Ethics: Drone Warfare Wounds Our Warriors

MQ-9 Reaper drone | Wikimedia Commons

By Deonna D. Neal

A few years ago the Journal of Military Ethics published a lively exchange on whether the use of drones (also known as unmanned aerial vehicles or remotely piloted vehicles) was morally obligatory in warfare. One author argued it was morally obligatory to use drones instead of manned aircraft, if possible, since the lives of the operators are never placed at physical risk in that type of warfare. He believed the government’s moral obligation to protect the lives of its service members outweighed the other moral problems associated with drone warfare.

The other author, while acknowledging that protecting the lives of service members was an important moral obligation, argued that the use of drones was deeply problematic. In his view, using drones was tantamount to undertaking “riskless” warfare, which challenges the very nature of the just war tradition itself.

He pointed out that the just war principle of “last resort” exists because any political goal secured through the means of warfare must be so significant that it can justify incurring the terrible costs of war, including loss of life and limb, destruction of property, and the emotional, social, and psychological injuries suffered by combatants and civilians on all sides. Using drones in warfare, he argued, made the last resort threshold almost irrelevant, and could lead to a state of perpetual warfare. Those comments have proved prescient.

Since the invention of the bow and arrow, the ability to kill an enemy from a distance has been part of warfare, but not without controversy. Since the times of the ancient Greeks and Romans, the concern was that killing an enemy from a distance, without incurring physical risk to oneself, lacked the virtue of physical courage, one of the most distinctive and important virtues associated with being a soldier.

But regardless of how one decides whether killing an enemy at a distance is courageous, the fact remains that the act of killing another human being, even in war and even at a distance, still has a traumatic psychological effect on those doing the killing. Robert Grossman discusses these effects in his book, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society.

In the past, as the distance between the warrior and his target increased, he may have been less likely to suffer the psychological trauma of killing, precisely because he did not experience face-to-face combat. For example, the number of people killed by aerial bombs was a statistical number reported at the end of a mission. The pilots or bombardiers did not necessarily experience killing in the same way as their foot-soldier counterparts.

This is not to say those who killed from a distance escaped all trauma, but the intense psychological trauma, on the whole, was not as great as that of their counterparts fighting on the ground. Combat soldiers and medics confront dead bodies, both of their comrades and of the enemy, as well as mutilated corpses and horrific scenes of the destruction modern weapons can have on the human body and physical infrastructure. This continues to have psychologically devastating effects on warfighters.

But with the advent of drones, the script has been flipped. On the whole, we are now seeing that drone operators and image analysts are suffering from PTSD, moral injury, and other associated psychological trauma at higher rates than some of their foot-soldier counterparts. This is in large part because of the immersive nature of drone warfare. Drone pilots, sensor operators, and image analysts can spend days, weeks, and sometimes months tracking individual targets. In some cases, they will know how many children their targets have, and where they eat, sleep, and bathe.

We now have a level of knowledge and surveillance of an enemy unprecedented in the history of warfare. Not only are those involved in drone operations deeply embedded in the context in which they may end up killing someone from 7,000 miles away, but then they also linger over the images after the order to kill has been executed. They not only watch the bodies being blown up, but also see people rushing to respond to the blast.

Part of the compounding trauma is that warriors often feel guilty that they are anonymous killers, killing someone from the comfort of an air-conditioned trailer and returning home in a few short hours.

Even within the military, drone operators experience prejudice as not being “real” pilots. There was a Department of Defense debate on whether they should be awarded medals for combat experience or whether their flying hours should count toward combat hours, a designation that affects promotion decisions within the Air Force and carries with it reverence and respect.

Further, the lack of boundaries between “fighting in a war” and being “home” is also unprecedented and complicates how the warrior even experiences herself as a soldier. Is it reasonable to expect our warriors to go from killing someone in the morning and then reading their children a bedtime story eight hours later?

The Rev. Dr. Deonna D. Neal | St. John’s Episcopal, Montgomery

The moral dimension and ethical issues surrounding drones, even from basic military ethics, are immense. One of the very serious issues, often overlooked, is the psychological trauma warriors experience as a result of “encountering” the enemy without any real human encounter. This is, to me, the real human and therefore ethical problem of using drones in warfare. Warfare is a human activity. But the more we use technology to assist in our wars, and remove us from the act of human encounter, the more we are likely to lose our humanity.

The Rev. Dr. Deonna D. Neal is interim rector at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Montgomery, Alabama. She taught ethics for the U.S. Air Force for 10 years at the USAF Academy and Air University at Maxwell AFB. She continues to write on military ethics as an independent scholar.


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