Hidden From View
Over the past few years the news has highlighted the use of drones. As the number of drone strikes increases, so does the media coverage. And with increased media coverage, comes greater scrutiny over all things drone related. The civilian deaths, lack of transparency, debate over effectiveness, and so forth all fill news articles, air time, and blogs. However, one aspect of particular interest that has recently started to receive additional attention and be more fully investigated and developed is the psychological affect that drone warfare has on drone operators.
Many people worried that the lack of personal physical proximity to the scene of the strike would create a “video game mentality” where the soldiers flying the drones would feel disconnected and a lack of concern or personal responsibility. However, research is demonstrating that this is not the case and that drone operators often suffer from PTSD and other harmful emotional and psychological issues. Despite the remote nature of the job, there are several reasons why it is such an emotionally taxing occupation.
Together, a pilot and a sensor operator operate the drones. The pilot is the one who fires the missile, but the sensor operator is responsible for using laser guidance to direct the missile to the target. In many cases, the sensor operators are young, sometimes as young as 18 or 19. Their youthfulness, along with a lack of previous experience, makes them especially impressionable and vulnerable.
Drone operators may track and monitor targets for a lengthy period of time – sometimes up to months – and this highlights the humanity of the target for the drone operators and therefore they are not as desensitized as many might think. Furthermore, in order to evaluate the damage, drones will often remain near the scene after an attack and this gives operators a close up look at the death and destruction they created. Fighter pilots, who also engage in aerial attacks, often do not see the actual affects of their bombs on the targets, and so in a sense, they spare themselves from immediately viewing the devastation and pain that they caused.
Although drone pilots are not in physical danger, they have many of the same physical reactions as infantrymen in combat, and they experience high levels of stress. One study reported that "drone operators suffered from the same levels of depression, anxiety, PTSD, alcohol abuse, and suicidal ideation as traditional combat aircrews." In part, this is due to the fact that PTSD and other emotional traumas do not stem solely from intense physical danger and facing death. One author succinctly summed this up when he said, in reference to the psychological damage inflicted on drone operators, that “there is a moral injury that comes from committing violence as well, and the asymmetrical nature of that violence does not eliminate this fact. Trauma is not just what horrors we suffer, but what horrors we commit as well.”
With this exposure to horror in mind, another reason for the intense pressure and vulnerability to psychological breakdowns is the lack of camaraderie that drone operators have. While combat troops have other soldiers who are by their side and are going through the exact same experience, drone pilots lack that sense of brotherhood and are more likely to feel alone in their struggle. Just as the pilots are physically removed from the war, they are also often physically removed from a squadron full of support, trust, and close friendship.
In addition to not being in the field with their peers, drone operators experience what many referred to as “whiplash transition.” They go to work in the morning, engage in warfare, and return to their families at night. While this may sound ideal to some, it is extremely challenging for drone pilots to be able to effectively switch from war to household chores and childcare. These soldiers do not have a way to debrief or decompress and they often cannot discuss their work with their family and friends. If drone operators are unable to balance these competing responsibilities, then work, home life, or both will start to deteriorate and that will simply add additional stress.
The amount of collateral damage (that is, civilian deaths) caused by drones has received significant media attention. While regrettable, collateral damage occurs in every war and can happen with soldiers on the ground, bombing, or drone strikes. Drone operators are not immune to feelings of anguish, guilt, and shame after this happens and pure judgment and condemnation, with no help or counseling, only exacerbates these feelings.
To argue that the use of drones spares service members from the horrors of war is inaccurate. Drone operators, albeit in a different way than other combatants, also face intense pressure, stress, and lingering negative side effects from their work. This needs to be fully recognized and addressed so that those suffering emotional trauma from their work can receive the help they need and deserve.