An intelligence analyst who worked for the CIA’s drone program—the military calls them Remotely Piloted Aircraft, or RPAs—told me about two very different experiences of killing key targets, known as High Value Individuals, or HVIs.
In the first case, he and his team had been tracking a top al Qaeda leader for five years when they finally caught a break one day. The analyst said that there were about 100 people in the room watching the mission unfold in real time. At some point during the day, the al Qaeda leader got himself in the wrong isolated place, which was exactly the opportunity needed to conduct an RPA strike. The room, normally full of quiet professionals, erupted in cheers. It was an emotional day, five years in the making.
In the afternoon, they observed the target pick up his children from school and then spend hours playing with them in the backyard. According to the analyst, ‘There was no doubt that he was a good father.’
The analyst’s second case concerned another HVI that his team watched for six months, 24 hours a day. Every day, they watched this guy walk his kids to school and then go to meetings with other nefarious characters. In the afternoon, they observed the HVI pick up his children from school and then spend hours playing with them in the backyard.
According to the analyst, who was a father himself, “There was no doubt that he was a good father.” When the time came to strike this guy, it was emotionally difficult. As one U.S. Air Force sensor operator succinctly put it in an interview, “It’s the humanity aspect that makes it hard. To overcome that feeling of killing a normal guy you need lots of information about the bad things he does to help justify this killing in your mind.”
When people meet an RPA crew member, they often say, “It’s just like playing a videogame, right?” The comparison is common, but it’s also ignorant and disrespectful: Nothing about killing someone from 7,000 miles away should be considered a game. What’s more, this misconception that our RPA warriors are just playing a videogame is a barrier to taking their psychological struggles seriously.
At first blush, it seems counterintuitive that a person could be negatively affected by an action that occurs at a great remove, especially when that person isn’t exposed to any physical danger. Early video monitors for RPAs were similar to early night sights. Their grainy feeds often cut out, and poor camera resolution made it difficult to discern a person’s features. Targets appeared as blobs rather than people. This is what many people think RPA warfare is like today—pushing a button from 7,000 miles away to fire a missile at a blob on a screen until it’s extinguished, like in Space Invaders.
In fact, state-of-the-art RPA technology shrinks the distance between RPA operators and their targets. High-definition video shows the enemy in the sort of fine-grained detail that a warrior would only otherwise see in hand-to-hand combat. The great tension in modern-day RPA warfare is between the need to dehumanize the target for the psychological health of the striker and the development of a certain intimacy with the target before and after the strike. The fact is, after nearly two decades of killing remotely, its toll on those who do it remains relatively uncharted territory. Responses to killing remotely are as complex and varied as other warriors’ responses to killing.
For my own research on the subject, I surveyed 254 RPA and intelligence personnel and conducted more than 50 in-person interviews. Nearly 26% of those surveyed said that they experienced flashbacks of the event, 17% stated they had recurrent waking memories of the event, 16% stated they felt detached or numb, and 15% admitted to having difficulty sleeping.
A 2014 study by U.S. Air Force psychologist Wayne Chappelle involving 1,084 Air Force drone operators found that 4.3% of them experienced the symptoms of moderate to extreme post-traumatic stress disorder—lower than rates of PTSD (10-18%) among military personnel returning from deployment but higher than the rates (less than 1%) reported in drone operators’ electronic medical records.
No mission evokes more connection to a target for an RPA crew than hunting a high-value individual. HVIs are often tracked for days, weeks, months or even years before being struck. This provides ample opportunities to get to know a target through observation. Aaron Garman, a U.S. Army drone pilot and sensor operator, described the nature of this intimacy with the target in an interview: “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. 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.”
There should be emotions associated with killing another human being, regardless of how evil that person is, how much we think they deserve to die, and how many people they have hurt. We never want our soldiers to lose touch with their humanity or the humanity of those they fight. We need disciplined warriors able to deal out controlled violence when required, not psychopaths. Some fear that RPA warfare will create emotionally detached, physically safe drone warriors who kill without attachment, compunction or remorse.
My observations and discussions with RPA warriors contradict this fear. Taking someone’s life is an emotional flood, regardless of the distance from which it is done. That flood of emotions doesn’t mean that such attacks shouldn’t occur; it simply means that there may be an emotional cost experienced by the attacker when it does.
If the target is a high-value individual, it’s a certainty that he isn’t a boy scout.
If the target is a high-value individual, it’s a certainty that he isn’t a boy scout. Brett Velicovich was an intelligence analyst for the Army Special Forces who used RPAs to help hunt HVIs throughout Iraq, including some top-tier targets. He wrote the book “Drone Warrior” to describe his operations. In an interview with Vox he described how it felt to watch bad people do normal things:
“You’re watching these guys and they’re totally normal. You see them dropping their kids off at school. You see them having tea or coffee at a local market. You see them doing normal things. It’s almost like People magazine or something. You always have these ‘the stars are just like us’ type of feelings. You see terrorists doing stuff that anyone else would do. It’s what they’re doing in the shadows that we’re trying to find. When you find that, then you know you’ve got him.”
—Lt. Col. Phelps (U.S. Marine Corps, ret.) is the former commander of an RPA unit. This essay is adapted from his new book “On Killing Remotely: The Psychology of Killing With Drones,” which will be published on June 8 by Little Brown.
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