Killing from afar could contribute in a significant way to what Air Force psychologists refer to in a 2011 mental health survey of 600 combat drone operators as “existential conflict.” Over 40 percent of drone crews surveyed reported moderate to high stress. One in five reported emotional exhaustion or burnout. A later study, Power writes, found that “drone operators suffered from the same levels of depression, anxiety, PTSD, alcohol abuse, and suicidal ideation as traditional combat aircrews.” So how best to ease the consciences of America’s Drone Warriors? Powers mentions one solution in a parenthetical, emphasized below:
These effects [PTSD, alcohol abuse, suicidal ideation] appeared to spike at the exact time of Bryant’s deployment, during the surge in Iraq. (Chillingly, to mitigate these effects, researchers have proposed creating a Siri-like user interface, a virtual copilot that anthropomorphizes the drone and lets crews shunt off the blame for whatever happens. Siri, have those people killed.)
It is painfully ironic, given the ineffectiveness of physical distance at easing soldiers’ consciences, that researchers would propose the psychological equivalent as a mitigating measure – even (perhaps especially) if it proves to be an effective therapeutic technique. It is a testament to our species’ capacity for humanity, after all, that in withdrawing our bodies from the grisly realities of war we seem to have left our psyches behind.
(Photo: Air Interdiction Agent Jack Thurston from U.S. Office of Air and Marine (OAM) pilots an unmanned Predator aircraft from a flight operations center near the Mexican border at Fort Huachuca in Sierra Vista, Arizona on March 7, 2013. By John Moore/Getty Images.)