Piloting drones in Afghanistan while sitting in a dark room in Arizona can seem a lot like playing a video game. Looking at a screen, the operator focuses in on a target, stalks him, presses a button, and a missile hones in – and the “target” disappears in a cloud of smoke.
But such pilots and “sensors” (those who watch the targets and press the triggers) are not immune to danger. In fact, it is getting more and more clear that they often suffer from PTSD. Yes, the victims they target are over seven thousand miles away, seen only on a screen, and no sound penetrates their air-conditioned boxes, but often they are tormented with nightmares, haunted with guilt. It’s not a game.
Video games don’t show the blown up bodies spurting blood, the prolonged agony of the dismembered writhing on the ground. Games neatly vaporize the enemy. And they don’t include such “mistakes,” as killing kids who happen to appear at the last minute from around the corner. Such details make the experience vivid, wrenching, and unforgettable.
GQ recently profiled Airman First Class Brandon Bryant who described in detail his first strike: “The smoke clears, and there’s pieces of the two guys around the crater. And there’s this guy over here, and he’s missing his right leg above his knee. He’s holding it, and he’s rolling around, and the blood is squirting out of his leg, and it’s hitting the ground, and it’s hot . . . . It took him a long time to die. I just watched him. I watched him become the same color as the ground he was lying on.”
“Over time he found that the job made him numb,” he reported, “a ‘zombie mode’ he slipped into as easily as his flight suit.” (See, “Confessions of a Drone Warrior.”)
As the GQ reporter noted, it used to be thought you had to be subject to overwhelming fear to become vulnerable to PTSD, such as having a bomb explode next to you. (For that reason, in WWI they called it ‘shell shock.’) Then it was thought you had to be in combat. But more recent studies “found that drone operators suffered from the same levels of depression, anxiety, PTSD, alcohol abuse, and suicidal ideation as traditional combat aircrews.”
The GQ reporter noted that the “term now gaining wider acceptance is ‘moral injury’.” In other words, it doesn’t have to be a physical shock. It can be an injury to your fundamental values or your sense of the kind of a person you believe yourself to be.
“For Bryant, talking . . . has become a sort of confessional catharsis, a means of processing the things he saw and did during his six years in the Air Force as an experimental test subject in an utterly new form of warfare.” At first, when he left the Air Force, he spoke out critically of the drone program, but the “backlash from the drone community was immediate and fierce. Within days, 157 people on Bryant’s Facebook page had de-friended him. ‘You are a piece of shit liar. Rot in hell,’ wrote a former Air Force comrade. In a sort of exercise in digital self-flagellation, Bryant read thousands of Reddit comments about himself, many filled with blistering vitriol and recrimination.
Now he plans to study to be an EMT, maybe get work on an ambulance, finally be able to save people like he always wanted. He no longer has infrared dreams, no longer closes his eyes and sees those strange polarized shadows flit across them.