The Psychological Tolls and Moral Hazards of Drone Warfare

Two new books shed light on what remote warfare does to military operators, the standing of the U.S., and societies abroad.

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN -- AUGUST 30, 2021: Islamic prayers are recited for the dead before they could be laid into the ground to be buried, as around 200 people attend a mass funeral for the 10 people the family said to have been killed in a U.S. drone strike, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021. (MARCUS YAM / LOS ANGELES TIMES)
Prayers are recited for the dead at a mass funeral for the 10 victims of a U.S. drone strike, in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Aug. 30, 2021. Photo: Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty Imag

On what would be the last day of his life, Zemari Ahmadi, an employee of a U.S.-based NGO, was being watched by a remote crew piloting a Predator drone above the skies of Kabul, Afghanistan. As Ahmadi went about his work, running a series of errands across the city, the drone operators, though they did not know his identity, were making plans to kill him.

A series of innocuous actions, like Ahmadi loading water containers into his car, were interpreted in the minds of the operators watching as sinister preparations for a suicide bomb attack. After surveilling Ahmadi for several hours, the drone operators issued a death sentence, firing a Hellfire missile at his car as he drove up to his home, just as three children were rushing out to greet him. A total of 10 people, all civilians, were killed in the attack that the U.S. military had initially insisted had targeted a terrorist working with the Islamic State.

The deaths of Ahmadi and his family members were unique in the level of public attention they received. It was sadly unremarkable, though, in the context of the larger U.S. drone war that has been waged over the past 20 years.

Armed drones have become a staple of modern American warfare, placing operators at a historically unprecedented remove from danger.

Armed drones have become a staple of modern American warfare, placing operators at a historically unprecedented remove from danger. At the same time, they have exposed those targeted, whether combatants or civilians, to a form of violence that they can neither defend themselves against nor surrender to. Freed from the traditional reciprocity of war, in which both sides put their lives on the line, drone operators have become more like judicial executioners: putting people on trial on the other side of the planet without due process and meting out death sentences by remote control.

The U.S. pioneered this style of warfare but is no longer alone in using what are technically called unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs. Other countries, including U.S. rivals, are ramping up their own drone programs, signaling that this style of killing at great distance is likely to become a defining feature of war in the 21st century.

Understanding what this means is the task of two recent books, “Asymmetric Killing: Risk Avoidance, Just War, and the Warrior Ethos” by Neil Renic, an international relations scholar at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg in Germany, and “On Killing Remotely: The Psychology of Killing With Drones,” by Wayne Phelps, a retired U.S. Marine Corps lieutenant colonel who participated in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Phelps’s book is based on hundreds of interviews with drone operators who have carried out strikes. Examining how drone warfare fits into the broader culture of the U.S. military, the volume also gives a remarkable insight into the psyche of drone operators tasked with carrying out targeted killings. Unlike traditional forms of combat where events often move with brutal speed, drone operators, through a high-definition camera in the sky, often intimately follow their targets over long periods of time, sometimes several months, getting to know their habits, personalities, and even families, before one day pulling the trigger and killing them.

While drone strikes are often viewed as an antiseptic, dehumanized form of killing — comparable to blowing up targets in a video game — many operators interviewed by Phelps describe it as a psychologically difficult. Some even develop parasocial relationships with those they are tasked to stalk and kill.

In one case discussed in the book, an intelligence analyst working on the CIA’s drone program was part of a team tasked with six months of 24-hours-a-day surveillance of a man said to be a “high-value target.” In addition to the behavior that was alleged to justify his killing, the analyst observed his target walking his children to school on a daily basis and taking care of his family, as part of a long-term surveillance routine known as pattern-of-life analysis. In a strange way, the analyst got to know his target, even developing a level of sympathy born out of spending so much time seeing how he interacted with others, especially his wife and children.

The level of closeness and knowledge about his target, gleaned by watching him for months through a drone’s lens, was far greater than that in traditional combat situations.

Eventually, the day that the intelligence analyst would have to kill him came. After such a long period of voyeuristic intimacy with the man — about whom the analyst himself said, “there was no doubt that he was a good father” — it was nothing like a video game. A father himself, the analyst related on a human level with the man he had been following. In many ways, the level of closeness and knowledge about his target, gleaned by watching him for months through a drone’s lens, was far greater than that in traditional combat situations, where combatants have little personal knowledge about those that they kill. As Phelps notes, “the analyst said that when the time came to strike this guy, whom he had observed being a normal dad every day for six months, it was emotionally difficult.”

Other drone operators describe experiencing physiological stress during their missions, as well as brief bursts of adrenaline following successful shots that supported friendly ground forces engaged in active combat. When they were asked to describe their worst day on the job, many of their responses dealt with what drone crews saw in the aftermath of certain strikes. One sensor operator on a drone described their worst day to Phelps this way: “Watching the son of the person I just obliterated with a Hellfire missile pick up the pieces of his father. It wasn’t the act of killing I focused on, it was watching the boy’s face and interactions with the rest of his family that continue to haunt me.”

A contractor working as a tactical controller on a Reaper drone crew also provided their view on the long-term consequences of a killing that he had helped carry out:

Although I would not do it differently, conducting surveillance on a confirmed HVT [high-value target] and seeing him positively interact with his spouse and children, like a caring father and husband, playing soccer with his son, and ultimately taking a kinetic strike opportunity far from his home. No collateral damage occurred, however, had full viewing in HD of the family mourning and could not help but think that the son would be the next generation of terrorist due to this event.

Phelps approaches drone warfare as a military insider. He is mainly concerned with reducing the stigma against drone operators within the military hierarchy and finding ways of making the process of remote killing psychologically easier. He suggests creating greater social distance between operator and target, using technical language to describe the people involved, and breaking up tasks so that the person doing intimate, pattern-of-life surveillance on an individual is not the same person pulling the trigger or observing the target’s family in grief in the aftermath.

“I wish it was just a guy in a car that we didn’t know. Those shots are easy.”

Not everyone who takes part in drone warfare is troubled by their experience. Some take the righteousness of their operations for granted. Nonetheless, in his descriptions of the psychological impact of targeted killing on drone operators, Phelps dispels the notion that taking a life with a drone is always as easy as playing a video game for the people doing it.

“It’s ridiculous the idea that we don’t see the humanity. I’m watching a target for eight hours. I’m going to watch him go to the store and go to his wife. I’ve had targets that I followed for four or five days. I know where they live, I know what they do,” one drone operator told Phelps. “Then eventually you kill this guy. Absolutely I know that his wife is out there and that we just made her a widow and that we just took a father away from his three kids. It sucks. I wish it was just a guy in a car that we didn’t know. Those shots are easy.”

Courtesy of Oxford University Press

Embedded in Phelps’s analysis in “On Killing Remotely” is the assumption that targeted killing with drones is just another evolution in how human beings have created advantages for themselves in combat, comparable to the bow and arrow, cannon, sniper rifle, bomber plane, and ballistic missile.

That assumption is put to the test in Neil Renic’s “Asymmetric Killing.” Renic argues that drones establish a “radical asymmetry” of violence unlike anything created by prior weapons. The utter lopsidedness of the violence, where one side is completely free from danger and the other at their total mercy, calls into question whether what is happening is a war at all — or something more sinister.

In countries like Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, the U.S. has carried out thousands of strikes in the absence of a meaningful U.S. ground presence. The people being killed on the ground in these strikes usually do not, and indeed cannot, pose any conceivable threat to Americans. Renic argues, with reference to philosophical traditions like “just war” theory, that this makes even many purportedly legitimate drone targets, particularly the low-level, rural, foreign fighters who bear the brunt of the drone program, little different from civilians.

The concept of war as a legal and morally regulated activity was historically built on an assumption of mutual risk and danger among those taking part. That dynamic simply no longer exists when one side is fighting only with robots from the other side of the planet. While prior technological advances may have reduced the structural threat between combatants, drone warfare is the first time that one side has made themselves absolutely immune to violence.

“UAV-exclusive violence marks a fundamental shift in the nature of hostilities, from an adversarial contestation to something more closely approximating judicial sanction,” Renic writes. “One outcome of this shift has been the dehumanization of those targeted by the United States.”

Renic argues that killing through drone strikes outside of active combat situations is less like war and more like “a creative process of disinfection.”

What emerges in place of war as a situation of mutual risk is simply an unending series of executions carried out from the skies. The task of the people carrying out many strikes is less about overcoming an enemy in battle than issuing moral judgments and death sentences against individuals who pose no conceivable threat to the U.S. and whose customs, circumstances, and even identities are often unknown to them. To use a chilling metaphor, Renic argues that killing through drone strikes outside of active combat situations is less like war, as traditionally defined, and more like “a creative process of disinfection.”

In cases where drones are targeting high-level terrorists who are directly planning attacks against the U.S. or where they are supporting friendly ground forces in combat, the strikes are more justifiable, according to traditional moral schema. These are not often the circumstances of drone strikes. Thousands of strikes have taken place outside of active combat zones over the years or have targeted low-level fighters or even unarmed individuals who posed no direct threat to U.S. forces or civilians. An investigative report recently published by the military-focused news site Connecting Vets, including leaked footage of many strikes, outlined the extent to which U.S. military commanders became obsessed with killing low-level suspected Taliban members in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, during a 2019 drone campaign.

Fixated on increasing their “kill counts” as a metric of operational success, military commanders authorized drone strikes even against unarmed individuals in the province suspected of having walkie-talkies or wearing tactical vests. The attacks were in stark contrast to Phelps’s characterization of U.S. drone warfare as intelligence-driven, targeted strikes against bad actors: Participants in the Helmand campaign described it as “nihilistic,” stating that “the drone strikes were punitive. Killing for the sake of killing.”

As much as drone warfare has eliminated mortal risk on one side of war almost entirely, it has simultaneously displaced that risk onto civilians whose safety the military is ostensibly tasked to defend. By making themselves wholly immune to retributive violence from an enemy that they kill from afar, the U.S. military makes it more likely that those enemies will respond by attacking whatever target is available, usually civilian ones, rather than accept surrender or annihilation in the face of relentless one-way violence.

That does not make the killing of civilians, whether Americans or locals in foreign countries, by militant groups any less morally objectionable. Yet by military officials’ own accounts, the displacement of the violence onto the defenseless is a foreseeable outcome of policies that primarily seek to protect soldiers from physical danger at all costs.

“Attempts to armorize our force against all potential enemy threats … shifts the ‘burden of risk’ from a casualty-averse military force onto the populace,” wrote American Marine Maj. Trent Gibson in a 2009 paper titled “Hell Bent on Force Protection: Confusing Troop Welfare with Mission Accomplishment in Counterinsurgency,” which drew on experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. “In doing so, we have lifted the burden from our own shoulders and placed it squarely upon those who do not possess the material resources to bear it — the civilian populace.”

Courtesy of Little, Brown and Company

“On Remote Killing” ends with a word of warning about the prospect of autonomous weapons platforms, which may have the capacity of distancing human beings from war even further by automating the entire killing process using artificial intelligence. Phelps compellingly argues that “war is a human endeavor and there must be a human cost to undertaking it.” Though his book establishes that taking lives is not as easy for drone operators as stereotypes may suggest, for those who have been on the receiving end of violence over the past 20 years, simply knowing that there is a human being who pulled the trigger that killed their family members is not much comfort.


The U.S. Military Often Kills Civilians — and Rarely Offers Compensation

After initially trying to cover up the killings of Zemari Ahmadi and his family in Kabul, the Pentagon subsequently backtracked following a stream of news reports disproving their narrative about killing an ISIS-K terrorist, the Islamic State group’s affiliate in Afghanistan. Though it was forced to admit responsibility, the military has said that no disciplinary action would be taken against anyone involved in the attack that took the lives of 10 members of an innocent family.

If drone warfare, whether autonomous or not, is to have any moral component at all, it must include some accountability for the innocent people regularly killed in strikes like the one that ended the life of Zemari Ahmadi. Periodic apologies aside, moral responsibility toward the tens of thousands killed, maimed, or deprived of their loved ones over the past 20 years has been in short evidence.

“That is not enough for us to say sorry,” Emal Ahmadi, Zemari’s brother, told reporters in the aftermath of the drone strike. “The U.S.A. can see from everywhere. They can see that there were innocent children near the car and in the car. Whoever did this should be punished. It isn’t right.”

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