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Robots on the horizon: “Eye in the Sky” and the limits of the cerebral

Eye in the Sky movie poster

“Eye in the Sky”
Dir. Gavin Hood
Starring Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, Alan Rickman, and Barkhad Abdi
Entertainment One and Bleecker Street
R (MPAA), 102 minutes, 2015

Spoiler alert

The fictional drone movie “Eye in the Sky” depicts an operation including the Amerikan and British militaries against a real group operating in Kenya. NATO and the U.K. and U.$. militaries use “eye in the sky” in reference to various reconnaissance craft. The phrase with this movie suggests godlike power and responsibility. After a massive increase in drone use and drone attacks under Barack Obama, who is nearing the end of eir presidency, there is now this mainstream movie supposedly critiquing drone war. The movie illustrates some of the problems with trying to deal with a war topic head-on while aiming for broad distribution in the First World.

It doesn’t offer a simple answer or a solution that isn’t messy. It depicts, with some artistic license, what perhaps could happen in an operation without clearly glorifying drone strikes. As usual, war has an horrible aspect. There are predictable pain and destruction, unintended consequences, mistakes, and unscrupulous actions the doers might justify in terms of necessity. The movie is realistic in that sense. However, it omits certain realities (to include that the vast majority of casualties in reality are either civilian, unarmed, or not intended targets; children are regularly killed without the long fuss depicted in the movie; and killings by drone frequently take place without a goal of averting imminent danger), and it reinforces the idea of “just” imperialist war—just war in an imperialist country context—by dwelling on issues of timing, targeting, method, status of individuals, and circumstances as if there were not conclusions that needed to drawn about imperialist countries’ military operations in general. It is not until the very end of the movie that there is a quick, ambiguous reference to general patterns of cause and effect with imperialism, war, and oppression, or maybe just the indigenous opinion and recruiting costs of civilian casualties. An Amerikan or British viewer may see the ending and just think “drone warfare can make us look bad,” not that things like what happened on the screen are both typical and inevitable and cause reactions that are then used to justify war repeatedly because war props up international oppression and profits.

Regardless of intention, “Eye in the Sky” seems to try to please everyone, or everyone will find something in it to agree with. The British general played by Alan Rickman says something to the effect of, if you don’t want to deal with the political fallout of drone warfare with civilian casualties, don’t have a war in the first place. The point is civilians should let the military do its job, but it’s hard to disagree. Some dilemmas wouldn’t be possible if there weren’t armed u.$. drones in Africa in the first place or willingness to violate other countries’ sovereignty. (Kenya suffers from too much Amerikan and British influence and welcomes drones and military operations to an extent, but that doesn’t mean Amerikan and British forces need to be there.) The general will appeal to viewers who are veterans. A different character (Monica Dolan) is inclined to disagree with pulling the trigger.

For many viewers, though, the result of watching “Eye in the Sky” could be to become more callous or hardened in one’s attitude that such warfare is necessary. In the course of the mission (which actually changes as the objective is changed), the characters in “Eye in the Sky” raise many considerations and the so-called dilemma actually changes until at last there is a dilemma involving an unarmed civilian who is a child. The child becomes such a focal point that many viewers may forget the issues raised previously or consider them to have been resolved. Of course, the questions raised before the child’s appearance (such as what to do with terrorists in another country who are British or Amerikan citizens, and how many adult civilian casualties are acceptable to prevent an imminent suicide bombing) suggest pretexts or justifications for imperialist country military actions in the non-movie world. Sparing some children or civilians doesn’t preclude an imperialist country waging war on one basis or another and may actually help with winning the “propaganda war” as characters in the movie discuss.

“Eye in the Sky” appears to ridicule those who could conduct war while sitting on the toilet for example. Overall, though, the movie suggests drone warfare potentially involves complex reasoning—even if must be rushed at times—and is not easy. The dialogue-heavy war thriller, seemingly every other scene of which is set in an office, trailer or room thousands of miles from Kenya, has been called “cerebral”—whether because the characters sort through valid points even as some evade responsibility, or because a detailed (or too-ready) stream of thought and words leads to killing people instantly (but in a way that lacks one’s own presence), raising a question about the nature of drone strikes and willingness to use them. No doubt the movie is thought-provoking and may make many Western viewers uncomfortable, but the end result may be a desire for better spying, more Navy SEALs instead of drones equipped with missiles, or less civilian involvement in decision-making in a war or operation. Civilian oversight is portrayed as unhelpful, cumbersome, incompetent, or given to making distasteful calculations that don’t necessarily minimize overall civilian casualties.

Another possibility after watching “Eye in the Sky” is wanting to deploy autonomous robots that might be able to avoid killing some children while disarming and capturing a target. People in the First World are inclined to prefer technological solutions to war’s impact over having fewer wars. Movies about war’s impact on civilians and Amerikan soldiers may have contributed to a taste for Predator and Reaper drones, which are less precise than they were supposed to be and come with their own problems. So much of “Eye in the Sky” deals with the Hellfire missile being such a blunt weapon in terms of blast radius, rather than how Obama illegally or with impunity uses drones to kill individuals and attack groups in various countries, that a viewer might wonder about technological alternatives. The movie mentions a list of targets and viewers may think of Obama’s kill list, but since the mission targets are preparing for a suicide bombing the focus ends up being on how to ensure they die while limiting so-called collateral damage, collateral damage being a concept the movie appears to critique but does not abandon.

If the average Amerikan or Briton is represented in this movie, it is in the male air force officer character (played by Aaron Paul of the TV series “Breaking Bad”) who pilots the drone from a chair in Nevada or the female enlisted airman beside em. Some viewers will go into this movie thinking drone pilots had a lot of discretion and come out of it thinking that debates including high-level civilian leaders might be the norm. So, the movie makes Average Joe Amerikan look good. The movie generally portrays lower-ranking military personnel as under pressure or reluctant to go along with a decision to strike, rather than being part of an efficient team of trained people killing hated or dehumynized enemies.

Despite decades of massive civilian casualties inflicted by their countries, many Westerners with at least a modicum of empathy or sense express discomfort with deaths of civilians, and many will probably identify with the drone operators more than with any other character in the movie (they also have never fired a Hellfire before). In-theater feelings aside, Westerners—generally bourgeois or privileged—support or go along with invasions, wars, and series of questionable actions, again and again. It is easier for them than it is for some politicians and officials who have elections, party reputations, government careers, budgets or international relationships to worry about. Average Joe and Jane Amerikan don’t have to take stressful phone calls while sitting on the loo. They can just tweet or broadcast, at their leisure, their support for the next liberal warmongering militarist promising them student loan relief or something else these oinkers, already privileged, want.

If “Eye in the Sky” lacks a clear message about drones and merely exploits the topic to sell movie tickets, what it says about gender may be more clear or interesting. Most Western males are too out of shape or unwilling to flaunt their physicality by joining the infantry or play sports competitively, but what they can do is demonstrate their “sensitive” side to females by appearing in a movie as delaying a drone strike to cover their own ass and then looking like good candidates for psychotherapy after they carry out the seemingly inevitable. Meanwhile, Western females show they can make the hard choices that males, and some females, can’t or won’t make. Civilian males may balk at the likelihood of killing a female child in a drone strike, but don’t worry because a female officer in a Western military is in a better position to endanger a Muslim girl in the name of liberation or anti-terrorism. Pseudo-feminist notions about there needing to be females as evil, mentally ill, oppressive or privileged as Western males means murderous Machiavellian psychopaths with some female attributes such as Hillary Clinton are available to kill Muslims or Africans using gender pretexts.

Supposedly, Amerikan and British females oppose drone strikes more than males do and more than they oppose the use of force in general,(1) so it interesting that “Eye in the Sky” depicts an older female intelligence colonel (Helen Mirren) as pushing for a strike and fighting being hamstrung by protocol and civilian overseers. The colonel isn’t exactly role model material by the end of the movie, but may be considered worthy in various ways. An older crowd might consider Mirren and Rickman sexy in this movie.

“Eye in the Sky” depicts female military personnel, but not in infantry forces despite females in combat being seen by many Amerikans and Britons as cutting-edge feminism. Males, too, are shown mostly issuing orders or advice, using computers etc., but not moving and in danger unless they are Africans. This suggests one way to obtain equality in the military, if Western females are capable but just uninterested in combat jobs for the most part, is by changing to types of warfare that are without conventional warriors.

Since drone operators can develop mental issues, some may perceive a need for software to replace humyns and humyn action more and more. “Eye in the Sky” shows people using advanced facial recognition software or explosives impact prediction software. Computer output can be disregarded if humyns can justify it so removing humyns as a factor may be seen as necessary. If it is not drones in war, it may just be artificial intelligence closer to the ground. Stories with drone pilots who have PTSD, or are suicidal or disturbed, serve business as usual. Drones are here to stay—one cannot go back—from the point of view of the rich. Not only do they appear indispensable at the moment and in fictional moments; they are state-of-the-art and can only be supplemented or improved. But there may be other ways to make war physically and mentally easier for Western parasites, civilian or military. ◊

1. “Big gender gap in global public opinion about use of drones,” 2013 July 25.

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