Some Ramblings - Eye in the sky (2016) by Srinivas Kanchibhotla
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One of the most enduring images captured by the White House official photographer during the Obama's presidency is one where all the important heads from the executive and the military squeezed in a tiny space in the Situation Room were watching intently at the television screen in front witnessing live the adventurism of Seal Team Six barging into an impenetrable compound on that fateful night in Abbottabad, Pakistan to capture the most wanted man in U.S. history. The faces of the people in the picture, wearing different shades of pensive, said it all, with Hillary hand over her mouth, Obama leaning in hands on his knees, Biden forehead knotted with deep creases, Bob Gates expressionless as always and the military chiefs, all stern and stoic. What is even more amazing that this act of witnessing military action from thousands of miles away live, is the fact that Obama walked into this room straight from the Annual Correspondents dinner event, a get together hosted by the print and electronic media journalists every year for a night of jokes, laughter and blowing off the steam. After the President delivered his stand up routine, ribbing all and sundry, he marched straight into the Situation Room and watched Osama Bin Laden shot straight through the eyes and the chest, endiing years of futile searches and false alarms. Welcome to this latest edition of the battle front where enemies and neutralized with pin point precision from thunderbolts delivered from the sky straight to the doorstep using drones and laser guided missiles. The ironic thing is, this delivery system, the drone and the missile, the most sophisticated weaponry system every invented by man, is the easy part. Once the coordinates are fed into the system, a squeeze of the trigger from a remote location would let loose the missile from the wing of the drone hovering miles above the sky, and guides it to the spot illuminated by a laser to deliver the payload with amazing accuracy. And in less than a minute's time, with the victims not even aware of what hit them, the missile would explode in a fireball to create a crater, consuming everything in its blast radius. As said, this is the easy part.

The hardest part is the one that happens prior to the squeezing the trigger - the need for the drone first and the ramifications of the strike after. Because, however precise the honing of the missile, by virtue of the payload factor there is always the situation where the actual radius of the blast is going to be greater than the intended area, and that means, annihilating not just the terrorists holed up in a place, but also innocent civilians around that area. And this decision has to happen in real time, where the ones deiciding to let loose the weapon are actually looking down through very high resolution drone cameras at the area of impact and still go through with the decision, inspite of the unwitting collateral around. Playing God is not just about the power to strike at all, it is about living with the consequences of dealing with the collateral kill.

'Eye in the sky' is one of most taut thrillers made on the machinations that lead up to the release of the Hellfire missile from the Reaper drone. It is about the politics that shirks from the accountability, it is about the ethics that fudges the impact probabilities and it it about the morality (and the humanity) of knowingly unleashing hell on unwitting civilians, whose destinies intertwined with the fates of the terrorists in that unfortunate moment. The news that a drone missile struck a marriage party in the Taliban stronghold in Afghanistan, instantly killing tens of dozens of people, many of whom were women and children, along with a few terrorists, and the quick followup apology tendered by the President of US to the President of Afghanistan, followed by another strike a few days later in the same region aimed at another terror conclave, reveal the pathological problem with such surgical strikes, that no matter how precise the science is in pinpointing the kill zone, as long as the terrorists keep using civilian areas for meeting and launching strikes from, the blood of the innocent caught in the crosshairs cannot be washed off by all the remorses and the apologies and the compensations in the world. And ironically, the statements of the injured victims, civilian till then, that they would pick up the arms and join the fight against the oppressors for killing their innocent brethren, raises questions about the efficacy of these strikes. If it is termed 'murder', the killing of the innocent, the administration remains as much culpable as the terrorists and no sides gets to claim moral superiority over the other in any way.

From the Iraq war, when drones were kept to a minimum, down to the current multi front war on terror spanning several countries and continents, where the administration has gone trigger happy on the drone strikes, the reasoning has always been, 'no boots on the ground', which is just another way of saying, none of our blood, even if it meant lot of someone else's. In order to drum up the public support over the extensive usage and over reliance of the cold killing machines, the military opened its doors to the news media hoping for favorable stories about the whole program, and giddy with up close access to such restricted material, the media obliged the military touting the drone technology as a new breakthrough in the war on terror - a bloodless solution, of sorts, a blessing from heaven for the military families, where going to war in a remote location in a far flung country meant clocking in the shift at the restricted air force base in Nevada, walking into an air conditioned container facility, taking seat before a bank of gigantic computer screens and squeezing the trigger on a joystick ever so slightly a few times during the work hours, clocking out the shift a few hours later, and returning to their loving ones at the end of the day. Sure, drones have made the mechanics of war much simpler, but what about the psychological impact on the ones squeezing the soft triggers, watching in front of their eyes lives around the target going about their ways unmindful of the plans of mayhem hatched in the illuminated area, and the very next minute, their fates going up in same flames as the evil-planners? And to play the same executioner's role day after day after day...

On the other side of the decision process is the political machine which wants to have it both ways - claim all the credit for taking out the terrorists, and yet distance itself instantly in cases of incalculable collateral damage. The sequence in the movie when a British General tries to get an authorization for the strike than involves an American national, and the mad scrambling between various departments of the two countries with no one department willing to 'own' the strike, in case something goes wrong, and everyone passing on the 'authorization buck' to the next one, reminds of the great farcical roundtable sequence in 'Dr. Strangelove' - another tale of man's fascination with remote weapons of mass destruction. 'Eye in the sky' in not a pacifist or an anti-war movie, it is about how humanity struggles to surivive amid the crushing weight of the heartless apparatus, political and military included.

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