A sharply scripted, effortlessly acted film about war's new landscape asks all the right questions for which there are no obvious answers.
The apparent collision between a privately-owned civilian drone and an Airbus A320 when approaching Heathrow in April 2016 shows how necessary regulation is in the ownership and use of such drones. As technology develops and costs are lowered, we can expect to see more intrusion and risk in our shared life. The temptations offered by these all-seeing and all-knowing devices are only just beginning.
Meanwhile, military drones are setting the standard for twenty-first century warfare in their ability to eavesdrop, photograph and kill. The film Eye in the Sky is a sober, exciting and un-preachy look at the moral dilemmas thrown up by such technology.
A sharp script and characteristically excellent acting by Helen Mirren and the late Alan Rickman among others lends the story a remarkable sense of flow.
Leading figures in the Al-Qaeda linked Somali militant group Al-Shabaab meet in a dusty Kenyan town to plot, all the while being observed from high up. Micro-technology confirms they are planning an imminent suicide mission, with people donning primed vests. Nairobi is the likely target. A US drone, allied to UK military leadership, has the capacity to destroy the house in which they are meeting. Outside the house, a little girl is selling bread from a makeshift stall. If the missile is launched, she will almost certainly be killed. What should the order be? To launch would kill an innocent child; to desist might mean the deaths of scores of people in a shopping mall. Welcome to the new warfare.
The debate which ensues involves senior US and UK political and military leaders and their lawyers, plotting different scenarios and bargaining with one another. An attempt is made by an agent on the ground to buy all the bread on sale, to get the girl out of there, but it founders. Into this scene, each protagonist brings their own moral compass and it leads them in different directions. The utilitarian sees an unrivalled chance to kill militant leaders and contrasts the death of one innocent child against the potential loss of vastly greater numbers in town. The absolutist sees western technology knowingly killing a child. Does the relative certainty of her death amount to a war crime?
As war becomes more precise, these kinds of arguments emerge with greater clarity. There was no risk to the pilots in the film who command the drone from the Nevada desert; they would go to their suburban homes and families at the end of their shift. If there were a risk in real life, this would be factored in, probably reducing the level of precision required for the strike.
Drone warfare is here to stay. Armies are no longer the target; bands of militants, effortlessly crossing insecure national boundaries pose the new threat. The US has fired missiles at militants in mountainous north-west Pakistan, a nominally friendly country. In the film, it fires at a house in a populated town in Kenya, a nation supportive of western policy. Will this become routine policy in other continents? What happens when other nations enhance their drone capacity?
There is an urgent need for new international norms surrounding the use of military drones. While the US remains peerless in its weaponry, there is an expedient rationale for many in not addressing these questions, but as each strike is made, the precedent for any nation to target its enemies anywhere hardens into cement. The results, already morally ambiguous, are likely to become uglier as some nations with less scruple over human rights seek satisfaction.
The honourable tradition of just war theory, forged in some part by Christian theology, is owed a revision. We may think war changed out of all recognition in the twentieth century but this may be nothing compared to the developments that lie ahead today. Eye in the Sky rightly shows that there are few morally robust arguments when a resort to war is made. It is simply a horrible thing to have to prosecute and it is usually someone else who does it for the rest of us. We owe those who serve the will to frame laws which protect the innocent as far as war’s terrible imprecision allows. In doing so, we help to preserve the consciences of those who kill on our behalf.
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