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.