Eye in the Sky: Where Nihilism and Hegemony Coincide

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Eye in the Sky (2015) is the first feature-length film about drone warfare to have received a decent amount of mainstream attention. This no doubt has something to do with the high-caliber cast, including lead roles by Helen Mirren as Colonel Katherine Powell, and Alan Rickman as Lieutenant General Frank Benson. Big names imply big budgets. But there’s another reason why this movie, directed by Gavin Hood, has been discussed more than National Bird (2016), Good Kill (2015), Drone (2014), Drones (2013), Unmanned: America’s Drone Wars (2013), or Dirty Wars (2013).

None of these films is entertaining. Eye in the Sky, like some of the others in this growing genre, presents itself as a work of historical fiction, grounded in what is supposed to be a realistic portrayal of the contemporary practice of drone warfare against persons suspected of association with radical jihadist groups. But rather than condemning the remote-control killers, as the other films unequivocally do, Eye in the Sky portrays the protagonists wrestling with the complexities of morality before launching missiles and then congratulating one another on their success.

The “evil enemy” here, in Nairobi, Kenya, is Al Shabaab, and the fate of one of their cells is the subject of lengthy and sophistic “just war” debate among the drone warriors. A contingent of US and British military and civilian officials communicate with one another from different parts of the world over Skype-like video feed, and after arguing over the course of the workday, they ultimately decide to execute the suspects, who appear to be preparing to carry out a suicide attack in the proximate future or, as the drone warriors would say, “imminently”.

One of the suspects is a US citizen, recently recruited from Minnesota, and two are British nationals. The white woman, Susan Danford—nom de guerre Ayesha Al Hady—has been tracked by Colonel Powell for a remarkable six years. Powell is keen to kill Danford, even after having summarized her life’s story as that of a person who came from a troubled household, married a terrorist, and was converted to the jihadist cause as a result of her vulnerability.

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The mission is supposed to culminate in capture, not killing, but when the group of suspects convenes at a house where a suicide vest is being assembled and a video message filmed, the military officials immediately call for a missile strike, to the initial protests of the civilian political officials in attendance, who insist that they are there to witness a capture, not a targeted assassination.

The rest of the film is essentially an extended consideration of a version of what professional analytic philosophers call “The Trolley Problem,” a thought experiment wherein people are persuaded that they must kill some people in order to save others. Such hypothetical scenarios—like the proverbial ticking bomb, which is said by some to illustrate the necessity of torture under certain circumstances—involve an eerie desire on the part of some thinkers to persuade others to condone what, left to their own devices, they would never have agreed to do. As David Swanson has correctly observed, there is no known case in reality of drone warriors who kill a person and his entourage as they strap a suicide vest onto the martyr’s chest. That is why singling out this wildly implausible and entirely hypothetical scenario as representative of drone warfare in general is a consummate expression of pro-military propaganda.

eyeintheskydroneoperatorsEye in the Sky attempts to portray the dilemmas involved in drone warfare but ultimately serves to promote the drone warriors’ all-too-sophistic modes of reasoning. Rather than ask deep and important questions such as how Al-Shabaab became such a powerful force in, first, Somalia and, later, places such as Kenya, the film allows the viewer steeped in New York Times headlines touting “Six Suspected Militants Slain” to float along blissfully in his or her state of ignorance regarding what precisely the US and British governments have been doing in the Middle East for the past sixteen years.

No indication is made of the fact—and frankly I’d be surprised if Director Hood himself were aware—that the US-backed 2006 Ethiopian invasion of Somalia led directly to a massive increase in local support for Al-Shabaab. It’s all-too-easy and comforting to swallow the official line that the members of local militias being targeted by drone strikes are “bad guys” who need to be extirpated from the face of the earth, even when it is likely that many of the people intentionally destroyed have been dissidents (or their “associates”) seeking to challenge the central government authority. (See Yemen for another example.)

It is abundantly clear from the very fact that new recruits from the United States and Britain—indeed, the very targets of the mission in this story—have been primarily either troubled youths or persons outraged at the Western devastation of the Middle East, and now Africa. Yet the film blithely allows the viewer to persist in puzzlement over the perennial question: Why do they hate us?

eyeintheskyhouseColonel Powell wants to kill people, as is obvious by her calling for a missile strike even before explosives are seen at the meeting place. (Do the director and screenwriter win points from feminists for making the most ruthless military killer and her radical jihadist quarry both women? Or from progressives for making them white?)

Both Colonel Powell and General Benson consider Susan Danford’s allegiance with Al-Shabaab to be, essentially, a capital offense. They don’t bother with niceties such as the fact that capital punishment has been outlawed in the United Kingdom. Instead, the military personnel seek refuge in and parrot the simpleminded terms of just war theory which they learned in first-year ethics class at the military academy.

The missile strike is said to be a military necessity, proportional, and a last resort. It has furthermore been authorized by the legitimate authority, aka the US president, to whom the British continue to defer, even after the scathing Chilcot report in which Prime Minister Tony Blair was taken to task for embroiling Britain in the ill-fated 2003 invasion of Iraq. As though none of that ever happened, when President Barack Obama normalized the targeted assassination of anyone in any place on the planet where radical jihadist terrorists are said by some anonymous analyst to reside, Prime Minister David Cameron, too, followed suit. In August 2015, he authorized missile strikes from drones against British nationals in Syria, despite the Parliament’s having voted down his call for war in 2013.

Perhaps Cameron was impressed by Barack Obama and drone killing czar John Brennan’s oft-flaunted fluency in just war rhetoric. Unfortunately, in Eye in the Sky, the sophomoric facility of the assassins with the terms of just war theory may, too, be taken as evidence to ignorant viewers that these people in uniform know what they are talking about and should be trusted with the delicate decision of where, when, and why to summarily execute human beings who have not been charged with crimes, much less permitted to stand trial.

The question how a missile strike in a country not at war can be conceived of as a military necessity is altogether ignored in this film, as though it were already a settled matter. Someone in the US government (President Obama under the advisement of John Brennan, former president and CEO of The Analysis Corporation, the business of which is terrorist targeting analysis) decreed that the entire world was a battlefield, and this opened up every place and other governments to the delusive casuistry of just war theorists, including their most strident advocates for war, the self-styled “humanitarian hawks”.

eyeintheskylocalNo matter that in this case there are no military soldiers from either the United States or Britain on the ground to be harmed. No matter that their collaborators are local spies who do in fact commit acts of treachery against their compatriots and are indeed brutally executed when this is discovered. Despite the complete absence of any of the aspects of a war which might warrant a missile strike as a military necessity—above all, that soldiers on the ground will otherwise die—the itchy trigger drone warriors point to their version of the dreaded Trolley Problem and a false and misleading application of utilitarianism to convince the naysayers that they must approve the launch of a missile in order to avert an even worse tragedy.

The military personnel are more persuasive than the sole civilian dissenter, and no one seems to be bothered in the least by questions of strategy. The word ‘blowback’ is never even mentioned in this film. But judging by the growth of ISIS and Al-Shabaab over the past decade, and the testimony of suicide bombers such as Humam Al-Balawi (the Jordanian doctor who blew up a group of CIA personnel at Camp Chapman in 2009—in direct retaliation to US missile strikes on Pakistan), the tactic of drone assassination can reasonably be expected to cause the ranks of jihadists to continue to swell. No one denies that during the occupation of Iraq, an effective recruiting tactic of factional groups was to point to the civilians harmed by the Western infidels as confirmation that they were indeed the evil enemy. Knowing all of this, it does not seem unfair to ask: Is “military necessity” now conceived by the remote-control killers as whatever will ensure the continuation of a war?

eyeintheskybreadIn Eye in the Sky, the drone warriors are more than willing to risk the life of a little girl who has set up a table where she is selling loaves of bread because, they say, if they do not act immediately then perhaps eighty little children just like her will be killed instead. No mention is made of the psychological trauma suffered by the people who do not die in drone strikes, but witness what has transpired. (When was the last time one of your neighbors’ houses was cratered by a Hellfire missile?) Instead, the collateral damage estimate (CDE) so conscientiously calculated by a hapless soldier pressured by Colonel Powell to produce an estimated likelihood of the girl’s death at less than 50% altogether ignores the 100% probability that she and everyone in the neighborhood will be terrorized.

But even focusing solely on the likely lethality of the strike, the drone warriors in Eye in the Sky display what is in reality a lethal lack of imagination, an utter failure to conceive of counter measures such as warning the people in nearby markets and public places of the impending danger. That is because, in the minds of the drone warriors, if one terrorist attack is thwarted, then another will surely be carried out later on down the line. By this mode of reasoning, they have arrived at the depressing and nihilistic conclusion that they must kill all of the suspects. What would be the point of doing anything else?

Recruits from Western societies, young people such as Junaid Hussain, Reyaad Khan, and Ruhul Amin, are assumed to be beyond the reach of reason, despite the glaring fact that their recent conversion to the jihadist cause itself reveals that they have changed their view before and could, in principle, change it again. Nonetheless, the drone warriors persist in their worship of death as the be-all and end-all of foreign policy. They are literally trapped in the lethality box, because they cannot conceive of any other way of dealing with factional terrorism than by killing people. When obviously innocent persons are destroyed, maimed, terrorized and left bereft by Western missiles, these acts of so-called military necessity end by galvanizing support for the Anti-Western jihadist cause, both near the strike site and in lands far away.

Realistically, what self-respecting father would not wish to avenge the death of his young child at the hands of the murderous drone warriors who are so despicable as to kill without risking any danger to themselves? Instead of thinking through the likely implications of what they are doing, the drone warriors persist in invoking delusive just war rhetoric to promote what they want to do: kill the evil enemy. But the use of lethal drones in what has been successfully marketed to taxpayers as “smart war”, eliminates soldierly risk only by transferring it to civilians on the ground. No matter that new recruits continue to flock to the jihadist cause, seems to be the thinking of our great military minds, missiles are in ample supply.

It is a depressing view of humanity indeed which sees homicide as the solution to conflict when in fact it is its primary cause. But the delusion of the drone assassins is even worse than the corruption of criminal contract killers because they emetically congratulate each other, as in this film, for pushing buttons to eliminate their fellow human beings from the face of the earth, as though this were some kind of accomplishment, rather than the worst of all possible crimes.

New recruits such as Susan Danford will never stop arising from the ashes of drone strike sites until the drone strikes have come to a halt. Indulging in a false and Manichean division of people into black and white categories of good and evil, the killers corrupt more and more young people to collaborate with them, both informants and drone operators. Those who perform well in their jobs rise in the ranks to become the commanders of future killers, until at last the entire society is filled with people who upon watching a film such as Eye in the Sky end by sympathizing not with the victims but with those who destroyed them.

eyeintheskybeetledroneFocused as they will be upon this simpleminded “Trolley Problem” portrayal of drone warfare, Western viewers will likely miss altogether the obscene hegemonic presumptions of the killers who use beetle- and bird-sized drones to penetrate the private homes of people in order to stop them from wreaking havoc in countries where there are no US or British soldiers on the ground to harm. To pretend that all of this killing is for the benefit of the locals is delusional to the point of insanity.

If serial Western military interventions had not destroyed country after country across the Middle East, beginning with Iraq in 1991, then there would be no “evil enemy” to confront in the first place. To continue to ignore the words of jihadists themselves when they rail against the savage butchery of millions of Muslim people by the US military and its poodles is but the most flagrant expression of this smug hegemony. No, I am afraid, they do not hate us for our freedom.

In Eye in the Sky, anyone who opposes the use of military weapons against people living in their own civil society thousands of miles away is painted as a coward and a fool, as though there were some sort of moral obligation to launch missiles to save a hypothetical group of eighty people. The very same killers do not feel any obligation whatsoever to provide food, shelter, and potable water to the people living in such societies, even when the $70K cost of a single missile could be repurposed to save many more than eighty lives, in addition to winning over “hearts and minds”.

Here is the ugly truth shining through the willingness to kill but not to save lives in nonhomicidal ways: Peace does not pay. The drone killing machine is the latest and most lucrative instantiation of the military-industrial-congressional-media-academic-pharmaceutical-logistics complex. That Westerners continue to be taken in by this hoax is tragic for the people of Africa and the Middle East mercilessly terrorized (when they are not maimed or incinerated) while the killers gloat over what they take to be their moral courage.

eyeintheskybensonNear the end of the film, Lieutenant Colonel Benson sanctimoniously admonishes the sole remaining dissenter among the witnesses to the mission, which she has denounced as “disgraceful”. He smugly retorts to her suggestion that he is a coward: “Never tell a soldier that he does not know the cost of war.” But the cost of the remote-control elimination of persons suspected of complicity in terrorism is not merely the tragic loss of human life. It is the destruction of such killers’ souls and the concomitant creation of even more killers who feel the need to retaliate in turn. It is the fact that they have rolled back all of the moral progress in procedural justice made by human societies since the 1215 Magna Carta. It is the fact that their dogged insistence on perpetuating and spreading this practice to the darkest and least democratic corners of the planet represents a categorical denial of human rights.

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Cameroon Has a New Drone Base and 300 US Troops, and I Have Some Questions for Barack Obama

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The number of nations in possession of unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) is increasing rapidly. In the beginning, it was only the United States and Israel, but now just about every day fresh inductees into the Drone Age Push-Button Killing Club are being announced. Over this past week, both China and Turkey were reported to be revving up the engines of their lethal drones.

Some of the recently equipped drone nations have already joined the trendsetters in using this technology against their own countrymen: Britain, Pakistan, Nigeria, the list will continue to grow as the capacity to kill by remote-control sweeps around the globe. Soon the question will be not Who has UCAVs? but Who has been left out? Which forlorn government leaders don’t have their fingers on the buttons of a killing machine?

Thanks to the unexpected use of this technology in 2011 by President Barack Obama to summarily execute US nationals without trial, all international norms on extrajudicial killing have fallen by the wayside. Lethal drones have become the savvy political leader’s symbol of success—no less than the “with it” modern citizen’s i-phone. The possession of UCAVs in a leader’s arsenal is proof positive that he or she is up-to-the-minute on the technology front, and ready and willing to get his hands—or rather fingertips—dirty.

Drone-armed leaders appear more than a little eager to participate in the new free-for-all missile strikes now referred to as “war” wherever they occur, with or without the permission of the people of the countries being bombed. As for the UN Security Council? It’s basically a relic of the past. How many governments currently bombing Syria asked anyone’s permission to do so?

Anyone who thinks that George W. Bush’s legacy is over are sorely confused. Preemptive war has not only been championed but proliferated by Barack Obama, despite his outspoken criticisms of Bush’s preemptive invasion of Iraq. Obama may prefer Hellfire missiles to “boots on the ground”, but his penetrations of other sovereign nations have been no less preemptive than were those of W.

In the new, ever-more-lethal Drone Age, everyone is getting on the remote-control killing game, including a number of African nations entirely devoid of the means to develop and produce the technology to do so themselves. Fortunately for the leaders of third world nations, no one needs to have sophisticated industrial means to join the drone killing craze, because the US government, Israel, and China are ready and willing, between them, to provide every leader with the new twenty-first-century “tools” for globalized war. But it’s not just the drones: the bases from which drones are launched have also been furnished to leaders willing to collaborate with the US government.

The number of US surveillance bases on the African continent continues to rise, and includes at least these: Djibouti, Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, Seychelles, Uganda, Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger and, the latest addition: Cameroon. The US government denies the existence of most of the bases, just as they denied the existence of the drone program itself for nearly a decade. But Cameroon has been singled out for acknowledgement, and we have been assured that the drones are being used for surveillance purposes only. In fact, it’s a short step from surveillance to slaughter, since all that needs to be done is to snap a couple of Hellfire missiles onto a Predator drone, and the killers are “good to go”.

The US government has vaunted its collaboration with the government of Cameroon as an important part of dealing with Boko Haram—the group which abducted 200 school girls back in 2014. No one seems to know where the girls are—although a few reports maintain that they have been transformed into child soldiers—but now Cameroon is going to help Nigeria to find out. At least that’s the official story of the sudden bestowal of US military largesse on a country about which most US citizens know nothing. Where is Cameroon, anyway?

That was a rhetorical question, of course. For it does not matter where US taxpayers’ hard-earned cash is being redistributed around the globe, so long as the enemy is being hunted down and destroyed before they have the chance to reach US shores. Does Boko Haram have international aspirations? Unclear, but again, no one seems to care. If they aren’t setting off bombs in the United States, well, that just shows that the US government is keeping us safe—no matter what they do, and no matter what our enemies say! Why do they hate us? Because of our freedom! Notwithstanding the testimony of jihadists from Osama bin Laden on, this remains the ever-popular refrain of US warriors and their supporters.

Now that Cameroon has a drone base and 300 US special forces to do with as they deem fit, courtesy of the US government, I have a few questions, on the topic of freedom, for President Barack Obama:

  1.  Are you aware that President Paul Biya has been the leader of Cameroon for 33 years?
  2. Do you know how it is that African leaders become “presidents for life”?
  3. Would you be surprised to learn that President Biya has been reelected over and over again amidst allegations of malfeasance? As a matter of fact, the president of Cameroon is renowned among scholars for “creative innovation” in electoral fraud. Quite an accomplishment.
  4. Are you aware that Biya has been consistently and repeatedly ranked among the world’s worst dictators? Any ideas why that might be?
  5. Do you believe that petty despots provided with the means to track and eliminate political enemies will refrain from doing so?
  6. Have you read the report on Cameroon issued by Amnesty International in 2009? Not to worry, that was a rhetorical question, as I realize that you were busy learning the remote-control killing ropes from John Brennan at that time. Here’s the summary blurb:

 

“In February the security forces killed as many as 100 people during protests against price rises and against a constitutional amendment that would extend the President’s term of office. As part of a strategy to stifle opposition, the authorities perpetrated or condoned human rights violations including arbitrary arrests, unlawful detentions and restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly. Human rights defenders and journalists were harassed and threatened. Men and women were detained because of their sexual orientation.”

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For more information and related criticism, see We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age, Chapter 4: Lethal Creep; Chapter 12: Tyrants are as Tyrants Do

 

 

Israel’s Compact Kamikaze Drones: Strategic Ineptitude or Simple Insanity?

 

 

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Israel has developed and is selling the new Hero-30 drone, which weighs in at a mere 7lbs and can be used to kill a target with less collateral damage than the more prevalent Predator and Reaper drones. The larger drones deliver Hellfire missiles to destroy entire groups of people in “crowd killing” and “signature strikes”—or a specific named target along with whoever happens to be around. The Hero-30’s manufacturer, uVision, has boasted that their creation is in great demand. I wonder why?

Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld used to talk with vim and verve about making the military leaner and meaner. Earlier strategists had come up with the bizarre idea of “suitcase nukes”, which always struck me as odd and self-sabotaging to the citizens of the nation supposedly being protected. Who in his right mind would propose the development of weaponry ideal for use by enemies against the very people who paid for its research, development and production?

Nuclear weapons small enough to carry around in a suitcase could easily be passed from one individual to another—that’s the whole point. But the twentieth-century history of Africa amply illustrates that the persons involved in the weapons trade are on the whole a fairly disreputable lot—perfectly willing to arm both sides of a conflict and watch the corpses pile up. The transfer of a suitcase nuke to a questionable customer, far from being preposterous, would be only one unscrupulous businessman away—provided only that he was confident that his customer would be deploying the weapon far, far away…

Small-scale nukes could be used by small groups of committed warriors against nuclear powers in acts of retaliation logically akin to the attacks of September 11, 2001, insofar as the tools of the hegemon would be deployed against the hegemon itself. Such innovative attacks, too, would be claimed to be intended to make the citizens funding the homicides of their government—and therefore complicit as “associates”—finally come to understand what others had suffered in wars painted as “just” and “necessary” by politicians.

In the Drone Age, similarly suitcase-sized UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles or drones) are now being produced and sold by the government of Israel to undisclosed clients as it sees fit. It is puzzling, to say the least, how any strategist could regard such weapons as useful to a government without recognizing that they might be even more so to their declared enemies, in Israel’s case, the Palestinians regarded as terrorists.

If we have learned anything from the history of the weapons industry, it is that the latest and greatest means to death developed by advanced states do not stay only in the hands of those who develop them. Every implement of homicide developed by a First World power ends up ultimately in the hands of the leaders of Third World client states, but also in the hands of the militants who are their enemies.

Saddam Hussein would never have been able to use chemical weapons against the Kurds without the development and provision to him of such means by the governments of nations considerably more technologically and industrially advanced than Iraq. Similarly, small factions are devoid of the capacity to produce sophisticated weapons and would not use them unless they were provided with pre-fabricated versions small enough to be transferred from one person to the next.

What could be better for a terrorist than the possibility of launching attacks without risking his personal demise? Fanatical jihadists are of course ready and willing to die for what they take to be a cause transcending their self. But if one act of “jihad” is good, then would not two be even better? Why not carry out multiple acts of retaliatory revenge before departing from the terrestrial world to unite finally with God? If one mass bombing is conceived by its perpetrator as a heroic act, then would it not be even better commit many attacks before making the final sacrifice?

Drones make it all possible: to kill multiple times without risking death. Small drones are the perfect weapon for factions and individual operators, both politically affiliated and those who dispatch persons at the behest of their boss, the person who pays them to kill. True, that description fits drone operators just as surely as it does hitmen.

As the Drone Age marches on (or should I say “spirals downward”), it seems reasonable to predict that more and more hitmen will be technicians who send out the poison or the bomb, or whatever specific means to death is deemed best under the circumstances, with next to no risk of detection. Should the death look like a heart attack? No problem: small drones are up to the task and can surely be rigged to deliver the needed means.

What could be worse than a weaponized small drone falling into the hands of “technicians” who work in organized crime? How about a small drone whose payload happens to be a small nuke—or the chemical weapons used by Saddam Hussein?

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For more information and related criticism, see We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age, Chapter 3: The Logic of Targeted Killing; Chapter 7: The Operators; and Chapter 10: Death and Taxes

Obama’s Lasting Legacy? The Global Drone Wars

President Obama had a choice when he entered office in January 2009. Instead of calling a halt to the Bush administration’s use of summary execution by Predator drone, he expanded the practice, with no thought to what the world would look like once other countries and leaders began dispatching their political enemies by remote control in the name of national self-defense. With the use of China-produced lethal drones by the Nigerian government, the Global Drone Wars have begun.

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It’s hard to imagine how a Harvard-educated lawyer could fail to comprehend the concept of suspect, or to draw the obvious conclusion from the proportion of innocent men detained at Guantánamo Bay: that roughly the same proportion of men executed by Predator drone in so-called signature strikes have been innocent as well.

Obama’s persistent failure to consider anything but short-term political expedience as a guide in setting policy led him to embrace drone killing as “smart war”. The price paid later on down the line will be the global instability created by a precedent in some ways even worse than the US development and use of nuclear arms, because it is so much more insidious.

Lethal drones are within the reach of even the least powerful of political leaders and the pettiest of despots. They will follow Obama’s lead in denouncing their enemies as “evil” before stripping them of their rights along with their lives. By promoting remote-control killing under a delusional pretext of “just war” Obama has spearheaded a global war on universal human rights.

As Obama’s presidency draws to a close, the White House seems quite concerned with securing his legacy. What will it be? Relations with Cuba? Negotiations with Iran? Obamacare? No, the true legacy of the Obama administration will be the Global Drone Wars.

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For more information and related criticism, see We Kill Because We Can: From Soldiering to Assassination in the Drone Age, Chapter 4: Lethal Creep