By Lt. Col. Douglas
A. Pryer, U.S. Army
Best Defense guest
Technology is quickly reversing a psychological trend that
has existed since cavemen first threw rocks at each other many tens of
thousands of years ago.
The French strategist Ardant du
Picq wrote: "To fight from a distance is instinctive in man. From the
first day he has worked to this end, and he continues to do so." Distance
not only provides warriors with a sense of safety, but it reduces their
psychological resistance to killing other human beings.
today, while many of America's drone operators sit physically safe in trailers
in Nevada, their human targets on the other side of the planet appear no
further away than if these operators were watching them through the sights of
an M16 rifle. Although the physical distance between warrior and target has
reached its physical limit (on this planet anyway), the subjective distance
between the two is rapidly closing. This trend will continue for the
foreseeable future, as sensors rapidly improve in response to the need to limit
noncombatant casualties -- a need that is a condition of military success for a
mature democracy like the United States in a world increasingly "flattened" by
another growth industry, information technology.
It is not
hard to imagine someday drones that are the size of a bullet, that transmit
both color video and audio feeds, and that hover just feet away from human
targets before entering their bodies. When this happens, there may be little to
subjectively distinguish the combat experience of a drone operator and that,
say, of a G.I. during World War II who stuck his bayonet in the guts of an
In his 1995 book, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of
Learning to Kill in War and Society, psychologist
and former infantry officer David Grossman postulated that the physically closer a warrior
is to the person they are killing, the greater their natural resistance to
killing, and thus the greater their risk of psychological injury should they
kill. In a graph, Grossman depicted warriors' resistance to killing increasing
the closer they come to their human targets. The least resistance is felt
within those warriors who kill at maximum range (bombers and artillery). Inner
resistance steadily increases from there to those who kill with long-range
weapons (sniper, missiles), then mid-range weapons (rifles), then hand-grenades,
then close-range weapons (pistols), and, finally, those who kill in
hypothesis is but a general rule. The small percentage of warriors who are
psychopaths are obvious exceptions to this rule. Different levels of resilience
among individuals account for other exceptions.
To illustrate the latter, in his
2005 book, War
and Soul: Healing Our Nation's Veterans from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, the psychologist Dr. Edward
Tick gave the examples of a World War II bomber pilot and a nuclear weapons aircraft
inspector, who both suffered from severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The pilot told Tick that he had refused to open his aircraft's bay doors and drop bombs
on a German city. With his crew chief screaming at him, he finally did it.
Afterwards, he was haunted by his belief that he was a "mass murderer." The
inspector had examined nuclear bombs onboard B-52s, a "maximum range" weapon.
He had not killed anyone, but he could not shake the judgment that he had
conspired "to threaten the world."
anecdotes can be contrasted with stories of warriors who killed in
close-quarters combat without incurring psychological injury. Nonetheless,
despite many exceptions, the weight of evidence strongly supports the general
validity of Grossman's theory.
the current global conflict that, for one side anyway, is increasingly
remote-controlled, a revision of Grossman's hypothesis is in order: It is not
the actual physical distance, but rather the subjective distance between normal
human beings that determines their inner resistance to killing each other.
suggested revision does not mean that a drone operator and an infantryman
experience the exact same thing when they kill a human target of similar shape,
size, and resolution. The drone operator's adrenaline levels are unlikely to be
as high, since he is not himself in any physical danger. His senses are not as
immersed in the graphic sights and sounds of battle. And he just does not
"feel" as close to the enemy through his other senses. His experience is
diluted. He is, in effect, sipping reality through a straw. Thus, "subjective"
distance is related to, but not entirely the same thing as, "apparent" or
people would agree that reality as we experience it is fundamentally
subjective, making this revision both obvious and intuitively true. The scanty
evidence published thus far on the negative mental outcomes associated with
drone operations very roughly corroborates this revision, too.
are, for example, numerous anecdotal accounts of drone operators suffering from
such negative psychological outcomes as PTSD and depression despite their
physical distance from the battlefield. Brandon Bryant, for example, worked as
a drone operator at a Nevada Air Force base. When he left his squadron, he was
presented a certificate in which his squadron claimed 1,626 kills over a period
of several years. Bryant has since been diagnosed with PTSD. In an interview,
he described seeing three men hit with a missile and being able to see one guy
running forward, bleeding out, while missing his right leg. "People say that
drone strikes are like mortar attacks," he said. "Well, artillery doesn't see
this. Artillery doesn't see the results of their actions. It's really more
intimate for us, because we see everything."
A staff sergeant
supervising support to drone crews and mission planners was one of the many
military servicemembers Peter Singer interviewed for Wired for War: The
Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century. "What angers me is that as a service," she said, "we are not doing a
good job on PTSD [among drone pilots and operators]. People are watching
horrible scenes. It's affecting people. Yet we have no systematic process on
how we take care of our people."
U.S. Air Force has released some quantitative data on these negative
psychological outcomes. For example, the service reported in December 2011 that, of 900
drone pilots and operators surveyed, 4 percent were at high risk of developing
PTSD. It also stated that 25 percent of Global Hawk operators and 17 percent of Predator and
Reaper pilots suffer from clinical distress, which is "defined as anxiety,
depression, or stress severe enough to affect an operator's job performance or
family life." It also reported that 65-70 percent of those with signs of mental
illness are not seeking treatment for their condition.
compare the low percentage of drone operators at high risk of PTSD to the 12-17 percent of soldiers and Marines returning from Iraq and
Afghanistan who, based on their responses to post-deployment questionnaires,
fell into the same high-risk group. There is clearly a qualitative
psychological difference between the experiences of drone operators and ground
troops (such as the latter's greater subjective closeness to their targets and
their experiencing other potential sources of trauma like roadside bombs and
being shot at).
also the study that the U.S. Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center published
earlier this year titled, "Mental health diagnoses and counseling
among pilots of remotely piloted aircraft in the United States Air Force."
study reported that, between October 2003 and December 2011, USAF personnel
operating drones in Afghanistan and Iraq suffered negative mental outcomes at
rates comparable to pilots of manned aircraft in these two countries -- pilots
who predominantly flew missions like close-air support, casualty evacuation,
and reconnaissance missions.
would expect, according to Grossman's theorem, that the pilots of manned
aircraft suffer adverse psychological outcomes as a group less than ground
troops due to their greater physical distance from the enemy. And, according to
my revision, you would expect manned-aircraft pilots to suffer worse outcomes
than drone operators due to their increased subjective proximity to the
drone mission, though, lasts much longer than a manned-aircraft mission, and
drone operators more routinely inflict death, either via missiles or by cueing
the actions of ground troops. They also more frequently observe potentially
troubling events. For every potential source of trauma that a manned-aircraft
pilot experiences, a drone operator probably experiences two or three such
events. Thus, in this case, quantity counterbalances quality (the subjective
intensity of the experience).
know this analysis is less than foolproof. Yes, it is self-evident that ground
troops are, as a rule, physically and subjectively closer to human targets than
manned aircraft pilots who, in turn, are subjectively closer to their targets
than drone operators. However, what percentage of the servicemembers in the
above surveys actually killed someone? Of these, what percentage suffered which
negative psychological consequences at what distances from the person they
data just have not yet been published. As data slowly comes to light, though,
I'm confident that it will show that this proposed revision -- like Grossman's
original theory -- holds generally true.
Douglas Pryer is a U.S. Army intelligence officer who has won a number of
military writing awards and held command and staff positions in the United
States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The views expressed in
this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or
position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S.