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SUBJECTS — U.S. 1991 - Current & War on Terror (Drone Warfare);

Age: 13+; MPAA Rating R for some violent images and language; Drama; 2015, 102 minutes; Color. Available from Amazon.com.

Description: This edge-of-your-seat thriller is the story of a joint British-American drone strike on the Somali extremist group, Al-Shabaab.

Rationale for Using the Movie: Eye in the Sky reveals some of the technology and the ethical complexities of the use of drones in the war on terror. It shows the face of "collateral damage" and allows the audience to observe some of the practical and moral pressures experienced by people at different places in the "kill-chain." Students will identify with people on both sides of the debate over whether to go through with the drone strike. Citizens of a country that for the foreseeable future will fight many of its battles by remote control will benefit by learning about the issues involved in this new type of warfare.

Objectives/Student Outcomes Using this Learning Guide: Students will develop a deep understanding of the meaning of the term "collateral damage." They will discuss and write about: (1) the limits that should be imposed on the use of drones in the war on terror in areas occupied by civilians, including strikes directed at identified individuals planning a terrorist attack as well as the more problematic signature strikes; and (2) the primacy of civilian control over the military.

Possible Problems: The movie focuses on the ethical issues involved in deciding whether or not to conduct the drone strike. However, by the end of the film, many viewers will have decided that it would be better to sacrifice the young girl for the sake of protecting the 80 people who are estimated to be killed if the suicide bombers are allowed to detonate their explosives in a crowded area. Viewers may miss the fact that Colonel Powell secures permission to conduct the strike by convincing one of her technicians to falsify the results of his Collateral Damage Estimate. This is dishonest and effectively takes away from her military superiors and the civilian authorities the power to decide whether or not to authorize the strike. Any use of this film in education should include a discussion of this issue. See Discussion Question #1.

Some students may cry at the tragic end of the film. Have tissues available.

Predator Drone Control Room



Rationale and Objectives
Possible Problems
Parenting Points
Helpful Background
      Thoughts on Drones

Using the Movie in Class:
      Introduction to the Movie
      Discussion Questions


Additional Discussion Questions:
      Subjects (Curriculum Topics)
      Social-Emotional Learning
      Moral-Ethical Emphasis
            (Character Counts)

Other Sections:
      Links to the Internet
      CCSS Anchor Standards
      Selected Awards & Cast

MOVIE WORKSHEETS: TWM offers the following movie worksheets to keep students' minds on the film and to focus their attention on the lessons to be learned from the movie. Teachers can modify the movie worksheets to fit the needs of each class. See also TWM's Historical Fiction in Film Cross-Curricular Homework Project.

Helpful Background

Some Interesting comments about drone warfare that teachers may want to share with their classes:
. . . [T]he United States has gone into the business of robotic assassination big time; . . . we are now the Terminators of Planet Earth, . . . the president [Obama] is openly and proudly an assassin-in-chief with his own global "kill list"; that we have endlessly targeted the backlands of the planet with our (Grim) Reaper and Predator (thank you Hollywood!) drones armed with Hellfire missiles; and that Washington has regularly knocked off women and children while searching for militant leaders and their generic followers? And don't you find it odd that all of this has been done in the name of wiping out the terrorists and their movements, despite the fact that wherever our drones strike, those movements seem to gain in strength and power? 14 Years After 9/11, the War on Terror Is Accomplishing Everything bin Laden Hoped It Would: Al Qaeda goaded us into doing what it had neither the resources nor the ability to do by Tom Engelhardt in The Nation, 9/8/15.
Retired Admiral Dennis Blair, Former Director of National Intelligence, gave this interpretation of the use of drones as a weapon of assassination:
"[W]e should think about drones as long-range snipers in the military sense. For years, the United States and other countries send small teams behind lines in order to try to shoot at forces that are declared hostile connected to the battlefield. And the process for declaring forces hostile and giving snipers a guidance on who they can shoot at and who they can't is a well-known process. It can be made by military commanders [without the intercession of civilian authorities]. "And I don't think it's any different for drones. If we are in a -- if we are fighting in Afghanistan, for example, and we know that across the border in Pakistan there are Taliban groups who are gathering and training, and then I think we could authorize either snipers -- people with rifles -- or drones to shoot at armed men who we see getting into pickup trucks and heading towards the Afghanistan border or who are in a -- in a training exercise because they've been declared hostile, having those characteristics." U.S. Drone Strike Policies a presentation of the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations Media Conference Call, 1/22/2013.
Another writer, describes the hesitations that many feel about the use of drones in these words:
"[T]he real issue is the context of how drones kill. The curious characteristic of drones — and the names ['Predator,' 'Reaper,' and 'Hellfire'] reinforce this — is that they are used primarily to target individual humans, not places or military forces as such. Yet they simultaneously obscure the human role in perpetrating the violence. Unlike a missile strike, in which a physical or geographic target is chosen beforehand, drones linger, looking precisely for a target — a human target. And yet, at the same time, the perpetrator of the violence is not physically present. Observers are drawn toward thinking that it is the Predator that kills [the subject of the strike], or its Hellfire missiles, not the CIA officers who order the weapons' engagement. On the one hand, we have the most intimate form of violence — the targeted killing of a specific person, which in some contexts is called assassination — while on the other hand, the least intimate of weapons.

"This characteristic, the distance between targets and CIA executive officers at Langley, is the defining characteristic of drones. They are the zenith of the technological quest that runs back to the invention of slings and arrows thousands of years ago, efforts of the earliest perpetrators of violence to get away from their victims. That process, which brought catapults and later artillery, reached its first peak with the development of intercontinental nuclear missiles; but those are weapons of limited tactical use and have never been used. Drones allow all the alienation of long-range missions but with much more flexibility and capacity for everyday use. The net result is everyday violence with all the distance and alienation of ICBMs. This is disturbing perhaps because alienation is disturbing.

"The work of animal behaviorists like Konrad Lorenz sheds some light on why. Lorenz—a onetime member of the Nazi party who later renounced his politics and won the Nobel Prize in the 1970s—spent much of his life studying violence in animals. His book On Aggression posited a theory whereby many animals, male and female, have a natural "drive" to be aggressive against opponents, including members of their own species.

"The aggression drive, Lorenz posited, was often limited within species by a "submission" phenomenon, whereby potential victims turn off the aggressive drive in others by displaying signs of submission. In this way, most animal violence is checked before it occurs. Lorenz suggested that in humans, the submission safety valve was blunted by the technological creation of weapons, which emotionally "distanced" the killer from his victim. When a spear or sling is used to kill, victims lose the opportunity to engage in submission and trigger the aggression "off switch." The drone represents an extreme extension of that process. Drones crossed into a new frontier in military affairs: an area of entirely risk-free, remote and even potentially automated killing detached from human behavioral cues.

"Military research seems to back this up. Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, a psychologist and former professor at West Point, has written extensively on the natural human aversion to killing. His 1995 book On Killing contains a collection of accounts from his research and from military history demonstrating soldiers' revulsion with killing—in particular, killing at close range. He tells the story of a Green Beret in Vietnam describing the killing of a young Vietnamese soldier: "I just opened up, fired the whole twenty rounds right at the kid, and he just laid there. I dropped my weapon and cried." The most telling accounts are with the "close" kills of hand-to-hand combat. Grossman tells of a Special Forces sergeant from the Vietnam War describing a close kill: "'When you get up close and personal,' he drawled with a cud of chewing tobacco in his cheek, 'where you can hear 'em scream and see 'em die,' and here he spit tobacco for emphasis, 'it's a bitch.'" A Brief History of Drones by Jonathan Sifton, The Nation, 2/7/2012
The care with which the U.S. government under President Obama makes a decision for a drone strike is described by author Dan Klaigman:
"You know, there is a vigorous, to use the Washington term, interagency process, where individual targets will be nominated. That's the term that the military uses. And then it's subjected to some scrutiny and vetting by various agencies; the Pentagon, the state department, the CIA. The National Security Council's involved. They have these secure videoconferences where these things get debated. Individual cases can be debated for weeks before there's a decision. Do they have the legal justification? Is it the right policy?

"But then ultimately, it goes to John Brennan and to Hoss Cartwright, and they would sometimes disappear into the Oval Office with the president, and the three of them would make the decision. Sometimes the president would scale back the list. And as I said before, occasionally he would widen the aperture, as the military likes to say, and increase the list. But the president also would sometimes have to be pulled out of black tie dinners or John Brennan sometimes would have to interrupt family time with the first lady and his children so that the president could come out and make these grim calls.

"It's quite extraordinary and also extraordinary that the president himself insisted on making the decisions himself. There's some precedent for that. It happens sometimes, but never quite as systematic as in the case of President Obama." Dan Klaigman, author of Kill or Capture interviewed by Neal Conan on NPR, see How The President Decides To Make Drone Strikes, 6/6/2012.
"Absent extraordinary circumstances, direct action against an identified high-value terrorist (HVT) will be taken only when there is near certainty that the individual being targeted is in fact the lawful target and located at the place where the action will occur. Also absent extraordinary circumstances, direct action will be taken only if there is near certainty that the action can be taken without injuring or killing non-combatants. The term ·'non-combatant" does not include an individual who is targetable as part of a belligerent party to an armed conflict, an individual who is taking a direct part in hostilities, or an individual who is targetable in the exercise of national self-defense. . . . " . . .

Lastly. when considering potential direct action against a U.S. person under this PPG, there are additional questions that must be answered. The Depat1ment of Justice (DOJ ). for example. must conduct a legal analysis to ensure that such action may be conducted against the individual consistent with the laws and Constitution of the United States....

1.C.8) The conditions precedent for any operation, which shall include at a minimum the following: (a) near certainty that an identified HVT or other lawful terrorist target other than an identified HVT is present; (b) near certainty that non-combatants will not be injured or killed: (c) [deleted for national security reasons] and (d) if lethal force is being employed: (i) an assessment that capture is not feasible at the time of the operation: (ii) an assessment that the relevant governmental authorities in the country where action is contemplated cannot or will not effectively address the threat to U.S. persons; and (iii) an assessment that no other reasonable alternatives to lethal action exist to effectively address the threat to U.S. persons.

5.B Extraordinary Cases: Variations from the Policy Guidance Otherwise Set Forth in this PPG

Nothing in this PPG shall be construed to prevent the President from exercising his constitutional authority as Commander in Chief and Chief Executive, as well as his statutory authority, to consider a lawful proposal from operating agencies that he authorize direct action that would fall outside of the policy guidance contained herein, including a proposal that he authorize lethal force against an individual who poses a continuing, imminent threat to another country's persons. In extraordinary cases, such a proposal may be brought forward to the President for consideration as follows:
    1) A proposal that varies from the policy guidance contained in this PPG may be brought forward by the Principal of one of the operating agencies through the interagency process described in Section 1 of this PPG, after a separate legal review has been undertaken to determine whether action may be taken in accordance with applicable law.

    2) Where there is a fleeting opportunity, the Principal of one of the operating agencies may propose to the President that action be taken that would otherwise vary from the guidance contained in this PPG, after a separate legal review has been undertaken to determine whether action may be taken in accordance with applicable law.

    3) In all cases, any proposal brought forward pursuant to this subsection must contemplate an operation that is in full compliance with applicable law.

Drones Pro and Con — If we've forgotten anything, email us at support@teachwithmovies.org; we'll consider your suggestions.
Pro: (1) Drone strikes are an effective means of assassinating persons hostile to the interests of the U.S. and its allies. (2) Drone operations are without risk to U.S. military personnel. (3) Drone warfare is inexpensive compared to any other military technology. (4) Drone operations reduce civilian casualties compared to almost all other military operations.

Con: (1) The very inexpensiveness of drone warfare in terms of its lack of risk to U.S. personnel and its economy means that drone warfare can continue indefinitely and be used easily. (2) Backlash from local residents of the areas subjected to drone warfare may make peace even more difficult to achieve. (3) Drone attacks can be used to assassinate people, including U.S. citizens, without the possibility of judicial review or a conviction in a court of law. (4) It is highly questionable whether the U.S. government should be in the business of assassination. (5) Drone warfare is detached, impersonal, and bureaucratic; it removes the personal involvement of the killers in the act of taking a life; while soldiers sent to kill others should be as efficient as possible in that task, there is a question about whether it is a good idea for soldiers to be so completely insulated from the effects of what they are doing that killing becomes like playing a video game.
Note that on the day that an adversary develops the technical expertise to use drone warfare against the U.S. and its allies, the considerations flip, and all the pros turn to cons, and the cons turn to pros.

"Signature strikes," in which groups of people are targeted due to suspicious patterns of behavior as seen from satellites or drones, are the most controversial use of drone warfare by the U.S. government. Signature strikes are used in conflict zones such as Afghanistan and in zones used for staging operations by U.S. adversaries, such as the tribal areas of Pakistan.


Introduction to the Movie

Tell students that it is a basic principal of modern democracies that the military is subordinate to the elected or appointed civilian political leaders; this movie shows some of the tensions in that relationship.

Ensure that students are familiar with the roles of Prime Minister, Foreign Minister, Cabinet Ministers, and Parliament in the government of the United Kingdom, as well as the close relationship between the U.S. and U.K. governments.
Prime Minister: The head of the government, equivalent to a U.S. President, except that he is elected by a a vote of parliament (instead of a direct vote by the people or an "electoral college") and some of the ceremonial duties of the U.S. President are undertaken by the British monarch.

Foreign Minister: The member of the Prime Minister's cabinet in charge of foreign affairs. This position is similar to the U.S. Secretary of State.

Parliament: The law-making body in England. The U.S. Congress was patterned off of the British Parliament.

Minister: A minister is a member of the Prime Minister's cabinet. Similar to a secretary in the cabinet of a U.S. President.
Tell students that the small drones used by the Kenyan security services in the film are still in development by DARPA (the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) which develops cutting edge technology for the U.S. Department of Defense. DARPA, for example, played a leading role in the early development of the Internet. The Reaper drone and Hellfire missiles have been used for over a decade. We don't know whether the image resolution shown in the film can be attained using current technology, but we are not far away from that. The program for estimating casualties from a drone strike has been around for years. The small drones in the shape of a bird or a bug are still in development and are limited primarily because batteries necessary to power them have not yet been invented.

Tell students that the term "Rifle" is from the U.S. military's multi-service tactical brevity code. It means that the pilot has just launched an air-to-surface missile Multi-Service Brevity Codes, a joint publication of the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marines.

Consider having students read one or more of the selections in the Helpful Background Section, above.


Discussion Questions:

After watching the film, engage the class in a discussion about the movie.

1.   What incident occurred in this movie that resulted in the final decision to fire the Hellfire missile from the drone? [Once the class understands that the incident occurred when Colonel Powell pressured her subordinate to falsely state that the chances were less than 50% that the young girl would die in the drone strike, ask:] Was this the right thing to do? Suggested Response: Colonel Powell pressured the man running the CDE [Collateral Damage Estimate] program to say that there was only a 45% probability that the young girl, Alia, would be killed, when in fact both Colonel Powell and technician knew that the likelihood the Alia would die in the drone strike was substantially higher. In other words, Colonel Powell had made a decision that it was worth the life of the young girl to stop the suicide bombers. First, it was dishonest. No large organization with a set of rules can operate properly if they are based on inaccurate data. Second, her actions were undemocratic and subverted the rule of law because whether or not to authorize the zone strike was not her decision to make. This was the decision of the minister in charge of the operation. He had been elected to government and the responsibility for this decision had been delegated to him by the Prime Minister, who also had been elected. It is a fundamental tenet of democratic government that the civilians, not the military, make these kinds of decision. The civilians can only make the decisions if the military give them the correct data. No matter how correct the military (Colonel Powell) might have been in this one situation, the decision was one that only the civilian authorities had the right to make. The movie contains this dialogue
Lieutenant General Benson: Minister, we cannot have military decisions dictated by government committees. Nor can we put on hold a military operation at every stage for legal clarification. You tell us when to go to war, we conduct the war, you deal with the aftermath.

Minister: If only it were that simple.
In conventional warfare, the military has a much freer hand in making tactical decisions. However, when an operation is against targets in a friendly country against which there has been no declaration of war, all of that changes. When citizens of the country conducting the strike, or its allies, will be killed without being convicted of a crime and sentenced to suffer the death penalty, there are additional legal complications for going forward. The minister in this film is right when he says that the situation is not as simple as Lieutenant General Benson would like it to be. While many viewers may agree that the civilian officials shown in this film seem to be unwilling to make hard decisions and able to countenance the death of 80 people for a propaganda advantage, the remedy for this situation is not to lie to them for this one mission, but to vote them out of office. What about the next time when Colonel Powell or any other military commander disagrees with a civilian government official? Good decisions cannot be made when subordinates lie about the reasons to take one course of action or another. When all of this is considered, Colonel Powell should have been court-martialed for providing false information to her superiors.

2.   [Have students read some excerpts from the beginning of the Helpful Background Section or any other appropriate writings and ask:] What is your position on the use of drones by the U.S. in the war on terror? [Another way to ask the question is, "Some believe that America's use of drones is a war crime. Others think it's an effective tactic in the war on terror. What do you think?"] Suggested Response: There is no one correct response. However, anger at terrorists, sheer horror at anonymous death coming from the sky, or any other emotional response should not be the driving factor. Students responding to this question should be encouraged to evaluate the use of drones strategically, tactually, legally, and ethically. A good discussion will include most of the points in the section of the Helpful Background section entitled Drones Pro and Con. Also, the response may vary according to circumstances: students may have different positions with respect to strikes targeting specific persons, terrorists planning an attack, and signature strikes. Students who condemn the use of drones should be asked about the fact that in the Second World War, a war that is generally thought to be a "good war" that needed to be fought, the U.S. destroyed large portions of cities in which most of the inhabitants were non-combatants and children. Examples include Tokyo, Dresden, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki. Drone strikes are more precise than bombs dropped from planes and inflict far fewer civilian casualties. Students who take the position that the use of drones is not a war crime should be asked how they will feel when our opponents develop the technological capacity to subject us to drone strikes.

3.   Should the U.S. be in the business of assassinating individuals? If you believe that assassination is a valid policy, how would you separate those who can be killed from those who cannot? Suggested Response: The responses will range from approval of assassination to condemnation. Students responding to this question should be encouraged to evaluate the use of drones strategically, tactically,legally, and ethically.

4.   The are ways to assassinate people without using drones. They include: (1) a single clandestine killer, (2) a commando raid, (3) a bomb dropped from a plane, or (4) a smart bomb dropped from a plane or a cruise missile. What are the benefits, if any, of using a drone-launched missile with only enough explosives to blow up a house or a car? Evaluate each from the standpoint of risk to friendly military personnel, risk of injuries to persons other than the target, and any other relevant factors. Suggested Response: Drone vs. assassin - benefit of the drone is that the life of the assassin is not put at risk, and often it is easier to put a drone 26,000 feet above a target than to get an assassin close enough to kill the victim; the benefit of the assassin is that there will probably be fewer persons killed as collateral damage; (2) the benefit of a drone over a commando raid is that the lives of the commandos are not put at risk; there is no risk of a large engagement if the commandos are pinned down and must be rescued; whether a drone strike results in fewer casualties from collateral damage than a commando raid will depend on the circumstances; (3) bombs dropped from planes are notoriously inaccurate and generally cause more collateral damage than missiles from drones because they have higher explosives to ensure that they are effective to actually kill or injure the target; pilots are also put at risk from anti-aircraft; (4) smart bombs are accurate, and if fired farther enough away, there will be safety for the attackers.

5.   The 21st century has seen two new ways of killing employed on a large scale. One is the suicide bomber and the other is the drone. Compare them. Suggested Response: Suicide bombers are relative low-tech, and the bomber almost always dies. The suicide bomber is usually used as a means of indiscriminate killing of innocents. Drones are high tech, often more precise, and the drone pilots are never at risk or any harm.

6.   What was the message of the scenes with Lieutenant General Benson and the purchase of the doll? Suggested Response: Those scenes were about all of the non-combatant citizens of the U.S., the U.K., Europe, and other developed countries who live these wonderful lives of privilege with concerns that are trivial compared to those fighting and enduring the consequences of the insurgencies and the war on terror.

For eleven additional discussion questions, click here.


Any of the discussion questions can serve as a writing prompt. Additional assignments include:

1.   Research and write a report on the current status of the miniature surveillance technologies described in movie.

2.   Write a letter to Alia's parents about what happened to their daughter and why. You letter can explain, apologize, justify, or say whatever you want. [This assignment can also be applied to civilian deaths caused by a recent drone strike.]

3.   Read one of the articles listed below and summarize its major points. Then state whether you agree or disagree with those points and explain why.
  • 14 Years After 9/11, the War on Terror Is Accomplishing Everything bin Laden Hoped It Would: Al Qaeda goaded us into doing what it had neither the resources nor the ability to do by Tom Engelhardt in The Nation, 9/8/15. The URL for this article is https://www.thenation.com/article/14-years-after-911-the-war-on-terror-is-accomplishing-everything-bin-laden-hoped-it-would/.

  • [Any other article pro or con on the use of drones. If anyone has any suggestions, email us at support@teachwithmovies.org.]

See also Additional Assignments for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction.


Select questions that are appropriate for your students.

Parenting Points: Watch the movie with your child and assure your child that situations have occurred when one juror has turned a jury around.

Reminder to Teachers: Obtain all required permissions from your school administration before showing any film.

Teachers who want parental permission to show this movie can use TWM's Movie Permission Slip.



Give us your feedback! Was the Guide helpful? If so, which sections were most helpful? Do you have any suggestions for improvement? Email us!

This Learning Guide written by James Frieden and was published on December 1, 2016.

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