For all the macho posturing of the late Chris Kyle, gunned down at a shooting range by a PTSD-afflicted veteran, his prolific killing has nothing on the death and destruction rained from above by those who carry out US drone strikes in the Middle East. For all intents and purposes, former drone operator Brandon Bryant has Kyle beat by a long shot. According to Bryant, over 1,600 deaths were dealt by him through the technological terror that patrolled the skies of the Middle East for the past decade. Unlike Kyle, though, Bryant isn’t flaunting his skill as a State-sanctioned murderer: he regrets it. For six years, he flew the missions on orders from on high. Now he’s retired from it and is speaking out. Bryant was diagnosed with PTSD shortly after leaving the program, odd only because normal diagnoses involve situations of prolonged mortal terror. Air Force psychologists have referred to conditions similar to Bryant’s as “existential conflict”, or “moral injury”.
Engaging in constant behavior that directly violates one’s own moral norms results in this “moral injury”, a term used by Dr. Jonathan Shay in his book, Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character. The Foreign Policy piece linked to quotes Dr. Brett Litz on the distinctness of moral injury from PTSD: "perpetrating, failing to prevent, bearing witness to, or learning about acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations."
The piece goes on to state that, “There may be no stronger case for the existence of moral injury than that presented by drone operators who, far removed from any physical threats to themselves, suffer symptoms associated with PTSD. Indeed, if moral injury is distinct from and not a component of PTSD (as Dr. Brett Litz and his colleagues claim), it is reasonable to conclude that drone operators are misdiagnosed as having PTSD: They actually suffer from moral injury.”
Humans flying drones, dealing death, and then suffering the fallout when their inner humanity accuses them of mass murder of their fellow man. Moral injury.
Since President Obama took the reins of the drone program, over 364 strikes have been carried out, racking up a death toll of over 2,400. But only when Americans die in drone strikes, with big exceptions, does the President acknowledge the tragedy. The Al-Awlaki killing, the 16 year-old Al-Awlaki killing, was justified with nonsense: he should’ve “had a more responsible father.”
UK-based human rights organization, Reprieve, released this report last year describing how many targets have been used multiple times to justify drone strikes, targets that have previously been reported as having already been killed by a drone strike. 1,147 were killed while trying to kill 41 men. The report makes a gut-wrenching observation:
“With each failed attempt to assassinate a man on the Kill List, who filled the body bag in his place? In fact, it is more accurate to say ‘body bags’: many other lives are sacrificed in the effort to erase a name from the Kill List. In one case, it took seven drone strikes before the US killed its target. In those strikes, as many as 164 people died, including 11 children.”
It’s much harder to work up tears for a statistic, even one as high as 2,464, than it is for things like the Jordanian pilot burned alive by ISIS. The drone war death toll is just a number to pretty much everyone, which is most likely its most valuable aspect to the Warfare State. A number on a screen just can’t conjure the sympathy those ISIS beheadings invoke. Both the Islamic State and the US government understand this basic fact of human nature, and both exploit it to great effect. The US badly wants militarism hidden, and drone warfare is the perfect vehicle; ISIS beheadings give the Islamic State the attention they crave by publishing footage of murder close-up. Drone strikes are clean and distant, and dealt from above, with no danger to US soldiers. The faces of the dead are buried under rubble.
Drone warfare is State-sponsored murder in its most perfect form. Lack of direct danger to US troops, ease of missile delivery, body count, relative cost-effectiveness, too good to be true for psychopaths in office. And its sterility, its boring, protocol nature means it will deal death to thousands more. Long after the US public demands an end to US troops occupying abroad, the drones will still fly. How could a draft end that? Being antiwar is not solely about US troop deaths, but also about the deaths of innocent foreigners. Even if a draft finally summoned sufficient outrage in response to the number of flag-draped coffins to end a war, it will never stop the strikes of drones. It will therefore be the chief source of blowback for decades to come. It’s just too tempting for the US government not to use. Aim and fire. Blow apart weddings, massacre children, and funerals. Aim, fire. Wait for the rescue operation, fire again. Wait for the funeral, fire a few more. Thousands dead. And each of the dead more than likely has a loved one who has inwardly declared undying war on the US.
Being antiwar seems to become a national pastime only among citizens on the receiving end. Americans care little enough for war their government inflicts as it is, even less so when it’s delivering in automated fashion. When the blowback arrives, and it will, the search for a cause will overlook drone strikes, because being invisible then, they are just as invisible now. And everyone’s conscience will be clean, except the drone pilots pulling the trigger.