All of the journalistic articles on drone pilots start the same way. They paint a picture of the environment in Nevada- the heat, the air conditioning, the flickering screens, the watching, waiting, and then the sudden orders to release the hellfire missiles.
They report the pilot’s experiences of watching individuals, half a world away, dismembered, bleeding, crawling, struggling and eventually dying. They report the pilots watching, angel like, over troops on the ground- searching for IEDs, wrestling with communication problems to try to save the lives of buddies in theatre. Sometimes, they miss or they are too late. Sometimes these pilots are bored and desperate to get at the amorphous enemy. Then these articles tell us that drone pilots are feeling stressed. (See Martin, 2010; Bowden, 2013; Powers, 2013; Linebaugh, 2013; Gibbons-Neff, 2013).
It never fails to amaze me that people are still surprised by this news. Horror and trauma does not have to involve a physical threat to your bodily integrity. For drone pilots this trauma plays out in a series of specific ways: firstly the killing itself, secondly because all drone operations are recorded the killing is regularly reviewed and re-watched (your action of killing, albeit morally sanctioned, replayed in front of your eyes and those of others), and thirdly, watching troops on the ground and being unable to prevent injury or death to them (this too, may be replayed and reviewed) (Martin, 2010; Cloud, 2011; Abe, 2013). The idea that drone pilots are ‘divorced from the heat of battle’ implies that any sense of connection to those on the ground, to the mission, to your role as a cog within the wider military is purely based on being physically present. And from the comments of drone pilots, and other members of the military, this simply isn’t the case.
Claims of ‘PlayStation mentality’, of drone pilots becoming divorced from the reality of the death that they visit in places that may seem like different worlds, have abounded (Cole et al, 2010; Royakkers & Van Est, 2010). Both the popular press and some academic writers have sought to demonstrate that the morality of state sanctioned killing risks erosion as a result of using unmanned vehicles. But this claim is problematic for a number of reasons.
- Firstly, all drone pilots in the military (for now I won’t touch on the additional complexities of those from PMCs or the CIA) go through standard training (in the US Military you are required to undergo the initial 10 weeks of Basic Training). If we trust this training to be sufficient to imbue our other troops with a sense of what is ethical and legal behaviour in a situation of warfare then why should it be any different for drone pilots purely as a result of the platform that they are tasked with using? After all regardless of platform, all members of the military in active service are subject to the same legal restrictions.
- Secondly, there seems to be confusion over the role of physical security and moral action. The implication of some pieces appears to be that only those individuals whose personal safety is at risk can be relied upon to act in a legal and moral way, which seems contradictory. Surely the opposite is true. When an individual is in extreme fear for their own safety their ability to rationally consider what is, or is not, moral and legal must be compromised. Whereas, where an individual’s physical safety is not at risk there is surely more time and space for the desired amount of consideration of the implications of any action (Gibbons-Neff, 2013).
- Thirdly, evidence suggests that far from being ‘too relaxed, too unaffected by killing’ (Royakkers & van Est, 2010 p292), drone pilots are experiencing extremely high levels of distress, and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (Fitzsimmons & Sangha, 2010; Stewart, 2011; Dao, 2013; Gibbons-Neff, 2013). Popularly reported drone pilot ‘experience’ pieces have noted pilot’s experiencing ‘someone else’s voice was speaking, some dark alter ego’ (Powers: 2013), having nightmares, sobbing uncontrollably, and being ‘victim to not only the haunting memories of this work that they carry with them, but also the guilt of always being a little unsure of how accurate their confirmations of weapons or identification of hostile individuals were’ (Linebaugh:2013).
- Finally, visiting death on orders is part of what individuals sign up for in the armed forces. The military’s role is still based around the idea of sanctioned killing. And for the enemies to be killed there needs to be someone of ‘ours’ doing the deed. Pulling the trigger, pressing the button, whether in the same landscape, time zone, season, theatre or not.
Not only are drone pilots feeling ‘bad’ about the killing they are enacting, they are feeling ‘bad’ for not being in harm’s way, ‘bad’ as a result of the furore over the awarding of medals to them. What the critique in the form of ‘PlayStation mentality’ risks doing is conflating the actions of the drone pilots themselves and the missions on which drones are used. Whilst this is (most definitely) not to claim that drone pilots are ‘only following orders’ and therefore are not responsible for their actions, this is a plea for critics to separate their concern over specific drone missions from their concern over the use of the platform on any missions.
Lindsay Murch is a doctoral researcher in the ICCS and POLSIS and a research assistant in the developing field of drone warfare.
Image source: Flickr / Faseextra
Abe, N. (2012) ‘Dreams in Infrared: The Woes of an American Drone Operator’ http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/pain-continues-after-war-for-american-drone-pilot-a-872726.html
Bowden, M. (2013) ‘The Killing Machines’, The Atlantic, accessed at: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2013/09/the-killing-machines-how-to-think-about-drones/309434/?single_page=true
Cloud, D.S. (2011) ‘Anatomy of an Afghan war tragedy’ The Los Angeles Times, accessed at: http://articles.latimes.com/2011/apr/10/world/la-fg-afghanistan-drone-20110410
Coker, C. (2013) Warrior Geeks, C Hurst & Co Publishers Ltd
Cole, C., Dobbing, M., & Hailwood, A. (2010) ‘Convenient Killing’ Drone Wars UK: http://dronewarsuk.files.wordpress.com/2010/10/conv-killing-final.pdf
Dao, J. (2013) ‘Drone Pilots Are Found to Get Stress Disorders Much as Those in Combat Do’ http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/23/us/drone-pilots-found-to-get-stress-disorders-much-as-those-in-combat-do.html?_r=0
Fitzsimmons, S. & Sangha, K. (2010) ‘Killing in High Definition: Combat Stress among Pilots of Remotely Piloted Aircraft’, Canadian Political Science Association, accessed at: http://www.cpsa-acsp.ca/papers-2013/Fitzsimmons.pdf
Gibbons-Neff, T. (2013) ‘Killing and the Drone Warrior’ http://warontherocks.com/2013/11/killing-and-the-drone-warrior/
Kesling, B. (2013) ‘Combat Veterans, Senators Fight New Drone Pilot Medal’, The Washington Wire, http://blogs.wsj.com/washwire/2013/03/11/combat-veterans-senators-fight-new-drone-pilot-medal/
Linebaugh, H. (2013) ‘I worked on the US drone program. The public should know what really goes on’ The Guardian, http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/dec/29/drones-us-military
Martin, M. (2010) ‘Predator: A Pilot’s Perspective’, Zenith
Ouma, J., Chappelle, W. & Salinas, A. (2011) ‘Facets of Occupational Burnout among US Air Force Active Duty and National Guard/Reserve MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper Pilots’, Air Force Research Laboratory, Case Number: 88ABW-2011-4485
Powers, M. (2013) ‘Confessions of a Drone Pilot’ http://www.theburningplatform.com/2013/10/24/confessions-of-a-drone-pilot/
Royakkers, L. & Van Est, R. (2010) ‘The Cubicle Warrior: The Marionette of Digitalized Warfare’ Ethics of Information Technology, Vol. 12, pp289-296
Stewart, P. (2011) ‘Overstretched drone pilots face stress risk’, Reuters http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/12/18/us-usa-drones-stress-idUSTRE7BH0VH20111218