Whistleblower's Review of "Eye in the Sky"

04/20/2016 08:33 am ET Updated Apr 21, 2017

In a courtyard caked with clay, a young Kenyan girl plays with a hula hoop her father just made her out of objects he found among the scraps from his bicycle repair business. The first scene of "Eye in the Sky" shows the challenge a villager might face of resisting the influence of Al­Shabab when the father is forced to stop his daughter from playing in the presence of a "fanatic."

Every day, his daughter goes out to sell bread, which is not something a young girl might be allowed to do in a conflict ridden country. But this is Kenya, not Waziristan or Somalia. The setting of this film is taking place in a peaceful country, one that the British have decades of experience in dealing with, which is presumably why the British are taking charge of this mission.

Zooming out, we are now confronted with the "Eye in the Sky", a MQ­9 Reaper equipped with two Hellfire missiles with a kill radius of roughly 50 feet (15 meters) and a wounding radius of 65 feet (15 meters). Early into the film, the Colonel played by Helen Mirren has a confrontation with an airman about why they decided to use these missiles instead of the GBU-12's that Mirren requested. The airman replied that due to the mission requirements, they went for the lightest load to allow for the longest loitering time. Mirren very early on showed a disconnect that we have all experienced between senior leadership and enlisted. The GBU­-12 is a 500 lbs. explosive with a casualty radius of 200­-300 feet with a 50% kill ratio. If they had gone with a GBU­-12, it would have destroyed every home surrounding the target, and they would have most likely killed way more civilians than they would have wanted. If the Colonel had her way, this may have looked more like reality. The reality being, that the majority of strikes have no smoking gun. More often than not, the majority of strikes have no individual who is just hours away from blowing himself up at a mall standing in a room with several high value targets. There is no covert operator on the ground in the majority of cases to fly a mUAV (hummingbird/ beetle) up to, or into a house. The beetle mUAV is not quite there yet from anything we've seen, although it may become operational in the not too distant future. This can be evidenced by the bombing of two aid workers being held hostage by militants in Pakistan. US citizen Warren Weinstein and Italian citizen Giovanni La Porto would not have died if such technologies were broadly used. Most importantly, the imagery is not as good as portrays, not even remotely, and this has more to do with bandwidth limitations than anything. We do believe that people would be outraged if people actually saw what has been used up till now, but we think it would most certainly make for a less visually stimulating film. Our primary concern is that it may give uncritical theater­goers the impression that this form of warfare may be the most humane and precise way to fight transnational conflicts.

With that said, we have agreed by consensus that this film is commendable in displaying the immensity of this program which spans across the globe. It alludes to several issues that might arise from such an environment like the fudging of data and the diffusion of responsibility for deaths on the ground, as well as the fact that drone strikes might be used as a recruiting tool for the very organizations that are being targeted. It was not the drone personnel who were there to take the girl to the hospital for the father but the fighters, and that is a really important point that might reveal why the more we bomb, the more militants there seems to be.

The film did a great job at portraying the schizophrenic all encompassing work environment that people in the program face. The use of the doll for the general's daughter and the "I'm going to need you back here in 12 hours" were excellent. It gave a real sense of the dual existence in all facets of the drone community. The conversation between the young sensor operator and the pilot early on demonstrated their youth, in addition to some of their economic and social reasons for joining. Their isolation from decision makers and the rest of the drone program was also very apparent throughout the film. Another aspect is distance between stakeholders and the mission. The Defense Minister being on the toilet with food poisoning, or the US Secretary of State not wanting to be interrupted from his ping pong in China definitely paints a perception that many of us share about the overall disconnect. We appreciated that this film went beyond the perspective of the pilot and the sensor operator, and though it may have been even better if the Imagery Analysts had more of a role, it managed to portray the moral weight that is carried in multiple roles of the mission.

Much of the film seemed to provide a morality exercise demonstrating complexities that should always be thought out or at least considered, indeed these are people's lives we're talking about after all. The film seems to attempt to make an honest attempt that these are humans, not "targets." The humanization of the child, and the "terrorists" who take the child to the hospital worked to display a human aspect of those we might call "targets" or "collateral damage." By the end, the "good guys" and the "bad guys" seem less clear, although the sympathy for the perpetrators seems stronger. Viewers might describe the whole ordeal as tragic rather than satisfying, as one might feel after a pro­war film like "Saving Private Ryan." From our experiences, it's not quite as straightforward, it is considerably more complex, and the characters of the individuals involved in these strikes aren't always as considerate of who lives or dies. The audience could walk away missing that.

Given that this film is intended as a fiction, we want to give it some artistic leeway. In any case, it opens the public dialogue to the complexity of this manner of conducting war. It has brought the discussion from the idea that the only decision makers are pilots and sensor operators, and creates an opening for critical inquiry into the multi­-dimensional human and technical aspects of the way of war which will continue to be more used as a politically expedient tool. While we are critical of the imaging and identification capabilities, we are also aware that in the future we will be confronted with many changes that were unfamiliar to us during our service, particularly in the areas of artificial intelligence and robotics. In the end, the morality of any technology being used for the purpose of taking life does not fall on the technology itself, but on who is using it, how it is being used, and to what ends. With regards to protective overwatch of troops, drones are a lifesaver. For the purpose of gathering signals and imagery, they certainly do their jobs as terrifying as it may be to see them on our own soil. But for the purpose of striking countries that the perpetrator has no declaration of war with, it may end up backfiring. Regardless, what is needed is a vigilant citizenry that demands that there be accurate and complete transparency of civilians killed in strikes. There should be greater efforts to preemptively mitigate the causes of extremism, its funding, and to ensure that our policies do not contribute to widespread indignation. We should not succumb to rhetorics that further alienate entire religions or creeds as we are seeing much of across the United States and Europe. Finally, we need to ensure that the innocent individuals who have been affected by this program are offered reconciliation and care. Simply sending them money in a plastic bag with no apology, as we've been doing is cynical and heartbreaking. We also need to take care of our own, and make sure that psychologists with the right level of security clearances are available to those in distress.