Drone attacks in the movies and in real life

By Roberta Holanda Maschietto*

Last week the event “Media and Conflict Interchange”, which took place at the University of Bradford between 17-20 October, was closed with the screening of the 2015 movie Eye in the Sky. The session was sponsored by the Rotary Peace Studies Centre of the University of Bradford and co-organised by Just Yorkshire and was followed by a heated discussion which counted on the presence of three specialists on drones — Kyle Grayson (Newcastle University), Caroline Kennedy-Pipe (University of Hull) and Sameera Khalfey (University of Portsmouth) —, a wide audience of students and external public, and chaired by Prof. Neil Cooper of the Division of Peace and Conflict Studies.

In a nutshell, ‘Eye in the sky’ tells the story of a military mission to capture a British couple who have become militants for the Al-Shabaab and are localised in Kenya after six years of intelligence search activity. What starts as a mission to capture the couple eventually becomes a mission to kill them, since, through the use of a series of spying drones (which have multiple shapes, from birds to bugs), the military discover that these actors are preparing for an imminent suicide attack.

The drama portrayed in the movie revolves around the ethical dilemmas regarding the strike. While the mission is conducted by the US military, the ultimate decision must come from the British politicians who, in a nearly comic way, do what they can to (unsuccessfully) push the final decision to higher authorities, only to finally approve the strike, which, ultimately, kills not only the members of the Al-Shabaab, but also a local child – the ‘necessary’ collateral damage for the ‘highest good’ (‘better one child rather than hundreds of people, including children, in a mall’).

To a large extent, the ethical dilemmas shown in the movie resembles the politics dilemma that we learn as students of International Relations and that revolves around the question of whether violence can be legitimate or not. At the same time, the movie introduces the new technological feature that Machiavelli would probably never imagined: the ‘clean’ and ‘precise’, ‘casualty-less’ (for the attacker) drone attacks.

The debate that followed the movie largely centred on the extent to which several aspects of the movie resembled what takes place in real life. For one, what the movie portrays as a long and consuming process of decision-making in order to authorise the attack seem to be quite far from reality. In a context of perceived imminent danger, and in the context of a military mission, time is of the essence and there is no space for such a long ethical dilemma as portrayed in the movie. Besides this, another feature that seems far from reality refers to the very details related to the precision that characterizes the hunt for the terrorists and the need for certainty before authorising the attack. According to the discussants, probabilities and suspicion dictate drone attacks much more than the certainty of who is the target. So, if there is a chance that a person inside a house is a terrorist, most likely the drone attack will take place. Moreover, it is not the case that so many people are involved on the ground for each similar mission that takes place, as portrayed in the movie. If anything, the number of civilian casualties is extremely high and some argue that drones in fact kill more civilians than regular airstrikes.

What does seem to reflect reality, though, is the high stress to which pilots succumb by conducting drone attacks. This may be a bit romanticised in the movie, which focuses intensely on the pilot and his assistant watching a little girl selling bread next to the house that is to be bombed and try as much as they can to postpone the attack. The resistance is such that the pilot defies the commander by asking for a reassessment and new clearance before attacking. In reality this is very unlikely, but it is a fact that many drone pilots suffer from post-traumatic syndrome and high levels of stress that is making lots of them quit.

Another aspect not portrayed in the movie but which came out in the discussion was the colonial portray of the story, which touches something more profound. On the one hand, the colonial tone of the story was reflected in the clear US/UK vs. East/South cut that shaped the story. Whereas the attack took place in Kenya, and there were Kenyan military on the ground taking part in the mission, they did not seem to have a say in anything, as decisions came from the white American/European main characters. On the other hand, this aspect of post-coloniality reflects also the very discourses that sustain the idea that drones are the ‘weapon of the future’ (or present), highly sophisticated, which, consequently, renders other types of warfare outdated. While the movie problematized the ethical dilemma regarding the strike, it definitely corroborated the image of drones (and the whole intelligence apparatus behind it) as something ‘superior’, or part of the ‘evolution’ of warfare – and certainly precise.

Finally, a question that could have made the debate unending: are drones at all ethical? What are the implications of the use of drones beyond its military use, such as instruments of social vigilance? How this technology shapes society and how its use reflects changes in mentality regarding the role and limits of violence? These are some of the many questions that participants took home after the session.

* Roberta Holanda Maschietto is a post-doctoral researcher at the Centre for Social Studies, University of Coimbra, and currently a visiting researcher at the Rotary Peace Studies Centre at the University of Bradford. Her new book ‘Beyond Peacebuilding. The Challenges of Empowerment Promotion in Mozambique’ is currently being published in the Palgrave Macmillan collection Rethinking Peace and Conflict Studies. She is a blogger at https://peacereflections.wordpress.com/ and member of the Brazilian Network of Peace, Conflict and Critical Security Studies (http://pcecs.blogspot.com.br).