Drone pilots are remote but not detached.
The cover story for the Atlantic‘s September issue reveals a surprising truth: drone warfare is more like The Truman Show than Terminator. In the future, autonomous robots might fight our battles for us, but for now, war is all too human; we rely on human pilots and human decision-making (plus a ton of cameras).
Military drones, like the RQ-1 Predator and the MQ-9 Reaper, are best known for firing missiles at people and other targets in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen, as part of a targeted killing program. Firing missiles was an upgrade for Predators; they were originally designed to conduct surveillance, flying high above war zones, recording what happens below and relaying that video to pilots located half a world away. That surveillance can be grueling: pilots spend entire shifts watching the same target, and might do so for days or even months. Inevitably, drone operators develop an intimate understanding of their targets’ lives.
Author Mark Bowden’s tour de force on the United States’s drone war includes two first-hand experiences from drone pilots. The first involves a pilot who used a drone to defend Marines under attack on a road in Afghanistan:
‘I could see exactly what kind of gun it was in back,’ the pilot told me later. ‘I could see two men in the front; their faces were covered. One was in the passenger seat and one was in the driver’s seat, and then one was on the gun, and I think there was another sitting in the bed of the truck, but he was kind of obscured from my angle.’
On the radio, they could hear the marines on the ground shouting for help.
‘Fire one,’ said the colonel.
The Hellfire is a 100-pound antitank missile, designed to destroy an armored vehicle. When the blast of smoke cleared, there was only a smoking crater on the dirt road.
‘I was kind of freaked out,’ the pilot said. ‘My whole body was shaking. It was something that was completely different. The first time doing it, it feels bad almost. It’s not easy to take another person’s life. It’s tough to think about. A lot of guys were congratulating me, telling me, “You protected them; you did your job. That’s what you are trained to do, supposed to do,” so that was good reinforcement. But it’s still tough.’
Another pilot discusses the longer missions, which are less about supporting fellow soldiers and involve more targeted killing:
The dazzling clarity of the drone’s optics does have a downside. As a B-1 pilot, Dan wouldn’t learn details about the effects of his weapons until a post-mission briefing. But flying a drone, he sees the carnage close-up, in real time-the blood and severed body parts, the arrival of emergency responders, the anguish of friends and family. Often he’s been watching the people he kills for a long time before pulling the trigger. Drone pilots become familiar with their victims. They see them in the ordinary rhythms of their lives-with their wives and friends, with their children. War by remote control turns out to be intimate and disturbing. Pilots are sometimes shaken.
‘There is a very visceral connection to operations on the ground,’ Dan says. ‘When you see combat, when you hear the guy you are supporting who is under fire, you hear the stress in his voice, you hear the emotions being passed over the radio, you see the tracers and rounds being fired, and when you are called upon to either fire a missile or drop a bomb, you witness the effects of that firepower.’ He witnesses it in a far more immediate way than in the past, and he disdains the notion that he and his fellow drone pilots are like video gamers, detached from the reality of their actions. If anything, they are far more attached. At the same time, he dismisses the notion that the carnage he now sees up close is emotionally crippling.
Bowden’s entire piece is 10,000 words long, and I recommend every single one of them.