Since military history is a frequently-visited genre in my own arena of study and research as well as one which has touched my own life in a personal and indelible way, it may not be surprising that I have long had an interest in what – for want of a better label – I call the ethics of warfare. It may seem like an oxymoron, but in virtually every conflict in our nation’s history one can find both obvious and not so clearly-defined examples of decisions, policies and protocols in which a course of action reflects a point of morality inconsistent with ordinary military objectives. A WWII example was the USAAF commitment to “daylight precision bombing” of industrial/military targets as opposed to the RAF preference for nighttime “carpet bombing” of civilian population centers; a decision which cost the U.S. mightily in lives and aircraft lost. The ultimate decision to use the atomic bomb to shorten (and save lives) in bringing Japan to a surrender was perhaps the greatest moral decision of all time and one still being argued today.
A recent motion picture titled “EYE IN THE SKY” calls to mind some of the realities facing the use of military “Drone” aircraft today, both from the viewpoint of target selection, and the effect on flight crew members. The story revolves around a British mission against an Al-Shabaab target in Nairobi, Kenya and an operational crew made up of US Air Force personnel in Nevada. Target selection and mission operational control are in the hands of British Colonel Katherine Powell, played beautifully by Helen Mirren who appears against the backdrop of a British Lt. General and a high-ranking Foreign Secretary among others meeting in Sussex on the other side of the Atlantic.
Meanwhile the movie-goer is watching through the eyes of a drone aircraft circling “invisibly” at 25,000 feet what’s going on in the village square at the center of which militants are assembling suicide-bomb vests for immediate dispersal in the room of a ruined building. It seems as though the moment is right and conditions perfect for the armed drone to deliver its two Hellfire missiles. Then we see an adorable little local girl setting up a table to sell her mother’s bread within the “kill zone”.
At Creech AFB in the Nevada dessert, an American pilot and the female enlisted Airman operating aiming and firing controls sit at a space-age module in a windowless room awaiting orders to execute, while nearby senior Air Force officers are shaking their heads at British “dithering”, intimating to movie-goers that were this a U.S. operation such a collateral complication would not be such a big deal. (The film is after all a British production.) As the charming girl leaves her table, but then returns with a new basket of bread, the decision-makers begin an endless process of “referring up”; that is going up their chain of command all the way through a line of “waffling” politicians to the U.S. Secretary of State who is attending a ping pong tournament in China played by the late Alan Rrickman, to whom by the way, the film is dedicated.
At virtually the last minute before the suicide vests are sent on their way the missile strike takes out the target and cameras focus on the dying girl and the resulting sadness on the faces of participants in Africa, Britain and Nevada.
What theatre audiences will not know is the toll taken on the Air Force crews serving at the Creech facility just one hour away from the bright lights and fun palaces of Las Vegas, who have the unheralded but high-pressure job of “flying” drones and firing missiles half-a-world away for 18-hour- long days with little rest, where they need a thousand more pilots and airmen than they can recruit for a duty with little glory and the prospect of life-long memories of collateral consequences.