MUCH HAS been written on the psychological impact of the US drone war on the tribal areas of Pakistan, where young children have learned to recognize the buzz of a low-flying Predator just before it unleashes a hellfire missile on a neighbor’s house. But little is known about the psychological impact of this remote-controlled war on the American drone pilots who steer the unmanned weapons through the skies of Afghanistan and Pakistan from the safety of a military base in the Nevada desert.
More than 1,000 Air Force pilots man the military’s drones 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, gazing at video-game-like screens through cameras so powerful they can pick up a license plate number two miles away. What does it feel like to be a warrior on the cusp of a new era of war - one which is fought without any personal danger to oneself? What is it like to have the power to secretly watch, follow, and kill a person in a foreign land from the comfort of a control center thousands of miles away?
Last year, the Air Force conducted its first-known study on the mindset of airmen operating these drones.
“We are still trying to get our minds wrapped around the impact that this has on a human being,’’ said Wayne Chappelle, senior air medical research psychologist for the Air Force.
The six-month study looked at the stress levels and personality traits of drone pilots and sensor operators supporting US troops on the ground in Afghanistan. It did not include pilots who operate the CIA’s covert drone programs in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Iran.
Before the study, many had assumed that the main stress on drone pilots would be the parallel life that comes with virtual war, the dissonance of participating in a battle in Afghanistan or Iraq, and - hours later - driving home to eat a hamburger with your kids.
But it turns out that most drone pilots don’t seem to have problems with that kind of compartmentalization. Although 46 percent of the drone pilots reported elevated levels of stress, and 29 percent reported signs of emotional fatigue and burnout, most blamed long hours and constantly changing shifts, due to a shortage of drone pilots and the military’s steadily increasing appetite for drones.
Long stretches of monotony - staring a computer screen of foreign terrain - punctuated by short unpredictable bursts of extreme stress and life-or-death decision-making also seemed a factor in the fatigue of the drone pilots. “Sustaining vigilance is mind-numbing,’’ one pilot reported.
But that stress is not much different than what emergency room doctors and police endure, Chappelle said. Despite high levels of exhaustion, the pilots generally expressed strong feelings of teamwork and a belief that they were participating in an important mission.
Perhaps the most intriguing discovery, therefore, was that a small number of drone pilots experience symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder, even though they were nowhere near the field of battle. Between 12 to 17 percent of soldiers returning from war zones report symptoms of PTSD, including “hyper-vigilance,’’ feelings of horror or helplessness, nightmares, or emotional numbness. By contrast, about 4 percent of drone pilots experienced similar emotional discomfort. But their symptoms were slightly different. They focused on feelings of guilt and remorse, and persistent internal, nagging moral questions about the job. Military psychologists have dubbed these feelings “existential conflict.’’
They tend to crop up after drone pilots see pictures of the bodies of civilians accidentally killed in a strike, or when air support to ground troops didn’t go as planned. “It is hard for somebody to consolidate that experience,’’ Chappell said. “For some, it doesn’t sit well. They ask: Am I doing the right thing? Is there something they could have done differently?’’
So might these feelings one day been seen as a new mental disorder growing out of a new kind of warfare? Could it become the modern-day equivalent of the “shell shock’’ experienced by World War I veterans, or the “war neurosis’’ of World War II? And is it such a bad thing if soldiers - sitting in safety in Nevada - feel guilty when they kill?
Paula Caplan, a psychologist who wrote “When Johnny and Jane Come Marching Home,’’ about trauma experienced by war veterans, thinks not. “It’s normal to feel this way,’’ she said. Caplan has been campaigning for the removal of the word “disorder’’ from the description of combat stress. She says the symptoms are a normal reaction to war - not a mental problem. War itself is the abnormality.
“No human being is raised to kill,’’ she said. “However tough they are, it has an impact. When you kill from a distance, you are less likely to see the reality of death. But there is often delayed guilt.’’Farah Stockman can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @fstockman.