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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All Smoke, No Mirrors: Appearance vs Reality in Drone Strikes

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In 2009, a reported 27,000 people were employed in the public relations wing of the Pentagon (AP). I presume that there are even more today. Their job, as is true of every state-funded Ministry of Propaganda, is to win over “hearts and minds”, while the rest of the institution focuses on homicide.

Only the extraordinary number of persons working in the capacity of propagandists for the US government can explain odd news reports such as the recent announcement that the Department of Defense attempted to kill Somalian Abdullahi Haji Da’ud, said to be a senior member of Al-Shabaab. The Washington Post’s Pentagon-parroting report then proceeds to clarify that the killers do not actually know whom they killed:

The United States carried out a drone strike last week in Somalia, targeting Abdullahi Haji Da’ud, a senior leader in the al-Shabab militant group, the Pentagon announced Wednesday.

The Defense Department is still assessing whether the May 27 strike killed Da’ud.

Remarkably, the report continues on to tout the drone strike as a victory, under the provisional hypothesis that the strike did in fact kill the intended target:

Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said in a statement that, if confirmed, his [Abdullahi Haji Da’ud’s] death “will disrupt near-term attack planning, potentially saving many innocent lives.”

The reason why this is remarkable is because, as Reprieve has documented, in strikes aimed at 41 named targets, 1,147 people were killed. Given the shocking findings of that study, it seems safe to conclude that it’s easier said than done to eliminate named terrorist suspects (who, as a reminder, are suspects).

Most of the victims of US drone strikes—both intended and unintended—have likely been military-age males, whom the US government defines as guilty until proven innocent. This is how the myth among the populace that targeted killing using drones is “smart war” continues to prevail. The categorization as “evil terrorists” of all military-age males in the remote tribal regions where missiles are fired (the “suspect” part appears to be elided by most people’s minds), is blithely accepted by everyone who praises the drone program. The only true requirement for conviction of “guilt” by the drone warriors is that a man be located in a zone where drone strikes are targeting suspected terrorists, whether named or unnamed. More often than not, the victims are brown-skinned Muslims.

Needless to say, there is no discussion in the article about the consequence of the drone strike intended for Abdullahi Haji Da’ud, if in fact it killed someone else altogether. What if it killed a child, who has a father? What if it killed a male adolescent’s teenage brother? What would be the consequences then?

As though the consequences of collateral damage had no strategic relevance whatsoever, the US government proceeds to kill suspects as fast as they can “finger” them in at least seven different countries, denying all of the inhabitants of those lands any rights, in a flagrant violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

It’s hard for most Westerners to grasp exactly how scandalous this situation is for people on the ground, but we can begin to understand the ever-more vexing quagmire in the Middle East by taking a look at this short video of a protest in Pakistan, where many “military-age males” have gathered to vow to fight back against the United States if they do not cease killing Pakistanis using lethal drones:

It’s not as though this sort of reaction to US military aggression is somehow new or unexpected. What is amazing is that no lessons appear to have been learned by the warriors from the fiascoes in Afghanistan and Iraq. Instead, the drone campaigns have expanded, spreading across several different lands, terrorizing countless innocent people and inspiring the very same kind of outrage which was witnessed during the occupations when innocent persons were slain by US military personnel and private contractors.

Is it supposed to be wrong for a person to be incensed by the slaughter of his child or neighbors’ children because some analyst at the Pentagon has concluded on the basis of cellphone data that someone in their neighborhood was in cahoots with a radical Islamic group? Are all of the people depicted in the above video now on the US government’s hit list?

What is beyond doubt is that the direct connection between cause and effect in drone strikes—a catalyst to radicalization—continues to be ignored, as though the failure of the killing machine to secure Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, Libya and Syria somehow implies that it needs only to be cranked into high gear to kill even more.

The above sort of report, exulting over a victory where there is none, when in fact the strike may have galvanized even more men to join forces with radical extremist groups to fight back, demonstrates that the Pentagon needs to halt the public relations machine, which serves only to deceive Americans into believing that they are being kept safe, and start engaging in some serious strategic analysis. (Better late than never!)

Drone strikes are a tactic which has failed to solve the problem for which UCAVs are allegedly being deployed. Even worse, they have exacerbated the problem of factional terrorism. Witness the proliferation of Al Qaeda franchises throughout the Middle East.

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Another Mass Killing in Yemen & The Drone Program Ponzi Scheme

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I was disturbed to learn of the recent mass killing by the US government of yet another group of brown-skinned persons of unknown identity, this time in Yemen. Only two weeks ago, reports surfaced of a mission in Somalia which culminated in the deaths of an estimated 150+ terrorist suspects. The victims in Yemen, as is customary, were identified post-mortem as persons all of whom posed an “imminent threat” to US forces and allies. The estimated number of deaths in Yemen from the attack on Tuesday, March 22, 2016, is more than 50, with nearly as many people harmed. None of the dead were civilians, according to US officials.

None of the dead were civilians” is a claim frequently made by drone program administrators, including John Brennan, who while serving as Obama’s top counterterrorism advisor announced in 2011 in apparent sincerity that there had been no collateral deaths from the CIA’s targeted killing program during the previous year. Later it emerged that the administration had simply redefined the concept of ‘civilian’ so as to exclude male persons from about 16 to 50 or 55 years of age. That’s right: in one of the worst examples of racial profiling in human history, able-bodied males in tribal regions are assumed to be terrorists until proven otherwise.

Should we believe US officials now, when they report that 200+ dangerous terrorists have been stopped in their tracks? I have an idea: why don’t we ask Giovanni Lo Porto or Warren Weinstein? Or perhaps we should ask the survivors of the March 17, 2011, massive air attack on Datta Khel, Pakistan, which wiped out the community’s tribal elders as they were meeting peacefully for a jirga to settle a dispute over a chromite mine.

The CIA’s ambitious agenda to rid the universe of suspects who might possibly be thinking about possibly planning to attempt to carry out possible future acts of potential terror against the people of the United States has obviously failed. But rather than draw the rational conclusion from the recent terrorist attacks on Brussels, Paris, and San Bernardino, the drone killers point to the episodes as evidence that they need to kill even more. The CIA continues to clamor for more drone strikes in collaboration with JSOC in Iraq and Syria. That should go well, given the resplendent success of the Agency’s effort to arm and train “appropriately vetted moderate rebels” in Syria. For those who missed the outcome of the ill-conceived initiative: a handful—as in four or five—fighters emerged as US allies after an infusion of $500 million of military aid into the Syrian conflict.

What are we to conclude now, when the same administration insists that the mass killing of 200+ brown-skinned men in the prime of their lives was an act of national self-defense? I for one find it highly doubtful that any of those people would ever have made it to US shores. How many of them even had passports? Certainly none of them had the wealth and power and connections of Osama bin Laden. Yet the guiding sophism that every brown-skinned adult male located in a remote tribal region is an existential threat to the US republic continues to be bandied about by politicians and career administrators.

Even people who are not troubled by the racial profiling (don’t Brown Lives Matter?), and the slow lethal creep to genocide inherent to the US drone program, need soberly to assess the value of the “killing machine” for the security of the people of the Western world. All of this homicide is not making us safer. Instead, the summary execution without trial of massive numbers of alleged suspects of Arab origin is incensing people who do reside in Western lands and vow to seek revenge. Some of them have already carried out acts of violent retaliation in Paris, San Bernardino, and Brussels.

It’s such an obvious point—well-illustrated by the virulent insurgency in Iraq during the US occupation—but one which bears repetition: the people being killed are angry about US military intervention. Annihilating brown-skinned suspects in several different Muslim lands has not worked. Instead, it has given rise to a much more ferocious Al Qaeda, AQAP, Al Shabaab, ISIS and Daesh. The time has arrived to leap out of the lethality box and stop arming militants only to turn around and kill them.

Are we to conclude from the two recent mass homicides perpetrated by the US government in Yemen and Somalia, using both unmanned and manned combat vehicles, that “radical Islamic extremists” cannot be kept in check by lethal drones alone? Maybe that’s because the drone program was a Ponzi scheme all along.