Contains spoilers for Eye in the Sky.
The United States recently expanded its military activity in the Horn of Africa. Among the regional groups it now openly targets in the name of post-9/11 counter-terrorism is Al-Shabab (The Youth), a decentralized network based in Somalia and operating around the Somali-Kenyan border. The US has in fact been active in the area for months, using “Special Operations troops, airstrikes, private contractors and African allies” as its proxies.
The administration has decided to deem the Shabab, the Islamist militant group in Somalia, to be part of the armed conflict that Congress authorized against the perpetrators of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, according to senior American officials. The move is intended to shore up the legal basis for an intensifying campaign of airstrikes and other counterterrorism operations, carried out largely in support of African Union and Somali government forces.” — New York Times, November 27, 2016
A recent film makes this conflict its context. Directed by Gavin Hood, Eye in the Sky (2015) is a 90-minute study of a modern military drone attack on a house in a Kenyan neighborhood. Unlike US foreign policy, however, the film begins with the perspective of one Kenyan family: a father repairing his daughter’s toys, a mother baking bread for the daughter to sell, and, beyond their gate, traders, soldiers, and Wahhabi Muslims monitoring one another’s dress, families, and morals.
Fascinating for me given my doctoral research are sections of the film that feature government officials in the West, military leaders on the ground, and researchers, advisors, and drone operators in three countries (Kenya, the United Kingdom, and the United States). The audience observes these military, political, and legal representatives arguing from the logics of their respective domains: they each have to judge whether the UK should conduct a bombing that will injure or kill noncombatant neighborhood residents as well as people the two governments have named as enemies.
Can we bomb a house in a neighborhood in a country we aren’t explicitly bound to?
What if a child will be caught in the blast radius?
What if there will be two children?
What if there are suicide bombers in the house?
What if we can watch the would-be bombers don their vests and get ready to deal death?
What if the bombers’ video gets onto YouTube?
What if Western governments’ secret surveillance footage gets onto YouTube?
What if the chain of decision-making offers more stalling than accountability?
What if the military’s risk estimates are fluffy?
What about the drone operators’ mental health?
What does it do to people to have the workday regularly include killing others remotely, watching them die, and then poking through the rubble to identify their remains?
What is our responsibility when all this and more happens in the name of the British and American public, and persists as governmental policy regardless of which political parties hold the reins?
Just as social media moderators experience trauma from their work, so do military drone operators tasked to surveil and sometimes kill. So, too, do people living out their lives with relatives while people thousands of miles away superimpose brutal geopolitics on their homes, families, and children.
Toward the end of Eye in the Sky, a general says to a disapproving politician, “Never tell a soldier he does not know the cost of war.”
Soldiers know the costs because they live it, and many of us may never know the cost ourselves. We might be able to grasp it remotely or through fiction, and if so, ok: some things no one should experience firsthand.