Joystick Warfare Is Rather Joyless

droning on

Photo: Department of Defense

So it’s not breaking news, but the fact that drone pilots work from offices in our own country is perennially astonishing to me. (Jeff Danziger has a great cartoon about this that you can see here.) It’s absurd, it turns the idea of warfare inside out…but what’s it like?

I dug up a Fox News article from last year that paints a pretty disturbing picture of a drone operator’s day, despite the fact that the article was trying to be light-hearted.

“Pilots of unmanned military aircraft use a joystick to swoop down into the battlefield, spot enemy troop movements, and snap photos of terror suspects,” the article explains.

Sounds fun. So why disturbing? Well, because it sounds fun.

There is one unpleasantness associated with the job, however:

“A new study [Nov. 2012] at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) found real-life drone operators can become easily bored. Only one participant paid attention during an entire test session, while even top performers spent a third of the time checking a cellphone or catching up on the latest novel.”

So it’s not like a video game after all because nothing happens. Innocent enough. But did anyone see Jarhead (2005) where all the Marines are eager to “kill something” in the deserted wasteland of war?

Wait, that’s fiction. Fine: Did you see the video leaked by Bradley Manning that has become known as “Collateral Murder” in which an Apache helicopter guns down a group of civilians (including a child and a journalist) who are quite obviously unarmed, with the words “Light ’em all up!”?

It’s certainly not self-defense that inspires these kinds of careless strikes. It’s the desire to act out a fictional role of action hero from a position of safety and comfort. Or boredom. And drone operators have a lot of that.

“There are long periods when an operator might not see anything, and those types of missions could become dull. ‘Someone has to watch that camera or you won’t catch the bad guys before they catch us,’ Hamby told”

One of the solutions proposed by the researchers is pretty clever: Make the drone missions more like video games. Increase distractions, increase stimulation, enhance visuals, and voila. You’ve got a fun and interactive platform that will keep the whole family awake and asking for more.

What a post-modern approach. But how about let’s give the problem a once over to see if we can’t find a more wholesome solution. What was the problem again? Oh yes—warriors are bored. This, in turn, leads to other problems, mistakes like not catching the “bad guys before they catch us” (Could Fox News have found a better quote, by the way, to sum up the entire philosophical problem of mediated warfare?).

Another mistake is killing the wrong people. The not-bad guys.

Should we take our soldiers out of their cubicles and put them on the battlefield so that they can deliberate with a level of stress that is proportionate to the outcome of their decision?

That’s no solution, either. Ground forces in Iraq and Afghanistan face a similar problem to the drone operators. Lots of sitting around in the sand. The fact is, our military is so powerful it could crush the enemy in a few strikes. But we are forced to tiptoe around with soft warfare–what has become boring warfare–allowing American casualties here and there as we try our best to keep collateral damage from getting out of hand. Why? Because we want to make sure the world doesn’t realize the truth: that we shouldn’t be there in the first place.


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