Over at the LA Review of Books Will Govinsky has a fine essay on Eye in the Sky called ‘The beauty of an imperial dilemma‘. It begins with the image of a French gunboat firing shots into the African rainforest from Joseph Conrad‘s Heart of Darkness:
The ship’s absurdly one-sided battle becomes, for Marlow, an emblem of pointless, indiscriminate imperial violence: “[T]here she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent.”
Will’s point is about the parallel between the anonymity of imperial violence in the African rainforest and the anonymity of the US (un)targeted killing program:
The chilling anonymity of this “targeted” drone program’s victims, crossed with the sanguine official line, again recalls Conrad’s French warship. “There was a touch of insanity in the proceeding,” Marlow says, which “was not dissipated by somebody on board assuring me earnestly there was a camp of natives — he called them enemies! — hidden out of sight somewhere.”
Conrad’s critique of European imperial violence moves with notorious swiftness from the opacity of the victim to the opacity at the heart of the colonizer. Marlow does not know who exactly are the victims of the French warship’s shells, but Conrad’s racism, as Chinua Achebe famously argued, precludes his narrator from caring that much. Marlow’s concern is not for the mangled bodies on the receiving end of colonial violence, but for the deplorable madness at the heart of the imperialist himself.
As I’ve described elsewhere, the genealogy can be traced across multiple theatres. Here, for example, is Arnold Bennett on the Western Front:
And here is Frederic Downs describing a US artillery bombardment in Vietnam – Francis Ford Coppola‘s setting for Heart of Darkness – in terms which loop back directly to Will’s (Conrad’s) point about anonymity, impersonality and the madness of it all:
The coordinates for that location and the time for firing would be relayed to the gun crews. At the specified time, the gun crews would be awakened. Perhaps it would be just after midnight. As the minutes ticked closer to a time set by an unknown intelligence the men would load the artillery pieces, anticipating the release of their impersonal death into a grid square. The gun commander would give the order to fire and the night would explode with man’s lightning and thunder. After the prescribed rounds, the guns would cease, the cleanup would begin, and the men would go back to their bunks. Thinking what? Within the range of those guns, within a specified area, the Central Highlands had for a brief moment changed from the jungle it had been for thousands of years into the particular insanity of man.
In these two cases, clearly, the gunners were firing blind – but what lay behind their guns was a stream of co-ordinates.
This raises two issues that bear directly on the use of today’s remote platforms.
The first is about the ethics of killing at a distance which, as Will notes, also has a (far longer) genealogy. He cites Chateaubriand‘s question – ‘If, merely by wishing it, you could kill a man in China and inherit his fortune in Europe, being assured by supernatural means that the deed would remain forever unknown, would you allow yourself to form that project?’ – and explains that ‘killing the mandarin’ became shorthand in French for committing ‘an evil action in the hope that it will remain unknown.’
But the US targeted killing program is hardly unknown, and my own preference – which turns out to be closely related to tuer le mandarin – is to turn to Denis Diderot:
The intimate connection between distance and blindness can be read again and again in accounts of bombing during the Second World War, most directly here:
But again, what lay behind ‘the distance and the blindness’ was a stream of intelligence.
Recognising the importance of those intelligence streams – and conceding that ‘crunching petabytes of metadata just wouldn’t make for good cinema’ – Will’s key point (and the second issue) is that in its representation of a drone strike in East Africa Eye in the Sky artfully reverses Conrad’s trope:
It asks what we would do if we knew everything. In a taut 102 minutes, the film condenses the ambiguities of drone warfare into a balance sheet of nigh certainties.
In a fine passage, he suggests the film offers the fantasy
of perfect, visual knowledge — a platform for the terrible beauty of a globe-girdling ethical dilemma. Poised, confident, her silver hair luminescent in the metallic grey-blue glow of her theater-like command center, [Helen] Mirren’s Col. Powell gathers up in her steely 10,000-mile stare the awful knowledge of her options.
But – as I argued in my own commentary on Eye in the Sky – this is indeed a fantasy. The video feeds from remote platforms do not render the battle space transparent, and the make-believe that they do, Will concludes, renders the film ‘less a representation of drone warfare than a grotesque abstraction of it.’ Hence his brilliantly sobering conclusion:
We need plots that provide the narrative space to ask questions: whether the very terms of our dilemmas are spurious; whether firing into continents, day in and day out, can be anyone’s prerogative, let alone ours.