While amusing (at least, amusing i suppose to pilots) the caption of this image suggests that it can’t be that easy being an Air Force drone operator. Besides the disrespect from pilots of manned aircraft, who are legendary for their egos (Air Force joke: how can you tell if someone is a pilot? They’ll tell you) even as they may be an endangered species, it turns out that there are psychological and even spiritual costs to operating unmanned aerial vehicles. These issues have been explored in a recent film, “Good Kill”. That film was reviewed fairly positively in the New Yorker last month, though Anthony Lane felt that its pursuit of its themes “depersonalized conflict, collateral damage, and modes of modern imperialism” was done in ways that “strain to insure that its meaning is as clear and as cloudless as the Nevada skies”.
Two days ago the New York Times published a story on how drone operators are subject to operational and post-traumatic stress, and how drone operations are being cut back because of high attrition rates among operators. The article includes mention of how US Air Force chaplains are among a “human performance team” of mental health professionals who have high level security clearances in order to meet with any operators in the facility at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada “if they are troubled”. That would make for some heavy pastoral lifting, to be sure, and hopefully the chaplains are doing more than just encouraging people to get back in their seats and fly another mission.
I said in my title that drone pilots and operators are “One Human Cost of the Drone War” but of course there are other costs. A 2014 installation in the fields of Pakistan aimed to show US drone operators the face of a child orphaned by a drone strike. In November of 2014, Steve Coll wrote a memorable piece for the New Yorker on what it is like to live in a region where drones operate regularly. Since at least 2011 various third parties, including the Columbia University Law School. have been calling for disclosure of civilians, primarily in Pakistan but more recently in countries like Yemen, who have been killed in drone strikes. Earlier this month the NYT reported on how some US lawyers are seeking to get a US government apology for two Yemeni men killed by mistake in a drone strike in 2012. The relatives of the two men were apparently offered a bag of cash, sequentially numbered US currency, but to date the only US apology issued for an accidental death from a drone was issued to the families of two Western hostages. In November of 2014, the Guardian reported that civilian deaths in US drone strokes numbered over 1100.
None of the above comments are meant to demonize US drone operators. The NYT piece reminds us that there are human costs on both sides. Drone operators have high-definition video images to show the effects of their strikes on buildings, vehicles, and people. It’s impossible to imagine that these images do not have the power to haunt and trouble these operators. As media pundits debate the wisdom of putting “boots on the ground” and sending soldiers back into places like Iraq, it should be remembered that the West has been very comfortable, even complacent, in conducting a remote control war for years now, targeting the so-called high value targets (HVTs) that emerge, one terrorist leader replacing the other. The Israelis call this approach “mowing the grass”. In this ongoing hunt for HVTs, a certain degree of “collateral damage”, meaning deaths of civilians either caught in the blasts or targeted mistakenly, is tolerated. Should we as citizens accept this process when it seems that increasing numbers of men and women operating the drones can no longer accept it?