The stories of the soldiers and service members of the 20th century are very familiar, the typical themes having been told and retold in so many books and films that they are now embedded in US culture and consciousness. But what about the lives of the men and women who today engage the computer consoles of our remote-controlled war machine? How does it feel to be a US Air Force pilot launching death and destruction halfway across the world in the morning before swinging by your kid’s soccer practice in the afternoon? Despite mediareports of unique mental and emotional pressures, the drama of the drone warrior, far removed from that of the grunt in the trenches, is still largely a mystery.
That’s beginning to change. Good Kill, directed by Andrew Niccol (The Truman Show, Gattaca, Lord of War), is based on the real experiences of drone operators and effectively brings to life the inner conflicts and insidious risks of waging war abroad without ever leaving home. Playing Maj. Tommy Egan, an F-16 fighter pilot assigned to operate CIA drones at a base outside Las Vegas, Ethan Hawke offers a compelling performance of a career military man tortured by complex guilt. In between targeted killing in Central Asia, Egan soaks himself in vodka and self-loathing and can barely sleep.
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Hawke’s character appears to struggle not only with depression, but also with a condition some psychologists and military officers call “moral injury”: a psychological reaction to severe moral transgression when deeply held beliefs and expectations of “what’s right” clash with the reality of something gone very wrong. Moral injury appears to be qualitatively different from post-traumatic stress disorder, although there are some psychologists who believe it’s a subtype of PTSD. The stress and anxiety particular to drone pilots, unlike a fighter pilot evading hostiles or a soldier ducking in a trench, appear to stem not from their fear of imminent death, but from the intense moral conflict inherent to their role. The only armor these warriors must take into battle is psychological; defense mechanisms replace helmets.
By all accounts, operating armed drones is, paradoxically, a very intimate killing experience. Egan and his colleagues follow people’s “patterns of life” over days and weeks with high-precision infrared video cameras while they wait for orders from the CIA to fire in the vicinity of innocent civilians. As Egan is repeatedly ordered to track, engage and then count bodies in the gruesome aftermath of the destruction he has caused, the conflict between his responsibilities at work and his responsibilities to humanity begin to tear him apart.
While an imperfect film that occasionally veers headlong into cliché and oversimplification, Good Kill presents some of the best critiques of the drone program many audience members are likely to see and hear. Unsurprisingly, the US Department of Defense declined to provide Good Kill the free material support that it often gives feel-good military films like Top Gun; the Pentagon typically offers this valuable assistance via Phil Strub, its longtime point man for cinematic propaganda, in exchange for detailed script doctoring.
Challenging Articles of Faith
Egan’s wife (played by “Mad Men” actress January Jones) could be speaking on behalf of the American people when, frustrated and alienated from his experience, but still hoping to be supportive, she asks her suffering husband, “You’re still making people safer, right?” The doublethink she expresses describes one of the fundamental articles of faith on which the drone program rests. Yet there is little clarity about how many suspected “high-level” terrorists are actually being killed due to the secretive nature of the program and the “imperfect best guess” intelligence that strikes are based on (a 2012 Stanford/New York University report estimated that a full 2 percent of those killed by US drones in Pakistan were “high-level” targets).
There’s also the high likelihood that the US drone war in Asia and Africa is actually increasing the number of terrorist groups and aiding their recruitment efforts, a view taken by an internal CIA analysis published by WikiLeaks. As for what everyday people think, Americans have been very supportive of the drone program in recent years, at least as measured by the faith-based questions asked by pollsters; the rest of the world is not a big fan.
Good Kill also challenges the questionable declaration made by US officials that drone operators are authorized to fire missiles only in circumstances where there is “near certainty” that no innocent civilians will be killed by the strike. In reality, true adherence to this principle is extremely unlikely, and we know that thousands of civilians – meaning members of families, including small children, who were simply minding their own business – have already been killed by US drones. In fact, the Obama administration’s no-innocents-will-be-deliberately-harmed claim is the same public relations tactic used to gain support for all modern US wars. US officials have previously acknowledged using “a macabre kind of calculus” in order to answer moral and legal questions about the maximum number of innocent civilians who may be deliberately killed in any strike.
The Obama administration does not publicly acknowledge that it has killed thousands of civilians with drone strikes. With impressive contempt for the truth, it claims that all of the military-age males killed with drones were, by definition, enemy combatants unless posthumous evidence proves otherwise. At the same time, the administration keeps the official numbers of civilians it has killed with drones top secret. So for anyone paying attention, the White House has barely any credibility when discussing the facts of drone warfare. Good Kill may be fiction, but, ironically, it gives a better sense of the workings and effects of the actual US drone program than has been offered so far by government officials.
The US government reportedly intends to keep adding names to its kill lists for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, the Air Force is now training more drone pilots than traditional fighter pilots. At the same time, many drone operators are not renewing their contracts and recruiters are having a hard time meeting demand, so they have started recruiting kids at gaming conferences. “Telewarfare” appears to be the new normal.
Interestingly, at the same time that Good Kill is being released, a one-woman play called “Grounded” at the Public Theater in New York City (written by George Brant, directed by Julie Taymor and starring Anne Hathaway) is also attempting to articulate the moral conundrums and life difficulties of “driving to war,” as Hathaway’s nameless character puts it. (Both Hawke and Hathaway interviewed former drone operators – some of whom have come forward to publicly criticize the drone program – in preparation for their roles.)
This technically innovative stage version of the drone pilot dilemma feels like it takes place inside of an enormous sandbox, with the edgy narrative of Hathaway’s fighter pilot enhanced by all manner of thrilling audiovisual effects, creating a spectacular three-dimensional dreamscape manifesting her identity and role in the world. She scoffs at the idea that she is an Odysseus who comes home to dinner every night and puts her child to bed – yet the real tragedy may be that she is also a Cyclops. As with Egan, her marriage begins to fall apart as a direct result of fighting a remote-controlled war, one in which – she reminds herself more than once – “the threat of death has been removed.” Her character wonders why, since she’s not in any physical danger at the console, her pulse quickens and her anxiety shoots through the roof. Like Egan, she struggles with intense guilt over condemning innocent people and watching them be torn to shreds, makes an enormous effort to shake it off, becomes almost obsessed with being watched herself and spirals down into psychological chaos.
The power to observe the private lives of others from afar without risk to the self taps into certain voyeuristic impulses that may be universal. When that unchecked power comes with the ability to annihilate and incinerate at will, with only a 10-second delay between trigger and explosion (make sure those kids don’t run into the crosshairs at the last second), the realm of the humane has been abandoned. Drone pilots find themselves in the unenviable position of playing not heroes, but flawed demigods who watch intensely from Olympus while being handed lightning bolts by a Zeus who also decides which hapless mortals they must target. And herein lies their psychological drama, and their tragedy, and why they also deserve our sympathy. Despite being far away from the physical violence they unleash, they are not safe.
Good Kill (Voltage Pictures) hits US theaters May 15.