Memorial Day seems a fitting time to review the movie “Goodkill,” now playing in theaters around the country. The movie, based on actual events, portrays a morally-conflicted and psychologically-tormented operator of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or “drones”), played by Ethan Hawke.
Even though the plot includes some obvious Hollywood enhancements, it presents some basic facts about drone warfare, facts that are little known to the U.S. public. For instance, drone operators accidentally kill civilians, but sometimes see that civilians (including children) are present and proceed (or are ordered to proceed) anyway. “Signature strikes” do not target individually-recognized terrorists, but groups that fit a particular profile. A “double tap” means that after a drone attack, a second drone targets rescue workers or people attending the funeral of victims from the first attack.
The movie allows the viewer to enter into the discordant life of a drone “pilot” — wearing your flight suit even though you’re not going to fly, entering the cramped but air-conditioned “cockpit,” holding joysticks and looking at computer monitors, endlessly watching people thousands of miles away, being given the order to strike a particular target whether you think it’s right or not, calling “goodkill” when a target is obliterated, stepping out after a shift into the sunlight and driving home to your family, not being able to talk about it without breaking security clearance, silently processing what you have done.
Several drone pilots in the movie clearly believe that they are “protecting American lives” and congratulate each other when they are successful in their targeted killings. The commander, played by Bruce Greenwood, struggles with the morality of some of the killings, but articulates the official view. He says to the trainees: “Do any of you think that if we stop killing them, they’ll stop killing us? No way. That’s not going to happen. So we can’t stop.” There is one lone voice of conscience, a female drone pilot, asking questions throughout: “So we can never stop?” “Did we just commit a war crime?” “They are 7,000 miles away. What immanent threat could they pose?” She also states the obvious — that we are creating more terrorists through drone attacks.
The Ethan Hawke character brings to life the studies showing that drone operators suffer from stress disorders as much as those in combat do. On this day of remembrance, let us resolve to do everything in our power to end the nightmare of war for military personnel, civilians, and the earth itself. “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.”