Our recent strategy in the War on Terror is similar to our strategy in Vietnam: keep killing the enemy until there are none left. That strategy didn’t work in Vietnam, and it’s not working today. The Taliban have made a comeback in Afghanistan, and Daesh now control large parts of Syria and Iraq. Is it time for our policymakers to try something else?
This question is posed by the recent film, Good Kill, written and directed by Andrew Niccol. It tells the story of Thomas Egan (Nathan Hawke), an Air Force pilot who has been reassigned to being a drone pilot. After two children are inadvertently killed in a drone attack, he begins to have doubts about his job. The emotional stress that Egan is under starts to cause strains in his marriage to Molly (January Jones).
Things get worse when Egan’s group is placed under the direct control of the CIA, whose rules of engagement are looser than those of the military. They have a policy of a “double tap”: firing a missile at the first responders to an attack, on the theory that most such people are likely terrorists themselves. The CIA considers it an acceptable risk that innocent people will almost certainly get killed. The characters argue about this. Egan’s fellow crew member, Vera (Zoë Kravitz), makes the case that drone attacks are causing people to side with the terrorists, while Egan’s commanding officer, Col. Johns (Bruce Greenwood) makes the “we can’t risk losing one American’s life” argument. The debate is never resolved one way or another. At the end, however, when Egan literally walks away from his job, it’s clear that we’re expected to see this as a moral redemption for Egan. Although it seems an empty victory, since we know that the military will simply replace him with somebody else.
Good Kills is a well-made film that raises a number of troubling questions, but its feel-good ending cant’t conceal the fact that it doesn’t offer any answers.