The Best Defense

The Future of War (no. 4): We need to protect our personnel from the moral fallout of drone and robotic warfare

By Lt. Col. Douglas Pryer, U.S. Army
Best Defense guest columnist

Until last year, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders required "actual or threatened death or serious injury, or a threat to the physical integrity of self or others" for a diagnosis of PTSD. How is it that drone operators can suffer PTSD without experiencing physically traumatic events? The answer lies in the concept of "moral injury."

Dr. Jonathan Shay popularized the term "moral injury" in his book Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character. To Shay, it is the moral component -- the perceived violation of "what's right" -- that causes the most harmful and enduring psychological effects from PTSD-inducing events. Dr. Tick, another psychologist who has counseled hundreds of combat veterans, holds a similar view. Tick contends that PTSD is best characterized not as an anxiety disorder, but as an identity disorder stemming from violations of what you believe that you yourself (or other people that you identify with) could or should have done.

Other mental health practitioners describe moral injury as something distinct from PTSD, which they see as caused by physical reactions to physical stressors. But moral injury, as Dr. Brett Litz and other leading experts in the field recently defined it, is "perpetrating, failing to prevent, bearing witness to, or learning about acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations." Moral injury may follow a physical event, but it can also follow events that are not physically traumatic at all.

Litz and his colleagues agree that, while PTSD and moral injury share symptoms like "intrusions, avoidance, numbing," other symptoms are unique to moral injury. These other symptoms include "shame, guilt, demoralization, self-handicapping behaviors (e.g., self-sabotaging relationships), and self-harm (e.g., parasuicidal behaviors)." They also advocate different treatments for moral injury. While PTSD sufferers may be helped via such physical remedies as drugs and the "Random Eye Movement" treatment, those who suffer from moral injury require counseling-based therapies.

There may be no stronger case for the existence of moral injury than that presented by drone operators who, far removed from any physical threats to themselves, suffer symptoms associated with PTSD. Indeed, if moral injury is distinct from and not a component of PTSD (as Dr. Brett Litz and his colleagues claim), it is reasonable to conclude that drone operators are misdiagnosed as having PTSD: They actually suffer from moral injury.

The growing case for the existence of moral injury reinforces the idea that what the military now calls the "human domain" of armed conflict is the most crucial aspect of war -- even, paradoxically, of war waged via remote-controlled machines. Lt. Col. (ret.) Pete Fromm, Lt. Col. Kevin Cutright, and I argued in an essay that war is a moral contest started, shaped, and ultimately settled by matters residing within the human heart. A group can be defeated in every measurable way. It can have its immediate capacity to wage war destroyed. However, if this group's members feel that it is right for them to continue to fight, they will find the means to do so. There is often little difference between believing that it is right to fight and possessing the will to fight, we argued.

I applied this idea to remote-controlled warfare in another essay, "The Rise of the Machines: Why Increasingly 'Perfect' Weapons Help Perpetuate Our Wars and Endanger Our Nation." Here, I argued that our nation needs to pay much closer attention to the moral effects of our use of remote-controlled weapons. The Law of Armed Conflict always lags behind the development of technology, I wrote, and we should take little comfort in the fact that international treaty does not yet clearly prohibit our use of armed robots for transnational strikes in places like Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia.

There is, for example, a profound perceptual problem related to one nation's warriors remotely killing enemy warriors at no physical risk to themselves. You can argue that this is a stupid perception with no historical basis in the Just War Tradition, but the reason for the absence of this idea from this tradition is clear: This technology is new. If you were to imagine robots attacking America and the American military as unable to fight back against the humans controlling these robots, it becomes easier to appreciate why many foreigners (even many living in allied nations) consider transnational drone strikes to be dishonorable, cowardly, or worse, inhuman acts.

I concluded in this essay that armed robots should only be used in support of human warriors on the ground, except in those cases when a strong argument can be made to the world that a terrorist represents such a threat to the United States that we have the right to execute this terrorist wherever he may be. The alternative, I argued, is to ultimately create more enemies than we eliminate with these weapons -- and to help set the conditions for forever war.

But our use of remote-controlled weapons must also account for the long-term psychological effects of drone operators' perceptions of right and wrong. International and local evaluations of wars or tactics as illegitimate or unjust often derive from common human perceptions that U.S. servicemembers can look within themselves to find. As Dr. Shay wrote in his conclusion to Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming, a book about the inner struggle of ancient and modern warriors to recover from war: "Simply, ethics and justice are preventive psychiatry." In the case of drone operators, care must be taken to ensure operators can be convinced that it is politically legitimate and morally just to kill their human targets and that they do not intentionally or negligently kill non-combatants.

In closing, the idea that history is cyclical is an ancient one. Hindus have long believed that this is the case. More recently, the Zager and Evans 1968 hit song, "In the Year 2525," described civilization as advancing technologically only to arrive at its starting point. This idea is certainly proving true with regard to the psychological impact of war on those who wage it. Soon, just as cavemen did long ago, America's remote-control warriors will be able to look people in the eyes when they kill them.

Unless we turn America's servicemembers into psychopaths devoid of conscience (a cure far worse than the ailments inoculated against), we can be sure of one thing: The human cost to our side of this type of warfare will never be as cheap as technocrats dream it will be.

Lt. Col. 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. government.


The Best Defense

The Future of War?: Expect to see urban, connected, irregular 'zombie' conflicts

By David Kilcullen
Best Defense future of war entrant

Thinking about future wars starts with understanding current trends that are shaping conflict. Here are a few to consider.

The first two are urbanization and population growth. Since the industrial revolution, world population has shot up, from 750 million in 1750, to 3 billion in 1960, to 7 billion today. By mid-century there will be 9.5 billion people on the planet, 75 percent of them in large cities. Most will be coastal (80 percent of people already live within 50 miles of the sea), with the fastest growth in the least developed parts of Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The next 30 years could see 3 billion new urban-dwellers in the developing world. The planet's most fragile cities may have to absorb the same number of people that it took all of human history to generate, across the entire globe, right up until 1960.

Edgar Pieterse, head of the Africa Center for Cities, talks of "dramatic, disruptive change in only one generation" while the urban theorist Mike Davis has written of an emerging "planet of slums" -- and it's a fair bet that this will affect conflict, making wars even more coastal and urban than they've always been, and further blurring the boundaries between crime and warfare.

A newer, more disruptive trend is the explosion in connectivity that has occurred in the same areas of the developing world over the past decade. In 2000, for example, fewer than 10 percent of Iraqis had cellphone reception, while Syria, Somalia, and Libya had no significant cellphone systems at all -- Syria had just 30,000 cellphones for 16 million people, while Libya had only 40,000. Ten years later, there were 10 million cellphone subscribers in Iraq and 13 million in Syria, while Internet and satellite TV access had massively expanded. Nigeria went from 30,000 cellphones to 113 million in the same decade.

Connectivity has huge effects on conflict: democratizing and weaponizing communications technology, and putting into the hands of individuals a suite of lethal tools that used to belong only to nation-states.

In August 2011, for example, in the Libyan coastal city of Misrata, school children used mobile phones to mark Gaddafi regime sniper positions on Google Earth, allowing French warships off the coast to target them. In the same battle, rebels used smartphone compass apps and online maps to adjust rocket fire in the city's streets. Syrian fighters use iPads and Android phones to adjust mortar fire, and video game consoles and flat-screen TVs to control homemade tanks. Snipers use iPhone apps and cellphone cameras to calculate, then record, their shots.

The technology writer John Pollock has brilliantly described the role of online activists in the Arab Spring, not only for political mobilization, but also for logistics and tactical coordination -- as in April 2011 when Libyan rebels, at night in the open field, planned an assault on a rocket launcher via a multinational Skype hookup. None of this would have been possible a decade ago.

This democratized connectivity will increasingly allow distant players to participate directly in conflicts. For nation-states, we see this "remote warfare" trend in the Predator remotely piloted aircraft, which can be flown from the other side of the planet through satellite uplinks. But non-state groups can play the same game: In 2009, Iraqi insurgents pointed ordinary satellite TV dishes at the sky, then used Skygrabber, a $26 piece of Russian software, to intercept the Predator uplink. The guerrillas had hacked the Predators's control system, far easier than shooting down the actual aircraft.

There are constants in war, alongside these new trends. Most wars are, and have always been, "irregular" -- conflicts where a major combatant is a non-state armed group. Over the past 200 years, only about 20 percent of wars were state-on-state "conventional" conflicts -- the other 80 percent involved insurgents, militias, pirates, bandits, or guerrillas. Indeed, interstate conventional war, though incredibly dangerous, is happening less and less frequently, though irregular wars and intrastate conflicts remain common.

Irregular conflicts tend to be "zombie wars" which keep coming back to life just as we think they're over. Iraq is a case in point: By late 2009, through urban counterinsurgency, partnership with communities, and intensive reconciliation efforts, U.S. forces had severely damaged al Qaeda and brought civilian deaths to the lowest level in years: Only 89 civilians were killed across all of Iraq in December 2009, down from over 1,000 per month in mid-2008, and a shocking 3,000 per week in late 2006. But rapid and complete U.S. withdrawal in 2010 -- combined with sectarian politics and the reinvigoration of al Qaeda through the Syrian war -- pulled the rug from under local communities, reviving a conflict that a succession of U.S. leaders, on both sides of politics, have been incorrectly claiming was over ever since May of 2003. Likewise, in places like Afghanistan, Colombia, Somalia, Congo, the Central African Republic, Mali, and Sudan, current outbreaks are not new -- rather, they're revivals of generations-old conflicts that keep coming back. Colombia's FARC rebel movement, for example, turns 60 in 2014.

A final constant worth mentioning is what we might call "conflict entrepreneurs" -- fighters who aren't so much trying to win a war, but prolonging it to generate wealth or authority in fragmented societies. Somali clans, Afghanistan's Haqqani network, and gangs like Kenya's Mungiki or Mexico's Zetas fall into this category: They fight not for victory, but to keep conflicts going for their own benefit. Turning conflict entrepreneurs into stakeholders in stability is a huge and daunting task.

What does all this suggest about future war? Well, as America and its allies pass -- thankfully -- away from an era of large-scale intervention in overseas counterinsurgencies, it's tempting to think that each year's crop of new irregular wars is just so much background noise that we can afford to ignore. Unfortunately, that's not true anymore, if it ever was: In an increasingly urbanized, massively connected world, where empowered individuals and non-state groups will access communications and weapons technology that used to be the preserve of nation-states and future conflicts will leap international boundaries, we ignore these conflicts at our peril.

One crystal clear lesson for future war emerges from the last decade. This is that unilateral intervention in other people's wars is not the way to go -- and neither is large-scale counterinsurgency which, though doable, is extraordinarily difficult, and far from desirable in humanitarian, financial, or political terms. Interventions, particularly counterinsurgencies, must be an absolute last resort. But ignoring future conflicts doesn't work either -- urban, zombie, irregular crime-wars, that leap national boundaries and feature non-state groups with technology and connectivity only states used to have, will spread rapidly, sucking in surrounding regions, as Syria is doing now, and as Afghanistan did before 9/11.

Dr. David Kilcullen is a former Australian soldier, diplomat, and policy advisor for the United States and other governments. He is the founder and non-executive chairman of Caerus Associates, a research and design consultancy, and the author, most recently, of Out of the Mountains.