Gavin Hood’s 2015 film Eye in the Sky is a very well constructed thriller, crispy written and mostly well acted. And it is a film with an important central issue.

The ethical dimension

The central subject of Eye in the Sky is not drone warfare per se, no matter what some reviewers say, it is the calculus of military operations in the presence of civilians.

Military operations are intensely complicated by the presence of civilians, even for a realpolitik pragmatist who ignores the ethical and legal dimensions. Senior American military figures with experience in Iraq and Afghanistan have repeatedly warned that some operations create more jihadists than those operations kill.

This is one of the many lessons we should have learned in Viet Nam, if not before.

A couple of characters’ comments made during the tense deliberations in Eye in the Sky do allude to this inescapable and unmeasureable counter-productive consequence of military actions in cities.

Unfortunately, the film slightly downplays this problem by referring to it as the propaganda war rather than as a recruitment war.

On the other hand, the characters can be forgiven for not pursing this issue, because it cannot be quantified, and we all desperately want to make decisions based on quantification (consider some people’s comfort in judging schools and teachers by student test scores).

In the film, the targets are quantified, and ranked: The numbers 1, 4, and 5 terrorists on the East Africa target list, two British nationals turned jihadists, one American citizen, two suicide bombers, and one bomb maker.

Balancing that juicy target gathering are the estimates (necessarily unreliable despite being doubtless based on carefully researched blast effects) of the civilians likely to be killed if the suicide bombers detonate their vests in public. Apparently the default guess is 40 victims per bomber.

The weakness of guessed quantification, and the pathetic limitations of basing operational decisions on dodgy numbers, is demonstrated when a colonel intimidates a sergeant into fudging his calculations. In part trapped by established doctrine and in part protected by that, a politician will authorize or abort a deadly hellfire strike depending upon whether the chance of a particular child’s dying is said by a sergeant to be 45% or 50%.

Does that seem absurd? Yes, of course, absurd but probably inescapable in real life. Ted Cruz and dozens of barflies might fantasize carpet-bombing the middle east, but military professionals and their civilian superiors have to thoughtfully solve real problems with whatever options are least bad.


Gone is the outrage felt in England and the United States when Germans bombed British cities in 1940. That outrage died when the allies began their own bombings of German cities in 1942, often prettified as “anti-morale” raids intended to shut down German war industries by destroying workers’ housing — which sounds much nicer than saying it was to destroy the workers and their families.

Gone are the days when a Curtis LeMay, aided by a Robert McNamara, could conduct incendiary bombings intended to destroy whole cities. Robert McNamara late in life acknowledged that he abetted incendiary bombings that probably killed 800,000 Japanese, mostly civilians, without contributing to the end of the war.

Of course, those were citizens of enemy countries, who get little sympathy. When a Ho Chi Minh or a George Bush declares that every citizen is part of the victory effort, he unwittingly helps justify attacks on civilians.

Fortunately the world still feels outrage at the direct abuse and killing of civilians (rather than as unavoidable loss attendant to legal military operations).

Just War theory, international law, and to some extent military doctrine require that military operational decisions consider proportionality, an essential principle but one not easily applied.

One girl as symbol

Audiences would doze through any film that failed to provide an individual character to stand in for a large group, and so Eye in the Sky includes a winsome child to represent the innocent civilians at risk by both radical Islam and western military strikes. To paraphrase an idea often attributed to Joseph Stalin, one death is a compelling tragedy but a million deaths are a boring statistic.

The film intensifies our concern for Alia, because her loving parents see to it that she can both play and learn, even though she is endangered if seen by the wrong people while having fun or reading a school book.

Alia is not just any civilian we want protected from violent terrorists. She is especially vulnerable as a child and as a female, and her family promotes the enlightened values that George Bush once assured us would sweep Muslim societies once our military ousted or killed Saddam Hussein. Demographics aside, Alia is sweet, cute, employed, and dutiful.

The inescapability of arbitrary numbers

In Eye in the Sky, American politicians have a breezy disinterest in ambiguity and delay, while UK politicians and public servants show moral unease, career fear, and a feckless insistence that the numbers offer plausible deniability.

All of society depends upon arbitrary or largely arbitrary numbers, of course, simplifying matters such as mandatory sentencing, speed limits, tolerable pollution, and official poverty levels. That inescapable reliance on the arbitrary contributes to the whiffs of absurdism in Eye in the Sky.

False comfort

Like most films intended for commercial profitability, Eye in the Sky is reassuring, telling us what we want to hear. What western audiences want to hear is that our militaries exercise scrupulous caution in carrying out drone strikes and care deeply about civilian casualties. The film also tells us that civilian casualties are unavoidable, and that the bad guys eventually get blown up anyway.

At the end of the film, we are again shown Alia dancing with her hoop, as if she had not died after all. This is comforting in the way we are comforted by happy photographs set on a coffin in the funeral home. The film reassures us that Alia, or girls like her, will play and laugh freely again some day.

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