‘Eye in the Sky’ Forces Us to See the Human Toll of Drone Warfare

Eye in the Sky

In what was mostly a spellbinding portrayal of the cost of drone warfare in the 21st century, there were moments in Gavin Hood’s “Eye in the Sky” that you couldn’t help but wonder if the director was engaging in cheeky satire as one British bureaucrat after another anguished over a decision to kill terrorists in a drone strike on Kenya that would also serve as a likely death sentence for an innocent girl selling bread outside their hideout.

How to become a travel agent

From the United Kingdom’s attorney general to the foreign minister, those civilians entrusted to make critical military decisions chose instead to “refer up”—meaning pass the buck so the next person in line would have to live with the consequences. The term was so widely used that it was tough not to snicker even though the stakes were so high.

The only people totally committed to bombing a house in Nairobi to take out three high-level terrorists—two UK citizens and one American—seemingly planning a suicide bombing were Colonel Powell (Helen Mirren) and General Benson (the late Alan Rickman).

The decision facing England’s elected officials in “Eye in the Sky” is whether or not to approve the drone strike after it became clear that capturing the subjects in unfriendly territory would be nearly impossible.

Those advocating for the strike were operating under the impression that the loss of one life—the young girl selling bread—is easier to live with than risking dozens of lives if the terror subjects were successful in carrying out an attack.

On the flip side, as the British attorney general noted, the UK would look like the villains if it ever emerged that the government went ahead with the missile strike even though they knew the young girl’s life was in jeopardy. Indeed, the military had no idea where the al Shabaab terrorists were planning to strike, but they did not want to live through another Westgate shopping mall massacre in Nairobi, which left 67 people dead in 2013.

If this is how officials decide whether to bomb alleged terrorists in undeclared war zones like Kenya, then perhaps controversial assassinations—or “targeted killings”—from unmanned, remote-piloted aircrafts aren’t getting the level of scrutiny they deserve.

And maybe that’s the point “Eye in the Sky” endeavors to make. Not that drone strikes are immoral or incredibly effective, depending on how you see it, but that the program itself is flawed because protocols governing use of this nascent technology are not yet firmly in place. Sure, it’s easy to compel a pilot to pull the trigger on people you are 100-percent sure are the bad guys, but what happens when innocent lives are caught in the crossfire or you’re unsure if the people you’re targeting are truly terrorists? Who should be the one to make that decision? And if the intelligence is faulty or incomplete, should a deadly strike even be up for consideration?

At home, the debate has been raging for years over how the United States conducts drone attacks and whether the risk of collateral damage is too great. Many of the drone strikes operated by the US take place in countries where we’re not at war, like Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, which heightens civilian exposure. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, US drone strikes have killed somewhere between 423 and 965 civilians in Pakistan since 2004. It’s difficult to ascertain the exact civilian death toll because such stats are kept secret.

“Eye in the Sky” also addresses the strain drone attacks put on US Air Force pilots operating out of a military base in Las Vegas.

Drone warfare has for years been compared to video games, in which soldiers in America remotely pilot drones over the skies of Africa and the Middle East. If the decision is made to strike a target, the operator presses the appropriate button and watches the target explode. Through the lens of the drone, the pilots can see the destruction the missile has reaped, but the aftermath is inaudible. The pilot won’t hear cries of family members or catch a whiff of smoldering flesh. They follow targets with deft precision, strike a building or a vehicle if need be, ascertain whether the target was killed, and return the aircraft to a nearby base.

Aaron Paul, who gives a searing portrayal of a US Air Force pilot/drone operator named Steve Watts, is at the controls of the drone hovering over Nairobi, and he poignantly captures the emotional tug-of-war that the more hardened generals have so effectively repressed. When Paul offers a heart-warming smirk as he sees the little girl playing with a hula-hoop in her backyard, it’s as if he’s standing right beside her. But those tear-jerking moments are fleeting, because it becomes apparent to us that the people inside the house are preparing for a bloody attack.

It’s difficult to leave this suspenseful film and not wonder out loud, “What would you do?” But perhaps the more pressing issue facing world leaders is whether it has become so easy to kill with a remote control that we’ve all forgotten the human cost of war?

(Featured photo credit: Bleeker Street Media/Eye in the Sky)