Military Drone Operators Risk a Serious Injury

And it’s one you might not expect.

Tony Hale as drone pilot Buster Bluth in Arrested Development.

Tony Hale as drone pilot Buster Bluth in Arrested Development.

Screencapture via Netflix

I have to admit that when it comes to the latest season of Arrested Development, I am arriving late to the party; it’s only recently that I’ve dived back into the show. So I was glad to see that after all these years, with his juice box–sipping Oedipal escapades, Buster Bluth is still killing it. And this time, he’s literally killing it on the screen.

Season 4, which premiered in 2013 on Netflix, finds Buster re-enlisting in the military and becoming a drone operator. Convinced he’s simply playing a video game, Buster delights in the on-screen carnage. It’s not until he levels a hospital in Spain that Buster realizes he is killing real people. And when it sinks in that he’s not playing the latest release of Call of Duty, hilarity ensues: Buster falls out of his chair, and the drone pilot paramedics rush to the scene as his colleague shouts, “man down.” As Buster’s tumble results in the “first known injury to a drone pilot,” the scene makes vivid the term chair force.

While drone operation remains a far cry from the outlandishness depicted by Buster Bluth, comedy has a way of sometimes illuminating truth through the absurd. As an academic who has spent several years researching the relationship among drones, risk, and courage, I can attest to the fact that there is something to this impression of drone operation. After all, drone operators kill by remote control, they are typically located thousands of miles from the battlefield, and they’re frequently stationed within the relatively safe borders of the United States. It also doesn’t help that their workdays are equipped with the standard creature comforts of the developed world, like air conditioning and fast food joints.

Because drones are operated remotely, and almost always far from the field of battle, operators do not face the same kinds of physical risks as those who have boots on the ground. But this doesn’t mean that drone warfare is riskless or that drone operators are cowards. To suggest as much ignores an ugly truth about drone operation: Piloting a combat drone can exact a heavy psychological and moral toll on the operator.

A study published in 2013 found that drone operators suffer the same adverse mental health outcomes, and at comparable rates, as those who pilot fixed-wing aircraft in combat. The most serious of these outcomes is post-traumatic stress disorder. But what is less discussed is another risk drone operators face: moral injury. Moral injury has been described as injury that occurs when soldiers experience events that cut against deeply held spiritual or ethical beliefs. It is injury that results when an act of transgression leads to serious inner conflict because the experience is at odds with one’s core beliefs. While moral injury is closely related to and can coexist with PTSD, it differs from PTSD’s diagnostic emphasis on fear and the lingering fight-or-flight instincts that endure when one has directly experienced or witnessed extreme traumatic incidents. Moral injury encompasses a different and distinct kind of trauma, where an individual can possess such feelings as guilt, shame, and regret, but she needn’t feel the same kind of stress and fright commonly associated with PTSD.  

For millennia, war fighters have suffered the moral wounds that occur in combat. With war’s vast destruction, killing, and maiming, the concept of moral injury, and the suffering it entails, runs like Ariadne’s thread through the history of warfare. While the term may be new, the concept of moral injury is as old as war itself. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Ajax becomes “conquered by his sorrow” and thrusts himself on his sword in an act of suicide. It’s not hard to see how this ancient idea has a 21st-century twist: that the killing in war done by drone operators could cause moral injury. At the end of the day, drone operators are killing people, and with the advent of powerful new technology, they have an up-close and personal view of how the killing unfolds.

Although empirical research has yet to explore the relationship between moral injury and drone operators, the prevalence of PTSD in drone operators is a good indication that operators also face the risk of moral injury. And like combat troops on the ground who suffer moral injury, anecdotal evidence suggests that drone operators may not be much different. For example, in GQ, one drone operator recalled phoning his mother and weeping after he watched the grisly scene of a man bleeding out from his femoral wound. After separating from the Air Force, the drone operator claimed that he still feels moral injury because of his actions and experiences as a drone operator.

If courage involves engaging in an ethical action that entails a sufficiently high degree of risk—and I think it does—then there is no reason to conclude that drone operators lack courage. If one knows in advance that her job may result in severe moral injury but presses on nonetheless, why would we not consider her courageous?

While the risks that a drone operator may face and the dimensions of courage she may be required to possess are different from those found in more traditional forms of combat, we should not be seduced into thinking that difference equates with absence. To do so not only ignores the risks present in drone operation, it is also a disservice to the considerable strides society has made in recognizing that the harms troops face are not limited to physical wounds but also include psychological and moral injuries. To pretend otherwise diminishes the importance of the risk that these injuries may pose to men and women in uniform.

Drone pilots are often derided as having a PlayStation video game mentality: so-called joystick jockeys who are members of the chair force and are deserving of the video game plaudits of Achievement Unlocked but not the honor of combat medals. Nowhere was this on greater display than when Chuck Hagel, former U.S. secretary of defense, canceled the Distinguished Warfare Medal—a combat medal for drone operators—arguing that combat medals should be reserved for those “who incur the physical risk and hardship of combat,” thereby excluding drone operators. Such derision is misplaced. Drone operators face considerable risk, and they are courageous for doing so.

All of this does not preclude the possibility that technology may develop to the point where someday drone operators’ risks become significantly minimized or perhaps almost nonexistent. If such a day arrives, it may very well be that drone operation will cease to require courage. A more likely scenario is that our idea of what courage is and means will adapt accordingly, just like it has in the past. After the invention of the machine gun, it was no longer courageous to stand firm until one “sees the whites of their eyes”; to do so was pure lunacy. In the past, new technologies redefined our conceptions of courage; this may very well be the case for the future.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, follow us on Twitter and sign up for our weekly newsletter.