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. However, given the chaos throughout the Middle East, 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.

 

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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.

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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 of even 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.

 

Caveat Emptor, Canada: What Lethal Drones Will Bring

 

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Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been shopping around for lethal drones for the Royal Canadian Air Force. The prospective acquisition is being downplayed as intended primarily for surveillance purposes. Of course, that’s how it always begins. The first step toward joining the bloody ranks of the avid drone killers—the United States, Israel and, increasingly, Britain—is obtaining the means to conduct surveillance. But these sophisticated machines were developed for use by the military, which is why they have the modular capacity to be armed. As their names have always implied, Predator and Reaper drones can be used not only for surveillance but also to kill by remote control. Snap on a couple of Hellfire missiles, and you’re good to go.

It all starts so simply—and seems so very rational. Why not have a fleet of unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) in one’s arsenal, so that they can be used in place of manned combat aerial vehicles when the need arises? Who in the world does not want to save brave soldiers’ lives?

Canadian policymakers may well believe that in order to best defend their country they need to make sure that the Air Force has the latest and greatest flying machines. Isn’t the purpose of having a military to be able to win wars? But if every other country has or is about to acquire lethal drones, then any military made to forego the technological breakthrough will be at a decided disadvantage. Even worse, come wartime, they will sacrifice soldiers needlessly. Given such manifestly rational considerations, it may not be clear why any Canadian in his right mind would oppose the government’s purchase of lethal drones.

However, the story does not end there. The problem is that the seemingly irrefutable argument for lethal drones shrouds the truth about what political leaders are likely to do once they have their fingers on the buttons of remote-control killing machines. The mere possession of lethal drones transforms what were previously the remote tribal regions of sovereign nations into “battlefields” where a seemingly endless list of “unlawful combatants” are waiting quietly to be “engaged”. Suddenly missiles can be fired any- and everywhere, because the entire world has become a battlefield.

Lethal drones not only provide militaries with the means to fight wars, they also provide leaders with the capacity to wage what are characterized as “wars” in places where war would otherwise never have been waged. In other words, the possession of lethal drones serves to expand the domain of state-inflicted homicide, at the discretion of the executive. This expansion of executive power is, needless to say, appealing to leaders themselves. In purely political terms, the ability to appear strong by wielding deadly force generally increases the popularity of leaders at home—so long as they are not sacrificing soldiers abroad. Lethal drones therefore provide a win-win arrangement for politicians: they can wage and fight wars without having to write condolence letters to the families of fallen soldiers.

Once the machines are at arm’s length, and intentional, premeditated homicide is but a push-button away, the argument for using lethal drones is propelled forward by the need to demonstrate to the populace that taxpayers’ money has not been squandered on boondoggles. “What’s the point of having X, if you’re not going to use X?” is the guiding logic which suddenly kicks in. Former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright posed a variant of this question to Colin Powell: “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about, if we can’t use it?”

It may sound repulsive to peace-loving people for someone to be fishing around for reasons to wage wars, but that is precisely what happens in the case of lethal drones—albeit one act of homicide at a time. Case in point: Britain. Before British Prime Minister David Cameron possessed lethal drones, the idea of dispatching his compatriots without indicting much less trying them for crimes would have been unheard of. As a matter of fact, capital punishment is prohibited by both British law and the EU Charter. But with a large fleet of Reaper drones and missiles at his disposal, Cameron suddenly awakened to the possibility of executing suspects using the weapons of war. Because he used missiles, rather than pistols or poisons or strangulation wires, to destroy Reyaad Khan and Ruhul Amin in Syria in August 2015, Cameron was able to portray the assassinations as acts of national self-defense. Who could argue with that depiction, when it had already been accepted with open arms by the American public for years, in hundreds of drone strikes authorized by US leaders?

Canada is moving down the same literally fatal path. Without first undertaking a serious public debate about the costs and benefits of drone killing, before acquiring the means to stalk, hunt down and kill targets suspected of wrongdoing, the sheer possession of the technology leads irresistibly to its use by leaders keen to exercise their authority and avail themselves of their newly bestowed capacity to kill by remote control.

Induction on the cases of other lethal drone-armed political leaders to date suggests that it is only a matter of time before Canadian officials will seek to track down and eliminate Canadian nationals located in places far away. The logic is seductive but corruptive, and Canada will be only one among many other countries to succumb, having been lured down the path to extrajudicial execution by the example set by the United States government for nearly fifteen years.

Caveat emptor, Canadian taxpayers. When your government begins to conduct itself in the manner of your neighbor to the south, you should expect to see retaliatory blowback within the borders of your own land as well. The recent attacks on Paris, San Bernardino, and Brussels were carried out by extremists angry about military intervention abroad targeting the Muslim people of several different lands. The suspects killed in drone strikes are never warned, and mistakes have often been made. Many undeniably innocent people have been harmed in the drone campaigns—grandmothers, children and, yes, “military-age males” defined as unlawful combatants but who had nothing whatsoever to do with radical jihadist groups.

The victims are facilely written off by the killers as “collateral damage”. Military killing of innocent people leads naturally to a vicious cycle of violent retaliation. The current quagmire in the Middle East extends all the way back to the 1991 Gulf War. Far from being surprising, it is in fact predictable that some of those outraged will choose to retaliate, as in New York, Madrid, London, Paris, San Bernardino, Brussels… They will continue to do so, for so long as they perceive their communities to be under attack.

That, however, is only a pragmatic or prudential argument against blindly following the lead of the drone warriors. There is also a more profound, moral, argument. Do the peaceful citizens of Canada really want their leaders to join the ranks of the likes of George W. Bush, Tony Blair, Barack Obama, and David Cameron, who “strike first and suppress questions later”? Do Canadians want to live in a world where disputes are resolved through the launching of missiles, rather than through the use of institutions of criminal investigation and justice developed and defended over many centuries precisely in order to avoid the awful scourge of war, and to fend off the danger of tyranny in an executive armed to kill at his caprice?

Do Canadians want their young people to be trained as professional assassins who are empirically indistinguishable from paid contract killers or hitmen? Now is the time to address the reality of what lethal drones will bring with them to Canada, before it is too late and the Canadian government makes the tragic mistake of following Bush, Blair, Obama, and Cameron down the path to targeted killing, what is tantamount to summary execution without trial, better known as “assassination” before the Drone Age.

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