The Beauty of an Imperial Dilemma

By Will GlovinskyMay 4, 2016

The Beauty of an Imperial Dilemma
CRUISING OFF THE COAST of West Africa, in the early pages of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Marlow’s ship comes upon a French man-of-war engaged in an odd sort of combat. Swaying in the “greasy, slimy swell,” the warship appears to be “shelling the bush” with no discernible target. “Pop, would go one of the six-inch guns,” Marlow recalls, and “a small flame would dart and vanish, a little white smoke would disappear, a tiny projectile would give a feeble screech — and nothing happened.” The ship’s absurdly one-sided battle becomes, for Marlow, an emblem of pointless, indiscriminate imperial violence: “[T]here she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent.”

Today the image of a Western empire “firing into a continent” calls to mind not French gunboats but rather the ongoing US drone bombings in the Middle East and Africa. The CIA allegedly carried out its first drone attack in February 2002, when it killed three men near a former mujahedeen base in Afghanistan. Sources suggest that the CIA thought one of the men was Osama bin Laden, mostly based on the man’s height. It was later confirmed that bin Laden was alive, so the CIA revised the identity of the victims. They did not know whom they had killed, they admitted, but insisted that the men were “legitimate” targets. Locals told journalists that the men were collecting scrap metal.

Since then, according to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ), between 3,200 and 5,000 people have been killed by US drones in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. While the Pentagon assumes all adult male drone victims to be “militants” and claims that civilian casualties are extremely rare, the BIJ (alongside other NGOs) has pieced together journalistic accounts and witnesses’ testimony to determine that between 488 and 1,073 of those killed by US drones have been civilians (15–21 percent). Of civilian victims, between 180 and 218 were children. The chilling anonymity of this “targeted” drone program’s victims, crossed with the sanguine official line, again recalls Conrad’s French warship. “There was a touch of insanity in the proceeding,” Marlow says, which “was not dissipated by somebody on board assuring me earnestly there was a camp of natives ­— he called them enemies! — hidden out of sight somewhere.”

Conrad’s critique of European imperial violence moves with notorious swiftness from the opacity of the victim to the opacity at the heart of the colonizer. Marlow does not know who exactly are the victims of the French warship’s shells, but Conrad’s racism, as Chinua Achebe famously argued, precludes his narrator from caring that much. Marlow’s concern is not for the mangled bodies on the receiving end of colonial violence, but for the deplorable madness at the heart of the imperialist himself. The “touch of insanity” glimpsed on the coast will of course only grow as Marlow travels upriver to find Mr. Kurtz at the Inner Station.

The drone thriller Eye in the Sky inverts Conrad’s formula. It asks what we would do if we knew everything. In a taut 102 minutes, the film condenses the ambiguities of drone warfare into a balance sheet of nigh certainties. A group of high-level al-Shabaab operatives are meeting in a house in Nairobi, Kenya. In Surrey, England, in a command center fitted out like a dystopian tech startup, Col. Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) directs a joint operation with Nevada-based US Air Force drone pilot Steve Watts (a dewy-eyed Aaron Paul) and Kenyan agents to capture the extremists, which include both British and US nationals. But when the operatives relocate to an al-Shabaab-controlled neighborhood and Powell learns (via a futuristic, camera-equipped beetle-drone) that they are gearing up for a suicide bombing, the mission switches from capture to kill, and only a Hellfire missile through the roof will do the trick. Sure, there’s a chance of civilian casualties, Powell tells her boss, Lt. Gen. Frank Benson (the late Alan Rickman), whose job is to liaise with a roomful of suits for permission to attack. But the ministers refer the matter up and up, and the clock is ticking. If the Reaper doesn’t strike, the extremists will doubtless kill scores.

Gosh, what would you do? Eye in the Sky unfolds amid the purely intellectual suspense of the implicit second-person interrogative, and the calculus supposedly shifts as first this, then that development complicates the picture. Nine-year-old Alia (Aisha Takow) sets up shop selling her mother’s bread in front of the targeted safe house. A Kenyan government agent (Barkhad Abdi) tries to get her out of harm’s way by buying the goods, but she’s a smart kid, and when the agent drops the loaves while fleeing al-Shabaab militia, she dusts them off and begins hawking them again. If this all sounds a little less than thrilling, perhaps that itself is unsurprising. This is a drone flick. We never really think that a few missiles won’t be fired. As for young Alia, well, we might quote her official mortality estimate of 65 percent (revised downward to 45 percent for the pols’ benefit by tough-as-nails Col. Powell).

Whatever punch the film lands derives not from any true suspense, but from the way it earnestly strives to place you in the position of the decider. In the absence of due transparency in the CIA and Pentagon’s drone operations, the Obama administration has repeatedly evoked the serious, often wrenching deliberation that the president and his advisors undergo before green-lighting the assassination of an individual. President Obama trades on his reputation as a man of conscience and consummate respect for law, and he has ensured that drawing up the “kill list” remains his prerogative rather than the military’s.

In its panoptic representation of the pros and cons of drone warfare, Eye in the Sky attempts to cinematically democratize the moral grandeur of these neoimperial ethical dilemmas. There — in the room! — the terrorists are putting on their suicide vests: the beetle-drone transmits the feed back to Col. Powell and the feckless London ministers. In the Reaper’s eye, however, we see little Alia with her bread. Aristotle prescribed “fear and pity” as the emotions aroused by dramatic tragedy. Perhaps the darkest thing about Eye in the Sky is the way it finally channels our fear and pity not toward Alia, but rather toward the Herculean deciders who must bear this great moral burden. “Never tell a soldier that he does not know the cost of war,” a reproving Rickman tells a second-guessing female minister.


The representation of distant killing as an abstract ethical dilemma has a long pedigree. In 1802, François-René de Chateaubriand set out to prove the existence of conscience and the immortality of the soul. He did so by posing a question to himself as abstract as it was absurd: “If, merely by wishing it, you could kill a man in China and inherit his fortune in Europe, being assured by supernatural means that the deed would remain forever unknown, would you allow yourself to form that project?” With more than a whiff of moral triumph, Chateaubriand announces that he would not, no matter the inducements:

It is in vain that I exaggerate my poverty to myself; it is in vain that I seek to soften the murder by supposing that my wish would cause the Chinese man to die suddenly and painlessly, that he has no heirs, or that his death would in any case mean the loss of his goods to the State.

According to Eric Hayot in The Hypothetical Mandarin, Chateaubriand’s ethical proposition became a founding philosopheme of 19th-century cosmopolitan sympathy. It took on an odd double life as a philosophical affirmation of distant ethical relations and, at the same time, a Balzacian parable of all-too-common “victimless” bourgeois self-interest. Killing the mandarin entered into French as a shorthand for committing “an evil action in the hope that it will remain unknown.”

But if Chateaubriand’s question had an obvious answer — one should not kill a distant foreigner simply for one’s own advantage — current representations of global US violence, specifically actions taken in the name of the “war on terror,” have found a flexible and favorable narrative form in the “insoluble” ethical quandary. The form crosses Chateaubriand’s moral distance with the “trolley problem,” moral philosophy’s classic dilemma in which a runaway tram is set to mow down five people, unless you switch its track such that it hits only one person. Should one kill someone halfway around the world to save that person’s neighbors?

In the years after the September 11th attacks, the dilemma focused squarely on torture. The Fox show 24 repeatedly figured counterterrorism’s version of the trolley problem in agent Jack Bauer’s use of torture to forestall imminent catastrophic attacks, like a nuclear explosion in Los Angeles. 24 wasn’t alone: according to the Parents Television Council, “there were 110 scenes of torture on prime time broadcast programming from 1995 to 2001.” From 2002 to 2005, that figure soared to 624 scenes. And the torturer himself had morphed from the villain of the nineties to the hero of the early aughts.

The prominence and prestige of torture in US television have attracted a considerable body of criticism to date, much of it aimed at analyzing the fallacious representation of the ticking time-bomb scenario used to justify torture. But judging from the reception of Eye in the Sky, we have yet to appreciate how this form has been updated since the Bush years. Obama entered the White House vowing to do away with Bush-era “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Still, CIA director John Brennan recently told the journalist Jeffrey Goldberg that Obama firmly believes “sometimes you have to take a life to save even more lives.” Col. Powell, we might say, is the Jack Bauer of the Obama era: she’s not one to torture, but while the time-bomb ticks, she will make the decision to deal death by drone for the greater good. And we sense she would do it over and over again.

As for the decision that we make, Eye in the Sky is careful to accommodate all comers. Director Gavin Hood has deftly fashioned a film that will most likely mirror back to you whatever judgment you came in with about drones or ticking time-bomb scenarios. The al-Shabaab members’ suicide vests look menacing, and Alia, whom the camera lavishes much attention on as she spins a hula hoop, is the very figure of innocence, imperiled by religious extremists and US drones alike. If the film renders a political service to Western audiences, it likely has to do with the basic act of representing a shadowy, if much-discussed, reality of modern warfare.

But it is precisely here, in the film’s pretense of revealing all, that the implied analogy between the audience and government decision-makers becomes dangerously false. Eye in the Sky would have you believe that there is a seamless unity of form and content in a film about drones, which kill people by remote video feed. In the era of global video links — when, say, a facial recognition analyst in Hawaii can respond to a British colonel’s request for identification of a victim in Kenya — military media technology appears to have caught up with the global cross-cutting that has long been de rigueur in terrorism thrillers like 24 or the Bourne franchise. Now, when a film cuts between undercover government agents in Nairobi and drone pilots in Nevada, the implication is that the editing merely mimics the actual transmission of video feeds from drone to pilot, pilot to analyst, analyst to mission commander.

Yet the depiction of Col. Powell’s control center as a sort of theater, with the potential for Bourne-like cuts between the drone’s aerial camera, the beetle’s interior view of the house, and the facial analyst’s graphics, severely misrepresents how CIA officials say drone strikes are planned and carried out. As yet, there are no flying beetle-drones. Even their arrival, however, would appear unlikely to change the way in which drone strikes are executed in remote areas like Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas. There, as The Intercept has revealed based on Edward Snowden’s leaks, people may become candidates for identification as terrorist couriers not on the evidence of video recognition, but on the statistical patterns of their cell phone records. An NSA program called SKYNET (named after the Terminator AI nemesis, incredibly) collects the metadata of Pakistan’s 55 million cell phone users and subjects it to the same kinds of machine-learning algorithms that online marketers use to guess which shampoo you might buy. It’s unclear how SKYNET is used at present, but the possibilities are chilling. We already know, thanks to former CIA and NSA director Gen. Michael Hayden, that “we kill people based on metadata.” Perhaps this is why, as Peter Bergen and Megan Braun have reported, only two percent of drone victims since 2004 have been the sort of “militant leaders” who would arguably pose a “continuing, imminent threat to U.S. persons” — the White House’s own standard for justifying a targeted assassination outside a war zone.

Alas, the daily chagrins of so many over-caffeinated NSA Poindexters crunching petabytes of metadata just wouldn’t make for good cinema. Nor, crucially, would it create what Eye in the Sky most dearly wants: a representation of perfect, visual knowledge — a platform for the terrible beauty of a globe-girdling ethical dilemma. Poised, confident, her silver hair luminescent in the metallic grey-blue glow of her theater-like command center, Mirren’s Col. Powell gathers up in her steely 10,000-mile stare the awful knowledge of her options. She becomes the avatar of the coolheaded, feeling but rational decider intent on foiling an extremist attack. When she fudges the collateral damage estimate, we judge her, but we feel we are being let in on a venial sin — deplorable, yes, but almost an error of formality, a workaround in a stressful job. Indeed, the flaw almost makes her more human. Rickman’s Lt. Gen. Benson, dry as London gin, lends humor and a certain imperious heft to his subordinate’s judgment. If he perceives any resemblance between Alia and his own granddaughter, for whom he purchases a boutique doll on his way to oversee the strike, then he has, like a latter-day Tiresias, foresuffered and compartmentalized all. It is only the junior American airmen and airwomen, notably Paul’s Lt. Watts, whose eyes glisten as Powell orders them to release the Hellfire.

This is fitting, as it is former drone operators, rather than the top brass, who have been most vocal in their criticism of the covert US killing programs, and their harrowing testimony provides a glimpse into the world of killing by video screen and joystick. Recruited in part via military-produced video games, operators work 12-hour shifts in windowless trailers at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, but they suffer rates of post-traumatic stress disorder at the same rates as pilots of traditional aircraft. “You never know who you’re killing, because you never actually see a face, you just have a silhouette,” former Air Force drone operator Michael Haas told the makers of Drone, a 2014 documentary.

Set 20 minutes into the future, when optics have mightily improved, Eye in the Sky presents operators like Lt. Watts who do see whom they’re killing. And so does Col. Powell. Though they disagree about the decision, their difference is merely one of judgment, and it cannot extend to questioning the terms of the dilemma. Theirs is a war cleared of all fog, and this makes Eye in the Sky less a representation of drone warfare than a grotesque abstraction of it.


In Precarious Life, Judith Butler argues that after 9/11 Americans experienced “the loss of their First Worldism” — “the loss of the prerogative, only and always, to be the one who transgresses the sovereign boundaries of other states, but never to be in the position of having one’s own boundaries transgressed.” In response to this new vulnerability, Butler calls on us to disestablish “the familiar as the criterion by which a human life is grievable”: we must learn to grieve for those who are different and distant from us in order to rethink the meaning of a truly “counterimperialist egalitarianism.”

Since reading Butler’s book I have been convinced of the righteousness of that goal, and I remain so. The scant attention paid by the US media to the deaths of nonwhite people, especially (though not only) outside North America and Europe, suggests how much work remains to be done. But as Eye in the Sky’s final shot rolled, showing a ghostly, slow-motion Alia laughing and playing with her hula hoop, I found myself wondering whether even Butler’s call for radically grievable life might be co-opted by the very forms that we use to narrate our imperial dilemmas. Alia — young, good, innocent — is eminently grievable, but this alone will not save her. Indeed, I wondered whether the elegiac closing shot might simply contribute to the tragic beauty of an insoluble moral dilemma — the kind handed down by the Greeks, the beauty of Antigone. If so, Eye in the Sky should push us to think beyond the realm of the grievable. The films and novels we need about imperial power today must do more than reshuffle the calculus of the trolley problem, whose moral intractability tends to shut out other forms of thinking and critique. We need plots that provide the narrative space to ask questions: whether the very terms of our dilemmas are spurious; whether firing into continents, day in and day out, can be anyone’s prerogative, let alone ours.


Will Glovinsky is a PhD student in Columbia University’s Department of English and Comparative Literature. 

LARB Contributor

Will Glovinsky is a PhD student in Columbia University’s Department of English and Comparative Literature, where his research focuses on Victorian and modernist literature and empire studies.


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