Drone Warfare: An Ethical Difference of Kind
If a rocket or bullet is fired at a drone, the pilot doesn’t have to overcome fear. He or she must
jiggle a joystick and make a few adjustments at the console in order to save the drone and continue
the mission. The pilot might shift in slight discomfort while sitting in his leather swivel chair at
the console. I’m sorry, but there is simply no comparison.
This new medal reminds me of the ridiculous trend in little league soccer, baseball and football
where, win or lose, every kid goes home with a trophy. It cheapens real achievement. It makes
everyone a hero, which means no one is a hero. And the word “distinguished” is diluted in meaning
so that it becomes synonymous with “normal.”
As one of the most sophisticated and lethal innovations in modern weaponry, the introduction of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or military drones occasions an important opportunity to not only critically reconsider what modern warfare is, but more importantly what it should be.
Within the United States, discussions of this normative ilk have tended to gravitate around two central questions, namely by whom and under what aegis should drone strikes be effected, and who should (and should not) be affected by them. More precisely, there have been vigorous and rancorous arguments over whether the Executive branch, and more precisely the President, has the legal and statutory standing to unilaterally select and authorize military drone strikes against human targets, including those who are U.S. citizens, and whether drone strikes, because of their overwhelming firepower, inflict a disproportionate number of civilian casualties and thus violate humanitarian protections codified in international law.
To be sure, each of these debates has significant moral purchase and each therefore deserves a commensurate level of substantive exploration. Moreover, both underscore the continuing relevance and applicability of the just war tradition, especially as it relates to a proper adjudication of the jus ad bellum criterion of establishing a legitimate authority, and the jus in bello criterion of preserving a distinction between combatants and non-combatants.
Nevertheless, as important and necessary as these debates are (and undoubtedly will continue to be), it is also the case that neither fully appreciates or probes the unique moral character of drone warfare itself. Indeed while it is true that both acknowledge that military drones have radically altered the terrain and scope of the modern battlefield, insofar as they have introduced a host of variables and complexities heretofore thought unimportant or simply inconceivable, it is also true that neither suppose that there is something so unprecedented, so sui generis about drone warfare as to warrant a new mode of ethical inquiry seperate from the just war tradition for moral discernment and judgment. Drone warfare, in other words, is thought to mark a new iteration within the broader tradition of just wary theory, and a significant one at that. Yet ultimately this iteration is assumed to be one of degree, and not of kind.
Such an assumption would appear to be misplaced, however, especially when considering the controversy that enshrouded recent efforts made by the U.S. government to award combat drone pilots with a commendation of meritorious service and valor.
On February 13, 2103 then Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced that the Department of Defense would begin awarding the Distinguished Warfare Medal to combat drone pilots in order to recognize the “‘extraordinary achievement” they rendered “related to a military operation that occurred after September 11, 2001.” In addition to being the first new combat decoration of its kind since the Bronze Star in 1944, Secretary Panetta also announced that the Distinguished Warfare Medal was also to outrank the Bronze Star – a commendation that is awarded to a service member who has demonstrated “heroic or meritorious achievement or service, not involving participation in aerial flight, in connection with military operations against an armed enemy.” When speaking to reporters about the rationale behind the creation of the new medal and why drone pilots were deserving of such a recognition, Secretary Panetta stated, “I have seen first-hand how modern tools like remotely piloted platforms and cyber systems have changed the way wars can be fought… We should also have the ability to honor extraordinary actions that make a true difference in combat operations, even if those actions are physically removed from the fight.”
Yet no sooner had this announced been made than was the Distinguished Service Medal engulfed in a firestorm of public ridicule and criticism. And while the criticism poured in from all quarters, U.S. Veteran groups in particular were some of its most vociferous and vituperative of detractors.
For instance, speaking in his capacity as commander of the Veteran of Foreign Wars - the largest advocacy organization of combat veterans in the U.S. – John E. Hamilton registered his displeasure at the medal by stating:
The VFW fully concurs that those far from the fight are having an immediate impact on
the battlefield in real-time, but medals that can only be earned in direct combat must mean
more than medals awarded in the rear. The VFW urges the Department of Defense to reconsider
the new medal’s placement in the military order of precedence… It is very important to
properly recognize all who faithfully serve and excel, but this new medal — no matter how
well intended — could quickly deteriorate into a morale issue[.]
Similarly, the Military Order of the Purple Heart concurred but offered an even more strongly-worded denunciation:
The Military Order of the Purple Heart adamantly opposes the Department of Defense
decision to recognize military personnel whose extraordinary achievements may indirectly
impact combat operations while they remain safely away from the battlefield, with an award
whose order of precedence would place it above other awards for heroism on the battlefield,
such as the Bronze Star.
As announced, the Distinguished Warfare Medal would even rank higher than the Purple Heart
Medal which can only be received by a servicemember [sic] who is either wounded or killed in
action by the enemy. To rank what is basically an award for meritorious service higher than any
award for heroism is degrading and insulting to every American Combat Soldier, Airman, Sailor,
or Marine who risks his or her life and endures the daily rigors of combat in a hostile environment.
Soon the public outcry over the medal reached such a fevered pitch that Congressional members felt compelled to act. On February 26, 2013 a troika of Congressmen - Rep. Duncan Hunter, Rep. Tom Rooney and Rep. Tim Murphy, all of whom were themselves veterans – introduced H.R. 833, a bill that would require the Purple Heart “to be placed in precedence above the Distinguished Warfare Medal.” Speaking to a group of reporters convened after introducing the bill, Rep. Rooney explained its purpose by stating that “[t]here is no greater sacrifice than risking your own life to save another on the battlefield and the order of precedence should appropriately reflect the reverence we hold for those willing to make that sacrifice.” Rep. Murphy echoed with a similar sentiment by stating “that [a] Purple Heart should and must rank above the Distinguished Warfare Medal.”
Faced with a growing tide of popular and political opposition that showed no sign of abating, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel – Secretary Panetta’s successor – finally capitulated. On March 12th he ordered the Distinguished Warfare Medal to be put on hold indefinitely pending further review by the Department of Defense. This was quickly followed by a decision on April 15th to formally cancel the Distinguished Warfare Medal on account that “misconceptions regarding the precedence of the award were distracting from its original purpose.”
Thus in the span of a little less than two months the Distinguished Warfare Medal went from something that the Department of Defense had prioritized and celebrated even, to something that it, at best, considered an embarrassing distraction and at worst a regretful indiscretion.
What is both remarkable and instructive about this episode is not only the rapidity with which broader public opinion turned against the Distinguished Warfare Medal, but also the ferocity with which veteran groups were almost instantaneously opposed. At first blush, this opposition might seem odd given that the putative mission of groups like these is to promote and secure the general welfare of U.S. service members in all stages of their service, but especially in the midst of combat situations. Hence given that military drones allow soldiers to effectively perform their duties whilst simultaneously sparing them from the physical and mortal dangers of the battlefield, one might reasonably deduce that drones would be viewed as complementary if not coeval with this mission.
Yet it was precisely this inoculation from physical harm which these veteran groups found most objectionable about not only the Distinguished Service Medal itself, but the whole concept of drone warfare in general. Indeed, the animating principle behind their criticisms was not just that the Distinguished Service Medal would diminish and disparage the service of those who had immediately encountered, endured and overcame the physical threats of live combat, but also that the disembodied and remote nature of drone warfare was inevitably antithetical to the kind of character that they saw as defining a soldier, and thus distinguishing her or him from the general population, namely the cultivation of courage. For if, as Robberson opines above, the true mark of valor was no longer thought to obtain in having to evade rockets and bullets in order to complete a mission, but instead subsisted in the “jiggle[ing of] a joystick and mak[ing] a few adjustments at the console,” then ultimately “‘distinguished’” is so diluted of its meaning “that it become synonymous with ‘normal.’”
Accordingly what these objections to the Distinguished Warfare Medal reveal is that the use of military drones does in fact constitute a qualitatively new form of combat that cannot be entirely subsumed under the penumbra of the just war tradition. As such it therefore requires an ethical appraisal that goes beyond a determination of procedural compliance with principled criteria. More specifically, it requires probing and answering some more fundamental questions, questions like what is courage, how does one demonstrate courage in the context of combat, and what kind of practices and skills are both essential to and commensurate with the flourishing of that particular kind of courage. Or to ask these same questions albeit in a more pointed fashion, does the advent of drone warfare hasten the dawn of a post-courageous age, or does it re-define how we think about courage and thus commend its demonstration?
The purpose of this chapter is to explore and respond to these questions further and thus provide an alternative moral evaluation of both drone warfare and courage.
Toward those ends I will structure the chapter as follows. In the following section I will further address Christian Enemark’s assertion that drone warfare is a “risk-free” and thus a dis-courageous form of combat. More specifically I will help to clarify Enememark’s the philosophical and ethical presuppositions that underpin his conception of courage and then analyze how he applies this conception to drone warfare.
Next I will demonstrate how drone warfare entails both psychological and moral harms. To be sure such psychological wounds may not be as immediate or conspicuous as the loss of an extremity or traumatic brain injury, but they are just as corporeal and debilitating nevertheless and in some instances even more so because of their in-visibility and isolation.
Finally, I will then conclude this chapter by explaining why, pace Enemark, drone warfare does in fact require a form of both physical and moral courage. With respect to the first form I will show that Enemark’s strict dichotomy between bodily and psychological harms is faulty insofar as it fails to recognize that the two are inextricably conjoined together. Furthermore I will also explain how drone warfare - because of its unprecedented technological control and lethality - can actually demand a more rigorous form of courage beyond confronting bodily harms insofar as it continuously calls for the judicious exercise of moral courage.
A Post-Heroic Age? Drones and the Demise of the Warrior Ethos
Before defending the claim that drone combat does require a form of courage, I would first like to further explore the critical argument promulgated by veteran groups we encountered above, that is that drone warfare is inherently deleterious to the cultivation of valor. In particular, I would like to identify and examine the philosophical and ethical presuppositions that inform this critique by way of engaging Christian Enemark’s arguments as they are set forth in his recent volume Armed Drones and the Ethics of War: Military Virtue in a Post-Heroic Age.
Enemark’s critiques of drone warfare take a variety of forms and include an appraisal of how it has the potential to undermine the moral integrity of the just war tradition. In particular he is concerned that because “drone technology will enable an increase in the overall quantum of force being used in the world[,]” then from “a jus ad bellum perspective, such an increase would be unjust if force was resorted to without a just cause.” Furthermore, he also notes that if “the risk-free nature of drone-based killing sees citizens disengaging from the wars waged in their name by their governments,” then “it is worth asking whether such use of force has right authority and whether it is truly a last resort.”
Nevertheless, as the subtitle of his book indicates, the main thrust of Enemark’s criticism hinges on the negative relationship he sees existing between the use of drone warfare and the development of courage or what he describes as the “warrior ethos.” For as he asserts not “only does [the] risk-free killing” of drone warfare “pose a fundamental challenge to the status of war as something morally distinguishable from other forms of violence,” but it also “undermines the virtue of the warrior as a professional risk-taker.” Consequently, Enemark concludes that drone pilots “are not required to exercise courage when using force.”
To see why and how Enemark arrives at this conclusion, it will be necessary to further elucidate the conception of courage he employs. Enemark anchors this portion of his argument by first acknowledging that courage is essential to maintaining the moral integrity of the just war tradition insofar as it underpins the jus in bello criterion of discrimination or civilian immunity. For “[t]o kill a civilian,” he writes, “offends a warrior’s sensibilities not just because in breaches the Geneva Conventions but also because no courage is involved.” Accordingly, courage is a central virtue for the warrior because it “support[s] the protection of non-warriors.”
While not explicitly enunciated, it is nevertheless discernible within the subtext of these observations that for Enemark a display of courage must necessarily entail some element of physical risk. More precisely, if an act is to be regarded as courageous, it must be predicated upon some assumption of incurring bodily harm. Absent this element, then no act, no matter how resolute or magnanimous it may be, can rightly be said to be courageous.
As Enemark’s account of courage progresses, this reciprocal relationship between mutually-shared risk and the assumption of bodily harm becomes even more salient and central a feature. Drawing upon Aristotle’s discussion of courage in Nichomachean Ethics, Enemark approvingly quotes the philosopher when he writes that courage is the mark of a courageous man to face things that are terrible to a human being, and that he can see are such, because it is a fine act to face them and a disgrace not to do so.”
Hence what this Aristotelian account of courage makes clear then, according to Enemark, is that courage is “acting despite fear.” More specifically it is a willingness to act despite a fear of “incurring injury or death”, and as such can be “exercised only in circumstances of physical risk.” Enemark christens this display as “physical courage” which is to be differentiated from “moral courage” insofar the latter entails not the risk of losing life or limb, but rather “the risk of losing (mere) esteem or dignity[.]”
We shall return and attend to this distinction between physical and moral courage more fully below as it features significantly in my rebuttal. For the time being, however, it will suffice to note that for Enemark the resoluteness to act despite the risk of suffering physical injury or death is the sine non qua of courage. As such the cultivation and demonstration of courage is inextricably corporeal which is to say that it cannot be instantiated or practiced apart from physical embodiment.
It is with this conception of courage in mind that Enemark thus sets his eyes upon drone warfare and finds it to be devoid of courage for two important reasons.
First, he sees drone warfare as radically dissolving the binding reciprocation of mutually assured risk shared between combatants. For as Enemark posits, what invests “warlike killing” with its moral imprimatur is not simply the fact it takes place within the context of war. That would be tautological and thus unpersuasive. Rather, what establishes and validates a solider’s moral “licence” to kill, according to Enemark, is the “indispensible condition” of “exposure to physical risk.” For, at “its most basic level,” he writes, “this is the stuff of give and take: a licence to kill in return for a preparedness to die.”
What happens to the moral status of that license then, if this mutual exposure to physical harm or death is compromised by one of the combatants in such a manner that her or his exposure is significantly curbed if not eliminated altogether – a reality that certainly typifies drone warfare? In such a situation Enemark holds that a combatant’s “license” to kill is rendered morally deficient and thus revoked. Indeed he compares it to a scenario of a hunter logging onto a website, selecting an animal, and then remotely shooting it. In this instance, “the remote-control killing is to be condemned as unsporting,” Enemark contends, because the “online hunter cannot be injured by misfiring a rifle or charged by a wounded beast[.]” For “unless the hunter too is ‘out in nature’, only the hunted experiences the risk.”
Enemark concedes that this scenario is not directly comparable to a combat setting “not least because animals do not bear the human right to life”, and because animals “are incapable of politically motivated violence.” Nonetheless he still believes there is a crucial point where the comparison is morally apt and instructive and that is because in both situations there is “a common concern that the mutual risk renders killing ‘sporting’ or warlike – that is a contest.” Consequently, if “the risk-free (online) killing of a non-human can be determined objectionable,” it is therefore “reasonable to suggest that remote-control killing of humans might be objectionable also.”
Second, not only does Enemark see drone warfare nullifying the mutual risk of physical harm between combatants, but he also views it as irreparably severing the vital connection between courage and embodiment. Maintaining this connection is imperative, he argues, because the “ethical rules of war arguably derive largely ‘from our physical embodiment’ which in turn gives us ‘our sense of agency and responsibility for our actions.’”
Yet what happens to this embodiment, Enemark asks, “[w]hen a drone operator’s mind goes to war while his or her body remains at home”? In short, he or she becomes a ‘disembodied warrior’”, and this is ethically problematic in Enemark’s judgment because it runs “the risk that drone operators, as disembodied warriors, will regard the killing they do as merely a game[.]” More specifically, the
essential concern is whether young military personnel, ‘raised on a diet of video games’ and
‘removed from the human consequences of their actions’, will ‘value the right to life’, the
ethical implication being that, without a proper appreciation of the value of human life, drone
operators might be less capable of acting justly (e.g. refraining from indiscriminate violence)
when extinguishing it.
In the final analysis then, Enemark is convinced that the “‘war’ that this disembodied warrior engages in is no more a contest…than is pressing the sole of a shoe on an insect.” As such, “[i]n the absence of physical risk and an opportunity to exercise courage, the military virtue of the drone operator is diminished.”
Notwithstanding this verdict, this is not to say, however, that Enemark holds drone warfare to be a completely risk-free enterprise. On the contrary, he acknowledges that drone pilots can and suffer from psychological trauma like Post-traumatic Distress Disorder (PTSD). Consequently, while it is still the case that “the experience of physical risk in drone strikes is inherently one-sided,” Enemark accepts that this lack of physical risk is nonetheless “tempered by non-physical [emphasis added] risks that make drone operators victims as well as killers.”
Even so, Enemark is quick to add that he does not think that these psychological harms are debilitating enough to rise to the level of satisfying “the moral requirement that war is a contest between warriors experiencing mutual risk.” As such, Enemark acknowledges that while drone operators may well indeed be “victims of psychological harm”, this harm “is probably not enough to make them warriors”, by which Enemark also means courageous. 
Unsightly Wounds: The Psychological and Moral Wounds of Drone Warfare
Having now more thoroughly analyzed Enemark’s critique of drone warfare and the philosophical and ethical account of courage that underpins it, I would now like to respond by making the counter argument that combat drone pilots can and do in fact demonstrate a form of courage. To achieve this task, I would first like to build upon his observation that drone pilots can be victims of psychological trauma.
Enemark is certainly correct in his assertion that prior to making a more definitive set of judgments about the extent and kind of psychological and emotional toll that drone warfare exacts on drone pilots, “they would need to be substantiated by more research into the emotions of drone operators.” Even so, the need for further research and study should not minimize nor obscure the emerging literature that is addressing this topic, as inchoate and nascent as it may be.
One such contribution that marks an important step in this direction is the publication of a 2013 study co-authored by Otto and Webber entitled “Mental Health Diagnoses and Counseling Among Pilots of Remotely Piloted Aircraft in the United States Air Force.”
Commissioned by the U.S. Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center this study sought to build upon previous research that had examined the incidence of stress and emotional exhaustion among U.S. combat pilots operating military drones in Iraq and Afghanistan. What made Otto and Webber’s study unique from previous research, however, aside from gathering information for a much longer time period – i.e. October 2003 through December 2011 –, was that it also directly compared the incidence of mental health problems between pilots of “remotely piloted aircraft (RPA)” flying combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan with pilots of “manned aircraft” (MA).
After compiling and collating their data Otto and Webber found that “[a]pproximately 8.2 percent of RPA pilots and 6.0 percent of MA pilots had at least one MH [mental health] outcome” which included diagnoses of depression, adjustment disorder, anxiety, PTSD, suicide ideation, and substance abuse. However, upon controlling their findings for age, number of deployments service time, and mental health history, Otto and Webber found that “RPA pilots and MA pilots had statistically equivalent incidence rates of total and individual MH outcomes evaluated” with adjustment disorder and depression being the two most common diagnoses in both RPA and MA pilots. Thus while only constituting one data point, Otto and Webber’s comprehensive study nevertheless supplies the best empirical case to date that drone pilots are just as susceptible to suffering emotional and psychological harms as their in-theater counterparts, despite being physically removed the battlefield.
Furthermore, Otto and Webber also found that the emotional and psychological harms drone pilots suffer may actually be exacerbated by the remote nature of their service. As they write:
RPA crewmembers may face several additional challenges, some of which may be unique to
telewarfare: lack of deployment rhythm and of combat compartmentalization (i.e., a clear
demarcation between combat and personal/family life); fatigue and sleep disturbances
secondary to shift work; austere geographic locations of military installations supporting
RPA missions; social isolation during work, which could diminish unit cohesion and thereby
increase susceptibility to PTSD; and sedentary behavior with prolonged screen time,
implicated as psychological challenges in the adult video gaming community.
Such challenges are certainly evident in the story of Brandon Bryant, a U.S. combat drone pilot that Matthew Power profiled for an article he wrote for Gentlemen’s Quarterly magazine in October of 2013. Describing the monotonous and isolated schedule that Bryant kept as a drone pilot, Power paints a portrait that is equal parts disorienting and dreary:
The pace of work in the [control center] unraveled Bryant’s sense of time. He worked
twelve-hour shifts, often overnight, six days a week. Both wars were going badly at the
time, and the Air Force leaned heavily on its new drone fleet. A loaded Predator drone
can stay aloft for eighteen hours, and the pilots and sensors were pushed to be as
tireless as the technology they controlled. (Bryant claims he didn’t get to take leave
for the first four years he served.)
Even the smell of that little shed in the desert got to Bryant. The hermetically sealed
control center was almost constantly occupied – you couldn’t take a bathroom break
without getting swapped out – and the atmosphere was suffused with traces of cigarette
smoke and rank sweat the no amount of Febreze could mask. One bored pilot even
calculated the number of farts each cockpit seat was likely to have absorbed.
To be sure, as affectively bleak and Spartan as this existence may be, it is hardly comparable to the emotional and psychological toil one that in-theater combat can exact. Yet what is important to remember is that in addition to enduring these challenges of emotional isolation and displacement, drone pilots must also endure the psychological traumas of live combat as well, albeit filtered through a different medium of time and space. Nevertheless that experience, as physically distant and dyspeptic as it may be, can also be, as Otto and Webber’s study substantiates, just as emotionally and psychologically damaging. The important difference, however, between the soldiers who experience the emotional and psychological trauma of live combat first hand, and those who have it technologically mediated is that the former can draw upon the resources of their immediate context – the comradery of their fellow soldiers being one of the most significant – to help process and work through that pain. The autonomy and isolation of the drone pilot, by contrast, leaves her or him woefully bereft of such resources. Once again Power’s account of Bryant proves instructive:
A white flash of flame blossomed on the screen. Bryant was zoomed in as close as he
could get, toggling his view between infrared and day-TV, watching in unblinking
horror as the shredded Humvee burned. His headset exploded with panicked chatter
from the ground in Iraq: What the fuck happened? We’ve got guys down over here!
Frantic soldiers milled around, trying to pull people out of the smoldering wreckage.
The IED had been tripped by either a pressure plate or manual detonation; the radio
jammers would have done nothing to prevent it. Three soldier were wounded, and
two were killed.
“I kind of finished the night numb,” Bryant says. “Then you just go home. No one
talked about it. No one talked about how they felt after anything. It was like an
unspoken agreement that you wouldn’t talk about your experiences.”
Thus what this account reveals is that drone warfare involves a certain paradox of intimacy. For on the one hand, the physical distance of drone warfare ensconces a pilot in a sphere of physical safety that protects her or him from the immediate intimacy of lethal harm. On the other hand, however, it does very little to protect her or him against the emotional and psychological harms of live combat. In fact, as Bryant’s story makes clear, it is this very physical distance which denudes and deprives the drone pilot of the emotional and psychological coping mechanisms he or she needs to not only have these harms acknowledged, but also to have them processed. Thus this lack of physical intimacy coupled with intense emotional and psychological intimacy actually ends up making the drone pilot all the more exposed and vulnerable, and thus deeply wounded whilst putatively unscathed.
And yet to suggest or even intimate that these psychological and emotional traumas are real, let alone comparable to physical wounds in terms of their debilitating effect, is to inevitably invite scorn and derision. To wit, Powers describes the public reaction to a February 2, 2013 New York Times article that cited Otto and Webber’s study in order to bring attention to the incidence of PTSD among combat drone pilots:
I watched as [Bryant] scanned a barrage of Facebook comments mocking the very idea
that drone operators could suffer from trauma:
“I broke fucking nail on that last mission.”
“Maybe they should wear seatbelts.”
“They can claim PTSD when they have to ‘Body Collection and Identification.’”
And then Bryant waded in:
“I’m ashamed to have called any of you assholes brothers in arms.”
“Combat is combat. Killing is killing. This isn’t a video game. How many of you have
killed a group of people, watched as their bodies are picked up, watched the funeral,
then killed them too?”
“Yeah, it’s not the same as being on the ground. So fucking what? Until you know
what it is like and can make an intelligent meaningful assessment, shut your goddamn
fucking mouths before somebody shuts them for you.”
Thus what these contemptuous comments and Bryant’s angry protestations to them reveal is that combat drone pilots are apt to be consigned to a certain intractable purgatory which in they are enjoined to endure and suffer the same emotional and psychological traumas as their fellow “warriors”, yet perpetually have their “warrior” status impugned and called into question which quite literally only ends up adding insult to their injury.
However, in addition to these emotional and psychological harms, this paradox and purgatory are illuminative of another significant kind of injury that drone warfare can inflict as well. For once again, as Enemark explains above, it is thought that drone warfare’s lack of physical intimacy precludes the drone pilot from experiencing a level of intimacy with his or her or his enemy that is correlative with cultivating a respect for her or his humanity. To reiterate, the “essential concern,” Enemark states, “is whether young military personnel, ‘raised on a diet of video games’ and ‘removed from the human consequences of their actions’, will ‘value the right to life[.]”
Yet upon closer inspection, the exact opposite of this judgment seems to hold true. For while direct engagement with an enemy in in-theater combat situations is typically sporadic and confined to discrete instances of confrontation, Bryant’s question above asking, “[h]ow many of you have killed a group of people, watched as their bodies are picked up, watched the funeral, then killed them too?”, indicates that for a drone pilot the scope and duration of engagement is much more continuous and expansive and alas intimate. Indeed, this deep level of intimacy is a direct function of the panopticon-like surveillance that a drone pilot performs which enables her or him to become privy to the most quotidian and personal details of the every-day lives of their subjects:
Sitting in the darkness of the control station, Bryant watched people on the other side of
the world go about their daily lives, completely unaware of his all-seeing presence wheeling
in the sky above. If his mission was to monitor a high-value target, he might linger above
a single house for weeks. It was a voyeuristic intimacy [emphasis added]. He watched the
targets drink tea with friends, play with their children, have sex with their wives on roof-
tops, writhing under blankets. There were soccer matches, and weddings too. He once
watched a man walk out into a field and take a crap, which glowed white in infrared.
Once again then, the physical remoteness of drone warfare can actually heighten rather than diminish the level of psychological and emotional intensity, and with specific respect to engagement with an enemy, fortify rather than enervate their humanity. As Peter Lee has observed “the results of [a] strike are not immediately seen by the pilot or weapons system officer” of a manned combat aircraft, thus “sparing them the instant emotional impact of the physical destruction of life and material below,” a drone pilot, by contrast, “can spend hours or even days confirming the identity of an enemy combatant.” As a result a “much greater degree of emotional engagement with an intended target becomes possible when aspects of his personality and lifestyle become familiar[.]” Or as one drone pilot that Lee interviewed pithily perorated, “UAV targets are much more personal.”
And it is precisely this process of personalizing the enemy which therefore can make the act of killing him or her all the more traumatic and morally disconcerting:
In the early months Bryant had found himself swept up by the Big Game excitement
when someone in his squadron made “mind-blowingly awesome shots, situations
where these guys were bad guys and needed to be taken out.” But a deep ambivalence
about his work crept in. Often he’d think about what life must be like in these towns
and villages his Predators glided over, like buzzards riding updrafts. How would he
feel, living beneath the shadow of robotic surveillance? “Horrible,” he says now.
But at first, he believed the mission was vital, that drones were capable of limiting
the suffering of war, saving lives. When this notion conflicted with the things he
witnessed in high resolution from two miles above, he tried to put it out of his
mind. Over time he found that the job made him numb: a “zombie mode” he slipped
into easily as his flight suit…
“After that first missile hit, I didn’t really talk to anyone for a couple of weeks.”…
“I didn’t know what it meant to kill someone. And watching the aftermath, watching
someone bleed out, because of something I did.”
That night, on the drive home, he started sobbing. He pulled over and called his
mother. “She just was like, ‘Everything will be okay,’ and I told her I killed
someone, I killed people, and I don’t feel good about it. And she’s like, “Good,
that’s how it should feel, you should never not feel that way.”
The moral dissonance and regret that Bryant describes after killing should not just be viewed as an act of penitent confession. Instead they are symptomatic of what is known as “moral injury.” Developed by clinical psychologists after the Vietnam War studying the psychological effects of killing in warfare, the term “moral injury” has come to be defined as “perpetrating, failing to prevent, bearing witness to or learning about acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations.” More broadly, moral injury involves “participating in or witnessing inhumane or cruel actions, failing to prevent the immoral acts of others,…engaging in subtle acts or experiencing reactions that, upon reflection, transgress a moral code, [or] bearing witness to the aftermath of violence and human carnage.”
To date there has been no specific study conducted to measure the incidence of moral injury among U.S. combat soldiers. Even so, there is a growing body of research showing it to be a distinct effect of combat. It is therefore not difficult to conceive moral injury being one of the harms inflicted by drone combat, and as Bryant’s own experience shows, a harm that drone combat is especially prone to cause.
A Unified Self: The Physical and Moral Courage of Drone Warfare
In light of the foregoing discussion, I have thus established that drone warfare is capable of inflicting psychological and moral harm. Furthermore, I have also established that these harms are comparable and in some instances perhaps even more potent than those that result from in-theater combat. Accordingly, as it relates to Enemark’s conception of courage, it seems plausible to suggest that drone pilots satisfy one of its conditions insofar as they are willing to act despite the risk of facing injury.
However, it is necessary to recall that Enemark stipulates that courage requires not just the willingness to act in the face of injury in general, but physical injury in particular. More specifically, Enemark asserts that courage necessitates the shared risk of bodily harm. On this count, drone pilots fundamentally fall short since the harms they risk suffering are decidedly “non-physical.”
Is it truly the case, however, that the psychological and moral injuries that drone pilots can suffer from are strictly non-physical in nature? To assume that they are, as Enemark does, would also be to posit a quasi-Plationic anthropology such that there exists a clearly delineated bifurcation between the body and the attendant harms that can affect it, and the mind and its attendant injuries.
There are two important reasons, however, to believe why this body-physical/mind-non-physical dichotomy does not hold. One is that neither a ground combat solider nor a drone pilot (nor any other kind of soldier for that matter) experiences and process combat through two separate modes of existence that are hermetically sealed off from each other. On the contrary, they experience combat as a unified self in which the body and mind are inextricably linked and conjoined. Whatever affects the one will invariably affect the other and vice-versa.
Thus to say that affects of combat, including its harms and injuries, resides simply in the non-physical psychology of the drone pilot is to fundamentally ignore how those same affects simultaneously carry over and impact the physical – a point that is perceptively confirmed by Lee when he writes that “while there is no danger of [a] round or grenade hitting the [drone] pilot or sensor thousands of miles away, the individual cannot fully be said to be without physical response.” Indeed, “[a]drenaline…still surges when a [drone] crew is tasked to provide close air support to allied soldiers or marines on the ground,” and ultimately, an “overabundance of adrenaline experienced over an extended period can have a debilitating affect on the human body – including the brain – regardless of proximity to war.”
Another reason to dispute Enemark’s physical/non-physical dualism is because of the way it implicitly elevates the exercise of physical courage over and above a display of moral courage. Recall from above that Enemark defined physical courage as a willingness to act despite bodily injury or death whereas moral courage is the willingness to act at “the risk of losing (mere) esteem or dignity[.]” The use of the qualifier “mere” here is suggestive as it indicates that Enemark does not see the compromise or less of personal dignity as something as injurious as physical dismemberment or death. Indeed he appears to confirm as much when he states that it is “difficult enough to weigh the loss of psychological integrity against the loss of a limb, much less the loss of a life.”
Such a sentiment would seem to belie, however, one of the overriding ethical concerns Enemark registered about drone warfare above, namely that “without a proper appreciation of the value of human life, drone operators might be less capable of acting justly (e.g. refraining from indiscriminate violence) when extinguishing it.” What is important to note here is how this concern recognizes that maintaining the integrity of a soldier extends beyond just a willingness to use lethal force or even to act despite fear. It requires also, a capacity for not acting and perhaps even more importantly, the kind of moral character that recognizes that such inaction is demanded by the dictates of justice. And while developing this capacity and commensurate moral character is imperative for every soldier, how much more so is it for the drone pilot who is unencumbered by virtually every other impediment save for the moral restraint of her or himself?
Thus once again it simply cannot be the case that the exercise of courage is exclusively confined to a demonstration of the physical. There is an essential moral expression as well and as Enemark’s concerns make clear, a courageous soldier will need to be in possession of both. For as Robert Sparrow has argued, in addition to possessing the physical courage to confront “fear, bodily injury, and death,” the “good warrior” will also require moral courage “in order to do what is right in the difficult moral circumstances of war and (especially) to resist the social and institutional pressures that are brought to bear on them as members of military organizations.”
In the final analysis then, it is necessary to recognize that drone warfare is not the dis-courageous form of combat that several claim it to be. On the contrary it not only requires the willingness to subject one’s self to psychological and moral wounds that most will never see and even fewer will understand, but also a willingness to defy the social and technological exigencies of action. As such the proper question to be considered is not whether the advent of drones heralds an age of un-manned warfare, but rather what kind of men and women does this kind of warfare require.
By way of conclusion I would like to offer an initial response to that important question that while not exactly providing a full-fledge answer nevertheless establishes a set of parameters within which such an answer might be crafted. In particular I believe drone warfare requires further and deeper engagement with one aspect of armed combat that heretofore has been either largely ignored or relegated to the periphery.
One such aspect is the scope of injury combatants incur. As demonstrated above, far from ensconcing drone pilots in an antiseptic prophylactic that shields them from the intensity and harms of the physical battlefield, the technological sophistication and isolation of drone warfare actually heightens those experiences by stripping them of their physical and emotional buffers. What drone warfare thus brings into sharper focus then is that the trauma of combat does not lend itself to a strict bifurcation between the noumenal and the corporeal. Indeed drone pilots experience and process the harms of warfare as psycho-somatic wholes. That their trauma takes place in a location thousands of miles away from a physical battlefield makes the pain of their suffering no less real, nor any less severe.
This therefore means then that it will no longer suffice to speak of or conceptualize the psychological and moral trauma of combat as somehow being distinct from, much less as constituting “lesser” forms of harm in comparison to that inflicted by physical wounds. Both are equally injurious to the integrity of a combatant and moreover the full scope of either cannot be fully appreciated or understood apart from the other. Warren Kinghorn sums up this interrelationship mutual interpretation well when he writes
The recognition of moral injury therefore forces trauma psychology to regard the human
person in all of his or her complexity as a moral agent, fully situated within and
and constituted by a sociocultural matrix of language and meaning and valuation
in which “trauma” cannot be understood apart from understanding of that matrix.
Trauma of this sort is not an individual reality but a social reality; the social is not
the context in which individual trauma is inflicted, but just a plausibly, the individual
is the context in which social trauma is inflicted.
Thus while not exclusively illuminating in and of itself, drone warfare nonetheless provides a particularly penetrating window into how the combatants of today must be viewed as integrated holistic selves.
See notes and resources here.