Predator: A Pilot’s perspective

“Predator” outlines the experiences of a drone pilot, operating a predator drone firstly from Nevada USA and then from Iraq. On reading, a number of themes stood out as particularly important: The first was the conflict between the sanitised aims of modern war and the reality that killing is inevitable. The second is the similarities (or not) between operating a weapons system from a distance and a computer game; the way that this created (or not) a psychological disconnect between the pilot and the men on the ground: civilian, enemy and friend. The final theme addressed is the limitations of technology and human judgement.

There are constraints on the use of force, and laws that apply to the conduct of war. As well as these laws there pressures on governments and militaries to keep to a minimum the killing element of war, to reduce damage to local areas as much as possible, and to respect the importance of cultural landmarks. Whilst some have argued that the introduction of unmanned vehicles to arsenals of a number of states will reduce the barriers to the use of force, it is important to note that there will theoretically at least) still be restraints on their use. As Martin points out “We follow the same rules of engagement and used the same procedures as all other aircraft” (104). Martin’s attitude to killing and to the use of lethal force highlights the complexity of modern understandings of war. A man killed by accident is referred to as “a bonus” (40) and Martin is told on following a suspect individual to “blast his ass if you get a reason” (44), a reminder that in war there will be collateral damage and there will be occasional mistakes. Whilst this initially made me uncomfortable Martin goes on to illustrate his understanding that “We had to be willing to kill the enemy… but some of those men down there were likely poor people trying to earn wages…” (108), and notes the personal conflict he felt being safely at a distance from the theatre trying to protect those one the ground: “Perhaps it was difficult for someone not involved in unmanned warplanes to comprehend (how those pilots) could become so involved… What they failed to understand was that I knew people down there” (121). In response to those who claim that the use of unmanned drones creates an unfair situation in war, Martin responds: “War is not a sport. Critics missed the point that it was our duty to make was unfair and as much to our advantage as possible” (104).

The second theme is the psychological impact of being distant from the theatre of war and the apparent similarities between the operation of drones and computer games. Here Martin has a somewhat confused message noting that “It was like a sci-fi novel” (30), “(a)lmost like playing the computer game Civilisation… Except with real consequences” (31) and “(a)ll the potential gains of war without the costs. It could even be mildly entertaining” (47); whilst simultaneously noting that “(t)hose who would call this a Nintendo game never sat in my seat” (55). He refers to the “psychological disconnect” and repeatedly suggests that the experience of being active in a war (particularly when active in both Afghanistan and Iraq) and then going home after a shift to wife and kids “was enough to made a Predator pilot schizophrenic” (85). Overtime he finds himself becoming “Increasingly cynical, I was suspicious of everyone” (111). For me this conflict highlighted the complexity of emotions that soldiers are supposed to engage with. They are supposed to kill the enemy, they are supposed to be compassionate of civilians, they are supposed to support their buddies, they are supposed to unquestioningly follow commands. This is then made increasingly complex for those participating in war from outside the theatre who are additionally supposed to go back out into society without debriefing or time to resituate themselves in everyday life, they are supposed to go home after 8 hours as a watcher and killer and be good spouses and parents. When there are multiple conflicts to be engaged with, we expect the soldiers to maintain an understanding of the aims of the different operations and to remember who constitutes and enemy and where. This is particularly complicated in modern warfare where the enemy is not uniformed and may use the general population as a shield/place to hide. Perhaps it is not quite so surprising that studies have shown drone pilots to have higher than average stress responses to their roles (See NYT article).

Finally, Martin’s book highlights the fact that whilst technological development in this field is rapidly advancing, it is far from infallible. In one amusing incident: “The feature that we had stared at for hours, that had preoccupied the most sophisticated reconnaissance apparatus on earth and baffled the world’s finest intelligence analysts was a pile of barnyard manure” (34). In fact the equipment is sometimes so limited Martin notes that “‘duck blinds’ of plywood or canvas… (make) it more difficult for us to find (targets) with IR sensors” (305). That something as simple as a canvas shelter can confound this high tech equipment is telling. Additionally, accurate targeting is reliant on informants to provide accurate intelligence, but Martin notes that the motives of these individuals are almost always questionable: “(the informants) motives for informing, therefore, had to be strong enough to overcome his fear. Frequently, he sought revenge…. (whereas) greed produced the best information” (40). Despite this, there are numerous incidents recalled in the book of efforts frustrated by bad intelligence and by individuals failing to act in the expected manner, reflecting the Clausewitzian truism that no military action occurs in a vacuum, but needs to respond (like in a game of chess) to the moves of the other parties.

Ultimately, Martin’s book demonstrates that, whilst the individual drone pilot is kept safe from physical damage, the use of unmanned vehicles does nothing to simplify the complexities of the action of war or the experience of those involved. By sharing his experiences Martin highlights the conflicting demands of understanding that are placed on soldiers in modern conflict, and the fact that no matter how complex the technology, at the end of the day the human element of war is the most important. Whether the human involved is giving order, making policy, receiving orders, killing, being killed, providing intelligence, analysing intelligence, protesting, acting as a terrorist, commentating on the action, being a soldier, spouse or parent; the psychological rationalisation of these different roles and their interactions is, perhaps, the most interesting component of modern warfare.

Drone pilots and Combat stress see article here

Book information: Predator: The Remote-Control Air War over Iraq and Afghanistan: A Pilot’s Story by Matthew Martin and Charles Sasser (Zenith Press 1 Nov 2010) Hardcover ISBN: 0760338965

- LM

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This post was written by lcm263 who has written 17 posts on The Political Effects of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles.

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