Drone Warfare and the Kill Chain

The human toll and moral dilemma of drone warfare.

In Eye in the Sky, starring Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman, the human toll and moral dilemma of drone warfare are portrayed in a compelling drama of life and death.

When Donald Rumsfeld became George W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense, a few months before 9/11, his intent was to institute a new doctrine of warfare known as “transformation.” He planned to change the military into a high-tech force that he believed would be smaller, faster, less expensive and more effective.

This “Rumsfeld Doctrine” was a failure, done in by the success of insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan as much as by a defense industry, its lobbyists and congressional allies to whom the concept of a smaller military was anathema. But one key element of transformation has survived and exponentially grown: drone warfare — small, unmanned aircraft sent into the air for surveillance and combat, delivering payloads allegedly aimed at terrorists and other enemies but all too often deadly to civilians.

As Pratap Chatterjee writes at TomDispatch, “If recent history is any guide, these drones do not just kill terrorists; in their target areas, they also create anxiety, upset and a desire for revenge in a larger population and so have proven a powerful weapon in spreading terror movements across the Greater Middle East.”

The controversy over drone warfare has inspired several films, including Good Kill, with Ethan Hawke, and the documentary National Bird, which is making the festival circuit and will open in theaters this fall. But playing now is a motion picture that dramatizes the moral dilemma of drone warfare in a tense scenario that challenges the audience like a jury forced to decide whether a defendant will live or die.

Eye in the Sky, directed by Gavin Hood, focuses on a top secret collaboration among British, American and Kenyan military and civilians, a so-called “kill chain” by which all involved can watch an operation remotely and make decisions in real time.

A drone hovers over a Nairobi neighborhood, looking for two Americans and one British terrorist who have been converted to radical Islam. The plan is to capture them, but when the suspects move to another house in an area controlled by al-Shabab militants, it becomes clear that a plan for suicide bombings is imminent. A decision to fire Hellfire missiles from the drone becomes even more complicated when a young girl is spotted close to the target.

Helen Mirren and Aaron Paul are among the cast, along with Alan Rickman, whose role as a British army general was his last onscreen appearance before his death in January.

I spoke with Eye in the Sky’s screenwriter, Guy Hibbert, from his home in London the day before the movie’s opening there. He’s a veteran of television and film whose work includes Prime SuspectFive Minutes of HeavenComplicit and the upcoming A United Kingdom.

Michael Winship: It’s now 2016 and the earliest mention I found of your script was five years ago, in 2011.  So, it’s been that long that this project has been brewing?

Guy Hibbert: 2008, actually. It’s eight years since I started doing this one. It was initially a commission by BBC TV, Northern Ireland.  And I was kind of trying to find out what was going on with warfare in the 21st century. Because I didn’t really understand it, with robotic warfare and warfare played out on computers…

Up to that point, how much had you really known or thought about drone warfare?

GH: Not at all. I mean, we were getting bits of information about drone attacks, mainly in Afghanistan and the Pakistan borders. One didn’t really know much about how they operated. I think one knew that the pilots were in Creech Air Force Base outside Las Vegas. So the idea that they were 7,000 miles away, pressing the trigger on these Hellfire missiles, was intriguing enough. So I then started researching it with the military. And the first guy I spoke to in the military was a guy from the Royal Artillery here in the UK.  And he told me about “the kill chain.”

That was the original working title of the film, wasn’t it?

GH: Yeah. And as soon as he told me about the kill chain, which is basically, everybody having the image of the battlefield on their computers, and therefore, as they have an instantaneous image of it, they had some opinion on it, a moral input, if you like, or political input. And the military was saying, “This is changing the way we’re fighting wars.” There’s been no debate about it in Parliament.  There’s hardly any debate about it in public. And as soon as I got the image of the kill chain, I then realized that I had a scenario and developed it from there.

There’s also the concept, which is very vividly portrayed in the movie, of referral up.  It does take on a near-Dr. Strangelove quality at times in the movie, with various officials being called upon to make a decision and passing the buck.

GH: Helen Mirren plays the person in charge of the mission. She’s in a bunker in a military place just outside London. And we’ve got Alan Rickman playing the general, who is in the COBRA in Whitehall [Cabinet Office Briefing Room], which I think is called the Situation Room at the White House, where they gather to consider matters of national security and importance. And in the COBRA are various politicians.

So when Helen Mirren gets the image on her screen of the girl outside the house, and the image inside of the house — there’s a very, very small drone that’s been put inside the house. A bug drone, which exists; only just been invented. And she’s got the image of the suicide bombers inside the house. And they’ve also got the image of the girl outside the house.  So she’s saying, we must drop the Hellfire on this house now, before the suicide bombers put their suicide vests on and are driven out of the house and maybe would bomb a shopping mall.

There’s been no debate about it in Parliament. There’s hardly any debate about it in public.

But because the mission has changed from a capture to a kill, the military legal adviser says you must refer up to the politicians. So then that goes to Alan Rickman’s character in COBRA, where all the politicians are, of varying degrees of seniority. The problem is, is that whoever says, yes, you can fire, is actually saying yes to kill the girl. And none of the politicians want responsibility for it. Which is where the sort of Dr. Strangelove analogy comes from. Some of them are just saying. “Please, I don’t want to be the one to have to pull the trigger.  I’m just going to refer up to the next minister above me.”  And one or two of them will have a reasoned view.  But some of them are just cowards.

The number of drone attacks has certainly increased during the Obama years. Do you think it’s become too easy and it’s too like a video game?

GH: I think there’s a real dilemma here. And this is just the beginning of how we’re going to fight wars in the 21st century.  It’s going to so radically change. In 15 years’ time, we’ll be saying “Wow, that’s really old fashioned stuff.” It’s just moved on so much more. There won’t be one drone in the sky, there will be a hundred drones, all connecting with each other, all with specific jobs to do. And I think probably in 15 years’ time, there will be a drone as small as a bird that will have a weapon on it that will be, for instance, a poison dart, that will be electronically guided to pierce somebody’s neck inside a house and then you will be able to pinpoint the person you’re trying to take out. And that technology will be there quite soon. So, having a huge Hellfire missile 20,000 feet above a house and then blowing up people you don’t want to blow up, is something that’s going to seem quite crude in 15 years’ time.  So there’s this whole [new] system of warfare and including land robotics as well… As I’m talking now, there is a conference going on in Manchester, in the UK, where they are discussing the ethics of warfare whereby the weapons themselves consider whether it’s the right time to kill the target.

One of the issues has been that if the US continues to use drones in countries with which we are not officially at war, what’s to stop the 50 or so other countries that have their own drones from doing the same thing to us?

GH: This is one of the problems. This is what’s going to happen. I live in London. Let’s just put this scenario: I go to my shop at 9:00 in the morning to get some milk for my coffee. I come out of the shop and a missile strikes me. And that missile has been triggered by somebody living in Pakistan. There would be such uproar in this country, saying, “How could somebody do that, living in Pakistan, pull the trigger and blow me up in my suburban area of London.” But that’s what we’re doing over there. We just don’t have the reality of it in our heads. We’re not imagining it.  And one of the reasons for telling stories is that one allows people to imagine situations that they wouldn’t have previously thought of.

Just last week, Lisa Monaco, who is the White House counterterrorism and homeland security adviser, announced that the Obama administration is finally going to release a list of how many terrorist suspects and civilian casualties have been killed by drones since 2009.

GH: Are they going to list the civilians killed also?

They say so.  But only in the undeclared battlefields like Pakistan and Somalia and Yemen, not the active war theaters like Iraq and Syria and Afghanistan.

GH: I wonder what the effect of that will be. I suppose those figures will be disputed anyway by people like Human Rights Watch or Amnesty or something like that. I don’t think that’s going to change things much. Like I said earlier, what will really change things is if there’s a drone attack on one of our cities, whether it be in Europe or in America.

The argument here has always been that, since 9/11, there have been no major terrorist attacks on our soil, and that the success of drone warfare is part of that.  And as you mentioned, one of the arguments that Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman’s characters make is that if they strike, innocent child or not, they will prevent a catastrophe on the level of the Nairobi shopping mall bombing.

GH: I have great sympathy for that view.  Personally, I wouldn’t strike. However, I was talking to a security person about a year ago here and I said, “I know you can’t tell me anything, and I know you can’t tell me any details, but how scared are you?”  And this woman said, “We are more than scared. We are terrified. We are not in control of the situation.” Which means that there are too many people out there to be watched, to be put under surveillance, and somebody will get through, as indeed has happened in Brussels and Paris.  So it’s a really tough dilemma. And a good reason for wanting to write the script about it.

It also raises the issue of blowback, which you’re talking about: the issue of whether keeping us safe in the short term with the drone attack makes us less safe in the long term.

GH: Absolutely. And going back to me going to the local shop to buy some milk for my coffee tomorrow morning, if I had heard that my daughter, who also lives in London, had been blown up by a drone operated by a Pakistani from 3,000 miles away, I would be pretty angry about it. I don’t know how far I would go. But I would not be a happy person, to say the very least. We have to see it from that point of view.

One of the arguments in favor of drone warfare is that people have said that in a sense they are a much more humane, if you can say such a thing, weapons technology compared to barrel bombs or carpet bombing, that they’re more proportionate in their collateral damage. But it feels as if the more they’re used, the more disproportionate the damage.

GH: It’s a strange logic, isn’t it?  You can see the argument for bombing Hiroshima, the quickest way to end the war in southern Asia, as far as the Americans were concerned, or the allies were concerned.  And there will be a lot of people, and indeed I know some British guys who were in those Japanese camps, who were extremely relieved to have the Americans bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki, thus saving their lives. That’s hardly an argument for wiping out a whole city of people, but you can see it from their point of view, of course.

[T]he only solution is to make it globally, culturally unacceptable to go to war.

The argument for me is leading toward the big-big question, which is, somehow we’ve got to make war or violence as unacceptable culturally as incest. And we’re far from doing that. If one looks at the history of Hollywood, for instance, and here as well, we celebrate violence and we celebrate war in our culture because we like to tell stories of the heroes that come out of that. But if you made warfare and violence culturally totally unacceptable, then we could talk about weapons and we could talk about this, that and the other and how best to deal with these solutions between two people.  But really, the only solution is to make it globally, culturally unacceptable to go to war and to conduct things violently.

We still have these very serious discussions and philosophical debates about the notion of a “just war.”

GH: Yes. And the United Nations, of course, was set up to make it culturally unacceptable to go to war. But of course, that doesn’t work. Because nations go to the United Nations to manipulate that form of global government for their own ends.  So that’s not working as we hoped it would. So there has to be something inside us individually to make it culturally unacceptable to consider it.  I remember reading Kofi Annan’s book, who was the former secretary-general of the United Nations. And he was brought up in his village. I think it’s Ghana he came from. And the various tribal leaders, whenever they had a dispute, there was a tree that they all had to sit under and they weren’t allowed to leave the tree until they had resolved the situation without ending up battling each other violently. Which of course is what the United Nations is, but it seemed to be from where he was, certainly in that tiny little area of the world, it seemed to be what I was saying. It seemed to be culturally unacceptable not to negotiate.

Do you think the media have been too complacent?  Have we not talked about this enough?

I don’t think we talk about it nearly enough. And of course, we like action movies. We like action heroes. We like to see our good guy doing good things on behalf of us.  And we like to see him do it violently if we think he’s on the right side of life, or the right side of things, whatever that thing is. So we do have a problem with it.

I think one of the most compelling characters in the film is Aaron Paul’s character, as the actual drone pilot. He finds himself in an incredible moral dilemma and does his best to handle it honorably, I think.

GH: But I think the sum of the statistics of those drone pilots are not looking good, in terms of the psychological damage that it has caused them, when they had to make a decision like that, or they’ve had to kill somebody from such a distance. I think there are two problems with that. One is that, when you’re in warfare, after the battle, you’re with your band of brothers and if somebody dies within your band you collectively grieve. If you lose the battle, you help take solace in each other’s company, and if you win it, you celebrate it.  So in a way, that’s the way you survive it.

But these drone pilots, they don’t have much experience.  They’re locked up in a container. They might have to drop a bomb on somebody, and then, what they have to do, which is what we see in the film, which is the really difficult part, after they’ve dropped the missile, they have to bring the camera in close on the body, so that the visual people can identify the body. They have to go right in close up. And stare at what they’ve done. And then, they get out of the container, they get in a car and they go home. And sit with that on their own, separate from everyone else.  So that’s another way that modern warfare is perhaps changing things, not necessarily for the better.

I was at the naval academy in Annapolis, just before Christmas, actually. I’m doing a film about climate change and I wanted to talk to the midshipmen there, and I attended an “ethics in warfare” class at the academy. It was absolutely fascinating. The decisions that these young kids, who are 19 and 20 and in a few years’ time, they’ll be out, and maybe having to make those decisions. And it’s incredibly difficult to make that judgment on whom to kill, and when to kill, and — collateral damage, as they call it — when to kill a victim. It’s a very, very tricky question. I was comforted, if that’s the right word, by how seriously they took that issue.

One of the things I like about the movie is that it does show the military taking into consideration humanitarian concerns that arise in this situation, and I think that might surprise some people.

GH: Yes, I think it’s interesting, because I’ve looked at all the comments and reviews, flicked through them all that have come in. And I would say, about 80 percent of the comments like the fact that we’ve just put the debate out there, and given everybody a certain level of humanity, if you like. So we put the arguments out there. And I didn’t want the film to be a piece of propaganda for or against the military.

So if you had a hope, in terms of what an audience would come away from, after they’ve seen the film, what would that be?

GH: It seems to me, when I’ve watched the film, this has probably pleased me most, that the film has engaged people’s humanity, and allowed them to think about what they’re watching. And I just love the fact that it’s engaging an audience in thinking it all through as they’re watching the film instead of sort of crash bang walloping their way through it. And I find the audiences that I’ve been to are actually engaged in that.  So that’s what I’m most pleased about.

Guy Hibbert, thank you.

This post first appeared in Common Dreams.

By Michael Winship

Michael Winship is the Emmy Award-winning senior writer of Moyers & Company and, and a former senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos.