Do drone operators feel guilty about killing or just eat Burger King on base after?

Of all the forums on the internet that can spark a conversation concerning military affairs, one has to give credit to Reddit- at least in the sense of having the most interesting topics

When a Reddit user posted the question “Do drone operators feel any different after they’ve killed someone, than a normal foot soldier who’s killed someone up close?,” the replies were mostly humorous.

“I felt hungry,’ one respondent said, ‘so I went to the BK on base.”

After a long string of Call of Duty jokes and bizarre tangents that seemingly led nowhere, one user finally piped up, telling the original inquirer that the likelihood of getting a serious answer  was slim to none. The conversation then took a turn for the silly.

With that said, the questions still remain: Do combat UAV pilots get PTSD? How does it feel for them to remotely take lives? Where do they feel they stand in the battlefield, let alone the world?

Not surprisingly, research on the topic shows that yes, they certainly feel the stress of battle- at least in their own way.

In 2011, the United States Air Force conducted a survey that found that just under 1/3 of drone pilots -840 drone operators were feeling burned out, with 46 percent of Reaper and Predator pilots and and 48 percent of Global Hawk sensor operators mentally exhausted by long hours and frequent shift changes.

Some former UCAV operators -such as Michael Haas- claim that they were conditioned to treat the operation of armed drones as a video game of sorts, being told they were doing things in a manner that would distance themselves from the reality that they were killing other human beings.

“Ever step on ants and never give it another thought?”, Haas asked The Guardian in November of last year. “That’s what you are made to think of the targets- as just black blobs on a screen. You start to do these psychological gymnastics to make it easier to do what you have to do- they deserved it, they chose their side. You had to kill part of your conscience to keep doing your job every day- and ignore those voices telling you this wasn’t right.”

If it sounds like an eerie resemblance to the science fiction novel Ender’s Game, it kind of is.   In the novel, cadets are trained to view warfare as more of an actual game to be played from a mental distance.  Throughout the history of aerial warfare, aircrews were often given ways to disassociate themselves from the gritty, brutal realities of war on the ground.

Haas said that when a mission called for taking out a suspected insurgent or high value target, they were told they would be “cutting the grass before it grows out of control”, or “pulling the weeds before they overrun the lawn.”

And children, possibly caught in the crossfire? “Fun-sized terrorists.”

While the main stressor of drone pilots appears to be being stretched thin -something several branches of the military are attempting to alleviate with private contractors, enlisted pilot programs and retention bonuses– a simple fact remains: taking a life, no matter the delivery system or weapons platform, is a serious affair that can have lifelong consequences on the psyche of a human being. No matter the technological advances, war is a brutal affair- even when conducted on a computer screen.

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  • Andy Wolf

    Andy Wolf is an Appalachian native who spent much of his youth and young adulthood overseas in search of combat, riches, and adventure- accruing decades of experience in military, corporate, first responder, journalistic and advisory roles. He resides in North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains with his K9 companion, Kiki.

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