On Tuesday, The New York Times published the latest look at drone pilots. These Unmanned Aerial Vehicle operators are suffering such a high rate of exhaustion and stress that the US Air Force has been forced to cut drone missions down from a high of about 65 a week. They also currently have about 500 fewer pilots than they need.
Though they get to fight their wars in safety, and see their families every night, these new type of soldiers suffer from a surprisingly high burnout rate, and equivalent levels of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder to fighter pilots. And though when that news first broke two years ago, the temptation to be withering and unsympathetic was strong (okay, maybe that was just me), perhaps that kind of a mental reaction says something vital about the dangers of war to the human soul. Even people who aren’t themselves in danger suffer when they’re killing innocent people.
Part of the stress comes from the fact that these 1200 pilots are not in a battlefield setting. Strangely, but logically, controlling a surveillance and/or killing machine from thousands of miles away, concern about backing up manned personal, or more likely, worrying whether you’re hitting a would-be terrorist or some innocent civilians is stressful, no matter if you are safe in some bunker in Nevada. Seeing your spouse and kids a few hours later heightens the alienation inherent in such a job. You’re on duty, but you’re at home. It has to be disconcerting. After all, PTSD doesn’t tend to be about cracking up on the battlefield. It’s about dealing with a banal job or life after you’ve been trained to be on edge all the time. These pilots have to do that daily in a manner which must feel like psychological whiplash.
Additionally, there aren’t really “enough” drone pilots, so the ones who are there are drained and exhausted. Why, though? In a 2013 New York Times piece, one of the co-authors of a Defense Department study offered this explanation, “Remotely piloted aircraft pilots may stare at the same piece of ground for days. They witness the carnage. Manned aircraft pilots don’t do that. They get out of there as soon as possible.” That makes sense. For the 100 years that airplanes have been dropping death from above, the policy tends to be do your thing and then get home as fast as possible. Drones and the eyes of their operators just linger indefinitely.
The constant presence of drones adds to the psychological torment of the people who live under their invisible shadow. It makes sense that it would be more stressful for the would-be killers as well.
A piece reposted at Salon back in March reports that drone pilots fly more than three times as many man hours as other pilots. The latter tend to look down on the former as well, implying that they’re just nerdy gamers playing, not real pilots. And even for the antiwar person, there is a temptation to look especially disdainfully at the chickenhawk. Even a bomber pilot is risking their own life when they go out on a mission. Drone pilots go home at night every night. Poor babies, right? Just stop.
And more and more people wish they would do just that. In April, the website knowdrones.org aired 15 second TV spots that urged drone operators to quit. Now, the group – which includes ex-military people – has put together a letter that urges the same thing. The letter says that drone attacks are against the law, and the 6,000 casualties are “undermining principles of international law and human rights.”
It’s terrific to see this effort going forward, but it’s impossible to feel optimistic about being able to reverse the progress of military drones. They are a cheap, easy way to keep literally a constant presence in countries with which the US isn’t even at war. Someday a terrorist may well use drones in their own form of blowback, but not even then is the US likely to reconsider their new toys. If they literally had nobody left to fly the drones, however, that would stop them from murdering.
It is murder. And that has to be part of why the operators feel so beaten down. One has to hope they know what they are doing and it has an effect on their psyches. In combat, the eventual suffer of PTSD is in peril. Perhaps they are worried about their fellow soldiers and being able to have their backs if necessary. The latter issue may come into play for drone pilots, but the former never does. And pictures clear enough to see the pink mist that was once a human – perhaps a nameless one, tracked from cell phone signal or suspicious patterns that might mean a terrorist gathering or a wedding is coming together – seem to be enough to damage the person who did the deed from thousands of miles away.
As I wrote last year, as much as it is unfortunate to have more people in mental distress, it does bode well for humanity that war hurts them. Not the “goodness” of World War II, nor the safety of drone war today will stop a soldier from feeling something if they take a life.
Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for Antiwar.com and a columnist for VICE.com. She previously worked as an Associate Editor for Reason magazine. She is most angry about police, prisons, and wars. Steigerwald blogs at www.thestagblog.com.