Behind the Screen

A predator drone makes a “signature strike” somewhere in Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Yemen. Only seconds before, a drone operator, working for the US Air Force pressed a button initiating a Hellfire missile attack on what seems to be suspicious behavior from people on the ground. But this soldier wasn’t on the front line or even outside the United States. He sat in Nevada in a dark, cool, control-room, interacting with the targets of the attack only through infrared information transmitted by satellite.

Warfare of this sort is different from warfare we’ve seen before. It isn’t a scenario of soldiers shooting at people, or even pilots in a plane, dropping a bomb on a city. 

The moral problems with drones have been a point of much discussion since the United States began using these technologies. The ability to survey and strike targets covertly is often made worse because of the lack of a need to dispatch troops or officially send in armed forces, allowing much of the debate to happen outside of the public eye. Drones can fly at heights at which they are difficult to detect, and still manage to attack targets on the ground. These strikes are also based on merelysuspected activities; it remains unclear how sure must we be before dropping a strike on a certain location. The moral implications are dubious at best; already drone strikes have been reported to accidentally kill children and innocents. 
Moral considerations (especially those empathetic to ‘the enemy’ in the War on Terror), however, have proved disturbingly ineffective at changing high-level policy, particularly in regards to issues of national security. Perhaps a reframing of the issue towards the psychological effects on troops operating these drones will further elucidate the problematic nature of this type of warfare.

Recently, several media pieces (such as an interview in the German magazine Der Spiegel, and the short film 5,000 Feet is the Best, directed by Omar Fast) have shed light upon the experience of those who operate drones. As the use of drones shifts increasingly from surveillance missions to attacks, the soldiers piloting these drones are asked to take on more and more responsibility for the strikes that are made. To reiterate, these pilots are being asked to collect and analyze intelligence, determine if suspicious behavior is occurring and if necessary press the button to initiate a strike. Recent interviews have shown the huge psychological stress that comes with this increased responsibility; it is no surprise that some of these pilots are confronted with PTSD following their service. One drone operator reflected on his time, during which he admitted to initiating strikes that he knew would kill children, and destroy homes of innocents. 

We, as individuals, and the government must consider the implication the new types of warfare has for those behind the screen. The experience of these pilots is not like those of soldiers on the ground (not to belittle the complexity of those experiences). Drones work to further distance warfare and dehumanize the enemy. Pilots of these drones are often aware of the externalities of one their strikes, the death of innocent human beings, but are forced to think of such frivolous death and destruction as just that—external to their mission and relatively unimportant. The shift to drone warfare means that veterans suffering from PTSD might not necessarily have been “on the front lines” per se (or even have left the United States), but still have been asked to distort their own moral compass and commit atrocities for the supposed defense of the nation. 

There are certainly unforeseen consequences for the legality of war as well. Intel gathering and attacking enemy combatants is one thing, but attacking suspicious targets is entirely different. The issue is still out for a verdict in the academic and legal community, but our shift toward drone warfare as we draw down physical troop presence in the Middle East and Central Asia has legal implications for the future. The U.S. is not at war with Yemen or Pakistan, yet it is clear that drone warfare performs a strategic role and has a large impact in these countries. The U.S. needs to consider the reaction of those living in foreign countries, and the United States’ relations with foreign governments.

Thus, if anything, this commentary is not just a criticism of drone warfare but a plea to be cognizant of how shifting our strategic execution changes the very nature of how we engage in war.