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Eye on the messy ethics of drone warfare

Tim Kroenert |  23 March 2016



Eye in the Sky (PG). Director: Gavin Hood. Starring: Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, Alan Rickman, Barkhad Abdi. 102 minutes

With more than 30 dead in Brussels just a few short months after the horrors in Paris, the Western world again confronts an assailant in ISIS who deals in fear and bloodshed.

In contemplating our responses to such attacks we recognise the historical and current geopolitical realities that have bred the ideologies that fuel them.

At the same time we balance the desire for revenge or the abstract need to shut down a diabolical foe at all costs, against the actual costs of violent retaliation — the inevitable loss of further innocent lives, and the opening of new wounds in which old ideological hatred might fester. Violence begets violence, and the ethics are inevitably messy.

This very messiness is the stuff of a new British film that coincidentally arrives in Australia this week. Eye in the Sky is set in a world of suicide bombings on the one hand, and drone warfare on the other. Its focus is far from Western Europe, on a small house in Nairobi, Kenya, where a group of known terrorists have, it is supposed by the American and British military personnel who surveil them, sought refuge in a safe house.

When it emerges that there are in fact plans for an imminent terrorist attack, the mission objective readily changes from capture to kill. But when a small girl wanders into the blast zone, suddenly the stakes become much thornier.

Helen Mirren in Eye in the SkyThis turn of events sparks a series of human and political responses from the various players.

There's the young American drone pilot with his finger on the trigger (Paul) who won't pull it without knowing that all the checks and balances are in place to minimise the danger to the girl.

There's the pragmatic British officer running the mission (Mirren) who sees ethics and bureaucracy as stumbling blocks to the need to act now. Her superior (the late Rickman in one of his last performances) agrees, but has to deal face to face with politicians who are worried about the cases each scenario (to kill or not to kill) presents both for the public good and public perception.

There's also the Kenyan undercover agent (Abdi) on the ground in Nairobi who quietly goes about being the unspoken hero of the film, winging it at times to take matters into his own hands, at risk to his own life. Not to mention the girl herself, who, oblivious to the international incident that is unfolding around her, reveals herself to the audience to be resourceful and tenacious.

As our fondness for her grows, her actual life is weighed in distant halls of power against the as yet abstract lives of a speculative suicide bombing. We gradually recognise her as the human face of any individual who might be 'collateral damage' in the hyper-technological 'war on terror'.

This is the kind of film that is deliberately hard to keep pace with. It arrays these perspectives on the table and points to them one by one. Just as you feel your sympathies shifting, it points to another, and you have to rethink your position again.

This shifting of sympathies is helped by both the outstanding cast and an exceptional script which, to its credit, offers no quick fixes, instead staring its ethical quandary down to the last harrowing moment. The only certainty it offers is suggested by a commanding officer who tells the young pilot to go home and rest and come back tomorrow. When, presumably, it will all happen again.


Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is assistant editor of Eureka Street.



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Submitted comments

The trailer tells much of the story. These "enemy combatants" strategically set themselves up where there is the prospect of high collateral damage because of the greater safety from the drones. More interesting here is the advances in technology. Drone birds and drone insects fitted with cameras but eventually individually weaponized. This technology is coming as are autonomous robotic soldiers ( Google developing ) with full decisioning artificial intelligence ( Google also developing after purchasing a Boston based manufacturer in 2012 for multiple billions ). This means that robots will make decisions in the battle field. Sounds like the earlier terminator films.

Luke 24 March 2016

Exceptional scriptwriters, brilliant actors AND astute film critics equal prophets of the times. Thanks Tim for the recommendation about another gem to watch. Happy Easter to you and the team

Celia 24 March 2016

The plot involved seems to be an enhanced variation of a basic situation devised for ethical students where they are presented with a run-away train that will crash into and probably or possibly kill a large group of people, or it can be diverted to a side line where it will certainly kill one particular person. Hopefully no one will find themselves is such situations, but while there is money to be made from portraying such situations, we will remain challenged mentally to try to solve such dilemmas.

Robert Liddy 24 March 2016

The issue here in its most basic form is the ethics of drone attacks or aerial bombing of identified terrorist 'safe houses'. In such attacks, killing and wounding of innocent civilians is a CERTAINTY. Does the end justify the means - with this certain taking of the innocent lives of non-combatants ? Apart from this ethical issue for Christians & for people of other or no religion, what are the REAL consequences of such drone and bombing "warfare" by USA, Australia, UK, France and other nations in Syria and Iraq ? The answer is obvious - these bombings of ISIS targets and the associated killing of civilians in the Middle East are the root cause of the millions of refugees today. Also, such "warfare" is the best driver of the ISIS terrorists' recruiting campaigns both in the West and in Middle East. Western nations like Australia can expect and WILL BE subjected to many more such terror bombings, like those in Paris and Brussels . Our Presidents and PMs, like Mr Turnbull and Mr Cameron in UK, have not yet learned these lessons. Such current military responses by the West are neither ethical nor effective.

John Cronin, Toowoomba 24 March 2016

A group of casualties of war that has never had a major film made about them to my knowledge is the large number of military personnel who return home both mentally and physically shattered. They often wonder why they made the sacrifices they did. George W. Bush and his allies have a lot to answer for the invasion of Iraq which led to the birth of Isis. Sensible counter-terrorism experts such as David Kilcullen say that the conflict with Isis, al Nusra, the Taliban etc. will go on for years. This includes terrorist attacks in the West. There were a large number of Muslims amongst the mourners in Brussels after the last bombing. I think the only answer will come after we realise killing 'them' is not the major strategy to follow. War and killing are sadly part of it but Australia did great things in Afghanistan in terms of medical, educational and women's advancement. We then pulled out. The West needs to be in the Muslim world as much in a civilian reconstruction role as in a military one and to stay long term.

Edward Fido 29 March 2016

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