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Drone Warfare, Heroism, and Masculinity: Examining the Pilots’ Perspectives

‘I wanted to be a hero, but I don’t feel like a hero.’

These were the words of Brandon Bryant, a former staff sergeant in the US Air Force who worked as a sensory operator and imagery analyst for Predator drones between 2005 to 2011. It is a sentence filled with the pathos of war, and one that goes to the very heart of what it means to be a hero in an age of distanced fighting.

Since the US became the first country to successfully fit Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), commonly known as ‘drones’, with missiles in 2000, their use has been increasingly widespread. And, as their use has proliferated, so too have questions relating to warfare and notions of heroism and masculinity in conflict, questions that power projected from a distance brings.

Traditionally, the bravery of a warrior was dependent upon the physical risk to that fighter. The word chivalry comes from the French word cheval – derived from the horse that the knight once rode into battle. Today drone operators can engage in fighting thousands of miles away, without any risk to themselves. How, then, does this shift in risk change conceptions of ‘just war’, honour, and courage?

Answering such a question is not easy. In both the US and the UK, drone operations have been shrouded in secrecy. The UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary, or Arbitrary Executions has described the US’ program as operating in an ‘accountability void’. The number of civilians harmed by drone strikes and the legal justifications for targeted killings in both the US and UK remain unclear. In addition, drones feed into widespread, existential concerns about the rise of weaponised technology and automated robotic systems. This combination of state secrecy and public fascination has placed a premium on interviews with current and former drone pilots.

United States Air Force UAV operators at a base in Iraq, 2005.

The precise figures of both civilian and combatant casualties from drone strikes remains elusive. NGOs and casualty recorders have regularly cast doubt on figures given by both the US and UK governments. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimates that between 769 and 1,725 civilians have been killed by US drone strikes since the war on terror began. However, President Trump has recently announced plans to lift requirements to report the number of civilian casualties.

The underreporting and secrecy surrounding civilian casualties is perhaps indicative of a broader culture surrounding drones. There may be a structural unwillingness within the military hierarchies and drone pilots to question the strike in the first place – in the absence of threat, the absolute certainty of the mission becomes a comfort.

There is nothing to be gained from the drone operator’s own post-strike analysis in sowing the seeds of doubt that civilians might have been killed. This would only lead to mental anguish and possible military or civil prosecution. The distance created between pilot and strike zone, fortified by the fact the strike zone is often far from the prying eyes of journalists and human rights reporters, means that drone pilots are rarely held to account by the public for their actions. These are anonymous assassins, if you will. If military lawyers or politicians in turn began to question the actions of these assassins, claiming that they killed civilians, then the desirability of doing that job would diminish radically, and the tenuous claims of heroism and valour in doing so would disappear in an instance. In short, where heroism and valour is hard to justify, there is little buttress from the accusation of murder.

AOAV has previously examined the intersection between drones, heroism and masculinity. In this report, we focused on theoretical notions of heroism, placing drones within a wider historical context. This article builds on those observations, examining how the testimonies and experiences of pilots offer insight into the hero-mentality of drone pilots.

Publications (GQ, The Guardian, The New Yorker, and Foreign Policy), research bodies (Drone Wars), and documentaries (Drone (2014)) have all featured interviews with and profiles of former drone pilots. Pilots have also begun to write memoirs of their experiences. In 2010, Lt. Colonel Matt Martin, a former Predator drone operator in the US Air Force, published Predator: The Remote-Control Air War over Iraq and Afghanistan: A Pilot’s Story; the blurb describes Martin as a ‘top gun’ in the world of unmanned aerial vehicles, emerging from a ‘Nintendo generation’ of pilots. From Martin’s gung-ho account to whistle-blowers interviewed by The Guardian, no single concept of heroism and masculinity among drone pilots emerges. However, each interview offers insight into the gender issues being played out in drone control-rooms in military bases around the world.

Heroism from a distance?

Interviews with drone operators provide a crucial insight into their mindsets and experiences. Media reports and public conceptions of drone strikes feature a number of apparent contradictions and confusions. Is it fair to refer to a ‘PlayStation mentality’ of drone operators? Are operations long and boring, or full of fast-paced decisions? These questions about the working environment and experiences of drone operators relate directly to how their heroism is perceived and constructed.

Drone operators are often described as coming straight out of PlayStation bedroom’ or as ‘dislocating human combatants’. The rhetoric around drones is one of detachment and dehumanising conflict. Gregoire Chamayou has argued that drone warfare has precipitated ‘a vast redefinition of warrior virtues.’ This is due to the minimised physical harm experienced by drone pilots. Is it possible to be heroic when you are not physically at risk?

In some of the testimonies and interviews with drone operators, this rhetoric of detachment exists. In an interview with The Guardian, Michael Haas, a former Senior Airman in the US Air Force stated that operators would talk about ‘cutting the grass before it grows out of control’ or ‘pulling the weeds before they overrun the lawn.’ He commented that drone operators regularly referred to children as ‘fun-sized terrorists.’ Haas argued these perceptions were even worse amongst new recruits, who he was tasked with training. ‘They just wanted to kill’, he told The Guardian. Indeed, Haas’ account of drone operators supports the claim that selecting targets via a computer screen and killing with a computer joy-stick creates a numbness and a distancing in the drone operator’s psychology.

This numbness and distancing, though, is not the case in all accounts. For some drone operators, the experience is the opposite, and that operating UAVs increased the drone pilot’s emotional and psychological involvement in warfare. Bruce Bryant was featured in an extended profile with GQ magazine titled ‘Confessions of a Drone Warrior’.  In it he was keen to note that while journalists focus heavily on airstrikes, most operations are devoted to surveillance and monitoring:

“Bryant watched people on the other side of the world go about their daily lives, completely unaware of his all-seeing presence wheeling in the sky above. If his mission was to monitor a high-value target, he might linger above a single house for weeks. It was a voyeuristic intimacy. He watched the targets drink tea with friends, play with their children, have sex with their wives on rooftops, writhing under blankets. There were soccer matches, and weddings too. He once watched a man walk out into a field and take a crap, which glowed white in infrared.”

Lingering over homes for so long left a serious psychological mark. He was required to know the intricacies of individuals’ daily routines and keep a close eye on their lives. For Bryant, it was the long-term familiarity with his targets that made drones different to other military operations. After a strike, drone operators are often required to monitor a site for hours afterwards for an ‘after-action report’. In these hours, operators may witness loved ones gather up human remains, and emergency workers look with increasing despair for casualties amongst the rubble.

In order to carry out these operations, drone pilots may fall back on numbed or dislocated language and mindsets. Bryant notes that the only way he was able to get through this work was by falling into a ‘zombie mode’. The tensions between the intimacy of the monitoring and the lethality of the attacks may be a factor in high PTSD rates amongst drone operators. While there have been limited studies into PTSD and drone operators, a major 2011 study conducted by the US Air Force found that drone operators suffered from comparable levels of stress disorders as those on battlefields.

Even when the physical risk is diminished, operating drones takes a significant mental toll on pilots. These findings are worrying given the hostility to drone operators in the broader military. In the US, veterans’ groups have been openly hostile to drone operators. Theirs is often the sentiment that drone pilots are not as heroic or as brave as other members of the armed forces. This hostility may impact pilots’ ability to access mental health services. While there have been studies into masculinity and PTSD rates amongst veterans, it is yet to be examined how this may differ for drone operators and analysts.

Drone pilots and the wider military

The relationship between drone pilots and the rest of the military is often confused. On the one hand, drones represent a critical part of modern warfare for an increasingly war-weary and military casualty averse public. The former UK Secretary of State for Defence, Gavin Williamson, was a strong advocate of drones. In the US, President Trump has continued to support the use of drone strikes. Drone strikes were also a key policy under President Obama, with there being ten times more strikes during Obama’s presidency than under his predecessor, George W. Bush (though this is a rise also influenced by the development of technology).

Such political support for drone strikes, though, is not necessarily reflective of the military’s own attitudes. In interviews and testimonies given by former drone pilots, descriptions of derisive comments thrown at them by other troops are often seen. For example, Brandon Bryant told GQ that drone pilots were often mocked as ‘chair-borne rangers’, who would ‘only earn a Purple Heart (US military decoration for those wounded or killed while serving) for burning themselves on a Hot Pocket.’ A US drone operator also told The Guardian that ‘we were looked down upon, because we were wearing flight suits but not sitting in the cockpit of an actual aircraft. Drones were like a joke in the military’.

In these accounts, drone pilots are perceived as merely ‘desk-jockeys’, jumped-up teenage boys whose love of game consoles has landed them a job. However, one drone operator interviewed by the NGO Drone Wars was keen to stress this as being part and parcel of military ‘banter’, and was nothing beyond the norm. Crucially though, this pilot was part of the UK armed forces; most reports citing derision and bullying of drone operators have emerged from US pilots. This possibly reflects a discrepancy in attitudes between the different militaries when it comes to bravery and heroism.

Accounts of derision and mockery arguably reflect a wider view of drones as a cowardly and unheroic weapon. By removing the pilot’s body from the physical frontline of action, it removes the element of danger and mutual risk between combatants. Theorists such as Neil C. Renic and Christian Enemark have examined how this distancing between the pilot and the frontline fits into changing notions of heroism. AOAV has specifically linked these approaches to masculinity. The anxieties within the military about heroism and drones are not only confined to ordinary troops, however. They reflect concerns about a growing dependency on drone strikes that extend throughout the military’s hierarchies.

Several high-ranking officers in both the UK and US armed forces have spoken about a clear hierarchy existing between drone pilots and fighter pilots. In 2014, US Air Force spokesman, Jennifer Cassidy, told ABC News:

“People in this generation didn’t grow up and say, ‘I want to fly an RPA.’ They were the ones that watched re-runs of ‘Top Gun’ and said ‘I want to be a fighter pilot’… So, in fact the people that were lower ranking in flight school, I guess you could say, are the folks that went to RPAs. It doesn’t mean that they were bad pilots, or bad officers, it just meant you got to have some at the top and some at the bottom. That’s how it worked.”

Drone operators appear to exist below fighter pilots in the military spectrum, a hierarchy that is reflected in notions of honour and valour, too. In Chris Woods’ book Sudden Justice: America’s Secret Drone Wars, he cites one US Navy veteran who, on hearing plans to award remote warfare operators the Distinguished Warfare Medal, said: ‘When I think of valor, I think of bravery and actually being there, and you weren’t actually there.’ There was significant uproar in the wider US military and veteran community at these medal proposals, a suggestion that was eventually dropped.

These sentiments are also reflected by several high-ranking members of the UK armed forces. In 2009, the head of the Air Historical Branch of the Royal Air Force, Sebastian Cox argued that there was nothing ‘extraordinary’ about operating a plane ‘from a padded seat thousands of miles away.’ He also wondered if the veneration of drone operators would ‘dilute the meaning or the concept of the warrior.’ This is reflected in the comments of the UK’s former Chief Air Marshal, Brian Burridge, who described drone strikes as ‘hunter killer missions’ and ‘virtue-less war’. This rhetoric elucidates the double-bind that drone operators find themselves in: they are crucial in modern warfare but denied the valour of other soldiers.

Redefining Valor

Such a bind has led to change. Within some testimonies from drone pilots, there are attempts to redefine valour and heroism to make them more inclusive.

Lt. Cl. Matt Martin’s book about his time as a drone pilot adopts masculine tropes typically used to describe soldiers. He refers to himself and his fellow drone operators as ‘warriors’. At one point, he adopts a Star Troopers analogy and refers to enemy combatants as ‘bugs’, and a drone operator as the ‘hero’. In so doing Martin rejects the notion that drone operators mark a break in the lineage of militarised heroism.

Others have equally defended their heroism. When the UK Department of Defence were considering awarding drone operators with medals, Richard Kemp, a man who was briefly a former commander of British forces in Afghanistan but who has since said he has handed back his commission over anger at the treatment of Northern Ireland veterans, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme there was courage involved in operating drones: ‘There is a matter of life and death, there is moral courage to be made in pressing that button.’

Others have taken a different approach. The Washington Post interview with Cl. Eric Mathewson, one of the most experienced drone operators in the US Air Force, posed the question of heroism and drone operators. Mathewson’s response was a considered meditation on the definition of heroism: ‘Valor to me is not risking your life. Valor is doing what is right. Valor is about your motivations and ends you seek. It is doing what is right for the right reasons. That to me is valor.’ In this framing, valor becomes less about a gung-ho, cavalier bravery and instead aligned with ‘doing what is right.’

While this redefinition perhaps offers Mathewson a sense of righteousness and purpose to his actions, the testimonies of other drone operators suggest this is not a universal experience. Bruce Bryant in GQ shirks off the notion of heroism entirely. As stated, he proclaimed: ‘I wanted to be a hero, but I don’t feel like a hero.’

Such competing and conflicting notions of heroism in the words of drone pilots reflect deep rooted anxieties about this mode of warfare.

Concluding Remarks

Examining the accounts of drone pilots reveals that the self-same anxieties surrounding heroism and masculinity so prevalent in academic work, are also present in the lives of drone operators themselves. The hyper-masculine image of a soldier risking his life on the frontline no longer seems to fit with modern warfare. While some operators have sought to recast themselves in a traditional mould, others have sought to redefine heroism and valour itself, while others have shrugged off the age-old framings of heroism entirely.

Paying attention to these diverse experiences of drone operators shows there is no universalised, homogenous understanding of heroism. But what is clear is that the introduction of remote warfare into the military’s arsenal has and will have a profound impact, and the US and UK’s shift towards drone warfare may well cause a seismic change in how we construct heroism and masculinity in the field of battle.