Notes From the Margins…

Drone Pilots: Pass the Medals and Styrofoam Cups

  • January 31, 2012
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There’s an interesting article by George Monbiot  in today’s Guardian  on the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) by the U.S and UK military.   Monbiot challenges claims by the Obama administration that these weapons cause few or no civilian casualties, and argues that UAVs represent “one of humankind’s abiding fantasies: to vaporise their enemies, as if with a curse or a prayer, effortlessly and from a safe distance”.

He goes on to argue that civilian casualties are an inevitable consequence of military robotics.  Taking his cue from Carl von Clausewitz, he argues that

the brutality of war seldom escalates to its absolute form, partly because of the risk faced by one’s own forces.  Without risk, there’s less restraint.  The danger is likely to escalate as drone warfare becomes more automated and the lines of accountability less clear.  With these unmanned craft, governments can fight a coward’s war, a god’s war, harming only the unnamed.

I’m not sure if this argument entirely holds up.   There’s no doubt that the development of UAVs have allowed the U.S. and the U.K military to engage in a one-sided war that would not otherwise have been possible without such technology – though other means might have been found to achieve the same objectives.

But that doesn’t mean that there is a direct correlation between the brutality of war and the absence of risk.   In the last years of World War II allied bombing raids over Japan and Germany were virtually risk-free, yet that didn’t exactly make them more humane.   The U.S.  firebombing of Tokyo on 9-10 March 1945 that killed 100,000 people in a single night was entirely unopposed,  since the Japanese air force had been destroyed, and was essentially an assault on a defenceless civilian population.   Ditto the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Since the first Gulf War, Western states have been able to wage high-tech war with bombers and missiles, with little or no danger to their own pilots beyond the possibility of mechanical failure, against adversaries that cannot retaliate in kind.   These wars can also be described as ‘cowardly’ , but their brutality has not been ‘absolute.’  On the contrary their appeal partly rests on the notion that military technology has become so efficient and ‘surgical’ that war has become less brutal – and therefore more attractive and more acceptable.

These ‘surgical’ powers have been greatly exaggerated and their real impact have often been obscured or concealed, but the fact that civilian casualties of ‘shock and awe’ bombardments are generally counted in the low thousands rather than the hundreds of thousands is crucial to the marketing of the new ‘humanitarian’  militarism.

Such figures allow politicians, generals (and newspaper columnists) to argue that the benefits of war will always outweigh the negative consequences, and long-distance killing by UAVs has a similar function.  Nevertheless it is true that killing someone thousands of miles away while drinking coffee in front of a computer screen does raise a question mark over the tributes to ‘our bravest men and women’ that politicians like to lavish on the military.

The new era of computerised challenges the notion of war as a ‘fair fight’ and the  whole notion of ‘combat’.  In December last year a survey conducted by the U.S. military found that nearly a third of drone pilots were suffering ‘symptoms of burnout’ and that another  7 percent showed signs of ‘clinical distress’.  According to Reuters:

The bulk of what drone crews do is surveillance, monitoring suspects or compounds. But they also sometimes take out targets. That means pressing a button that can lead to someone’s death half a world away, then ending your shift to meet family at, say, a child’s soccer practice. The transition can be difficult for soldiers at places like Creech Air Force Base in Nevada.

No doubt it can.  But burnout and stress still don’t correlate with traditional notions of military valour, as the cartoonists Jones and Lambert from JerksComics point out over at Cartoon Movement:

USA's Brave Drone Pilots

This clearly isn’t the way that the military wants the outside world to regard such activities.  Nor does it want its pilots to see themselves like this.  That’s why  Lieutenant Kent McDonald,  one of the officers involved with the UAV pilot study, tells  Reuters:

“We try to select people who are well-adjusted. We select family people. People of good moral standing, background, integrity… And when they have to kill someone, and when they’re involved with missions when they’re observing people over long periods of time, and then they either kill them or see them killed, it does cause them to re-think aspects of their life and it can be bothersome.”

And as with pilots or soldiers,  the U.S. military has helped drone operators cope with the ‘bothersome’ consequences of killing by rewarding them with medals.  Between  January 2009 and September 2010, 3, 947 Aerial Achievement Medals were awarded to pilots of UAV’s, compared with 1, 408 that were awarded to pilots of manned planes in the same period.  In 2007 the U.S. Army Times  announced that  drone operators are now eligible for the Aviation Badge, Air Medal and Distinguished Flying Cross, and that

The Distinguished Flying Cross is a prestigious decoration that ranks just behind the Silver Star as a valor medal. It is awarded for heroism or extraordinary achievement. The Air Medal is awarded for heroism, outstanding achievement or meritorious service. It ranks behind the Bronze Star, but in front of the Army Commendation Medal.

So in the eyes of the military at least, drone warfare isn’t really a “coward’s war”  after all – it really is quite stressful and could even be heroic.   And if you think it is a little incongruous that someone should be given a medal for engaging in ‘combat’ between the school run and lunchbreak, things may be about to get even weirder.

Last year robotics expert Noel Sharkey told me that the U.S military is contemplating awarding medals for bravery to the military robots that it intends to deploy in the near future.

So if some machines can be ‘brave’ can others also be ‘cowardly’?  We have yet to find out.   But whatever the case, the question of bravery or cowardice in war is unlikely to be the decisive factor in determining the level of brutality in the wars that they fight in.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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