Drone operators often kill their targets from a continent away, but studies suggest that even thousands of miles of distance cannot mitigate war's devastating psychological effects. But just wait until you hear how researchers propose preventing PTSD, alcohol abuse and thoughts of suicide in drone operators.
Above: Flying a drone can feel like a deadly two-person video game — with a pilot (left) and sensor (right); photo and caption via GQ.
The latest issue of GQ features a stunning read, written by Michael Powers, about former Air Force drone sensor operator Brandon Bryant and his time in the U.S. Military. One of the first pilots to speak out about his experience with the drone program, Bryant paints a frightening portrait of death-dealing from a distance, and the psychological trauma wrought by his nearly six-years of service as a drone operator.
It's a captivating read – one definitely worth reading in its entirety – but we were particularly struck by the section exploring Bryant's PTSD diagnosis, which he received just a few months after his heavy concscience led him to leave the Air Force:
It was an unexpected diagnosis. For decades the model for understanding PTSD has been "fear conditioning": quite literally the lasting psychological ramifications of mortal terror. But a term now gaining wider acceptance is "moral injury." It represents a tectonic realignment, a shift from a focusing on the violence that has been done to a person in wartime toward his feelings about what he has done to others — or what he's failed to do for them. The concept is attributed to the clinical psychiatrist Jonathan Shay, who in his book Achilles in Vietnam traces the idea back as far as the Trojan War. The mechanisms of death may change — as intimate as a bayonet or as removed as a Hellfire [an air-to-ground missile common aboard Predator drones]—but the bloody facts, and their weight on the human conscience, remain the same. Bryant's diagnosis of PTSD fits neatly into this new understanding. It certainly made sense to Bryant. "I really have no fear," he says now. "It's more like I've had a soul-crushing experience. An experience that I thought I'd never have. I was never prepared to take a life."
In total, the military estimates Bryant contributed to the death of 1,626 human targets. "He hadn't lased the target or pulled the trigger on all of the deaths tallied," Power notes, "but by flying in the missions he felt he had enabled them."
Culpability is a complicated thing. Bryant spent most of his time piloting drones from Nevada, thousands of miles removed from action in the Middle East. As a "sensor," he himself never pulled a trigger (that was his co-pilot's job); he merely guided missiles to their targets. Sometimes he and his drone partner would supply coordinates or other intel to American forces on the ground, intel that those forces would later use to coordinate a deadly strike. Bryant was physically or procedurally removed from the deaths of over 1,600 human military targets, and yet he, and the U.S. Air Force, associates those deaths with himself. He feels their weight.
And Bryant isn't alone. Killing from afar could contribute in a significant way to what Air Force psychologists refer to in a 2011 mental health survey of 600 combat drone operators as "existential conflict." Over 40% of drone crews surveyed reported moderate to high stress. One in five reported emotional exhaustion or burnout. A later study, Power writes, found that "drone operators suffered from the same levels of depression, anxiety, PTSD, alcohol abuse, and suicidal ideation as traditional combat aircrews."
So how best to ease the consciences of America's Drone Warriors? Powers mentions one solution in a parenthetical, emphasized below:
These effects [PTSD, alcohol abuse, suicidal ideation] appeared to spike at the exact time of Bryant's deployment, during the surge in Iraq. (Chillingly, to mitigate these effects, researchers have proposed creating a Siri-like user interface, a virtual copilot that anthropomorphizes the drone and lets crews shunt off the blame for whatever happens. Siri, have those people killed.)
It is painfully ironic, given the ineffectiveness of physical distance at easing soldiers' consciences, that researchers would propose the psychological equivalent as a mitigating measure – even (perhaps especially) if it proves to be an effective therapeutic technique. It is a testament to our species' capacity for humanity, after all, that in withdrawing our bodies from the grisly realities of war we seem to have left our psyches behind.