Posted by Eddie Bejarano on May 28, 2015 in Blog

Good_Kill_poster.jpg'Good Kill' is one of what is sure to be a wave of stories waiting to be told about the new paradigm of U.S. military engagement. The film captures with almost documentary-like attention the intricacies of Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) or 'drone' warfare as well as the challenges facing the men and women that remote pilot those aircraft.

The film carries the typical hallmarks of a war film: combat fatigue, disagreement over the merits of orders, trouble readjusting away from the battlefield, and the struggle of maintaining relationships with loved ones back home. 'Good Kill reveals how the 'combat' is experienced through a computer monitor with the only feedback coming through a desktop mounted joystick and the silent bloom of an explosion 7000 miles away in Afghanistan flowering in color on the video screens. The UAV teams sit in air-conditioned trailers on an airbase in Nevada with F-16 fighter jets mothballed in hangars nearby. Kill orders come via manila folder or speakerphone, and printouts of the targets' faces are taped between the displays. Between drone strikes the operators break for lunch, and at the end of the day take the freeway back home to their families.

In a Q&A following a screening of the film in Washington DC last week, director Andrew Niccol shared that the Air Force chose to house the base in Nevada specifically due to its similarity to the Afghan landscape. According to the former pilots with whom he consulted for the film, training for UAV teams involved tracking motorists driving along Nevada area highways.

While the Nevada topography looks similar to that of Afghanistan and other post-9/11 battlefields, the men and women at the helm of these aircraft are in distinctly different circumstances than their brothers-in-arms with boots on the ground halfway around the world. Tom Egan, played by Ethan Hawke, a former F-16 pilot and veteran of 6 tours, continuously pleads with his commanding officer to get back in a real cockpit, for what he sees as real combat. The difficulties of combat and the mental cost of taking lives takes a serious toll on Egan and the other UAV pilots but the accompanying personal risk experienced by deployed soldiers is absent. Egan at one point says he feels like a coward for the way in which his war is now playing out.

For many Americans, the film will fill in much of the detail behind the headlines about drone strikes. In this sense, aside from any of its artistic successes or failures, 'Good Kill' will inform the public and help drive a conversation about the ways in which the United States fights its wars.

The legality and ethics of drone warfare continue to be hotly debated. While drones provide a financially sustainable military option as opposed to larger aircrafts or troops, their efficiency in the field of battle is questionable at best. Some human rights groups have estimated that the civilian-to-combatant death ratio when drones are used is as high as 50:1. Thousands of innocent women, children, and men in various countries across the world have been lost because of drones. The number of combatants killed pales in comparison.

Many of those killed in the strikes are not the principle targets but are considered ‘collateral damage’ by the U.S. military. The definition of who is a legitimate target is brought up in the film and continues to be a topic of debate among policymakers in Washington. The tremendous civilian loss caused by drone strikes is repeatedly cited as a significant international grievance with U.S. foreign policy. The U.S. will consistently face an uphill battle in demonstrating to the world that it truly respects international law when the loss of civilian life is rationalized in the name of national security.

By and large, the United States is the most prolific user of armed drones in the modern battlefield, but other nations may soon join the fray. Earlier this year, the State Department announced that the U.S. would now allow for the sale of armed drones to allied countries. As part of this process, potential buyers need to meet a rigorous standard, requiring that they hold a flawless record of respecting international human rights and humanitarian law. The paradox is that the United States would not qualify as a potential buyer if it applied the same standard to itself.

Following the release of ‘Good Kill’, both the American public and elected officials must push for more debate about the use of drones, both internationally and domestically. The U.S. Congress continues to debate the use of enhanced interrogation techniques, the legality of surveillance and the militarization of local law enforcement officials. It is within this context that lawmakers must be pushed to debate the long-term effectiveness of drones as a foreign policy tool as well as the morality of their use. 

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