The movie GoodKill follows a military pilot fighter (Ethan Hawke) returning from combat zone to his home near Las Vegas, Nevada. While experiencing an emerging survivor guilt, his military unit at home begins to operate unmanned drones in Afghanistan in order to eliminate possible terrorists. By following the protagonist reflecting on the moral justification of his doings, the movie shines light on the subjective experiences of the people who work as soldiers in order to protect their country.
There’s a certain group of people who go to the military because it seems to be the most promising option for their future. If there aren’t enough resources at their home – neither in their families, their social class or their homeland –, enterying the military appears advantageous. It does not only free their families from a burden – the military offers them money, an education, and job perspectives – but at the same time, it also provides them a huge moral incentive and purpose for their lives, an increase of reputation: to serve their homeland. The whole concept of entering the military is deeply morally charged for them on various levels.
In the case of GoodKills protagonist, the viewer doesn‘t exactly know the previous history of Major Thomas Egan. What we do know is, that he’s having troubles because he feels that this moral justification is questioned by the change of type of the missions he is participating in. Having been a fighter pilot in combat zones, the fact that he was risking his own life fighting, and maybe (purely speculative) thinking that his enemies had fairer chances in the conflict of killing or being killed, gave him a moral justification to do what he was ordered to do.
In this new scenario, where he is sitting with his military unit in an airconditined container somewhere in the surroundings of Las Vegas, Nevada, this moral justification is taken away from him. There are various sarcastic comments about shooting people, finishing at business hours and getting home to the wife and kids to have barbecues, or various allusions to joysticks, or first person shooter video games. What for the other combatants is a joke, in Thomas Egans eyes, these comments only enforce his scepticism and amplify his survivor guilt.
Additionally to this change of the location of the operations, there is a change of command in the unit of Egan. His superior describes it with the words: They [the CIA] progressed from what they like to call a personality strike, where we know for sure that our target is a fucking bad guy. Now they’ve come up with something that they call a signature strike. What that fucking means is, that it is a hit based not on a suspicion of guilt, but on a pattern of behavior. So you may be called upon to fire at any dumb in Warziristan who is carrying an AK 47. Even though we all know that everyone and their mother in Waziristan carries an AK 47.
The most striking term in this quote is a pattern of behavior, an allusion to psychological research and statistical analyses. One of the most basic forms of statistical analyses of behavior (and one of the most used) is linear regression. By using mathematical means in order to make the best possible prediction about the connection of two variables with each other, it is tried to find the best mathematical method of connecting them via a line. In other words: How can we find out certain aspects or behaviors of persons, that, in the past, were linked with other persons who commited terrorist acts, in order to identify future terrorists? Which statistical variables (carrying a gun, visiting a certain house, to be of a certain age, gender, political opinion) have the best predictive value in order to predict whether a specific person will commit a terrorist act? I’m pretty sure that the CIA will have advanced methods of data analysis then the pretty simple linear regression analyses. But still: These statistical analyses only can indicate relationships (based on past data), not causalities. Statistical analyses implicate relationships based on numbers and figures, not on aspects of the content of the variable.
In this context, the military language in this movie is also remarkable. Targets, proportionate strikes – these terms seem (and intend) to express that the decisions that are made – which are human, evaluations of impending danger, subjective interpretations based on statistical data – rather appear as objective, even scientific statements, in order to reduce or distribute the individual subjective responsibility for the actions. It is implied that these decisions stem from a scientific certainty. But this certainty does not exist. And Major Thomas Egan begins to get a notion of this.
It is so easy to judge on the basis of a Hollywood movie. I’m not saying that the movie is a realistic depiction of what is going on – I’m not in an informed position to judge (and yet I’m supposed to be an informed voter on similar topics in my country). Especially the characteristics of modern warfare- without announcements, no confrontation of two identifiable professional armys, but paramilitary groups acting in spontaneous and desorganized ways, not distinguishing between military and civil population – have to be taken into consideration. One might just as well dismiss the whole movie as an anti-war hippie leftist intellectual feelgood movie, or an populist conciliation movie for the guilt-feeling audience to have something to be upset about (and then go on with their everyday life, reliefed for the feeling that – at least – they reflected critically on the topic). And I wouldn’t exclude myself from that.
But what this movie illustrates imho is not only the question of war, the question of whether there is a concept like a „just war“, or „proportionate actions“. To me, on the one hand it’s about how authority, the use of de-subjectivication, the pretense, that science is absolutely objective, are used in the movie in order to manipulate people. On the other hand, it’s about the deeply subjective perception of an individual standing in the middle of so much noise, so much information, and so little certainty. Trying to make sense of it, and trying to find a position of his own.
To find more information about the actual practise of drone strikes in the USA, check out the New York Times article from earlier this year.
Another detailed review of GoodKill can be found here.
GoodKill offers reflections on the use of scientific findings in the context of war, on the way military language tries to reason subjective decisions with allegedly objective scientific certainties, and how the wish to identify with his job on a moral level affects an individual soldier.
Sources images: imdb.com