May 21st 2016

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY It's a queer theory, with 51 closets to come out of (Part One of two parts)

CANBERRA OBSERVED Labor may find it's not easy to avoid being green

EDITORIAL Double-dissolution trigger may have misfired

ENVIRONMENT Cut tax breaks to wonky green groups: committee

HUMAN RIGHTS Honorary fellow means to dishonourable end

POLITICAL BIOGRAPHY Remembering "populate or perish": Arthur Calwell

EUTHANASIA Belgium: where the devil is refining the details

RESEARCH The scientific objectivity of gender difference (Part Two of two)

MUSIC The muse, leisure and the importance of play

CINEMA Technology and war's cost: Eye in the Sky

BOOK REVIEW Preserving essential social values

BOOK REVIEW Putting postmodernism in its grave



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Technology and war's cost: Eye in the Sky

by Symeon J. Thompson

News Weekly, May 21, 2016

So-called “drone” warfare is one of the most hotly debated topics in contemporary military practice and foreign policy. Its benefits are great, as it provides a way to conduct surveillance, and wage war, without putting soldiers’ lives at risk. But its very “detachment” from the battlefield can lead to accusations of “detachment” from its impact on the ground. This conflict is central to Gavin Hood’s tense, and intense, philosophical and political thriller, Eye in the Sky.

Colonel Katherine Powell (an icy Helen Mirren) is a British soldier overseeing a multinational operation to capture leading al-Shabaab terrorists in Nairobi, especially the radicalised Briton Ayesha Al-Hady – aka Susan Helen Danford (Lex King) – who, with her husband Abdullah Al-Hady (Dek Hassan), have orchestrated several devastating suicide attacks.

She is working with Kenyan military and intelligence forces led by Major Moses Owiti (Vusi Kenene), and an American Reaper team led by Lieutenant Colonel Ed Walsh (the director, Gavin Hood) and piloted by Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) and Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox), with intelligence support from Pearl Harbour-based analyst Lucy Galvez (Kim Engelbrecht). Colonel Powell, in turn, answers to Lieutenant-General Frank Benson (a superb Alan Rickman in his last onscreen performance), who is overseeing the operation from Whitehall with members of the British government.

The initial plan was to capture the terrorists but this becomes impossible when they head into an al-Shabaab controlled suburb. Jama Farah (Barkhad Abdi) is sent in to conduct close surveillance with the help of a beetle-like micro-drone. This shows the terrorists preparing for an imminent suicide bombing, leading Colonel Powell to recommend an immediate missile strike. Thus begins a darkly farcical bureaucratic and political debate, as the various government representatives refuse to take responsibility and seek to “refer up”.

Meanwhile, another complication is Alia (Aisha Takow), a bright little Kenyan girl, whose family has the misfortune to live next to where the terrorists are meeting.

The movie is a masterful study of the difficulties and human cost of military action and political inaction. Gus Hibbert’s screenplay is driven by its dialogue, alternating between the drama on the ground in Kenya and the farce among the British authorities. Megan Gill’s crisp editing keenly builds up the tension in what is essentially a series of set pieces in comfortable rooms around the world. But the focus of the film is not the various Westerners, or even the terrorists. Nor is it the technology – some of which is only in development, at least publicly.

The focus of the film is Alia and her family. They are innocent victims, and the personification of the “collateral damage” that is to be found in the wake of a missile strike in civilian territory. They are not just the possible victims of a military attack, but also the possible victims of a terrorist attack, as well as the victims of a pseudo-military occupation.

Despite this, the film is not an exercise in anti-Western preaching. It makes clear that the aim of terrorists is terror – the callous killing of civilians to make a point. And it contrasts this with the stated aim of not taking any innocent lives.

Eye in the Sky raises the moral dilemma inherent in all war, and especially a war on terrorists. Namely, at what point does the end justify the means? However, while its subject is the use of remotely operated weaponry, it doesn’t tackle many of the issues raised regarding their use.

It does show that these operations, rather than dehumanising targets, actually make them more personal. As T. Mark McCurley, an early Predator pilot, puts it in his book, Hunter Killer: “The gravity of what I’d done overtook my emotions … I had removed one of God’s creatures from His world.”

But the movie does not delve into the questionable approach adopted by the United States Administration, with its support for “extrajudicial execution” and strikes in non-war zones that result in large numbers of civilian deaths. In fact David Kilcullen, the Australian soldier and counter-insurgency expert who advised General David Petraeus and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, has argued that drone strikes “are totally counter-productive” and have the effect of alienating allies, furthering destabilising troubled regions. This is not to say that they cannot be used, but that they must be used judiciously.

There is always a risk that, when a new technology comes along, it is seen as the solution to every problem. Eye in the Sky brilliantly shows that this is not the case, its intense dialogue-driven drama magnifying and highlighting what soldiers have always known – and politicians often prefer to avoid – to be the true cost of war.

Symeon J. Thompson is a member of the Film Critics Circle of Australia (FCCA).

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