The Intimacy of the War on Terror

In a great review of John Sifton’s book, George Pack­er has an inter­est­ing pas­sage:

One strik­ing fea­ture of vio­lence in the age of ter­ror is its anonymi­ty. The hijack­ers couldn’t see the faces of the work­ers in the Twin Tow­ers. Amer­i­can pilots over Kan­da­har didn’t know whether chil­dren were present in the com­pound they were about to destroy. The goal of the sui­cide bomber in the Bagh­dad mar­ket was to kill as many peo­ple as pos­si­ble. The drone oper­a­tor in Neva­da pushed the but­ton based on a video feed of sup­pos­ed­ly sus­pi­cious activ­i­ty by pas­sen­gers in a vehi­cle. Advances in weapons tech­nol­o­gy make vio­lence eas­i­er by obvi­at­ing the nat­ur­al aver­sion to face-to-face killing, turn­ing war into an auto­mat­ed activ­i­ty and elim­i­nat­ing the mit­i­ga­tion that comes with our ten­den­cy toward sub­mis­sion and retreat. “On the one hand, we have the most inti­mate form of vio­lence,” Sifton says of drone strikes, “while on the oth­er hand, the least inti­mate of weapons.” But, judg­ing by the num­ber of drone oper­a­tors who have been treat­ed for alco­holism, depres­sion, and oth­er out­comes of post-trau­mat­ic stress, even this degree of remote­ness can’t insu­late the per­pe­tra­tor from the effects of killing. “Mod­ern killers and tor­tur­ers suf­fer more than those of the past,” Sifton writes, “because of the larg­er dis­cor­dance between our ordi­nary social lives and our vio­lent activ­i­ties.”

This is almost com­plete­ly back­ward. Indus­tri­al war­fare is anony­mous: you shoot your gun from your trench and every­one wears gas masks, you fire­bomb entire cities but there’s no media or per­sis­tent ISR around to real­ly show the indi­vid­ual hor­rors that befall civil­ians, you all wear uni­forms so your brain clicks over “this is an ene­my” and it becomes okay to kill him.

Mod­ern war­fare, how­ev­er? Mod­ern war­fare is deeply per­son­al. There were hints of this in Viet­nam, which was the first real break away from indus­tri­al war­fare. In the Bat­tle of Mogadishu, sol­diers could not fight anony­mous­ly. Even in the very shal­low movie treat­ment, you can see them strug­gling with what to do when a woman picks up a gun, with sneak­ing through a school so as not to hurt the chil­dren inside.

Mod­ern sol­diers attach a name and a face to every­one they go after. In pre­vi­ous wars, you would some­times know the name of an ene­my sol­dier, but in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. was able to iden­ti­fy almost every sin­gle per­son it was tar­get­ing in com­bat. The spe­cial forces — a bet­ter anal­o­gy to drones as a high­light of the GWOT — are even more per­son­al: they shot Osama bin Laden at close range. They do the high-risk res­cue mis­sions. Stan­ley McChrys­tal hunt­ed down Zar­qawi by tor­tur­ing pris­on­ers to death.

And then there’s drones. Far in con­tra­dic­tion to the usu­al cant about “videogame” war­fare, are in fact deeply inti­mate. The rea­son the drone oper­a­tors have the symp­toms Pack­er and Sifton describe is not just because of the break between their dai­ly life — going home at the end of a shift to their  fam­i­lies — but because of how they must sur­veil and then mon­i­tor their tar­gets before and after fir­ing mis­siles.

It is rare, in his­to­ry, that reg­u­lar sol­diers would have stalked their tar­gets for weeks on end, watched their dai­ly activ­i­ties, their dai­ly life, come to know their tar­gets, and then stuck around to watch their fam­i­lies grieve (or be pulled from the wreck­age) after­ward. That is a fun­da­men­tal­ly inti­mate, not anony­mous, process, and I think it goes a long way toward explain­ing the rea­son why drone oper­a­tors have PTSD at a high­er rate than con­ven­tion­al jet pilots. Far from an anony­mous, videogame-like expe­ri­ence, drones are in fact deeply inti­mate, and impose deeply per­son­al costs.

Joshua Foust used to be a foreign policy maven. Now he helps organizations communicate strategically and build audiences.