War has always been a nasty business

In the drone era, we are forced to see innocent victims, and we have time to debate the morality of our actions.
In the drone era, we are forced to see innocent victims, and we have time to debate the morality of our actions. AP

It was 15 minutes after midnight when the bombs began to fall.

The people on the ground never had a chance. Before it was over, 334 Superfortress B-29s had dropped 2,000 tons of incendiaries below. Fanned by high winds, the resultant conflagration became what some historians have dubbed the worst firestorm of all time.

Sixteen square miles in and around Tokyo were incinerated. A million people were injured. The low end estimate of the death toll puts it at 80,000. This was in March of 1945. Five months later, the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.

All that carnage came in the context of a morally unambiguous conflict often described as “the good war.” But the hell that fell on Tokyo is a reminder that, while it is sometimes necessary, war is never good.

War is often little more than a choice between terrible things. In countries like ours that pride themselves on their moral authority, we sometimes allow ourselves to forget that, binding war with legalities and rules designed to leave conscience clean and allow us to do what is repulsive, but required.

But the taut and compelling new movie “Eye in the Sky,” refuses to allow us to forget.

In it, Helen Mirren is a British colonel directing a drone strike by Aaron Paul, a Nevada-based pilot, against terrorists in Kenya, in consultation with a facial recognition team in Hawaii, and with the advice and consent of government and military officials in London, Washington and elsewhere.

Mirren’s colonel and Paul’s pilot have electronic eyes on a house where terrorists are gearing up for a suicide bombing likely to kill dozens. They can put a missile through the roof and end the threat immediately. But there’s a little girl selling bread just outside and the blast that ends the threat will likely end her as well. What to do?

Once upon a time, one man had his hand on the trigger and had to decide in a split-second. But now, with drones, a dozen hands in a dozen places are all on that same trigger, and in the movie, the split second swells to encompass a debate among military and government officials over whether law and morality can justify killing this child.

Maybe the answer is obvious to you. Maybe you note that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. But this is not a math problem. This is you, choosing death for a little girl. It is in the name of a greater good. But still, death for a little girl.

How difficult do you imagine it was for the men commanding those B-29s to drop fire on Tokyo? Yes, they were professionals punishing an aggressor nation. But they were also human beings, so is it fanciful to suppose that some of them felt some tug of conscience as the bomb bay doors opened?

And if so, how much more difficult would it have been to look right at the innocent and yet push the button anyway?

Last year, The New York Times reported that this country had carried out more than 400 drone strikes since 2004. Some bad people died in these attacks. But according to multiple reports, the vast majority of those killed have been innocents unconnected to terrorism.

If you are outraged, fine. But don’t miss the bigger outrage: namely, that this is what war is and always has been. It’s just that in the drone era, it’s harder to fool ourselves than it once was; we are forced to see the child standing there about to die and we have time to debate the morality of it. But that’s all that’s new.

Because she has always been standing there. And she always will be.