Drone warfare and the stress induced by premeditated murder

A recent study by the U.S. Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine assessed the level of stress involved in remote warfare being conducted by Air Force drone operators. The New York Times reports:

4 percent or less of operators were at high risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder, the severe anxiety disorder that can include flashbacks, nightmares, anger, hypervigilance or avoidance of people, places or situations. In those cases, the authors suggested, the operators had seen close-up video of what the military calls collateral damage, casualties of women, children or other civilians. “Collateral damage is unnerving or unsettling to these guys,” Colonel McDonald said.

The percentage of troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan at risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder was 12 to 17 percent, the authors said.

In contrast to nearly half of drone operators’ reporting “high operational stress,” 36 percent of a control group of 600 Air Force members in logistics or support jobs reported stress. The Air Force did not compare the stress levels of the drone operators with military pilots who fly planes in the air.

The biggest sources of stress for drone operators remained long hours and frequent shift changes because of staff shortages.

Glenn Greenwald comments:

[A]t least some of these drone pilots have enough of a conscience to be seriously disturbed by the horrific results of these strikes. If only the general citizenry — who are typically kept blissfully unaware of the human devastation their government is causing — were as affected.

But to suggest that a measure of conscience is the way these pilots react to the unintended effects of their actions, doesn’t really say much about what is going on here.

In a recent edition of “The Stream” on Al Jazeera, former CentCom spokesman Josh Rushing, made these observations. (Watch the following video from 20min 22 sec till 21min 22sec.)

As unprecedented as it might seem for a killer to so closely study his target, this really isn’t new. Indeed, there is a commonly used term we associate with this kind of planning: premeditation.

Murder of the worst kind involves cold calculation and emotional detachment. The idea that a drone operator might end up with PTSD simply as a result of seeing innocent people get killed, ignores the effect of his spending hours or days anticipating an intentional killing.

The military precursor of the drone operator is the sniper and the non-military correlate of both is the hitman.

Randall Collins notes that inside the military, the sniper stands apart.

Snipers tend to be disliked even by their fellow soldiers, or at least regarded with uneasiness. A British sniper officer in World War I noted that infantrymen did not like to mingle with the snipers “for there was something about them that set them apart from ordinary men and made the soldiers uncomfortable”… World War II soldiers sometimes jeered at them. U.S. snipers in Vietnam were met with the comment: “Here comes Murder Incorporated.”

Josh Rushing notes that the Pentagon’s shift in favor of remote warfare is a reflection of a political reality: that if Americans are not taxed to support this country’s wars, and if wars can be fought without American soldiers getting killed, then Washington faces few political constraints in starting new wars about which the public will show little interest.

The Air Force is now recruiting more drone pilots than fighter and bomber pilots combined, but the continued success in recruitment requires that the job of these armchair pilots be glamorized and tied into a traditional warfighting culture. Hence the creation of commercials like this:

But note the irony: the stated target in this portrayal of 21st century warfare is the “enemy sniper” and the role of the drone pilot is to protect ordinary American soldiers.

In the battlefields that the Pentagon prefers however, there are no American soldiers, death comes by decree and those getting killed — however they might be labelled — are utterly defenseless.

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