“Eye in the Sky” Confronts Complicated Ethics of Drone Warfare

Many have argued that drones–remotely controlled vehicles that shoot missiles or engage in deadly fire against targets–are a particularly dangerous form of waging war because it distances us from the carnage it produces. How can the value of human life be protected if it’s reduced to a video game with “pilots” operating from isolated bunkers using joy sticks? The new British film Eye in the Sky dispels those notions easily in a gripping story of modern techno-warfare, but not for the reasons many might think.

True enough, high-tech battles have the potential to displace much of our direct experience with the trauma of war. But Eye in the Sky shows all too clearly that this simple view of technology’s impact on conducting war breaks down–perhaps inevitably–when humans are involved. Moreover, Western sensibilities about the proper rules of engagement may do more to safeguard human life than is assumed. Almost every major scene involves a significant character confronted with an ethical dilemma surrounding rules of engagement or the personal responsibilities for literally and figuratively “pulling the trigger.” Someone still has to pull the trigger, and high-tech warfare, ironically, may make those decisions even more difficult. Eye in the Sky is, in effect, an extended meditation on the ethics of war.

Directed by Gavin Hood (X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Ender’s Game, Totsi) and featuring some of the United Kingdom’s most accomplished actors (including Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman), Eye in the Sky begins with an early scene that sets up the entire movie. Some of Britain’s most important political decisionmakers have convened to witness what everyone expects to be a plume in the British anti-terrorist program’s hat: the capture of two of the highest ranking terrorists in the Middle East, including a radicalized British national working for a key Islamic terrorist group. Helen Mirren plays the no-nonsense career officer charged with dutifully executing the mission, and Alan Rickman plays the more politic general who serves as a liaison to the public officials sitting in to watch.

Britain’s defense minister, attorney general, and domestic policy secretary gather around the widescreen monitor for what first appears to be something akin to a very serious reality TV Show.

But what starts as something uncomfortably close to a voyeuristic video game becomes far more serious when drone surveillance cameras discover an impending suicide bombing. The mission goes from a “capture” to a “kill,” and this sets in motion a seemingly endless array of requests for advice, permission, and re-assessments. The decisions are complicated further by rules of engagement that require minimizing civilian casualties (“collateral damage”).

At first, the politicians seem to be following the old saw of CYA, passing the responsibility for making the decision to other officials higher up in the political food chain. Complicating the decisionmaking even further is the international dimension of the operation–a joint effort involving the United Kingdom (strategy, tactics), the United States (technology and execution of drone warfare), and Kenya (on the ground surveillance and capture of the targets). Thus, the British can’t make a decision without consulting their peers in the United States while also begin mindful of Kenya’s political and domestic concerns. If this sounds complicated, this summary pales in comparison to the actual complications and dynamics of decision making depicted in the film.

More intriguingly, the decision trees invoked by each character reflect their own unique vantage points and set up increasingly more important conflicts between the utilitarian ethics of the military (greatest benefit for least cost) and the objective moral values of the elected officials (innocent life is inherently valuable and should be protected at all costs). The story plays off the frustrations of both philosophical camps with striking effect, keeping the viewer hanging with each decision, and never really sure which one will prevail. For the higher ranking military officers, the decision is as straightforward as it is clear–destroy the terrorists before they can do more damage to a greater number of people. For others, including the pilots tasked with sending the missile into a neighborhood that would kill terrorists as well as other innocents, the trade-offs are much less clear. For the public officials, process trumps outcome, prompting the question: Will the rules of engagement be followed and legitimize the ultimate choice (to fire the drone missile), whether the decision is to kill the terrorists or find an alternative path?

Anyone looking for a clear cut answer to whether the drone strike is justified will be frustrated walking out of the theater. Since the military is constrained by a political system that establishes elected and other non-military public officials at the center of the process, the utilitarian position is, to a degree, kept in check (although it’s up the audience to decide whether it’s justified). Let’s just say no one is left feeling completely comfortable with the outcome. Thus, Eye in the Sky does a remarkable job of demonstrating the complicated web of decisionmaking embedded in high-tech warfare.

While many may see the film as specific commentary on the character of drone warfare, the message is much broader. As viewers, we might sit in disturbed awe at our ability to destroy a target with pinpoint accuracy (no exaggeration), but the film shows us that technology has not erased the ethical dilemmas implicit in the decision to go to war. Indeed, the decision to pull the trigger on the drone’s missile is traumatic, a testament to the effectiveness of the screenwriter’s and director’s ability to humanize combat in an age where technology provides extraordinary distance from direct experience. The drone pilots may use the tools of a video game to carry out his task, but the human consequences are never erased or minimized simply because they are looking at a video screen.

The rules of engagement in modern, western-style warfare, as played out in Eye in the Sky, combined with social sensitivities heightened by democratically elected civilian control of the military ensure the human consequences of waging war create the conflict that keeps the utilitarian military mindset in check. Thus, democratic politics is the friend of humanity, not the enemy, since international politics defaults toward negotiated solutions and process. No one escapes the moral quandaries presented by war in this tightly written suspense film, whether it’s the defense minister in the United Kingdom or the low-ranking U.S. pilot pulling the trigger to fire the missile. The inhumanity of war remains front and center, despite our best efforts to marginalize it through technology.

Samuel R. Staley is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and Managing Director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center in the College of Social Sciences at Florida State University. He is a contributing author to the Independent books, Property Rights: Eminent Domain and Regulatory Takings Re-Examined and Housing America: Building Out of a Crisis.
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