Morality & Misery: The Meaning of Drone Operator PTSD

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Artwork created by Rose, a former Canadian drone operator. Photo credit: Buzzfeed.

For years, drone killing has been successfully marketed as “smart war”: the ability to defeat enemies without risking harm to allied soldiers. Given the chaos throughout the Middle East, however, it seems safe to say that rather than keeping terrorists in check, drones have inspired more and more young people to undertake jihad in response. The ever-augmenting ranks of ISIS—their spread from Iraq to Syria to Libya—and the attacks in Paris, San Bernardino, and Brussels should cause thinkers everywhere to question the talking points of the drone warriors, who preposterously persist in pretending that terrorists have been sporing spontaneously throughout the Global War on Terror.

Further evidence that something is seriously awry includes the discovery that drone operators suffer from PTSD just as much as their combat soldier analogues do, despite the fact that they do not risk their own lives. Far from the bloody fray, operators hunt down and kill targets designated as worthy of death by committees comprising military officers, privately contracted analysts, and civilian administrators. What is the problem? Why in the world have drone operators found themselves so troubled by what they have done?

A recent report revealed that it’s not just US drone operators who have been suffering from PTSD. Canadian drone operators, too, have had a tough time dealing with their post-targeting lives. In fact, a significantly higher proportion of Canadian drone operators have been found to suffer from PTSD. While regular uniformed soldiers in Canada suffer from PTSD at a rate of about 10%, conservative estimates of the incidence among former drone operators begin at 30%. The number may be considerably higher because many operators never seek out and receive institutional help with their psychological troubles.

Along with the obvious inefficacy of drone warfare as a means of contending with terrorism, the incidence of PTSD among drone operators themselves should be considered in assessments of the wisdom of remote-control killing. And yet it never is. Politicians and pundits occasionally argue over whether the collateral damage of the drone campaigns has been “acceptably low” or not, but nearly no one ever asks whether the tearing away at the moral and psychological fabric of the persons who carry out targeted killing is a reason to reconsider the practice.

Needless to say, the refusal to take seriously the concerns articulated by apostate drone operators fits right in with the dismissal and discreditation of disgruntled soldiers more generally. Rather than asking how and why suicide has become an epidemic among veterans, with shocking reports of 22 former or current US soldiers opting to end their lives each day, the VA clings to its insane policy of plying these young men and women with drugs. Or is the policy insane? Perhaps the goal all along has been to muffle the voices of military critics. Drugged soldiers are discredited, and dead soldiers tell no tales.

The drone operators are not in any danger of physical harm, so the reason why they are suffering can only be that they find it psychologically distressing to be asked to play the role of the Grim Reaper or God Almighty. Based on their testimony, a few different kinds of scenarios have plagued operators. One is having to “make the call” in the moment using only sketchy evidence that a target deserves to die. For Canadian operators surveilling occupied territories in Afghanistan, the problem was whether to kill possibly dangerous locals or to risk finding out later that Canadian soldiers on the ground died as a result of the operators’ hesitation to kill.

A far more common scenario, and the cause of many drone operators’ compunction and strife, is to have carried out an execution on the basis of someone else’s call, with which the soldier has disagreed. Did he or she just wipe out the head of a family for no good reason? The person who pushed the button, not the analysts who made the call, has to live with what he has done. Former operators have revealed that during the period of their service, they often indulged in drinking binges after work, as a way of making what they were doing more bearable.

After their service, some of them have been diagnosed with PTSD and doled out psychotropic drugs. But given the source of drone operators’ PTSD, the long-term solution to their agony can hardly be to mask over the reality using pharmaceutical means. Why not? Because eventually they will find themselves unmedicated, in a compete state of lucidity, and forced once again to reckon with what they have done.

In view of the staggering suicide toll, the twenty-first-century practice (coincident with the dawning of the Drone Age) of drugging veterans with multi-med cocktails has failed to render them less bothered by what they have done in the name of the state. A much better solution would be to not ask them to do it in the first place. Young people should never be lured into a profession which may weigh heavily on their conscience for the rest of lives. They should not be placed in the position of needing to kill more people as a way of demonstrating that they deserve to be paid. They should not be placed in the position of being ridiculed for expressing skepticism about the wisdom of annihilating unarmed human beings who pose no direct threat to anyone at the time when they are killed.

 

ChildSoldiersAfrica

To see how heinous this arrangement truly is, it may be useful to consider the plight of many child soldiers in post-colonial Africa. How were so many young boys and girls transformed into assassins by ruthless war lords? In many cases, they have been jacked up on drugs and then tricked into killing people. But having once committed their first homicide, it becomes easier and easier for them to do it again. If necessary, child soldiers can be repeatedly drugged, making it easier and easier for them to kill.

At some point, child soldiers become full-fledged assassins. They may no longer regard what they do as regrettable, because they have done it so many times. Most child soldiers die young, killed in combat. Some among the survivors go on to become warlords and use the very same strategies of corruption on new recruits as their mentors did.

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The transformation of the psyche of young people into career assassins is necessary for the continuation of the drone program. The recent drone operator recruitment crisis led the Pentagon to renounce the requirement that enlistees be commissioned officers. As less astute young men and women are wheeled into the drone program, being less reflective, they will no doubt experience less compunction about what they are doing. A makeshift filtering process is already in place, since readily available YouTube videos allow prospective recruits to consider the reality of what they will be doing, should they enlist. Anyone with moral scruples against the summary execution without trial of brown-skinned persons located in remote tribal regions and pegged for death by analysts who have financial incentives for creating kill lists will seek an alternative career path.

Looking into the future, the question which thinking people everywhere need to ponder is whether this is what they want the moral fabric of the military leaders of the future to be: paid assassins who lure more and more people into targeted killing because they have already done it and deem it perfectly acceptable. At this decisive moment in history for Canada and the many other nations moving toward the acquisition and eventual use of lethal drones, the testimony of former drone operators who have abandoned their profession could not be more important. Their concerns have a firm legal and moral basis, whether current military administrators care to acknowledge them or not.

GenevaConventions

There have never been any international norms governing the use of lethal drones, beyond the protocols covering assassination and already enshrined in the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Geneva Conventions. These documents have been reinterpreted creatively by the US government so as to rationalize the practice of targeted killing even in lands where there are no US soldiers on the ground to protect.

The legality of targeted killing of unarmed suspects in unoccupied lands who are not actively engaged in combat has been scrupulously examined and called into question by a number of scholars, including two successive UN Special Rapporteurs on Extrajudicial Execution, Philip Alston and Christof Heyns. Among other problems, if the persons being killed were truly “soldiers”, then they would need to be provided with the opportunity to surrender in accordance with the Geneva Conventions. If, on the other hand, they are truly suspects, then they are protected by Article 11 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the “innocent until proven guilty” clause.

US government officials and other drone program supporters maintain that the targeted suspects are unlawful combatants, who are therefore not protected by military protocols and international law. In 2010, the US government issued a White Paper asserting that the targeted killing even of US citizens was permitted under some circumstances by both domestic and international law. The argument rests on a contentious redefinition of “imminent threat” as not requiring immediacy. It also trades on the drone warriors’ flexible and contestable concept of “infeasibility of capture”.

A sober look at the data makes clear that the capture of drone strike targets has essentially been defined as “infeasible”. “Infeasibility of capture” does not denote the physical inability of a team of Navy SEALS to descend from the sky and encircle a suspect. Rather, “infeasibility of capture” connotes an unwillingness to expend resources and risk US lives. The political difficulty of housing a suspect, should he in fact be captured rather than killed, has also figured into the drone warriors’ calculus.

Lethal drone killing is new in history, but it is worth remembering that even the most atrocious of practices have always been legal until they were made illegal through the concerted effort of legislators. The first drone operators were tricked into participating in a morally objectionable practice, the premeditated and intentional execution without trial of human beings on the basis of hearsay and circumstantial evidence. Military and civilian authorities have told new enlistees that what they are doing is right and is saving American lives, just as in the case of Jason Bourne. These soldiers, too, have been duped, and some of them have awakened to the truth. Continuing to coopt more and more young enlistees will not alter the wrongness of what they are being asked to do.

 

The False Dichotomies of Drone Warfare: Drone Strike (2013), directed by Chris Richmond

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I have long believed that well-made films offer a rich source of moral insight, and Drone Strike, directed by Chris Richmond, is no exception to the rule. It’s a very short film, less than twenty minutes long, but like a carefully crafted short-story, it packs a mighty punch. The primary means of conveying its message is to switch back and forth between two families in two very different contexts: a white-skinned family living amidst all of the modern conveniences in the United Kingdom, and a brown-skinned family living with hardly any modern conveniences in Afghanistan.

The father and husband in the UK, Will Brydon, is a Royal Air Force (RAF) drone operator. He dons a uniform, grabs a quick breakfast with his family, kisses his wife goodbye, and drives his car off to work, dropping his son off at school along the way.

Brydon’s office is a trailer, not unlike those at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada. Like his analogues in the United States, he spends his day sitting before a screen, joystick in hand, ready to “engage” targets as orders are transmitted to him by a radio dispatcher. Brydon has no direct access to the intelligence being used by analysts and commanders to determine whom to kill, but he is able to see the targets before firing on them. When he and his comrade, the laser operator, are given clearance to eliminate a target, they go through a series of steps to lock on with a laser before taking the shot.

The father and husband in Afghanistan is a brown-skinned adult male, empirically indistinguishable from an “evil terrorist”, as far as the drone program analysts are concerned, although they have no idea who he really is. He is about to be made the victim of the latest “signature strike”, the targeting of a brown-skinned male of military age whose behavior coincides with a “disposition matrix” of known terrorist behaviors.

On the fated day depicted, the “suspicious-looking” man has driven his truck to a place thought to be frequented by “evil terrorists” and is on his way home. What was he doing, rubbing elbows with suspected terrorists? He was filling up the bed of his truck with rocks to use back at his dirt-floored home. Judging by their somewhat surly exchange, he was not on particularly good terms with the men from whom he was buying the rocks. Clearly his “association” with these people involved no more than a simple business transaction.

On his way home, the loud sound of a missile strike off in the distance disrupts his concentration, causing him to drive over a gaping hole in the road. As a result, one of his tires goes flat, and he needs to fix it in order to continue his journey.

The rest of the story is all too familiar to anyone who has read NGO and human rights reports on the drone campaigns: the British father and husband uses the latest and greatest military technology to obliterate the Afghanistan father and husband, who is out in the middle of nowhere fixing a flat tire. He had the misfortune of being spotted by analysts behind the scenes whose job it is to locate suspected terrorists to kill. To do their job well, they must deliver. Better safe than sorry! they decide on the basis of their drone footage, in some cases supplemented by the bribed testimony of locals.

The RAF drone operator initially questions the identification of this man as a terrorist, and vocalizes his impression that it just looks like a guy with a broken-down truck. The laser operator scoffs at his comrade, crowing “Guilty as Charged!” and seems excited about the opportunity to “get some”. Together the two soldiers fire on the suspect, and the laser operator cheers when the missile obliterates the target, calling him a “mother fucker”.

Later, after returning home to his family, Bryson begins to reflect upon what he may have done, as doubts are bubbling up again in his mind. Perhaps the man by the truck really was an innocent husband and father out gathering rocks to shore up the walls of his crumbling home. The naggings of conscience begin to creep into Bryson’s consciousness, likely never to be fully expunged. Over time, his skepticism may develop into regret and feelings of guilt and shame about the day when an innocent man’s life was ended because he capitulated to peer pressure and suppressed his skepticism in the moments prior to launching the missile.

The British family has no idea what the soldier has done, but the survivors in Afghanistan are plunged into grief upon the loss of the head of their household. If the drone operator continues on in this profession, he may eventually develop PTSD.

In the final shot of the film, the young son of the slain father is shown in a visible state of rage, his face illuminated by light on one side, and shrouded by darkness on the other. The implication is clear: this is precisely how fledgling terrorists are made. They are reacting to their own experience or witness of crimes by the enemy against which they vow to retaliate.

A car destroyed by a US drone strike in Yemen

The power of Drone Strike inheres in its ability graphically to display a number of undeniable truths which are violated by the drone warriors each and every day:

  1. “Signature strikes” involve explicit racial profiling. If the man with the flat tire had been white-skinned, he likely would not have been killed.
  2. White-skinned people are not more valuable than brown-skinned people. To sacrifice a brown-skinned person in order to save a white-skinned person is racism pure and simple.
  3. Wearing a uniform and following orders does not preclude a soldier’s commission of crimes. Orders in violation of the Geneva Conventions should not be followed. Unarmed persons do not pose an immediate and direct threat to anyone.
  4. Following the orders handed down by an anonymous authority does not absolve the agent from responsibility for what he has done.
  5. Following even legal orders does not insulate a soldier from the psychological trauma of having to live with the memory of what he has done for the rest of his life.
  6. If suspects are innocent until proven guilty, then this applies no less to brown-skinned persons in Third World countries than it does to white-skinned persons in First World countries.
  7. Brown-skinned fathers and husbands are no less important to their children and spouses than are white-skinned fathers to theirs.

DroneStrike

This short but thought-provoking film can be watched through Amazon Prime. It might also be on YouTube somewhere, but I was unable to find it, given the preponderance of videos which come up upon searching for “Drone Strike”…