The National Catholic Review
Maryann Cusimano Love
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Although it may seem counterintuitive, surveys show that the military operators of drones (note that C.I.A. operators were not in the survey) suffer post-traumatic stress disorder at higher rates than do soldiers in combat zones. Why? First, instead of going to war with a unit that offers community, cohesion and military support services, drone operators are commuter warriors who go to their battle stations alone, with few support systems.

Second, the operators see in detail the destruction and grisly human toll from their work, whereas a traditional bomber sees little of what happens after dropping a bomb. As Col. Pete Gersten, commander of Unmanned Aerial Systems at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada, put it: “A lot of people downplay it, say, ‘You’re 8,000 miles away. What’s the big deal?’ But it’s not really 8,000 miles away, it’s 18 inches away. We’re closer…than we’ve ever been as a service. There’s no detachment. Those employing the system are very involved at a personal level in combat. You hear the AK-47 going off, the intensity of the voice on the radio calling for help. You’re looking at him, 18 inches away from him, trying everything in your capability to get that person out of trouble.”

Third, there is a troubling disconnect for drone operators who kill by day, then go home to their families at night. As one Predator drone pilot described it, “You’re going to war for 12 hours, shooting weapons at targets, directing kills on enemy combatants. And then you get in the car and…within 20 minutes, you’re sitting at the dinner table talking to your kids about their homework.”

Fourth, for those in the Air Force, drone warriors are often seen as second-class citizens in military culture. Operators seldom volunteer for this duty, which is derided as the “chair force.” Over half the current generals in the Air Force were fighter pilots; operating a drone is considered a career-killer.

Finally, because there are too few operators, the working tempo for drone operators has been excruciating. It is 24/7, grinding shift work, with no end in sight, and the sleep deprivation and lack of time off take a toll. As P. W. Singer, author of Wired for War, writes, “We have 5,000 years in one kind of combat, and we don’t really understand all of the stresses of it, so it’s a little bit arrogant to think we would understand the stresses of this new kind of combat after only four or five years.”

Maryann Cusimano Love is a fellow at the Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Comments

Tom Maher | 3/13/2010 - 3:14am
No, the article is ambiguous. The experience of the drone operators is used to put drone warfare in a very negative ligth by implication but without direct criticism. The implication is that operator are experiencing stress due to the very dark nature of the drone warefare they are involved with. This is unfair overall representation.

The basic support lacking in this article is that drone operators are doing a necessary, important and morally justified job of defending our country. The author is silent on purpose and positive contribution these operators are making. These operators are supported by most of the American public.

On cue, the typical anti-military moralizing begins, grossly condeming all military activity and all military personal, always. Jump to maralize without any real insight.

This article distorts the drone operator experience to make its own drown warefare editorial.
C Walter Mattingly | 3/10/2010 - 6:34am

Point taken. These operators suffer stress as do the soldiers in the field, although it manifests itself somewhat differently.  Like soldiers in the field, they have a heavy workload. My point is they serve the country to their abilities at a considerable psychological price and should be supported and appreciated by their countrymen-as well as their fellow combatants.

Andrew Russell | 3/8/2010 - 4:45pm
Both of the previous comments seem to miss the mark. The point of the article is that there is a human price paid by the drone operators. Despite our distaste for war, or whether we feel that the war is justified, we as a faith community are called to minister to those who wage war, as well as to the victims of war.
C Walter Mattingly | 3/5/2010 - 9:58pm

I have yet to see any method of conducting warfare that avoids stress, but I for one would like these "video game players" these "armchair operators" to know how much I appreciate and value the stresses they endure to keep America safe from the next terrorist strike against thousands of our innocent citizens. We could have let Saddam sarin gas another village of his countrymen or fill a few hundred more mass graves, but we chose to act.  We could have allowed AlQaeda a sanctuary from which they could plan more devastating acts of terror against us, but we chose to act. Not so fortunate were the tribes in Africa who were being slaughtered by the tens of thousands. We chose not to dirty our hands with warfare, diplomacy failed, and the slaughter of over a hundred thousand men, women, and children was completed. Is that a preferable outcome to war? Is that something of which Americans and the world can be proud? President Clinton called that inaction one of the greatest mistakes of his presidency.  Doing nothing can be the worst immorality of all.

How many innocent men, women, and children are being killed and injured by this remote activity? No one knows for sure, but thousands of times fewer than were killed by the firebombing of German and Japanese cities that occurred under Franklin Roosevelt's administration, and no citizens targeted like they were then and are today by our enemies.

Mike Evans | 3/5/2010 - 4:49pm

War is now one giant video game. Targets are acquired, blasted and the hunt moves on. The operators never have to physically walk in to view their destruction. Now the hardest part: how many deadly mistakes have been made? How many innocent women, children and men have been killed and terribly injured by this remote control firestorm? We once decried saturation bombing. We recognized the fallacy of so-called 'smart bombs.' Will we finally understand that war waged from many thousands of miles away by armchair operators fed a caffeine and sugar enriched diet is unjust and totally immoral?