In November, the U.S. Air Force announced that it would, for the first time ever, use civilians to pilot drones. Technically, the CIA has had civilian drone pilots for years, but then, the CIA is a civilian agency. For a branch of the military, on the other hand, to outsource arguably its most cutting-edge piloting to contract workers is groundbreaking—and raises profound questions about what it means to be a soldier.
It’s no secret that the number of contractors operating in American war zones has skyrocketed. In 2008 in Iraq, there were more contractors (163,446) on the ground than troops (146,800). And in 2009 in Afghanistan, there were 104,101 contractors but just 63,950 troops. The Global War on Terror is also a Global War for Hire.
Much of what these contractors do in war zones is perform the logistical and maintenance tasks that free up the military to concentrate on, well, killing the enemy. To that end, the Air Force says that its civilian drone pilots won’t actually be pulling any triggers themselves. Instead, civilians will be piloting reconnaissance and intelligence-gathering drones. “There are limitations on it,” said Air Force General Herbert Carlisle, the head of Air Combat Command, emphasizing that the contract pilots “are not combatants.” But making the distinction between the people who pull the trigger and the people who staff the technical bureaucracy that makes pulling the trigger possible—what’s known as a “kill chain”—is becoming more and more complex. Civilian drone pilots represent a growing trend: the diffusion of culpability for the deaths caused by drones paired with the increasing physical safety of people within the kill chain. In other words, civilian drone pilots are a kind of barometer for a profound shift: the redefinition of martial values, specifically of heroism itself.
The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard wrote, “Someone can conquer kingdoms and countries without being a hero; someone else can prove himself a hero by controlling his temper.” So: Can drone pilots be heroes? Is someone who kills from a nest of physical safety acting courageously? The intuitive answer would seem to be no. Most people generally think of heroes as sacrificing something, winning but at great cost. This sacrifice, not what one gets in return for it, is by most conventions how heroism derives its value. Taking on an existential risk is traditionally seen as the sacrifice that defines soldiering. In the words of the writer William Pfaff, soldiers are both “executioner and victim.” The moral line that separates a soldier from a murderer is predicated on this duality. The soldier is an executioner in so far as her violence is state-sanctioned. But she also must be capable of being a victim herself in order for her violence to be honorable. This vital aspect of jus in bello, or justice during war, the reciprocal right to kill each other, is what keeps wars from being executions without trials. In “The Paradox of Riskless Warfare,” Paul Kahn, a Yale Law professor, writes, “The fundamental principle of the morality of warfare is a right to exercise self-defense within the conditions of mutual imposition of risk.” Without the enemy’s reciprocal ability to kill, war becomes a particularly brutal form of martial law.
Drone pilots face no such existential tension or mutual risk. Simply put: It’s extraordinarily unlikely that any enemy targets could kill or maim drone operators. Physically, drone pilots are so safe, in fact, that descriptions of drone piloting at Nevada’s Creech Air Force Base, the heart of the Air Force’s drone operations, sound downright monotonous. Long, tedious hours spent staring at a screen in an air-conditioned trailer can be dispiriting. One former drone operator described it like this: “Your work schedule was 12-hour shifts, six days a week. You were supposed to get three days off after that, but people often got only one day off. You couldn’t even take your 30 days of annual leave—you were lucky to get 10.” It sounds grueling, to be sure, but workplace issues that OSHA might handle in the civilian world aren’t quite the equivalent of being blown up or shot at. (And speaking as an infantry veteran who deployed to Iraq twice, I feel obligated to respond with: “At least you were safe!”)
But what if “psychological pain” is included in the definition of the drone pilots as victims? After all, for the majority of humans, killing another person is a traumatizing event. Is killing “a man with a joystick in your hand,” in the words of the musician d’Eon, enough of a buffer to make a kill seem like it’s not actually killing? In the early days of the proliferation of drones, from about 2005 to 2010, that appeared to be the case. There were a number of stories about drone pilots being trained on Xbox gaming platforms and operators calling drones “a gamer’s delight.” In the last few years, however, drone pilots have done an about-face on the video-game comparisons.
Today, it would be difficult to find a member of the U.S. military who would compare piloting a drone to a game. In fact, at one point, the military was exploring the possibility of creating a medal, the Distinguished Warfare Medal, to honor drone pilots. (Then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel canceled the project after a congressional backlash.) A defense-industry website notes that, although there were initially worries that piloting drones would cause operators to become callous about what they are doing, now the opposite seems to be true: “Some analysts argue that UAV [unmanned aerial vehicles] operators may almost care too much and that they are experiencing higher levels of combat stress than some units in Afghanistan, with significantly increased fatigue, emotional exhaustion, and burnout.” Without the risk of being injured or killed—that is, the lack of a “fair fight”—the one-sidedness of a drone kill can be a burden. Still, without that risk, an operator who feels bad about killing people does so in near-total safety.
What’s more, whether or not drone operators actually do experience post-traumatic stress disorder is complicated and open for debate. According to an Air Force study, more than 4 percent of drone operators suffer “moderate to severe” PTSD. And a study conducted by the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center found that drone operators suffer from stress disorders at a rate similar to in-theater pilots in Afghanistan. What complicates studies like these is the fact that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders—or DSM, the American Psychiatric Association’s bible—cites the causes of PTSD as “exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violation.” Drone pilots don’t fall into this category. The military psychologist Colonel Hernando Ortega, in a study presented to the Brookings Institution, said that he couldn’t find a drone pilot who could accurately be diagnosed with PTSD. Instead, Ortega argued, it’s the long hours and constant schedule changes that make the job high-stress. Ortega says that in his interviews with drone operators, their complaints were about quality-of-life issues, not the evils of war: “If you look at nurses who work [the] night shift, anybody who does shift work, they complain of the same things.” If traditional military heroism requires risk, even a psychological one, it’s not entirely clear that drone pilots meet those criteria.
There is a counter-history to the “sacrifice value” definition of heroism, one that emphasizes that the sacrifice needs to be in the service of something worthwhile. This second school of heroism calls for people to dedicate themselves to a purpose larger than themselves. As the writer Joseph Campbell put it: “A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.” And it is in this definition of heroism, one that accentuates participation in a larger project, that the military claims drone pilots should be included. As Colonel Eric Mathewson, himself a drone operator, told The Washington Post: “Valor, to me, is not risking your life ... It is doing what is right for the right reasons.”
Stretching the definition of heroism to include following orders, while lopping off completely the parts about sacrifice and risk, might be indicative of a turn toward what the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Edward Luttwak calls the “post-heroic.” Extending the kill chain to include more and more civilians, or even just noncombat arms warriors, takes people further and further away from the physical reality of their actions. Already, drone-targeting lists are almost completely determined by algorithm, with operators just there to pull the trigger. When even that human element is removed, what will the kill chain look like? What about the day pilots are completely replaced by artificial intelligence? According to experts, that moment may not be too far off. Grégoire Chamayou, the author of Drone Theory, says that a super-centralized handful of programmers and high-level generals will be constantly refining targeting for AI-operated drones.
This is the future the military is trending toward—a new war-fighting environment, one that is at such a remove from the actual physical and psychological dangers of combat that heroism itself could disappear. How will martial honor be defined in the future? Will programmers receive medals for bravery?