When a nation goes to war it is not unusual for this to eventually be depicted in film. This provides filmmakers and audiences alike with ways to deal with the issues involved. Much of this functions to enhance patriotism, and the feeling that the nation was just and heroic in participating in war. But since the conflict in Vietnam, some of the American cinematic reactions to war have also brought critical perspectives.
Eye in the Sky is an example of this in the context of the “War on Terror” and its depiction of drone warfare. The setting is Nairobi, Kenya, where Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren), a UK military officer, is tasked with capturing two British citizens and one American who are radicalized and meeting in preparation for an imminent suicide bombing. This involves an international coalition of forces, including two American Air Force personnel in Las Vegas, Nevada, who must pilot the drone that provides real-time intelligence on the terrorist meeting. As the story unfolds, the military assignment shifts from capture to assassination of the terrorists through a missile attack from the drone. As preparations are made for missile launch, an innocent girl comes within the projected area of “collateral damage” with a high degree of probability for serious injury or death. Her presence triggers a series of legal, political, and ethical debates among military and political leaders who must decide whether to proceed with the missile launch as a pre-emptive strike against terrorists who will likely commit mass murder, or to call off the strike due to the potential for injury or death of an innocent.
Eye in the Sky is a welcome addition to the films that address the Western military response to terrorism. It is not interested in making viewers feel patriotic. Instead, it is concerned with raising moral and ethical issues related to the use of drones. As noted in the film summary above, the context for the military action is both British and American, but this film touches on issues that have been particularly significant in America. Two of these issues are especially significant.
First, this film raises concerns about the assassination of British and American citizens. This has been a very real legal and ethical issue for the American government. In 2011, President Obama authorized a CIA drone strike in Yemen that killed Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen who radicalized and was implicated in terrorist activities. Al-Awlaki is not alone in being targeted. Several U.S. citizens have been killed by drones, some purposefully as terrorist suspects, others accidentally as collateral damage in terrorist assassinations
Another major concern is the number of innocent civilians killed by such actions. The use of drones to battle terrorism began with the Bush administration, but it dramatically escalated under President Obama. On numerous occasions his administration has made claims that these strikes are surgically precise, and that the deaths of innocent civilians are extremely low. Recently the White House claimed that only “64 to 116 civilians have died from U.S. airstrikes outside ‘areas of activity hostilities’” under Obama. However, critics have said that the Obama administration has not been transparent about the drone program, and that the number of civilian deaths is actually far higher than government statistics. According to an article from 2013 in The Washington Post citing “[t]he nonpartisan New American Foundation, which has attempted to keep a running tally,” drones “have killed between 258 and 307 civilians in Pakistan, and between 66 and 68 in Yemen” under the Bush and Obama administrations. These numbers from three years ago in these two countries alone total more than the Obama administration’s recent figures. The casualty estimates from other sources are far higher.
Fifteen years into the War on Terror we should ask ourselves some difficult questions. Is the use of drones, particularly with the high number of civilian deaths, an ethical practice? Is this a helpful tool in combating terrorism, or as some military officials have argued, do drones create more terrorists than they kill? And what about the psychological impact that drone warfare has on local populations who must live under constant fear of death from the sky, as well as those in the military who must fire missiles and kill people from thousands of miles away? The suspenseful warfare drama Eye in the Sky provides viewers with an opportunity to ask themselves these and other difficult questions.