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Pulling the Trigger: An Interview With the 'Eye in the Sky' Filmmaker Gavin Hood

Helen Mirren
Helen Mirren
Dror Ladin,
Former Staff Attorney,
ACLU National Security Project
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April 7, 2016

I had the opportunity recently to see Gavin Hood’s new film, “Eye in the Sky,” at a screening hosted by Reprieve. The film weaves together the lives of ordinary people in Nairobi living in the shadow of a largely secret drone war, the high-level deliberations between British and American officials concerning a fictional drone operation, and the individual moral responsibility of a U.S. drone operator sitting safely in Nevada who must ultimately decide whether or not he will pull the trigger. Although some of the technology shown in the film is more advanced than what we know to be available today, the questions it explores are starkly contemporary: What are the costs of conducting a secret war with ambiguous boundaries and goals? Who gets to decide when civilians are to be put in danger? What is the lived experience of those people who live below the buzz of drones, and the pilots half a world away who are charged with pulling the trigger?

Gavin Hood was kind enough to answer some questions about his film, which is now in wide release.

The interview has been slightly edited for length and clarity.

Dror Ladin: In your interview with Cora Currier of The Intercept, you spoke of the importance of confronting the effects of drone strikes on local populations. And certainly, one of the striking aspects of your film is the amount of screen time you give to individuals on the ground in Nairobi — particularly the girl selling bread and the undercover operative trying to save her. Could you talk about the choices you made in highlighting their stories as opposed to focusing on the Western target of the strike?

It seems to me that the very use of the term “collateral damage” may actually be strategically counterproductive.

Gavin Hood: As you know, collateral damage is one of those dreadful euphemisms used to describe injury or loss of life to innocent people when a military target is attacked. The term dehumanizes civilians to downplay the fact that innocent human beings have been injured or killed in pursuit of a military objective. It seems to me that the very use of the term “collateral damage” may actually be strategically counterproductive. Opponents of the U.S. and Britain point to such language as evidence of a callous disregard for the lives of others. Using the term almost certainly makes it easier for civilian and military leaders to “pull the trigger” on a target without fully appreciating the true cost of their actions in terms of possible loss of innocent life and the potential for such loss to drive those affected into the arms of the enemy. In order to fully consider the consequences of any military strike, perhaps we should call the potential loss of life what it is: a Civilian Injury or Death estimate.

In the film, by focusing attention on the life of the innocent bystander and her family — by humanizing those who will be killed or injured as “collateral damage” — the term is shown for what it is: a dehumanizing euphemism. If the audience ultimately decides, on the basis of the very particular circumstances presented, to side with those who deem it necessary to sacrifice one person in order to possibly save many, then at least they will be doing so having weighed the true cost in terms of human suffering and the potential for political blowback of that decision. They will know who they are killing. As one member of the military said to me after a screening: “You have put a human face on the statistics we talk about. That may be a good thing.”


DL: One of the hallmarks of the U.S. drone program has been secrecy, with non-Western victims, in particular, being hidden from the American public. How do you think our public conversation and public policy regarding drone warfare would be different if Americans were more exposed to the human cost of drone strikes?

Lying to ourselves about the real costs of drone strikes can only lead to bad policy. That’s not strategically smart.

GH: I think it would be very different. If the overall objective is to reduce the spread of extremist ideology in the world, then a full appreciation of who has been injured and killed in drone strikes, and what the effect of those injuries and deaths on local populations has been, is critical. If we focus only on statistics that tell us what “bad guys” were killed and we fail to appreciate statistics that may tell us why people in populations affected by drone strikes may be turning against us, then we are not making an overall strategic judgment based on complete information. Lying to ourselves about the real costs of drone strikes can only lead to bad policy. That’s not strategically smart.

DL: The film draws a sharp contrast between the reactions of the American politicians — who are shown as untroubled by the prospect of a small number of civilian casualties — and the British leaders who agonize about the political fallout that could result from the drone strike. Do you see this difference playing out in the real world?

GH: Yes. The Americans have been using drones for some years now and have been ahead of the Brits in seeking to establish “legal” guidelines for authorizing a drone strike. After 9/11, a joint congressional resolution — the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists — arguably provided a general legal framework for the use of targeted assassinations using drones. Under the AUMF, “the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.” Of course the resolution refers to terrorists responsible for 9/11, but the AUMF is currently still used to provide a legal framework for drone attacks against extremist terrorist groups such as ISIS and al-Shabaab, both of which didn’t even exist until years after 9/11.

In 2012, The New York Times exposed a new “Secret ‘Kill List’” and pointed out that: “Mr. Obama has placed himself at the helm of a top secret ‘nominations’ process to designate terrorists for kill or capture, of which the capture part has become largely theoretical.” In our film we reference this “kill list” because once a name is on that list, there is no need to refer up to the president again if an opportunity arises to eliminate the target without excessive “collateral damage.” Hence the positions taken in the film by the U.S. Secretary of State and the U.S. National Security legal advisor that there is no need for further deliberation or high-level review so long as the “collateral damage” is within the limits deemed acceptable by the government.

Here in the U.S. a “kill chain” has been established for identifying potential terrorist targets, in particular in countries such as Yemen and Somalia with whom we are not at war, and for authorizing drone strikes against them. The diagram below describes the process the U.S. says they use to move from selecting a target to striking that target. It’s a two-step process:

Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) Operations

Regarding Britain, at the time we made our film, which we completed in August 2015, their military had not yet targeted a British citizen, and a clear protocol for dealing with targeted assassinations had not been established. The U.S. on the other hand first targeted one of their own citizens using a drone in 2011 in Yemen. Anwar Al-Awalaki was killed using a hellfire missile. His 16-year-old son was “accidentally” killed a few weeks later. Six months after we completed filming “Eye in the Sky,” the British did in fact target one of their own citizens.

In a 2015 article entitled “Britain conducts a drone assassination,” The Economist headlined how the United Kingdom would be extending drone attacks “but will not be imitating America.” As you see in the film — without at least a tenuous legal structure, such as the one used by the United States — the British appear to approach any decision to eliminate a “High Value Individual” (HVI) on a more case-by-case basis. As in the film, such decisions, especially in a “friendly country” such as Kenya, will likely be referred up all the way to the attorney general and even the prime minister.

DL: The film also depicts the glibness of the American leaders with the excruciating moral struggle faced by the drone pilot charged with actually pressing the button. How did your conversations with drone pilots inform this aspect of the film?

GH: Through conversations with drone pilots and military officers with leading roles in the drone program, I came to understand that approximately 25 to 30 percent of drone pilots leave the program within a few years — and that many suffer from significant psychological trauma. It is now well documented that drone pilots and sensor operators suffer a far higher rate of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder than traditional fighter pilots. A more accurate diagnosis than PTSD is probably “Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress,” also known as Participation-Induced Traumatic Stress. Unlike PTSD — which typically involves surviving a situation in which you fear for your life, or at least fear you will be severely injured — PITS occurs when the symptoms of PTSD are caused by the act of killing, or the participation in similar horrific violence. Drone pilots do not experience physical fear for their lives. They sit in trailers thousands of miles away from the “kill zone.” But unlike other decision-makers up the “kill chain,” they literally “pull the trigger” that releases the missile, meaning that despite being far away from the battle field, they feel “directly involved in killing.” Sometimes they silently watch a target for weeks. And once the missile has been launched, they remain on target to record the body count and the injured. And then, after a 12-hour-plus shift, they go home and often cannot discuss the classified events of the day with their families. It’s a recipe for extreme stress.

Pilots in the film Eye in the Sky

It’s also worth pointing out that a pilot is not obliged to follow an order to release his or her missile if he or she believes that the order they are being given is in any way “illegal.” Indeed any military officer is obliged to challenge an order that may be illegal. This is not something we imagine to be true from popular films. We imagine orders must be obeyed. But of course if a pilot could say he was simply “following orders” as a defense to a war crime, no one could ever be charged with a war crime. There would be no Nuremberg. All Nazis were “following orders.”

There is a great line in the film when Aaron Paul, playing Pilot Steve Watts, says: “I am the pilot in command responsible for releasing the weapon. I have the right to ask for the CDE to be run again. I will not release my weapon until that happens.” That line is not an invention of the writer. That’s a line we were told pilots are trained to say when they genuinely believe — based on what they are seeing on their screens — a target has been incorrectly identified or that excessive collateral damage will likely result and a higher authorization to strike is required.

I don’t know how many pilots have ever used this line. I only met one who had used it and gotten away with it. Flying over Iraq, he said he was ordered to pull the trigger on a target that he knew “in his gut” was not a military one — and he said so. He told me: “I didn’t care at that moment whether I stayed in the Air Force or not. I just couldn’t pull the trigger, so I pushed back.” He said he was yelled at by a general to follow his order but he stood his ground. And he’s glad he did because when the situation was reviewed two weeks later, he turned out to be right. “No-one apologized,” he said. “It all just “‘went away.’” That’s essentially the story we put in the film.

DL: One of the last scenes in the film involves al-Shabaab members, who had previously played a menacing role, assisting desperate civilians. These men are generally portrayed purely as villains. Can you talk about the decision to complicate that typical narrative?

GH: It seems to me that our species exhibits a strange duality. On the one hand, we are capable of horrendous acts of aggression and violence; on the other, we occasionally reveal a deeply felt capacity for genuine compassion and kindness. Our history as a species is a continual pushing and pulling between these extremes. When we see someone as less than human, when we dehumanize them, we are more easily able to hurt or even kill them. But when we see “the other” as more “like us” — as a fellow human being — we are more inclined to drop everything and help them. I think that’s what’s going on in the scene you describe.

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