The Wound of Knowledge

Eye_in_the_Sky_2015_film_poster“Never say that a soldier does not know the cost of war.”

As the story comes to its sober conclusion, this is the response of the British army officer to the cabinet secretary who is bitterly critical of the decision-making at the heart of the film, “Eye in the Sky.” Protesting loudly, she is sure that she has seen inhumanity at work and at war. He has walked through the aftermath of five suicide bombings, he tells her, seeing the horror— and surprises all of us with his response, each word bearing the weight of the world.

Soldier that he is, he knows the meaning of war, and everyday counts its cost. In this highly-reviewed new movie, the calculus of war is played out from beginning to end— and of course these are the questions of everyone everywhere in every generation, whether the ancient battles of Alexander or more recent ones we know as the Revolutionary, the Civil, World Wars I and II, Korea and Vietnam. This story is about the wars of the 21st-century, sometimes fought on-the-ground and sometimes fought from the air via computer. Simply said, the film is about drone warfare, which at the end of the day is still a bloody, messy war.

But it is also about the days of our lives, moderns that we are, seeing and hearing the troubled world on our smart phones and computer screens, knowing that this week the terrorist bombings were in Brussels and last week in Paris, and next week will likely be in Nairobi again. We feel overwhelmed by the evil of the world that is ours to know, so regularly, so intimately— and what are we do to with what we know? what can we possibly do?

“Eye in the Sky” is not about the ways the ordinary person feels about the burden of war upon war, bombing after bombing, but instead it focuses on the impact on relatively few people: the British government overseeing the military operation, the U.S. drone pilots, and the Kenyan people, many of whom are Somalian immigrants, whose lives are at stake in the decisions made by those with “eyes in the sky.”

It is not cheaply imagined. While we are drawn into the heartache of the story— having to face the potential horror of one more suicide bomb in a busy street in Nairobi, while at the same time seeing and hearing the escalating tension for the British and American officials and soldiers who know that their decision will have life-and-death consequences —we are never offered an easy answer. Because it is a better story it is not a one-sided story; whatever happens will be costly for someone.

When the mission is finally accomplished— no spoiler alert here —we hear the words, “Well done.” But for anyone watching the film unfold over the previous two hours, feeling the feelings of the principals with their “eyes in the sky” on the drama, we know that no will sleep well that night. There were too many trade-offs, there was too much at stake for everyone, there were too many tears.

Yes, too many tears. As the credits rolled, I thought of “the wound of knowledge,” which is the way a former Archbishop of Canterbury named the challenge of a good life in the very broken world that is ours. Living after Father Adam and Mother Eve chose to know as God knows— as if they ever could —we feel the weight of Byron’s poignant, poetic mediation on the Garden temptation, “The one who knows the most mourns the deepest.” To know more was not glorious, after all; it became an unbearable burden. Now that I know, what am I going to do? More often than not, we are crushed under its weight.

“Eye in the Sky” is not a simplistic story. We are invited into a world that most of us only imagine, and yet one for which we are responsible. What are we to do with what we know? What can we possibly do?

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  • Aaron Sands

    It is easy to forget that other people feel unbearable burdens too. But each of us is not alone…and part of community is how we actually share these burdens together.

    The “wound of knowledge” quote reminds me of Wendell Berry’s brief essays called “Damage” and “Healing” – he similarly refers to the “scars of knowledge” we accumulate in life, and cautions “to lose the scar of knowledge is to renew the wound.”