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The Moral Trauma of “21st Century Warriors“

US drone operators suffer post-traumatic stress disorder to significant degrees as a result of their physical immunity from physical danger.

(Photo: US Air Force; Edited: LW / TO)

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Many changes and transformations are occurring that introduce new challenges into military service and new costs and consequences to those who serve.

Service in the US military is being reshaped into the profession of arms. This means that fewer people are serving and more is being asked of them. We know that their trauma is more severe due, among other factors, to multiple deployments, the extent of civilian casualties and the despair of unending global war. We must also awaken to the technological changes in military practice and their impact foisted upon those who serve.

Though stationed far behind the front lines, drone operators are among those on the front lines of these changes. These are the women and men who sit at electronic consoles stateside and operate unmanned drones from safe havens in the United States to monitor, spy on, attack and slay antagonists on the far side of the planet. They must sit at the controls during their entire workday, perform difficult assessments and technical operations, and when ordered, kill without being in danger themselves. After all that, they go home to dinner. President Obama has used drones extensively during his tenure. The Air Force refers to drone operators as “21st century warriors.”

Political public relations make much of the fact that these people are not “in harm’s way.” No “boots on the ground,” so they are supposedly safe. But US drone operators are reported to have severe difficulties in their service, are in deep pain and break down with post-traumatic stress disorder to significant degrees. I can attest to this from my direct therapeutic and educational work with our military over the last several years. Though physically not in danger, they are not safe and are in harm’s way. The damage is to their psychological, social, professional and spiritual well-being and to the well-being of their families.

Why? There are numerous ways our creation and use of 21st century warriors redefines the entire tradition of warriorhood and in fact renders them more vulnerable to harm from the invisible wounds of war.

The traditional warrior’s contract is to meet armed enemy combatants in fair face-to-face battle. They agree to enter the kill-or-be-killed situation. Modern combatants testify that though killing hurts, it hurts the least and does the least long-term harm when it occurs in the context of a fair fight. When the fight is unfair or unequal, when civilians are caught in the crossfire, when extreme “collateral damage” is caused to get the target, there is inevitably more trauma.

Drone operators are removed from this ultimate situation. They may track their targets for months, know who they are, what their families are like, how many children they have and where they work. They might be ordered to strike and kill at any time, even when the family is present, even with all the reported safeguards against causing civilian deaths. These modern techno-warriors often know their targets who don’t know them, are charged with taking life at a long distance without their own lives being in danger, and may be ordered to cause the deaths of civilians with absolutely no choice in the matter.

What do veterans say about long distance killing and its impact on them? Bill, a 19-year-old bombardier during World War II, asked for therapy last year because he said, “I know I dropped my bombs on civilian targets over Europe. I have felt like a mass murderer my entire life. I want to find some peace before I meet my Maker and am sent to hell for it.” John, a forward artillery observer in Vietnam, said, “The drone pilots are doing what I had to do. There is little difference in me pulling the lanyard on my howitzer and killing people many miles away and them killing from the other side of the world.” And Don, gunner’s mate on a destroyer during the First Gulf War said, “Every time I climbed into my gun turret I had to cross a line and be willing to kill strangers I would never see scores of miles away.” These men suffered invisible wounds from long distance killing and attest to its long-term psychological impact on their adult lives.

Civilian casualty rates in World War I were 10 percent; in World War II, 50 percent; by Vietnam, they were 70 percent – and in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, 90 percent. Long distance killing has increased exponentially in the modern era due to advanced weapons technology. This has changed the nature of warfare and the demands on warriors. These changes will only increase the degree of invisible wounding even as it protects the physical safety of the new warriors. We may have fewer visible wounds, but we should expect significantly increased invisible wounding as fewer and fewer 21st century warriors cause more death and destruction without the warriors’ concomitant threat. The kinds of veterans we will have to honor, tend and heal will change. Not only will the veterans be affected, but all of us who sent them, and whom they notionally serve, will have to go home to dinner and find ways to live with it.

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