Dr. Strangelove.
Initially, the plan is to capture the targets, but it’s changed to a kill mission when the drone’s “eye” reveals the arming of at least three suicide bombers in the targeted house. At this point, the insane calculus of warfare takes over, as half a dozen adults agonize over whether they can order a drone strike that is sure to kill the innocent young bread-seller. If they don’t launch the missile, the suicide bombers will surely cause the deaths of many more victims. But if they do launch, there’s that girl. Much of the film concerns the attempts of the people around the table to get permission from higher-ups to launch the strike.
Eye sells the myth of a “clean war” long past its expiration date. The civilian casualty rate in the Iraq War stands at a nifty 77 percent, and estimates of "collateral damage" from drone strikes range wildly. According to the Guardian in November, 2014, "attempts to kill 41 men resulted in the deaths of an estimated 1,147 people." In a 2009 New York Times op-ed Pakistani sources estimated that 50 civilians had died for every militant killed in drone strikes. As for children, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimated in 2011 that more than a third of all drone strikes during the George W. Bush administration involved the death of a child. But this film does its best to convince us that the life of a single child is seen as so precious by hardened Western leaders that defense establishments voluntarily waste time dickering over the protocol of slaughter.
The film is about acting, resolving to act, and getting permission to act — and the act that is contemplated is a violent and terminal one. At the self-reflexive level, the cinematic situation (relatively isolated individuals in dark confined spaces, reminiscent of Plato’s parable of the cave) relieves even accomplished performers like Mirren, Rickman, and Jeremy Northam (whose brilliant blue silk shirt deserves an Oscar for best performance in a supporting role) of the necessity to act beyond the minimal expression of frustration or silent agony.
We felt outrageously manipulated as the film squeezed out the emotional cost of warfare to the aggressors, not their victims. So where does all of this leave us? Somewhere between believing that those in command of warfare agonize over their decisions and the contrary cynical belief that, since they have the technology, they casually use it. Still, for the large population that believes in the accuracy of drone strikes, this film may raise some serious questions.
Nations will fight wars and they will be barbaric affairs smoothed out by ever more impressive technology. And nations will lie to their citizens about the competence of their military prowess and the depth of their humanity. There is a secondary motif of toys and games in this film: the in-close surveillance drones look like intricate toys, flying birds or insects. General Preston has been told by his wife to buy a lifelike doll for their daughter, which he brings into the conference room with him. When reached by phone, the American secretary of state is playing a cutthroat game of table tennis with a Chinese champion. The Western powers are playing a game — and it is we who we are being toyed with.
In a letter this year to the London Review of Books, author Clancy Sigal reported that a number of former drone pilots, sensor operators, and technicians have joined in a "Refuse to Fly" protest, urging their colleagues to disobey orders to shoot. They argue that drones cause heavy civilian casualties and that they create an “institutional culture” unmoved by the deaths of children.
Martha and Marty Roth are expatriate Americans who left the U.S. with the re-installation of George W. Bush (which seems like relatively small potatoes now). For the last ten years they have been part of the editorial collective of Outlook: Canada's Progressive Jewish Magazine.