Droning On

Some follow-up thoughts to my review of the drone-warfare movie, Eye in the Sky (You can read the review here.) The film explores the decision of whether to use a drone missile attack to wipe out a team of Somali terrorists inside a compound in Nairobi, Kenya, who are suiting up for an imminent suicide bombing. After surveillance cameras reveal a nine-year-old girl selling bread at a stand just outside the compound, we follow the military and civilian command’s agony of decision: is it justifiable to kill a nine-year-old in cold blood in order to eliminate terrorists plotting to kill many more innocents?

One question I had as I watched the movie, and then as I wrote the review, is whether feature films are the best way, or even a good way, to illuminate ethical dilemmas. As soon as I say that, of course, I think of a bunch of mainstream films over recent decades that do just that -- Silkwood, The China Syndrome, A Civil Action, Erin Brockovich, Thank You For Smoking, Juno, Concussion, and, of course, Zero Dark Thirty. In taking up political, environmental, military and other scandals and dilemmas, such films constitute the muckraking ethical arm of Hollywood. I guess your sense of whether they dignify and focus significant ethical conundrums, or dilute and trivialize them, will depend on what kind of moviegoer you are. Do you want pathos, or perspective? And are these aims mutually exclusive?

Maybe not, but I do think, as I tried to say in the review, that there’s a danger of getting lost in the human drama, letting sympathies for the characters – sympathies that can be manipulated, after all  – obscure the ethical and political issues. Maybe that’s why I often favor documentaries, preferring, for instance, Inside Job to The Big Short as a means of laying bare our country’s financial meltdown.

In Eye in the Sky, the sympathies and emotions that are played to include, first and most obviously, our horror at the thought that a little girl selling bread may at any moment be wiped out by a US missile fired from the clear blue. But more important, ultimately, is our sympathy for the decision-makers, both political and military, in their struggle to hash out what to do. Here’s where I worry about the feature-film approach. Obviously it suits the requirements of drama to maximize decision-makers’ moral and ethical agonizing. The conventional feature film wants to involve us, make us feel what all the players are feeling – anguish, anxiety, cost. In the movie this includes portraying the drone triggerman (Aaron Paul, from TV’s Breaking Bad) as so distressed, he basically at one point refuses to fire.  

The problem is that as Americans, we’re not merely paying members of the movie audience, but taxpaying members of the country whose military is firing the missiles. The killing is being done in our name, and so this movie, consciously or otherwise, amounts to a policy defense. That’s why our sympathies for the decision-makers and trigger-pullers are so significant. There is a politics to eliciting these sympathies, and to the sympathies themselves; there are consequences.  How we feel about drone warfare and those who conduct it is likely to depend on how they feel about it.

And that in turn depends on how the film is scripted. As I wrote in my review,

the implication [in Eye in the Sky] is that every single collateral death caused by drone warfare provokes moral agonizing up and down the chain of command; indeed, that participants are so troubled as to be rendered at times incapable, literally, of pulling the trigger. Would a real-life American drone pilot allow his qualms to contravene direct orders? And would his superiors on the national-security team really worry so floridly about one girl?

Is this reality, in other words, or a fiction designed to reassure us?

I realized that I didn’t know the answers to these questions. But I knew who would. Jonathan Stevenson, a friend and Commonweal contributor, is a public intellectual who specializes in defense-related policy questions. He taught for years at the Naval War College in Rhode Island, currently a Senior Fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, and for two years was a member of President Obama’s National Security Council. In an email Jonathan answered that while procedures to minimize collateral damage from drone strikes have become “increasingly stringent,” most military personnel “are more inured to the inevitability of innocent casualties” than is portrayed in Eye in the Sky. “I am quite confident,” he wrote, “that any notion that senior officials, civilian or military, would go through tortured ethical gyrations over the possibility of a single civilian casualty is untrue.”

In other words, the film indulges a form of sentimentality – highly consequential sentimentality, it must be said. President Obama over the years has made a point of publicly discussing how heavily the responsibility of ordering drone strikes weighs on him, stressing the moral gravity of ordering these deaths. Eye in the Sky works strenuously to underscore this gravity. In the process, the film implies that since just one death by collateral damage is this taxing, multiple deaths would be out of the question. Yet reality shows otherwise. As I noted in the review, the New York Times reported last year that since 9/11, U.S. drone strikes have killed nearly four thousand people, with well over 10 percent of them unintentionally targeted civilians – and reports from Yemen suggesting that more civilians there have been killed than targets. But, as I wrote, you’d never know this from watching Eye in the Sky. The film is subtly but pervasively misleading.

Interestingly, Jonathan Stevenson added that “the U.S. military does have some philosophical discomfort with drone strikes, especially insofar as they do not involve military valor on the part of the operators.”

The best evidence of this was the Pentagon's 2014 decision withdraw a medal that then-Secretary of Defense Panetta had placed on a par with the Bronze Star with a V device for drone performance, and its recent decision not to establish any new medal for that, settling instead on a little "R" (for "remote device") that is affixed to other awards. Furthermore, drone operators are showing inordinate stress and a very high incidence of PTSD for non-combat soldiers, which suggests that latent guilt may weight quite heavily on many of them. And a few morally evolved drone operators have left the Air Force or CIA and publicly protested--notably, those involved in the documentary Drone

Jonathan’s comments highlight how two fundamental realities of drone warfare – information and isolation – have altered the traditional ethical calculus of war. Traditionally a soldier’s violence is justified, in part, by the risk he himself takes when he enters battle. But drone warfare, in which targets are destroyed from halfway around the world, with no physical risk whatsoever to those who pull the trigger, demolishes this aspect of the warrior’s code. Eye in the Sky, and to a much greater extent a similar film, The Good Kill (2014), focus on the psychological toll this distortion of the warrior’s code takes on the airmen who kill remotely, their confusion about the morality of what they are being ordered to do. The alterations to military awards for valor that Jonathan mentions – the “R” is used almost as an asterisk, really -- seem to acknowledge this confusion. There is also something creepy in how our technologies of observation bring a “live” aspect to the political-military nexus of a mission, lending a kind of voyeuristic tinge to them – an impression I recall being made aware of for the first time via that memorable photo of Obama, Hillary Clinton and military brass transfixed in a White House situation room, watching in live time as our Special Forces commandos killed Bin Laden.

In some areas Eye in the Sky performs credibly – especially, for instance, when portraying military commanders’ contemptuous view of any possible legal constraint upon their decisions, and their avidity in shopping around for legal cover. We’re reminded of the cynical role played by national-security lawyers in post 9-11 U.S. administrations, like the notorious John Yoo, legal council to the Bush administration, whose penchant for extremely capacious legal authorizations earned him the nickname “Dr. Yes.”

Ultimately the movie seems to be saying that we need these assassinations, even if we know in advance that innocents will die -- and then we need to feel badly about it afterward. How well does that position parse, morally and ethically? Interestingly, a coherent school of thought on the related dilemma of torture takes just that position, holding that while torture is immoral, in certain limited and urgent circumstances it may need to be resorted to -- and then subsequently be punished. How might it be necessary to do something and also necessary to punish it?  Eye in the Sky stops well short of that level of paradox.

And meanwhile, in the real world, the drone tally continues to mount, with no likely end in sight. Jonathan Stevenson:

I think the immense operational utility of drone strikes--for instance, they basically allowed the United States to back out of Afghanistan--precludes any major ethically-based rethink on their use. You take a shot, do your best to minimize collateral damage subject to the imperative of getting the kill, and resolve duly to live any guilt over the death of an innocent. That may be ethically and morally uneasy, but some would observe--defensibly--that it really just describes war writ large.

PS/ Those interested in exploring how drone warfare measures up according to just-war criteria can link to resources here and here.

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

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