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Avengers in Wrath: Moral Agency and Trauma Prevention for Remote Warriors

Dave Blair, Karen House
Sunday, November 12, 2017, 10:00 AM

Editor’s Note: Drone warfare is often caricatured as remote-control fighting, more akin to playing a video game than real warfare. In an unusual Foreign Policy Essay, Dave Blair and Karen House ​take on this myth, detailing the costs to the operators and the conditions that increase the risks to their well-being. They offer important recommendations for how to make drone warfare less morally and psychologically hazardous for the operators.


Understanding Life and Death between War and Peace

Photo Credit: U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. N.B./Released via DVIDS

Published by The Lawfare Institute
in Cooperation With

Editor’s Note: Drone warfare is often caricatured as remote-control fighting, more akin to playing a video game than real warfare. In an unusual Foreign Policy Essay, Dave Blair and Karen House ​take on this myth, detailing the costs to the operators and the conditions that increase the risks to their well-being. They offer important recommendations for how to make drone warfare less morally and psychologically hazardous for the operators.


Understanding Life and Death between War and Peace

It is one thing to experience something, and another thing entirely to watch someone you care about go through the same thing. One of coauthor of this article, Dave, piloted AC-130 gunships for three tours in Iraq before becoming a Predator driver. Before he went downrange for the first time, he asked himself the warrior’s sine qua non questions about killing and dying, and within a few weeks, he knew the answers. The other co-author, Karen, served as a counselor to Predator and Reaper (remotely piloted aircraft, or RPA) crews who were deployed-in-garrison under SOCOM’s Preservation of the Force and Family program. Before her posting as a mental health professional, she was forced to deal with death close to home—she is the widow of a Special Forces soldier. We both understood life and death personally, and therefore both of us were surprised at how challenging it was to walk with our young Predator and Reaper crews as they encountered these questions for the first time.

For someone who’s been flying in remote combat for a decade, Dave found it challenging to wind back the clock and remember what it was like to encounter killing for the first time—especially because his first experience with the topic occurred in such a different place, with radically different rituals and support structures. Similarly, Karen found empathy with the RPA crews in her own story, but our flyers’ perpetual existence in a fractured mish-mash of war and peace made their experience qualitatively different from her own.

We both realized, contrary to popular myth, physical distance and technology were not mediating psychological impact—many crews were connecting more deeply with the experience, not less. We needed to build a new understanding of how the relationship between distance and combat if we were going to provide our crews the support and understanding they required to do what the country asked of them. This is the story of that project, in hopes of synching the story of the combat RPA community with the larger public narrative about who we are and why.

The Intensely Personal Experience of Remote Warfare

The experience of remote combat feels anything but distant. In close air support, defending friendly forces in contact with the enemy, you hear the emotion in your ground comrade’s voice, and you often hear the firefight in the background. When pursuing a high-value target remotely you know all about the person in question, and you often watch him for an extended period of time as he lives his life. Reflecting aspects of the sniper’s experience, the very nature of the MQ-9 Reaper’s persistent attack role forces crews to understand their targets as humans. This is especially true of High Value Individual (HVI) targeting, a mission set that weighs heavily in this paper’s analysis.

There is, and should be, a certain professional distance between soliders and their mission—Peter Feaver’s concept of Armed Servants describes these professional responsibilities well—but warriors do, and should, remain human in the midst of their tasked missions. There is a natural and appropriate tension between the duty to faithfully execute the will of governing authorities and the imperatives of how we understand ourselves as warriors and as humans. Imagine that you spent months in planning your role in an operation to rescue a hostage, only to find the hostage had been moved immediately prior to your rescue operation. Now imagine you discover that one of your targets perpetrated unspeakable things to the hostage in the wake of an abortive rescue attempt. If you were tasked to track down and strike that target, it would be undeniably personal. Imagine if you had a chance to end an agent of malice who used the hostage victims as reality TV props—how could such a target not take on a personal aspect? Understanding the enemy you’re flying against, these strikes become a contest of will, not just one of technical skill. Aircrews push themselves to the edge of mental exhaustion, remaining in position to strike on a moment’s notice for double-digit hours, and come back the next day and the next until it is done and the target eliminated.

Understanding the enemy you’re flying against, these strikes become a contest of will, not just one of technical skill.

A combat encounter of this kind is a double-edged sword. When a strike is executed flawlessly, crews and the entire team congratulate each other for excellence, rightly priding themselves on the tactical patience it took to wait until a moment where risk to civilians was minimized and the probability of killing their targets was maximized. For instance, an enemy might venture into a clearing for a brief moment after hours of transiting high-traffic areas, giving crews, who had been watching and prepared all the while, an opportunity to take a clean shot. This became a gold standard, a cultural norm of excellence measuring mastery in the ability to accomplish the mission with zero collateral damage. But this standard is not always possible, and accepting the reality and necessity of a strike in less-than-optimal conditions is difficult. This ethical dilemma is addressed in officer commissioning programs, in which the possibility of an anti-aircraft gun site on top of a hospital or something of the sort is discussed. However, the reality of a morally complex strike is far less stark, and far more emotionally charged, than the hypothetical. For a culture that measures mastery in terms of surgical precision, it’s hard to accept that on some rare strikes, all the tools, skills, and tactics that we use to minimize harm to non-combatants can’t drive the number down to zero. The movie Eye in the Sky depicts a fictitious tragedy in which an unaffiliated passerby walks into the blast radius of a Hellfire strike. The tragic reality is much worse: Senior enemy leaders often intentionally keep non-combatants alongside them as human shields.

In those moments, it comes down to the personal logic of Just War; where the classroom hypothetical was about jus in bello positive law, the real experience is about people, weighing the scales of innocent lives. The decision to authorize a strike is made well above the level of the aircrew, but if they cannot reconcile themselves to the logic of that decision, it becomes much more difficult to bear. When the captain and the sergeant walk out to the cockpit for the strike with a sense of cold determination, it’s because they’ve done the moral math themselves—the scale tips in favor of the lives they will save, and they set themselves toward perfection in employing their craft such that the casualty bill will be as low as possible. Following the strike, they return with a somber sense of completion, without celebration, but with a sense of relief for securing the best outcome given the circumstances.

On the other end of this spectrum, a successful close air support (CAS) mission is the cause of much celebration. Because of the slow flight profile, high-fidelity sensors, and low-yield weapons, the Reaper is one of few platforms of choice for urban CAS, a mission that often places their fires in close proximity to civilians and friendly forces. In one characteristic instance, a crew weaved a Hellfire down a tight alleyway for a DANGER CLOSE shot to save a wounded group of partner forces on the ground—with precision weaponeering and timing, the crew planted the missile perfectly in a complex urban environment. When the crew is able to save the lives of comrades and partners on the ground, this is as close to unalloyed good as possible. The crew sees the troops they saved, hears them on the radio afterwards thanking them, and sometimes gets the opportunity to meet them when they rotate home. We act on their behalf, and when we can act effectively to bring about a good outcome, it’s a good day. This is our culture, and it’s one that focuses on moral agency while acting on the behalf of others. All military force is acting on behalf of others, but because Reaper crews are not in the space of reciprocal conventional fires and instead fight by proxy through technology, we understand our experience through its outcomes in the lives of other people—our buddies on the ground, the would-be victims of our targets, and the civilians in our war zones.

Cognitive Combat Intimacy

Contrary to popular cultural beliefs, remote killing is an intensely personal experience. In his book, On Killing, Lt. Col. David Grossman (ret), the professor emeritus of the psychology of killing, describes how human faculties for relationship and empathy become entangled in the act of taking a life. In order to successfully hunt a target, you must anticipate their actions; in order to anticipate their actions, you must empathize with them. During an attack, a sensor operator might think, “If I were him, I would sprint when I hear this missile,” and then shift the crosshairs appropriately. In doing so, his mind creates a connection, as the thought itself implies both a ‘him’ and a relationship between ‘him’ and ‘me.’ One researcher goes so far as to consider this empathy as an activating factor for mirror neurons—brain cells that reflect other people’s actions within our own brains, considered a neuropsychological basis for empathy. Once connected, severing the connection in a strike becomes potentially traumatic. The relationship between empathy and killing is challenging, especially for a technology that requires a “hunter’s empathy” in order to anticipate target responses.

Grossman describes this relationship in terms of distance. In hand-to-hand combat, there is no avoiding the reality of the humanity of a target—all five senses are involved, and there is no way to immediately extricate one’s self from the aftermath. One step distant from hand-to-hand killing would be the hunter of men: a sniper. In this situation, empathy and active anticipation of the target’s moves also initiate the emotional connection via the mirror neurons. These are intimate acts of human interaction. Conversely, an artillery round landing on a grid square may cause death just as surely, but the experience is more abstract for the artillerist. That artillerist intellectually understands the volume and magnitude of their killing immediately, but the visceral sense of it comes with time and contemplation. Therefore, physically proximate killing more completely embodies the target to the mind as a human, which creates more potential for empathy, which in turn increases the potential for trauma associated with killing. For our purposes, we will refer to the empathetic proximity to a target as ‘combat intimacy.’

For remote warriors, Cognitive Combat Intimacy (CCI) is a relational attachment to a human target mediated by sensor resolution and dwell time...

We find Grossman’s model very helpful, but with one caveat: We hold that the operative distance is not physical distance, but cognitive distance. For remote warriors, Cognitive Combat Intimacy (CCI) is a relational attachment to a human target mediated by sensor resolution and dwell time, or duration of observation. In layman’s terms, resolution is the clarity with which a hunter can see a target, and even from a great distance, the hunter is exposed to very human factors such as the color of their clothing, the target’s interaction with others, and the activities of their daily life. Dwell time can be hours, days, and often weeks, during which the hunter has the opportunity to further develop the empathetic bond with the target. In the case of quick-reaction CAS, dwell might be as simple as watching enemy soldiers hunker down and fire at friendlies. It is the intensity of the action and the relationship to comrades, rather than the duration, that leaves an imprint. Resolution presents the target to the brain as a person, and dwell time allows that knowledge to soak into the consciousness.

The intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) phase is when a relationship, albeit a single-sided relationship, with the target is formed. It forms the foundation for CCI for the HVI targeting mission set. Air crews observe as the target moves through daily life with his wife and children: visiting the market, relieving himself, running errands, attending religious services. These quotidian activities are particularly difficult on Airmen with families, whose parental empathies are triggered. In one case, described by Air Force officer and Oxford doctoral candidate Joe Chapa, a pilot who was a parent waited for hours until his target, a notorious terrorist facilitator, walked far enough away from his child to allow a clean shot. While he and his sensor perfectly executed the shot while sparing the child’s life, the child walked back to the pieces of his father and began to place the pieces back into human shape. Once the strike and its immediate aftermath were complete, the scene affected the pilot to such a degree that he requested a break crew to swap him out. While this is an extreme case, the same sort of experiences are shared far and wide across our community.

These factors can also be applied and compared to other forms of combat. The up-close killing Grossman describes is a full-sensory, immersive experience that fully constitutes their target as human—we could say the experience of close-quarters violence is characterized by extreme sensor resolution even in a relatively brief dwell window. A sniper has the closest comparative relationship to a remote warrior, with similar sensor resolution and dwell time in developing a target. The artillerist might have low resolution, firing on grid squares and abstractions, and low dwell time through the ability to shift rapidly to new grid squares at the end of the fire mission. In contrast, the Reaper crew, though at much greater distance, has very high-fidelity sensors, bringing a CAS engagement to reality in extreme detail. This also takes place over a longer duration; ISR crews may develop targets for days or more. As a result, they may connect more deeply to their target than many closer combatants. The sniper-like nature of the Reaper mission necessarily involves some degree of combat intimacy.

Logics of Reciprocity vs. Proxy

Our modified model does not deal with the significant role of reciprocal risk in the brain’s chemistry; this is a significant omission. For remote warriors, the idea of reciprocity is thankfully abstract. The idea of terrorists hunting down RPA pilots to retaliate is at present the realm of fiction, despite an expressed enemy intent and desire to do so as demonstrated in ‘anti-drone’ Islamic State kill lists. This lack of reciprocity may be a passing moment—submarines, historically, were assumed to enjoy invulnerability, until the technology was developed to hunt them. While the scenario of a crew in a besieged base flying a Reaper in defense of their earthbound cockpit is not inconceivable, the immediate ‘kill or be killed’ experience of reciprocal violence that is so central to the traditional battlefield does not currently translate directly into the experience of the remote warrior.

For the combat RPA crew, it is ‘kill or someone else will be killed.’ This is a logic of proxy rather than reciprocity—a logic that depends on one’s relationship to that Someone Else. Most immediately, the Someone Else could be a ground force on the other end of the radio. It might be a connection to a comrade through shared mission, shared culture, and shared friends; alternately, a link to someone in need of help—a hostage or a potential future victim. Of course, as part of the fundamental civil-military contract, there is a connection to the people of the United States: We employ lethal force to guard the nation, and the citizens of the nation share the weight of the things done to keep them safe. As with all warriors, we place the killing done properly in service to our country under the umbrella of combat, so that we might leave it there when we return to peacetime. These connections create a moral universe in which remote warriors understand themselves vicariously through their effects on the lives of those to whom they are connected.

In the classic formulation of the Just War tradition, St. Augustine asserts that the purpose of war must be a better peace. We normally consider this logic in the aggregate, as an element of state-on-state jus ad bellum; indeed, under conventional understandings of civil-military relations, the military as a whole is a proxy for the will of the people. But the proxy logic of remote killing extends down to the personal level as well. We cannot cease to see our enemies as human, and therefore their death is a tragedy, but we cannot overlook the tragic effects of their intended actions on others. We might imagine two weights on a moral scale: on one hand we find a general feeling of empathy for the target as a human, and in the balance we find the weight of all those that would be harmed by that individual if not stopped through violence.

In the case of close air support—defending troops who are immediately under fire from the enemy—those scales are often clear: in a troops-in-contact situation, a world without your fire support could easily become a world without your comrades. It is less clear for strikes against key players in an adversary network. In high-value targeting, it takes some amount of information and consideration to understand who would be harmed by failing to strike. In the case of more abstract threats—logisticians, financiers, propagandists, cyber terrorists, and so on—it takes some more consideration to understand the harms being prevented. But comprehension is crucial, as it allows crews to morally concur with the strike order, which in turn reduces the potential trauma associated with seeing one’s self as an instrument of meaningless killing. This possibility for concurrence is key: If the crews have the opportunity to personally ratify the moral logic of the strike order, then the probability of trauma is greatly reduced.

Concurrence & the Curve

We were struck by the concept of concurrence, this personal form of the Just War tradition, while listening to our crews discuss the strategic logic of various strikes conducted with the goal of stopping the Islamic State. Alongside ethicist Joe Chapa, Dave has argued that when one sees the killing inherent in strikes as a means of personal glory, it risks damaging the soul. This is distinct from properly celebrating technical excellence or collective achievement in a mission, even if the subject matter is the same. Such grasping at fame also leads to a culture of cut-throat competition, which is problematic for a community whose tactics are based on collaboration. For both ethical and tactical reasons, the chain of command ensured crews received as much information as practical about targets, and made a point of discussing strikes as team accomplishments. The crews that finished the target successfully concluded months or even years of finding and fixing that target. The endgame was a capstone achievement done on behalf of all who contributed.

We found that, given adequate access to information and a culture where it was safe to discuss such things, crews would engage in deep and nuanced moral reasoning during the quiet hours of watching a target. The RPA community would come to a consensus about the ‘why’ of a strike, and that agreement provided purpose and focus in the pursuit of the target. When crews ratified the eventual intent to strike, a collective determination helped bring the strike about, providing a tactical edge that proved decisive on more than a few occasions—steely resolve gave the crews a reserve to keep laser focus over long hours.

In short, what sort of person the target is matters.

This dynamic made visceral sense to Dave, as he has lived it many times himself, even to the point of a shouting match on the floor of an operations center about the validity of a target when he found the moral and strategic logic of a strike compelling and his interlocutor did not. But both of us found that same dynamic intellectually puzzling, as it flew in the face of Grossman’s model. The better the crews knew certain targets, the less traumatic the strike was to them. The crews were not only making judgments about the moral logic of the strike, but they were also making assessments regarding the character of the targets as people. In short, what sort of person the target is matters.

In Grossman’s model, most of the people in the crosshairs are ‘tragic enemies,’ people who are fighting under understandable circumstances—the king’s soldiers, answering their nation’s call to arms; Robert E. Lee, fighting for his homeland of Virginia; perhaps even Rommel or Vo Nguyen Giap, depending on one’s historiography. This is why stories of the First World War’s Christmas Truce and Hal Moore and Nguyen Huu An’s 1993 staff ride at Ia Drang move us on an intensely emotional level: Reconciliation between tragic enemies tries to build a better peace in which we do not need to fight each other.

This is not true of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, nor of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. There is no world, barring a radical road-to-Damascus transformation, where a reconciling staff ride of Kobani would make any sort of sense. The acts these men personally committed—raping children, murdering aid workers, mass beheadings, drownings and immolation on the basis of insignificant differences of religious law, taking sex slaves and creating license for others to do all of these things—place them into a different category. These are not tragic enemies; they are malicious enemies. By their very nature, they are a clear and present hazard to the innocent, and a world where they are free to achieve their objectives is a worse world for humanity. This squares the Grossman model with the remote warrior’s experience. The better a tragic enemy is known, the more traumatic killing them becomes; the better a malicious enemy is known, the more compelling the need to stop them becomes. Thus, there is no real way basic human empathy for a target can be reconciled with the duty to protect the innocent.

We depict this on a curve (below), relating cognitive distance to the potential moral trauma resulting from killing. For a tragic enemy, this is a straight line—the closer you are to them, physically and emotionally, the more trauma results from lethal action. For a malicious enemy, the curve increases to a certain point, where it reaches a tipping point, and then arcs back down: When relatively little is known about the target, the general sense of human empathy predominates. As more is learned about them, the choice to strike is increasingly compelling and therefore experienced with less regret and potential moral injury.

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We might further divide that arc into four zones. To the far left is the zone of moral abstraction—a Tomahawk launching on map grids or a high-altitude bomber dropping through a Norden bombsight, wherein the potential immediate trauma of this kill is lessened by its lack of intimacy or personal knowledge of the target. One has to deliberately think about the consequences of his or her lethal act in order to turn that abstraction into a visceral sense of death. This zone is presumed by many to be the ‘video-game-war’ space occupied by remote warriors. We reject this description as applied to anyone in the military, and it is certainly not the space inhabited by the high-resolution sniper-like attack profile of Predator and Reaper crews.

The truly concerning space is ‘Just Killing,’ or the second zone on the graph. This zone has the highest potential for moral injury due to the conceivable sense of meaningless life-taking. Sensor resolution clearly establishes the humanity of the target and Cognitive Combat Intimacy (CCI) is established, but crews are deprived of relevant information to make moral sense of the strike order for a specific human target. The urgent nature of a CAS mission mandates that crews have minimal information on a target beyond their hostile intent, and a strong bond with the friendly force they are supporting. CAS missions rarely fall into the ‘Just Killing’ zone because of the immediately defensive nature of the mission. The extremely rare circumstance when CAS becomes ‘Just Killing’ is when the crews do not experience a strong bond of camaraderie or shared purpose with their supported force, such as in an unpopular mission in support of a morally ambiguous partner force.

The third zone, or the ‘Just Kill,’ is the space where the crews can ratify the strike order through additional knowledge about the target and have had time to consider the implications of that knowledge. This is where CCI has developed to a point at which the target has been observed or confirmed as a malicious enemy. Paradoxically, by increased knowledge of the target, moral injury is reduced because it takes them out of a state of anonymous humanity and identifies them as a manifest threat to innocents or friendly forces. A CAS mission most often falls into this zone, in the urgent defense of friendly forces, leading to the ratification effect and concomitant risk reduction. This area is where the archetypal warrior ethos lies: The combatant becomes an avenger, a vanquisher of evil, a monster slayer, all of which have noble connotations and thus minimize moral injury.

However, this processing takes time and space, and when crews soak in the realities of combat for too extended a period, the emotional highs and lows that are the normal response to killing decreases to near-extinction, as indicated on the fourth zone on the graph, to the far right. Though the immediate risk of moral injury is low, this pace of moral exhaustion has the highest potential for long-term trauma, as the inability to connect to a target may manifest in a general inability to summon empathy and relationally connect. These effects are difficult to remedy, as the affected crews may grow so accustomed to the normalcy of killing that they feel more comfortable in combat; the cognitive effort required to return to a mental peacetime may spiral higher as time goes on. Preventing this vortex requires an extended time away from killing. Consider a similar combat platform, such as a Marine Expeditionary Force or Strike Eagle squadron, engaged in war for several years straight. Similar problems would predictably arise and true reentry to society would be extremely challenging.

Supporting Moral Clarity

The third zone, ‘Just Kill,’ is the optimal region for balancing tactical effectiveness and prevention of moral injury. Coarsening the picture to achieve abstraction would decrease tactical acuity, not to mention that doing so would be a dishonest way to deal with the gravity of combat actions. Therefore, endeavoring to keep crews in this Zone of Moral Clarity, allows them the best chance to judge for themselves regarding the use of deadly force. Doing so requires two conditions: First, crews must know as much as possible about their targets. Second, they need the time, space, and boundaries to perform the moral homework to keep pace with their tactical actions. Especially in regard to HVI targeting, these findings should have applicability across all similar strike platforms.

Information & Moral Training. Communicating information about targets is far less a security problem as it is a keeping-up-with-the-narrative problem. Over the last few years, Predator and Reaper crews, alongside our traditionally manned counterparts, cleared the field of Islamic State leaders at a dizzying pace, and remembering who was who presented a challenge. Crews are not assigned to a specific target day after day; they may fly several lines over differing terrain, developing multiple targets during any given week in combat operations. Reaper crews are thousands of miles from the physical battlefield, which results in a sense of detachment from an extended warrior tribe. One consequence of being in several fights at once without the benefit of physical presence in theater is that you miss out on the sense of the fight gained through osmosis in combat briefs and the chow halls.

To compensate for this, the combat operations cadre spends a good deal of energy communicating to the aircrews the human drama of the campaigns. This also presents an opportunity to add texture to each of the theaters, allowing crews to reconstitute tactical context lost through distance. We paint the landscape of the fight and describe the characters therein as honestly and effectively as possible, enabling the crews to make their own judgments about their missions. These efforts help reduce the risk of fractured consciousness and self-estrangement that results from pushing one’s mind and will through a five-thousand-mile pipe into a combat reality repeatedly for months at a time. The squadron commander, as the proprietor of squadron culture, plays a critical role in this endeavor.

However, there are some prerequisites for making these judgments. In addition to having the pertinent information about the target, and time and space for reflection, crews must also be furnished with the moral reasoning tools required to wrestle with, and ultimately to work through, difficult moral dilemmas. It is not prima facie obvious that the deaths of innocent people as collateral damage can be morally justifiable. While proportionality may be an easy concept to adopt in theory, the practice of determining how many innocent lives this one high value target is worth is a deeply human and very difficult problem. Though our newest officers are exposed to this kind of moral reasoning—or at least to its skeletal structure—in commissioning sources, this single-shot inoculation is not enough.

Our new lieutenants become single-ship pilots in command (PICs) mere months after commissioning; they not only face moral combat challenges, but will also be tasked with leading, and therefore caring for, enlisted crewmembers exposed to the same dilemmas. Likewise, mission commanders and operations supervisors responsible for multiple combat lines, and our squadron commanders are charged with the care—to include emotional and moral health—of hundreds of Airmen in a field previously unknown in combat. Commanders at every level from PIC to squadron commander require education, training, and practice in moral reasoning. The centers of excellence in morality and ethics across the USAF and Joint force educational systems provide a superior resource for training. Over time, crews, and especially pilots, become proficient in the practice of moral reasoning just as they become highly skilled in tactical execution. The long-term goal is a community of warfighters that self-perpetuates the skill of phronesis (practical wisdom) as it applies to the ethics of killing in war.

Rest and Boundaries. Even a squadron of warrior-philosophers, without adequate rest, would devolve to a pro forma approach to wrestling with the weight of taking lives. Given the endemic exhaustion in the Predator and Reaper community, we must ask ourselves if we are giving our remote warriors the ability to process the actions we are asking them to undertake. We have not (yet) structured our remote combat community around the recognition that remote combat is actually combat, and therefore cannot be a permanent state of being. Therefore, we find crews in a perma-war footing, never less than 72 hours from the possibility of taking a life, for years at a time, with the exception of leave and TDYs.

The homework of incompletely processed combat strikes adds up, to the point where crews could not remember all the people they killed. Dave has felt it, both as a line flyer and in a squadron leadership role, and Karen strove to keep up with the humanistic, emotional aspect, but missions happened so fast, and each day was so full, that we rarely got the chance to work through all the things that needed working through. We triaged our attention to the strike mechanics rather than the strike meanings; given the choice between two, poor mechanics placed friendly forces and innocents at risk, while ill-considered meanings primarily affected only our personal well-being. “Shot parameters were good, impact angle was right, timing was expeditious, no collateral damage—good shot, and on to the next one.” This is unsustainable in the long run, if we want crews to exercise the level of judgment and moral agency we should expect from our warfighters.

Reaper flight crews transition from a combat mindset to a domestic one in the space between leaving the cockpit and arriving home. Pilot and sensor operators are currently termed ‘Deployed in Garrison,’ a term for RPA Airmen who, on a daily basis, virtually enter hostile territory where others’ lives are on the line; most operations centers have a sign that says The time between killing and coaching a child’s soccer team or having breakfast with a spouse and children could be less than an hour. This ability to switch between combat and domestic mindset is an untested appliance; we have not had enough time or experience to calibrate our baselines to predict when the capability of such a mental switch will expire from over-utilization. We do know that rest will prolong the crews’ ability to flip that switch—perhaps (hopefully) indefinitely.

Proper rest should take two forms: daily and seasonal. For tactical and moral reasons, there should be the opportunity for proper formal debrief after any shot, and a window for informal peer counsel afterwards. Comrades are primary-care providers for battlefield mental health; commanders building a culture of informal peer counsel makes this possible. Professional counselors, especially those who hold a clearance and understand the strikes, are an essential deeper resource. There should also be the opportunity for sufficient sleep following the strike, which allows the brain’s neuropsychological processes to sort through these high-intensity memories. This is all the more important if a shot does not go well, as guilt and self-blame make a volatile cocktail in a wartime environment. The good news is manning is starting to catch up in the community to allow squadrons to meet these primary needs. These new crews are paying sustainability bills that are severely in arrears, and should not be mistaken as surplus for new combat lines.

Crews need a period of time during which they are not at war. One irony of the ‘drones’ discussions is that many outside the community assume that the squadrons live at peace and ‘play’ at war, while the reality is the other way around. This is a community at war, and the war seeps and suffuses into every corner of life. Downrange crews are fully immersed in the combat experience, live at an elevated sense of vigilance, and know there’s a limited amount of time to their moral determination in the prosecution of the enemy. When a combat squadron physically deploys to a geographic location, their mental combat switch is in the ‘on’ position for several months, and then relegated to the ‘off’ position for 6-18 months’ dwell time at home station.

Reaper crews, flying combat missions all year round, flip the internal combat switch on and off on a daily basis, five or six days per week, and bring the combat day home to their families. It becomes normal for spouses to get news that their significant other shot someone today; this is still better than asking crews to carry the weight of the war alone. Downrange crews have Skype, and can emotionally debrief with a spouse, but they also have the distance and the expectation of rotating home as a natural boundary. In the absence of such a boundary in the Predator and Reaper community, crews simply remain at war indefinitely. As time goes on, this leads to a snowballing fatigue and cultural drift which estranges the crews from the things and people for which they are fighting. In our opinion, allowing cumulative exhaustion runs the risk of the ‘video-game war’ bogeyman, which is more likely to come about through exhaustion and losing the will to project oneself forward rather than the asymmetric and seemingly antiseptic nature of the fight.

The opportunity for periodic peacetime reconnects the crews to normal patterns of life and provides space to take stock and deal with the long-term consequences of war. For this reason, most squadrons build some sort of ‘block leave’ into flight operations for crew members. Two weeks is about the minimum to get far enough away from operations to rediscover the health and the benefits of peacetime. Taking leave in the company of friends relieves the nagging sense of abandoning the fight and being out of place that seems to accompany individual leave. But these out-of-hide solutions are far from sustainable, and therefore the Air Force is pursuing a longer-term solution, one of crucially needed ‘Combat Dwell,’ in which a full unit stands down for a time. This is crucially needed, even if only to do right by our warfighters. It is, quite simply, dangerous for warriors to so lose themselves in the fight that they forget what peacetime feels like.

The mindset required to prepare and train for future combat is distinctly different than that required to actively engage in present-day combat. Dwell time creates time and space to contemplate shortcomings and adjust tactics appropriately, which cannot be accomplished under the grueling pace of the current demand for RPAs in combat—and with them, crews that are familiar with existing strategic plans and tactics. The Air Force has invested deeply in these platforms, and differentiating combat and training by creating Combat Dwell time would ensure that investment is not squandered in the unforgiving first few days of such a campaign.

Combat RPA squadrons should also retain counseling services dedicated to their community—ideally with counselors who have the clearances for the crews to speak freely, and to understand the strikes themselves. This is increasingly being implemented as a best practice across the community. The concept of CCI was developed as a result of the collaboration between Karen, the embedded counselor, and the squadrons she supported. Having a mental health professional who is dedicated to the mission, has a deep understanding of what the issues and potential for moral injury are, and—most of all—is a familiar, trusted member of the squadron is a tremendous asset that helps crews get in front of any developing combat trauma mental health issues. One of the continuing arguments service members repeat about seeking help is that ‘no one has been there, they don’t know what it’s like.’ Having a counselor stand in the Operations Center and observe combat not only eliminates that stigma, it allows for clarity in post-strike counseling, immediate access to support when a strike has ethical or moral questions, and mitigates potential combat stress. A trusted counselor also supports mission effectiveness and personal clarity going into and following a strike, as well as helping crews mitigate the day-to-day stressors that distract from the mission.

The Future of Remote Combat

The Predator and Reaper community provides a window into the future of remote combat. After a decade of war, the RPA community’s culture has come to terms with their role in the fight, and is stronger for it. That culture provides the Joint community the best basis for reasoning about future remote warriors, be it in cyberspace, with quadcopters, or with yet unimagined technologies.

Despite the hyperbolic promises of some roboticists and Hollywood directors, the most senior DoD leaders have made it clear that the next generation of artificially-intelligent weapons will not be fully autonomous but will instead be closely controlled by a human warfighter. Truly unpiloted F-16s will serve as “loyal wingmen” to the human pilot in the F-22 cockpit. Human aircrew members will decide who to kill, but a strong network of airborne sensors and computers will determine how, which unpiloted aircraft will engage, and with which weapon. Traditional human fighter pilots will squeeze the trigger, consenting to the release of an AIM-120, but the system will determine which aircraft is in the best position to release the weapon. This will be, in a technological and intra-air domain sense, the world of the fighter pilot. But the emotional stress of killing through highly attenuated technological means is and has been for a decade and a half, the psychological and moral world of the RPA pilot.

Insofar as there is a human in the loop, the human agency that directs the killing of another human will be, in some important way, mediated by technology and will therefore impose special emotional and psychological risks on the practitioner.

The lessons our community has learned through 16 years of uninterrupted combat operations provides the foundation upon which the next community of warfighters—the community being imagined at the Strategic Capabilities Office and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency—ought to be built. Insofar as there is a human in the loop, the human agency that directs the killing of another human will be, in some important way, mediated by technology and will therefore impose special emotional and psychological risks on the practitioner. Safeguarding the mental health of those future pilots, aircrew, cyber warriors, space officers, etc., begins by thoroughly digesting the RPA community’s lessons learned.

First, persistent remote warfare with exquisite sensors is a very personal affair, and the community has embraced the Cognitive Combat Intimacy of it. We might expect that as cyber sharpens its claws, their weapons will at some point turn personal as well. Rather than abstracting enemies into pixels, recognizing the humanity of the target and weighing the moral scales allows remote warriors to use ‘hunter’s empathy’ to more effectively target their foe, while reducing the risk of moral trauma. This personal aspect should be understood in the context of a professional responsibility to conduct assigned missions within the bounds of military ethics.

Second, the nature of the target matters. We will not always face enemies who are so clearly evil, but so long as we currently do, honestly communicating that narrative to the crews engenders both morale and focus, and reduces the potential for moral injury. Perhaps the distinction between tragic enemies and malicious enemies might prove a more useful differentiation for re-civilizing an emerging hybrid warfare without uniforms and boundaries. By abiding by certain rules, tragic enemies are afforded certain protections, while malicious enemies enter a different category as hostis humanis generis (enemies of all mankind.) The contours of these distinctions we leave to more qualified ethicists.

Third, we need to provide our remote warriors information about their targets for the HVI mission set. With these resources, along with a reinforced foundation of moral education, we place remote warriors in an optimal zone for ethical clarity. This serves two purposes: First, we reduce the potential for moral trauma, which keeps faith with our warriors and increases their likelihood to stick around. Second, this enables them to navigate a confusing ‘gray zone,’ where adversaries are less likely to present ambiguous hostile signatures, yet would extract a terrible price through propaganda for any ham-fisted, aggressive move. Without the benefit of in situ context, remote warriors need the benefit of this support to maneuver within the morally complex space of hybrid war.

Fourth, a dedicated, trusted and knowledgeable counselor supporting combat operations. Having an asset as a civilian squadron member serves as a proactive prevention tool for crews, adding to mission effectiveness by preparing crews with tools for stress management and moral clarity. Following a difficult strike, crews have access to a familiar, trusted professional, to reduce the possibility of combat stress, and get in front of trauma that may lead to lasting effects. Preventative care for the cumulative consequences of these duties keeps a sacred trust with our warfighters, so that when they return to civilian society, warriors will have come to terms with all of the tough choices their country asked them to make.

Fifth, remote combat crews need a chance to return to peacetime—a ‘Combat-to-Dwell’ time that allows crews to re-center after an extended fight, before returning to that same fight. One misunderstanding of the community is that Reaper crews ‘play-act at war’ while living peacetime lives. The lived experience of crews is the other way around: The reality of the war is so compelling, it drowns out the quietness of peacetime. Crews whose minds are re-hashing a shot from that day very often bring that reality home with them; surprisingly often, turning on the news to see their work among the night’s stories brings the totality of that experience back in full force. The extreme highs and lows of combat operations, paired with the extreme relevance of the mission, is an addicting cocktail, and it is hard to detach and be at peace upon leaving work, or even over the course of a weekend.

The practicality of generating a sustainable force is particularly relevant at present—if the Air Force does not find a way to provide crews installments of peacetime, crew members will likely find peacetime in bulk on their own by departing the force. Without installments of combat dwell, the Reaper community will not be able to achieve the levels of readiness required for major theater wars. Combat experience is an excellent foundation for effectiveness in these campaigns, but the routinized strikes of a low-intensity conflict do not replace the value of the high-intensity missions of deliberate peacetime training.

In conclusion, we have learned many things over the last decade about how to fight a very personal fight from a great distance. We’ve learned how to port risk across theaters; we’ve learned how to be many places at once; we’ve learned about the importance of boundaries in an unbounded war. But the most important lesson comes with a bit of comfort: Tactics and approaches in keeping with the Just War tradition are, in fact, more effective on the remote battlefield.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of the Department of Defense, the U.S. Air Force, or the U.S. government.

Dave Blair writes on national security, network warfare, and remote combat airpower. He has flown the MQ-1B Predator, the AC-130U Gunship, and the MQ-9A Reaper in Iraq, Afghanistan, and on emerging fronts, and had the privilege of leading airmen in combat as an Evaluator Pilot in Air Force Special Operations Command. He is a distinguished graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy and Undergraduate Pilot Training, and holds a Masters in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School and a Doctorate in International Relations from Georgetown University.
Karen House is a Licensed Professional Counselor driven to help build a better quality of life for those who would give their lives to defend others. Having served as a military counselor for 10 years, she now lives in Taos, NM, where she’s building a respite community for SOF warriors. Karen holds a Master’s of Arts in Counseling Psychology and is currently a Masters of Social Work student.

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