Film

Hollywood does drones in “Good Kill,” but misses the larger point

Photo: U.S. Navy

Popular culture is educative. It is one of the major sources shaping how people come to understand the societies in which they live. This is why the left needs to take popular culture seriously. One recent work of popular culture that should garner attention from anti-imperialists is the film Good Kill. Yet there has been very little discussion of the movie in left-leaning circles.

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Directed by Andrew Niccol, Good Kill tells the story of Thomas Egan (Ethan Hawke), a major in the United States military played. Egan, a quiet alcoholic who is having problems at home, carries out drone strikes in Afghanistan and Yemen from a base in Nevada. Doing so makes him feel cowardly, and he is anxious to return to flying missions in war zones. Based on actual events that took place in 2010, the film is about the moral reckoning the drone strikes present to Egan and Airman Vera Suarez (Zoë Kravitz).

Although Good Kill is critical of the U.S. drone program, its politics have major shortcomings. The film focuses on how members of the U.S. military are hurt by the damage they do on behalf of the elites in an aggressive, imperialist state. Only cursory attention is given to reflections on how the people subject to these attacks endure them.

At no point does anyone from Afghanistan or Yemen utter a line. The only time persons from either country appear on screen is when they are seen through the cameras mounted on drones. All viewers know about the Afghanis and Yemenis comes from what U.S. military personnel says about them. Thus the people subject to skyborne U.S. terror are not characters; they are merely conduits for the ethical dilemmas of the people attacking them.

Even in the context of a movie that focuses on people in the U.S. military, this problem can easily be rectified. For example, in a few strategic places the film could have included footage or text of statements from survivors of drone attacks or relatives of the dead such as the powerful 2013 congressional testimony given by the family of Momina Bibi, a 67-year-old midwife murdered in a U.S. drone strike.

Good Kill, however, deserves praise for showing that the U.S. military deliberately kills civilians. Particularly commendable is the attention it gives to the United States’ double-tap policy. A double tap occurs when a drone attack is followed by a second strike moments later that is directed at anybody who has gone to the scene of the first strike to aid the victims.

Moreover, one of the central points made in the film is that military servicepersons are not absolved of war crimes by the “just following orders” defence. In this sense, Good Kill encourages members of the armed forces to disobey their commanders and praises those who have. Yet here we also run up against the film’s limitations.

While it presents members of the military who resist as noble, it portrays such acts as futile: the film’s conclusion implies that, acts of rebellion aside, the drone program will continue uninhibited. That protest produces not even the faintest hope of reigning in these attacks suggests that drone attacks are inevitable and there is no point in opposing them.

Still, the film does effectively make clear the racist nature of U.S.-led wars through the frequent Islamophobic remarks made by peripheral characters who work with Egan and Suarez. It also provides an account of the gendered nature of the harm done by Western foreign policy. Molly Egan (January Jones) suffers because of her husband’s difficulties. Suarez has to listen to sexist jokes made by her fellow drone operators. An Afghan woman is raped by an Afghan man; that he is armed but not considered a target by the drone operators suggests he is a U.S. ally. And when Egan decides to try to defy policy and stop the woman’s attacker, he nearly kills her. In these ways, the film portrays U.S. militarism less favourably than many pop culture representations, which is important and helpful.

Good Kill, however, fails to interrogate U.S. imperialism as a whole. Though Lt. Colonel Jack Johns questions the legitimacy of bombing Yemen, nothing in the film suggests that the war in Afghanistan ought to be opposed altogether. While the movie is critical of drone strikes that kill civilians, it suggests that assassinations of people suspected of being militant opponents of the United States are ethically and legally acceptable, not a form of extrajudicial murder.

Accordingly, Good Kill is anti-drone but not anti-imperialist or anti-war. It fixates on drones in a way that implies that the principal issue with U.S. foreign policy is its delivery mechanism. In actuality, the problem is that the United States and its allies slaughter and dominate people around the globe in pursuit of profit, and nobody should think that this would be more palatable if it were done exclusively using aircraft that have a human in the cockpit.

Drones may, as the film suggests, be particularly odious because their operators face zero danger while they kill poor people. But the conventional air forces of the United States, Canada and their allies face few risks as well: the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Yemen aren’t exactly flush with the world’s most sophisticated anti-aircraft technology. Opposing drone strikes means little when this is not linked to a broader critique of imperialism and, on this score, Good Kill comes up terribly short.

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